Book Club

January Book Club.

By: Jen Shoop

OK, so it’s technically February, but accounting’s never been my strong suit anyhow–today, I’m sharing my thoughts on the books I read last month and the ones I plan to read this one.  (More book reviews and picks here.)

*Photo credit: A Splendid Messy Life.

Book Club Pick No. 1: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown.

Two stars.  I found the format of this book — narrative interspersed with snatches of the father’s draft memoir — troublesome and sloppy.  It felt as though the author couldn’t decide how to write the book and therefore wrote it in two modes; the convention does nothing additive to the plot.  In fact, a lot of the “writerly” goings-on of the book (the father is a journalist and therefore tosses random writing observations into the mix here and there) only obfuscate.  There’s one chapter that begins: “Jonathan hung his favorite Graham Greene quote over his desk: A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one choose that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.  The job of the writer, he’d learned over time, was not to try to tell a story in its entirety, but to tell an inevitably abbreviated version in the most interesting way one could.”  Harrumph.  Not a particularly stirring vote of confidence in the direction of this book — in fact, the quote only served to make me think less of Brown in that I felt the suspenseful moment she’d chosen to start her book was a bit of a cheap ploy.  It’s as if she’s saying: “Hey guys!  Look, I’m writing a suspenseful book and I’m doing it by starting at the most suspenseful moment — not because I’m telling a great story but because I methodically sat down and picked the moment that would be the most interesting to start from!”

I also found a lot of the imagery cloying and exhaustingly specific.  Early in the book, the father recalls a morning spent on the beach with his late wife, Billie: “Billie uses Jonathan’s bent legs as her chair, her long hair draping down his thighs.  She studies the surfers bobbing out at the break as she scoops up sand and lets it trickle through splayed fingers, absently picking out rocks and twigs.  Jonathan reaches out and takes a strand of her hair, one of the silver threads that are starting to lace through the dark brown.  He rubs it gently between his fingertips, testing its texture, testing the temperature of his wife.”

I mean — what have we learned here?  What is the purpose of this level of excruciating detail?  (Sidebar: I spent a good minute or two trying to imagine a human using another human’s “bent legs as a chair” (???) and came up dry.)  I have a strong feeling this could have been excised or edited down to something simpler and more evocative, but have no sense for why it was left in.  Are we meant to know that they were once close, physically?  Are we meant to understand the reflective tone of the day?  Maybe both of these things, but I assure you that neither of these details bear any importance to the remainder of the book.

That said, I thought Brown did a good job of leaving you wondering.  I must have changed my hypothesis as to what happened to the mom at least ten times.  There’s artistry there.  While the book jacket’s likening of this one to Big Little Lies is preposterous, I will say that if you’re in the mood for a whodunit that keeps you guessing, this fills the void.

Book Club Pick No. 2: The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine.

Three stars.  It pains me to award this book three stars because the writing is unimpressive and there were some truly disgusting moments in it (Mom, please do not read this book), but I have to applaud it: I could not put it down.  It’s a page-turner and an easy candidate for my list of must-read beach reads.  The technical problems with this book are many, including the laughably ostentatious and lazy villainization of two of its principal characters.  At one point, I just started to laugh at how absurdly evil the author made these people: she couldn’t let you empathize — not even a little bit! — with either of them, which makes for a wildly simplistic worldview: there are good people and there are bad people.  Full stop.  Life is, obviously, far more complicated.  That said, there is a WILD twist in the middle that makes for happy reading.  If you’re looking for a mental vacation, this is your ticket.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Book Club Pick No. 3: Sisters First by Jenna and Barbara Bush.

Three stars.  I’ve written about this before, but I’m omniverous when it comes to the memoir genre; it’s a special form of fiction.  This one is middling.  The writing is uneven, and I found myself pondering for long stretches of time whether this was a result of bad editing or, perhaps, the Bush twins’ insistence that they write the majority of the book themselves?  I especially disliked the theme-driven format, which often sends us elliptically back and forth in chronology, as we shuttle not only from year to year but from twin to twin and are left feeling fuzzy about the details.  Still, the book is full of fascinating insider stories and observations about a political dynasty with considerable celebrity, and it certainly paints Bush 43 in an interesting new light that most readers, I think, will find rather alien from his more popular portrait by the public as a dim-witted rancher.  I loved the inclusion of emails and letters from their father and grandfather, which made me realize how sad it is that I rarely write letters anymore.  (Ya know, when MY biography is written, they’ll need those!  HAR HAR HAR.)  There were also miscellaneous moments of useful advice sprinkled throughout that I tucked in my pocket for safekeeping.  I especially loved this: “As teenagers, when we would come to [my mom] with teenager-sized problems, she always said: ‘I promise.  there are very, very few things worth worrying about.’  And she was right.  Now, I wonder if her advice was because she had already worried about heartbreaking things and knew what it was to feel overwhelming pain.  She saw our anxieties for what they were: childlike.”  I am prone to worry; I need to keep Laura’s advice top of mind — see the bigger picture.

Halfway Club.

