June: Murder, stolen identity, nuclear annihilation – and that’s just the YA books!

I don’t know why I always think I’m going to have so much free time in the summer. Perhaps because the end of the year feels so frantic and rushed, the idea of the sudden absence of planning and teaching and grading is hard to fathom. I always end up filling it with other stuff and this June, between the AP Exam reading, a conference on standardized testing, and summer curriculum writing, my schedule was especially packed. This is my way of explaining why I’ve fallen one book short on the schedule I set for myself to have 100 books read by the end of the year. But June may also feature the most eclectic selection of books so far. Here they (finally) are.

case for jamie

41. The Case For Jamie By Brittany Cavallaro (YA Fiction)

This is the third book in the Charlotte Homes series, a world which imagines the descendants of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson meeting up Parent Trap-style at Sherringford (one of dozens of  winks at the Arthur Conan Doyle canon), an American prep school in Connecticut. The first two books have the teens solving murders and thwarting the nefarious schemes of the Moriarty siblings, all evil except for August, who was hired to tutor Charlotte (I really can’t remember why this decision was made, except that Charlotte’s parents are horrible) and wound up falling in love with her. Throughout the series, I did a lot of flummoxed head-shaking at the laughable improbability of the plot, but ultimately you just have to go with it or you’re going to miss out on all the fun. And it is fun to see how Cavallaro, a passionate Sherlockian, channels her love for the classic stories, characters, and tropes into these equally loveable teenagers. The Case For Jamie picks up a year after the traumatic events of the second book, The Last of August, with Jamie Watson trying to have as normal of a senior year as possible to keep himself on track to get into college and put the chaos of his relationship with Charlotte and her dysfunctional family behind him. The only problem is that some mysterious power is pulling the strings to derail him at every turn. Soon he’s swept back into the world of art heists and outlandish fake identities and, inevitably, into the dizzying orbit of Charlotte herself. These two are clearly meant to be together; Cavallaro takes care to emphasize that not only are they better together, they’re worse with anyone else. The same might be said for Jamie’s dad, James Watson, and Charlotte’s gay uncle Leander, best friends since university and possibly totally in love with one another (I was very happy to see their relationship given more attention in this installment). The actual mystery was probably the least compelling of the series – it goes on for 100 pages of interpersonal strife between Jamie and his friends at Sherringford before we even get a sense of the broader evil design at work. But as a vehicle for resolving the events of the previous book and leaving a little space for the next chapter of these kids’ lives (the fourth book, A Question of Holmes has them attending a summer program at Oxford), it works quite well. For what it’s worth (and that’s a lot, for someone continually trying to get teens to read more) my students, girls and boys, have loved this series and I have trouble keeping it on the classroom bookshelf.


42. Pachinko By Min Jin Lee (Fiction)

*National Book Award Finalist *The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2017*

I’m a big fan of Susie Graves (and also of her husband, though to a somewhat lesser extent), so when she told me she couldn’t put this book down I knew I had to read it. This is another one of those meme books that is suddenly everywhere in my life; as soon as I finished it I recommended it to my sister-in-law, who had just been given a copy from her sister, and then the New York Times/PBS News Hour Book Club announced it as their July selection, and I can assure you that all of this attention is very well-deserved. Pachinko is a sprawling narrative spanning four generations in the life of a native Korean family living in Japan, set against the backdrop of the most consequential political and cultural tensions of the 20th century. It begins in the 1920s, when Korea was under Japanese rule, with the arranged marriage of Hoonie and Yangjin,in the Korean coastal city Busan. They have a daughter, Sunja, who as a teen attracts the attention of a middle-aged gangster who impregnates and then abandons her. She is saved from a lifetime of shame and alienation by a pastor, Isak, who marries her and takes her and her son to live in Osaka, where they have a son of their own. The narrative follows the lives of these boys as they navigate the prejudice and cruelty of their second-class citizenship as ethnic Koreans living in Japan. The novel takes its name from slot/pinball game (perhaps you’ve seen them in trendy sushi restaurants) that is so popular and ubiquitous in Japan. It’s an apt metaphor for one of Lee’s central themes – the way people cope with and survive the indifferent vicissitudes of fate. The novel has been compared Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s epic chronicle of the decline of a wealthy German family, but I saw more echoes of East of Eden, with the Old Testament character names and the continual reckoning of the Sins of the Fathers. The triumph of Pachinko, however, is that unlike Steinbeck, Lee guides the delicate and complex strands of her narrative with such an expert hand and intimate tone that the reader never feels like they’re sitting in Sunday School. To be sure, there are horrible events and moments that certainly had me in tears. But every visit with these characters as they grow and set the course of their own lives is told with such honesty and affection, Lee’s emphasis is always their strength, hope, and will to survive.


