The Dog (Eared) Days of Summer

For some reason, people always associate summer reading with light, fluffy stories and/or books that make a huge splash with the public (i.e.: the "blockbusters" of the literary world). I've never really understood this; I don't feel like my reading habits change with the seasons at all. So while I'd love to report that there's a fun, summery vibe to all of the books I loaded up on for vacation, I can't. And honestly, that's fine with me. The books I've been reading in this second third of the year have been a lot more rewarding than the ones that preceded them, and I don't need stories to be lighthearted or vastly popular to enjoy them on the beach.

S. - J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013)

J.J. Abrams has a spotty record when it comes to film and television. He seems to have marvelous creative ideas that go awry in the execution. When it comes to books, though, it seems that having fewer cooks in the kitchen does, indeed, make the broth taste better. This will be a little hard to describe, but bear with me, because S. has a hell of a gimmick: It's a full-length "book" (Ship of Theseus) that was "written" by an enigmatic author. An embattled grad student who has stumbled across new and revelatory information about the author and an undergraduate who is struggling with what she wants to do with her life start corresponding in the margins of Ship of Theseus, and as they collaborate and argue, they begin to develop a relationship. Danger abounds from outside forces who don't want the pair to get credit for their work, and the margin notes start to vacillate between literary critique and personal revelations. The book (S., that is) is crammed with bits of paper, from "newspaper clippings" to postcards to handwritten notes, so the reader is actually reading two books at the same time, with one of them being completely fake. Still with me? It's a tough act to pull off, but Abrams and Dorst do it nimbly, making this one of the most fascinating reading experiences of the year.

Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith (2014)

Part of what can make books interesting is the point of view they're written from, and if that point of view is done believably. I remember having an issue with The Dogs of Babel, not because the story was lacking, but because the female author couldn't capably write from the male protagonist's perspective. Teenagers are often written as hyper-mature, not because that makes teenaged characters more engaging, but because that gets adult authors off the hook for not being able to capture an actual teenager's tone of voice. Part of the reason Grasshopper Jungle was such a breath of fresh air is that Andrew Smith can actually make the narrator sound like a teenaged boy. Know what teenaged boys are like? Horny. All the time. If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones, that would have been cool. If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, that would have been cooler. But this book is about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, and by the way, giant insects are taking over the world, starting with his hometown. And damn, is it fantastic. Science fiction often sacrifices character development in service of the story, but this book is perfectly balanced between exploring complicated feelings for your best friend and trying to escape a horde of killer bugs.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All the Wrong Questions) - Lemony Snicket (2014)

I've been thoroughly enjoying the All the Wrong Questions series, so when I stumbled across this Encyclopedia Brown-type book set in that universe, I couldn't resist it. I used to love those solve-the-mini-mystery books as a kid, even when the solutions were kind of bullshit. I find the word "trifle" overused when it comes to entertainment, but there is no better description of this little book. It's fun and cute, but is mostly forgettable, and adds nothing to the series as a whole. The writing is as clever as ever, the little mysteries were pretty fun, and I'm always happy to spend a little time with the characters in Stain'd-by-the-Sea, but I can't pretend that those who elect to skip this one will be missing out on anything noteworthy.

The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code - Sam Kean (2012)

This is one of those books that was unfortunately undone by the background of the reader. I don't pretend to be an expert in my field or anything, but getting a biology degree in college, followed by fourteen years of work with a lab that was instrumental in the completion of the Human Genome Project, has given me a better-than-average grounding in genetics. So in reading the story of DNA, the scientists who were instrumental in discoveries about it, and the state of research today, I found myself saying "Yup, I already know this," to myself a lot. Perhaps my opinion shouldn't count as much for this book, because someone else would probably find something new and fascinating about the material. As for me, I thought it was pretty boring. I know it's possible for authors to engage people in material they're already versed in or are uninterested in, but that didn't happen here. I don't know how much to ascribe to not discovering much new information and how much to ascribe to poor writing. Kean seems up to the task, so this may just be a case of not being in the correct target audience.

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson (2013)

OK, to be fair, this one does fall under that aforementioned "make a huge splash with the public" heading. I'm on record as liking books with clever gimmicks (just take a look at S. up there), and this one is no different. Ursula Todd is an unfortunate protagonist in that she keeps, well, dying. She dies at birth. She dies in childhood. She dies of the flu. She dies during wartime. Every time she dies, she starts over, and somehow makes it through the last incident that took her out, only to be felled by another one. During this endless cycle, she retains only dim memory and wired instincts that suggest she's ever been down this path before. She suffers constant deja vu. As the story unfolds, we see how the small changes in the characters' actions ripple out, affecting not only Ursula, but the people around her. As a character exploration, it's riveting. The book does, however, get bogged down a bit when it comes to story. The segment set during World War II drags, and while I can accept there's a girl who keeps being reborn in this horrifying cycle, I can't accept that there's a girl going through this that also happens to become besties with Eva Braun. Atkinson also suffers from something a lot of other authors who tackle the space-time continuum face: Not being able to stick the landing. Still, it's a mostly enjoyable book, and I can easily understand why it's so popular.

S.: A-
Grasshopper Jungle: A
File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All the Wrong Questions): B
The Violinist's Thumb: C
Life After Life: B+


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