I’m partway through Grant’s autobiography, which is intimidatingly long and prone to soporific expanses of military history, but it feels like it’s worth reading.  There is enough interesting commentary in there to keep me on the hook, including the premise, advanced early on, that all of life is fated.  Do we agree?

I’m also midway through An Odyssey, which is, at least at this juncture, more of a eulogy than anything else: an ode to a deceased father told through the form of memoir interspersed with literary criticism.  I have some beef with some of his over-intellectualized interpretations, but he’s a gifted writer who has already taught me a thing or two.

Next Up at Bat.

Novel: The Address, by Fiona Davis.  Set just a few blocks from where I live!

Memoir: Then Again, by Diane Keaton.

Twisty-turny Psychological Thriller That Everyone Is Talking About: The Woman in the Window, by AJ Finn.  (Ya know, the NEW Gone Girl – Girl on the Train – Couple Next Door…)  Bonus points for the cover design, which feels deliciously reminiscent of the yellowed, dog-eared beach reads of trashy summer novels in the 80s.

More Substantive Fare: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith.

What’s on your reading list for this month?  Any reactions/disagreements?

P.S.  I love this chic checked blouse (under $60!) — the belted waist would be super flattering, but the print is fun and loud.

P.P.S.  I wore a striped dress similar to this one ALL THE TIME last summer — with chic sneaks to run errands and with espadrilles out to lunch.  While we’re on the topic of warm weather: this is fun and well-priced and just the kind of thing I’d want to wear on a honeymoon/trip to the tropics with Mr. Magpie, and this is just darling — I’d wear it as a cover-up over this sweet suit with these sandals!

P.P.P.S.  So fun for a girl/teenager on her first big trip solo!  Or, you know, a grown up who likes fun things.

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21 thoughts on “January Book Club.

  1. Ahhh! So much to say!

    I really want to read The Last Mrs. Parrish. Did you know that the “author” is actually two sisters who write under a pen name? So intriguing.

    Sisters First is in my bookcase ready to be started … I’m sliiiightly less excited about it after reading your review, but have already bought it, and will read it. I love a memoir.

    Adding The Address to my list — fun fact, I was obsessed with the Dakota as a child and wanted to live there more than anything (hahaha) — and On Beauty was quite good, if memory serves, though I read it over 10 years ago now (!) I love Zadie’s writing.

    I am currently reading two books: Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose (very stream-of-consciousness and somewhat enjoyable, but for some reason I can only read it in chunks?) and Videocracy, a book on YouTube authored by a friend of mine. Next up: possibly Sisters First, possibly The Couple Next Door, possibly even Crazy Rich Asians or Flaneuse or Little Fires Everywhere … I have way too many books to read! But I love it.

    1. WOW – mind blown on the authorESSES of The Last Mrs. Parrish! So maybe I’m not far off in thinking that they sat around and made a list of the nastiest things they could imagine…

      That is wild about The Dakota! Am I showing my lack of sophistication in admitting I had no idea what the building was — but when I mentioned it to my parents, they looked at me like I was an alien: “You don’t know about the Dakota? Where Lennon was shot? Where Lauren Bacall and Bogey lived?” (I did not.) I’m getting a kick out of it, and have gone out of my way to stroll by it a few times since starting it. I will say it’s taking a little bit of an odd turn 2/3 of the way through from a stylistic standpoint, but still thoroughly enjoyable.

      Lovely book list!!


  2. Spoiler alerts for Last Mrs Parish ahead –
    I too got Last Mrs Parish to read while pumping after reading you couldn’t put it down — and I definitely couldn’t put it down. Made pumping much more bearable!
    What has sat uncomfortably for me is the end. Amber is of course absurdly evil, as you say. And yet beyond the emotional and physical abuse that Jackson displays, the sexual part of it (at least with Daphne) is rape. Are we meant to understand at the end that because she did other bad things that she deserves a lifetime of marital rape? She cried wolf with the man from her past, and so now she deserves what is coming to her? I enjoyed the book a lot and ate up all the twists but while the raid seemed like just punishment for Jackson, it seems incredibly gruesome that Daphne walks out — no matter how horrible Amber is — basically saying you got what is coming for you, emotional and sexual abuse and no money.
    Any thoughts? Don’t know anyone that has read the book to talk it out with, and I’m not sure given the end how comfortable I’d be recommending it despite the immense pleasure of the reading experience.

    1. You know, Holly — that’s such a good point. I think that Constantine makes Amber so unredeemable that her disturbing plot resolution flies under the radar, but it’s problematic and feeds into the disturbing concept that “bad/salacious” women are “asking for it.” The other issue I had with the book is that the two female protagonists conform with outdated prototypes: the evil seductress and then the porcelain doll (Daphne’s wide-eyed innocence and good-heartedness are never in question, even when she dupes Amber into the relationship with Jackson, because she’s earned her way out of the relationship). I’m glad you raised that point.

  3. I just finished The Shadowland by Elizabeth Kostova and still not sure how I feel about it. Book club meeting is tonight so we’ll see what everyone else has to say! Also just started Mr Rochester, but it’s probably been 25 years since I attempted Jane Eyre so def reading this as a stand-alone!

