For May, I picked a bunch of books for our mid-Atlantic trip that take place in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. It was so fun to read about the places I was going while traveling.
In addition to these, I picked a book for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, re-read a few favorites, and read a book by a local author on recommendation from a friend.
*I talked about a few of these on the That’s What She Read podcast last month.
Here are the books I read in May:
A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
Alex and his “droogs” are the worst kind of teen criminals imaginable. They commit the most horrendous crimes, described by Alex in graphic detail, just for the fun of it. They care far more about the stylish way they are dressed and the music they love–classical, of all things–than the human suffering they are causing. When the state tries to rehabilitate Alex, are their methods any less criminal?
This is one of my favorite books. I love that the teenagers in this book have their own argot (slang), and that the first person narration is written in it. This makes reading comprehension challenging and makes a big statement about the value of “improper language” for communication (which I think about every time I read about someone fretting about the dilapidation of the English language).
I enjoy the big moral questions explored in A Clockwork Orange: it explores criminal deviance in a totalitarian society, the importance of free will, and the ethical implications of operant conditioning.
Note: US Americans, if you decide to read this book, make sure you have a post-1986 edition because the last chapter is omitted in the earlier US editions.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger
In this classic coming of age story, Holden Caulfield tries to fill his loneliness the days after being expelled from prep school.
I reread this book on my trip because it takes place in Pennsylvania and New York. Holden’s struggle with depression and alienation give him an interesting view of the world, and seeing the norms of the time period through his eyes is fascinating. In this reading, I paid special attention to Salinger’s use of language. Holden is the first person narrator and uses slang accurate to the time period.
The Silver Linings Playbook (2008) by Matthew Quick
After four years in “the bad place,” Pat’s family and therapist hope he can get better and retain his memory. Pat has a different plan: he believes he must devote all his time to bettering himself so he can win back his estranged wife Nikki.
This book was another pick for my trip. I also chose it for my local book club. (Picking a book is a lot of pressure!) This was my first time reading the book, but I wanted to read it because I really enjoyed the movie. (I would have read the book first if I’d known the movie was based on one.)
On the whole, I liked it. (Though there was one deus ex machina that annoyed me.) It seemed like a realistic portrayal of how family and friends would treat someone who has returned from a mental health facility and the conflicts that might raise, all shown to us through Pat’s thoughts. It also raised important questions about mental health: many behaviors considered normal in society are just as “crazy” as those for which Pat is condemned.
Warning: Pat reads a lot of classics in this book and gives his opinions of them, so there are a ton of spoilers in it.
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is a great American classic about money and morality in the 1920s, centering around the mysterious millionare Jay Gatsby and his obsessive, passionate lost love.
Even though I reread Gatsby, another one of my favorites, just last summer, I used the trip as an excuse to reread it again. This time, I just enjoyed the near perfect use of language.
Hocus Pocus (1990) by Kurt Vonnegut
In futuristic dystopian America, Eugene Debs, Vietnam Veteran and college professor, looses his job as a professor in a laughable college after a student reports on his anti-patriotic remarks. He goes to work in a segregated prison, run by a Japanese corporation, and sets out to attempt to prove his innocence in aiding a mass prison break.
I also chose this book to read on my trip, though setting matters less in a dystopian novel, I suppose. I spread out Vonnegut books because I don’t want to “run out” of new-to-me ones too quickly. Though it met critical acclaim, this is definitely not among my favorite of his works. I most loved the fragmented, mixed time line–you know what is going to happen from the beginning, but the suspense is wrapped in figuring out how it is going to happen.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams
Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle, runs away from her troubles to stay with her sister Stella and Stella’s brutish husband Stanley. Blanche’s delusional expectation of decorum clashes tremendously with her sister’s passion motivated, working class life.
Streetcar was the last book (well, play) I read on my trip. I misremembered it as being set in New York; it is really set in New Orleans. I didn’t remember until almost halfway through the play, and there was no point in stopping there! I felt pretty silly.
I read a lot of Williams’s work in high school, and it was fun to revisit the work now that my passion for theater has faded.
Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001) by Amy Tan
This novel centers around the relationship between Ruth, an American-born ghost writer for self-help novels, and her aging Chinese mother, Lu Ling. It is divided between Ruth’s story of her life and, after Ruth has her mother’s life story translated, Lu Ling’s life in China and the truth about her past.
I wanted to read at least one book to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and I’m so glad I chose this one. It’s the best new book I’ve read this year. I love what it has to say about mothers and daughters and the resentment that can form when a daughter can’t understand her mother’s motivations.
A Long Way Down (2005) by Nick Hornby
Four very different people meet at a popular suicide spot on New Year’s Eve and make a pact to stick through and not kill themselves for six weeks.
Hornby is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and I wanted to read this book before the movie comes out this summer. (His novels translate wonderfully into films: I recommend both High Fidelity and About a Boy.)
You wouldn’t expect a book about suicidal people to be funny, but it is. The book switches between the perspectives of the four main characters, and seeing their entertained stories from multiple points of view is amazing.
Texts from Bennett (2013) by Mac Lethal
Spurred by his popular Tumblur of the same name, Kansas City rapper Mac Lethal purportedly based this autobiographical story about his relationship with his 17-year-old cousin, who who “thinks he’s a Crip, works at Amoco, has a girlfriend named Mercedes, and is one of the most unintentionally funny and brilliant souls on the planet.”
I think that this novel is a pretty accurate view of lower class youth in America, at least as they are in Kansas City. Growing up, I knew these types of people. They exist, and they don’t often get their stories told, so I appreciate that (even if the main purpose of the book is to mock them, in a way).
I enjoyed the first half of the book, which was side splitting, but the second half turned for the worse with subtle racism (there’s a serious misunderstanding with a former Black Panther that they don’t even bother to explain to the understandably enraged man), sexism (they go over pick-up artist techniques, for goodness sake), and classism (if only his cousin could pull himself up by his bootstraps as Mac did, never mind the social stratification that got Bennett there…he gives a poor teenager Ayn Rand to read, guys). Mac was trying to balance accepting his family members for who they are with the belief that they should improve their station in life, which is hard to do if you don’t really understand social injustice.
This month I also read half of The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp for the Lemon and Raspberry Book Club and started The Human Stain by Philip Roth. I also read some more of Harry Potter A L’Ecole Des Sorciers (Harry Potter in French), which I may or may not ever finish.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Make sure to put a big SPOILERS warning in your comment to warn others if you have ‘em.
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