Recommended Reads – August Bookshelf

Settle in for a long blog this month. Thanks to audio books and a seven-hour drive, I “read” a few more books in July. This month’s titles include an amazing non-fiction novel, a couple well-written but depressing fiction books, and one literary classic I should have read years ago.

Hey! Do you like these monthWould you prefer that I post these reviews as I finish the books, or you  

On The Road by Jack Kerouac: Although I’ve known about On the Road for years, I’d never actually read the book. Since my current WIP takes place in the early 60s, I realized not reading the book would be doing my characters a great disservice.  After all, Kerouac was the man who gave name to the Beat Generation.

Oh, what a mesmerizing train wreck of a book. The characters (based on Kerouac and his friends) in On the Road are every terrible thing you’ve ever read about them. Kerouac’s writing is also deceptively brilliant. You think you’re reading a rambling recounting of road trips. Instead, Kerouac slips you a heartbreaking story of lost souls.  This is the Beat Generation, desperately searching for meaning only to lose themselves in drugs, alcohol, and debauchery.  Central to the story is narrator Sal Paradise (aka Kerouac) and his hero worship of carefree Dean Moriarty (aka poet Neal Cassady) who he thinks as discovered the key to life.  But appearances are what they seem, including Dean’s carefree appearance.  As Dean spirals deeper and deeper into madness, Sal moves from hero worship to disillusion, and in the end, finds himself no closer to finding answers than he was in the beginning. Peppered with characters based on real people like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Boroughs Jr., the book is a fascinating look at the mid-century lost generation.

Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era by Lawrence Leamer: This book, due out in October, is a fascinating look at the women and story behind Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Being a society maven is hard work. Leamer doesn’t pull punches as he recounts the lives of Babe Pauley, Slim Haywood, Lee Radiziwell and others. They were women who ruthlessly pursued wealthy husbands and sacrificed happiness to maintain their place on the social ladder.  Each story is a lesson on being careful what you wish for.  To the outside world, these women had everything.  Behind closed doors they were profoundly lonely.  They thought they’d found a true friend in Capote only to have their confidence’s betrayed when he published the first few chapters of his book in Esquire (the infamous short story, “La Cote Basque 1965”).

Capote’s story is yet another cautionary tale. As ruthless and lonely as his swans, he gave up a chance at real friendship in attempt to maintain celebrity.  I finished the book feeling profoundly sad at all the wasted opportunity.

Side note: Now that I’ve finished Leamer’s book, I’m looking forward to snagging a copy of Melanie Benjamin’s Swans of Fifth Avenue. The fictional biography sounds like the perfect compliment.

Between Here to Gone by Barbara Caridad Ferrer: I was super excited to read this book because it’s set in the 1960s, and Barbara Ferrer is an award-winning historical novelist who knows her history.  The language and attention to detail is exactly as one would expect from an award winner.

Sadly, I couldn’t get into the book. Ferrer seemed to tell two different stories. Th first half of the book is the story of a Cuban refugee who’s left behind a life of privilege and is struggling to make a life as a single woman in New York City. Then suddenly, the gears shift and it’s a love triangle involving a wealthy lawyer and his out-of-control cousin, with much of the focus on the hero’s past traumas.  

What’s more, Ferrer seemed intent on throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the book: rape, incest, mental illness, the Cuban revolution, murder, grief, family dysfunction, the Freedom riders…. It was all too much.  

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller: Based on the jacket copy, The Paper Palace sounds like a gun, women’s fiction-style summer read.  So not. I’m pretty sure, now that I’m done reading, that Reese Witherspoon and the Barnes & Noble Book Club coordinator selected this book to make July as depressing as possible.  

There are so many words I could use to describe this book: Haunting. Compelling. Complicated. Dark. Disturbing. 

Did I mention Depressing?

This is a story about a family steeped in dysfunction. At the center of the novel is a decades-long love story between the protagonist, Elle, and a boy with whom she shares a tragic secret. It’s supposed to be a Great Love. It felt unhealthy.  And don’t even get me started on the last page. With one last decision, Elle continues the cycle. I’m not sure if that’s what Heller intended, but that’s what I came away thinking. 

Making the book even more frustrating is the fact that Heller writes beautifully. There were passages that read like poetry. She also created some very memorable characters. Damaged as they were, every person on the page felt unique and real. And she’s got a gift for pacing. I couldn’t put the sucker down.  

All in all, it’s a well written read, but not a enjoyable read, if that makes sense.  One of my book club mates suggested that younger readers might have a much different take on the story.  I’d be very interested to know if that’s true. 

The Woman They Couldn’t Silence by Kate Moore: In 1861, Theophilis Packard had his wife Elizabeth committed to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum. Why? Because she dared to continually disagree with his opinions, and 1861 a husband had the ability to commit his wife without consent or a trial.  Elizabeth spent the next two years fighting for her freedom.

Kate Moore, who also wrote Radium Girls, has the gift for narrative non-fiction. Her recounting of Elizabeth’s story reads like a thriller as she endures unbelievable prejudice and mistreatment to gain her freedom. I literally found myself screaming at the audiobook every time one of the men in her life thwarted her attempts. Were she alive today, a woman like Elizabeth Packard would be a CEO or some kind of influential leader. Instead, she paid a tremendous price for being strong-minded, intelligent and eloquent at a time when women were expected to be silent and comply with their husband’s wishes.

The story, by the way, doesn’t end with Elizabeth’s winning her freedom.  She went on to become a celebrated author and a champion for women and mental health patients around the country.  All while fighting her husband for the right to see her children.

I’m so glad Kate Moore wrote this book, and I highly recommend it. Elizabeth is a wonderful role model whom every woman should meet. 

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton:  de Botton’s book examines the reasons behind why other people’s accomplishments (or aquistions) fuel our feelings of inadequacy. It was a mixed bag for me.  

I found the first half of the book, in which de Botton explains the development of status anxiety very interesting. He makes a compelling argument against the concept of meritocracy.  In fact, I found it interesting to think that the concept of a meritocracy didn’t exist until the American Revolution.  Until 1776, people accepted that class was a product of birth.  (Although I disagree with his premise that peasants didn’t feel status anxiety because they knew they could never rise to a higher class. Within every population there exists a hierarchy and thus status anxiety. If my neighboring serf had two blankets, and I only had one, I would most definitely feel like I was missing something.)  

Alas the second half of book – his solutions for status anxiety – contained nothing that hasn’t been said by others, such as Marcus Aurelius or, for that matter, my parish priest. Live in the present, take pleasure in simple things, realize that when your dead no one will care how many cars you own, look for meaning in the act of doing rather than in achievement, etc. 

The other thing that turned me off in this book was the fact that while reading, I couldn’t shake the feeling that de Botton had a chip on his shoulder.  While he wrote about finding pleasure outside of consumerism and achievement, he did so in the most erudite fashion, like he was trying extra hard to prove he was above status anxiety. 

This book was a birthday gift from one of my best friends. She bought it because she knows I like a good social psychology read, and because the hugely intelligent author, Jane Friedman, said the book changed her life. Did it change mine? Well, it did lead me to pick up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Cicero’s On Growing Old, and those books definitely changed my thinking.  So, yeah, I guess it did.  (Although if I were you, I’d skip a step and go straight to the Romans.) 

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