    1. Hi! Why are you on the fence about The Shadowland? What were your reservations? I feel like I heard good things about it. I’m always in favor of anything related to Austen, even spin-offs 🙂

    2. I just couldn’t get past the improbability of landing in a foreign country that you’ve never been to before and immediately taking off with a cab driver! And driving around for days with no luggage!! #imtoological 😉 Also, parts were just really sad. But overall it was good 🙂

  4. I am on the waitlist for our library’s e-copies of Last Mrs. Parrish and Pachinko so I’m glad to see some recs for those! I’m currently reading, and enjoying, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. It’s a different take on a coming of age novel, and takes place mostly in NYC so bonus for you!

    I also recently read/devoured, Beartown by Fredrik Backman, very timely with the current Me Too and Times Up movements, and Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, completely different and light but couldn’t stop reading.

    1. Hadn’t heard of Beartown, but it’s now on my Amazon list 🙂 Thanks for sending that! I felt so awkward reading Kwan — I don’t know why but it felt like it was poking fun at Asian culture in a way that I shouldn’t be involved…

  5. Mendelsohn also wrote an excellent book/pseudo-memoir called “The Elusive Embrace” with many references to his romanticized memories of UVa. He spoke in one of my English classes when I was an undergrad there and I was mesmerized by him. `

    1. Woah! So amazing the experiences we’re given as undergrads. I cannot to this day believe I was able to hear Seamus Heaney read his poetry at UVA — it was a packed, silent house that night and I’ll never forget it.

      I’ve added this one to my list, too! Thank you!

  6. I so agree with everything you said about Mrs. Parrish — nuanced its characters were not, but the pacing, especially post-twist, was deft. I’d probably put it in the Girl on the Train category — reductive and poorly written, but pacey–though GoaT’s heroine, while pathetic, was at least human.
    On the Bush note, have you read American Wife? It’s a fictionalized version of Laura Bush’s memoirs. No clue as to its accuracy, but it was a good read (and full of nuance!).
    I just finished Sing, Unburied, Sing, and feel conflicted about it. Powerful story and I dug the magical realism, but the language was so heightened that it kind of felt strivey at times. Halfway club is The Blazing World, which is teaching me about contemporary art and German philosophy and is so constructed that it ought to feel smug but it doesn’t. I love it. Also reading harry potter et le prince de sang mêlé on the kindle while I breastfeed. Dunno if it’s improving my French mucccch but I tell myself it is!
    On deck is a Chinese sci-fi book called The Third Body problem that I’ve promised my husband I’ll read (with gritted teeth, hah–but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised!).

    1. What a diverse reading list — I admire it! Haven’t read the American Wife, but Sittenfeld has written some other interesting stuff. Interesting from the vantage of creative and thought-provoking rather than extremely well-done, IMHO. (Her modern-day rendering of “Pride and Prejudice” in “Eligible” left me unsatisfied because I had such a different perspective on Elizabeth Bennett — which in turn made me think critically about my interpretation/how I’d read Elizabeth to begin with!)

      Keep me posted on what you enjoy from your on-deck reading spate!

  7. Spare yourself The Woman in the Window. I just finished it yesterday and found it completely predicable and ended up feeling like a cheap knockoff of it’s mega successful predecessors. (Not to mention if you found the writing in The Last Mrs. Parrish mediocre this one will almost pain you).

    1. BLARG. Maybe I’ll skip, although I still enjoy reading these flash-in-the-pan books because I think, stepping back, they collectively reveal some interesting assumptions/perceptions about women today…

      P.S. I just read your Best of 2017 Book Club post and was surprised to see how much we’d read in common 🙂

  8. Haha so I bought Mrs Parrish when you wrote a post about it and in the beginning was SO disappointed because it was the most horrid writing ever, but kept on reading just because I trusted you, and then when the middle of the book arrived I essentially fell off the couch thinking HOLY S**. Not the finest literature, but happy I read it, so thank you.

    I don’t know if you’ve read this yet but Little Fires Everywhere is really something… I loved her first book but this one is even more well crafted.

    Currently reading Exit West – I have some gripes with the writing but it is a magnificent book about refugees.

    1. HAHA — yes, quite the twist midway through…

      I need to read that book by Ng; it’s everywhere and everyone has read it. Added to my list.

      Keep me posted on Exit West!

  9. I’m SO happy to see The Address and Then Again are on deck! I just finished Pachinko, which was achingly beautiful. I think you’ll love it.
    Halfway club – Masha Gessen’s The Man Without A Face (her biography on Putin), The Power by Naomi Alderman, and Red Clocks (compelling story, but writing is clunky and poorly executed).
    On deck for me – Dan Rather’s What Unites Us, Stalking God, and The Vanity Fair diaries.

    1. YES – Your suggestions have been taken to heart! Thanks for them. Vanity Fair is also on my list, and I love your memoir suggestions. Please keep me posted on what you like/do not! xo

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