43. Less By Andrew Sean Greer (Fiction)

*Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018*

This wholly delightful novel was the Now Read This book club’s June pick and it’s my pick for the book you should immediately move to the top of your To Read list. Its hero, Arthur Less, is in the throes of crisis, humiliations lobbed at him from all sides. Though he experienced some early success with his first novel, now his publisher has rejected his latest novel in its current form and his editor has told him to go back to the drawing board. The man he suspects might be the love of his life, Freddy, is marrying someone else. On top of this, he’s battling the existential angst of turning 50 and feeling alienated from all the people he used to love and the person he used to be. He’s like the character in his doomed novel, Swift, who wanders around San Francisco, wistfully revisiting the triumphs and defeats of his past, but who is apparently too privileged for anyone to care (the continual criticism of the book is that Swift “has the best life of anyone I know”.) Such is not the case for Arthur Less, and so to avoid the indignity of attending Freddy’s wedding, he accepts invitations to literary engagements that will take him all over the world, beginning in New York and then on to Italy, Paris, Berlin, Morocco, India, and finally Japan. Each of these events just seems to amplify Arthur’s insecurities – in Italy, he’s a finalist for what he thinks is a prestigious award for literature, only to discover the prize is juried by teenagers. His nagging anxiety about his failure to communicate is hilariously rendered by literal English translations of what he thinks is his fluent grasp of the German language. Indeed, one of the richest pleasures of reading this novel is Greer’s inventive use of language. Open to any page and you’ll find a description that is not only original, but key to the humor and humanity of the story (“Bright-lemon New York light flashing off the skyscrapers, onto the quilted aluminum sides of food carts, and from there onto Arthur Less himself”). Also compelling is affectionate tone of the mysterious narrator, who slips in here and there to tease the reader with a little memory or insight on Arthur. The revelation of his identity becomes part of an entirely satisfying ending that is nothing less than this lovable man deserves.  


44. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis By Robert D. Putnam (Nonfiction – Culture & Society)

This is another of the summer homework options for the A.P. Language and Composition class I teach, so I wanted to make sure to have read it in advance of the kids submitting their reflections on it. Fellow teachers have recommended Our Kids to me over the past few years, and I loved Bowling Alone, Putnam’s study of the decline of the American community, so I was glad to have a chance to read this one. Based on extensive interviews and exhaustive sociological research, the book compares the daily lives and outcomes of a cross section of individuals of his generation to those of their children and grandchildren. What he discovered is that the “opportunity gap” between haves and have-nots has grown exponentially wider across generations, resulting in significantly more imposing barriers preventing the majority of today’s kids from achieving the American Dream. Putnam has the research to back this up, and presents it in the form of extensive charts and graphs showing everything from the amount of trust people have in their neighbors depending on the mean income of the neighborhood to the negative correlation between high poverty schools and the number of extracurricular activities offered. The sheer amount of information is a bit overwhelming at times (especially, I’m imagining, for my 16-year-old students who chose this book), but the book is neatly divided into sections examining the sites and influences on this inequality, including family structure, parenting style, schools, and community. The insights are far too numerous to detail here; what I found most compelling was Putnam’s unequivocal stance that “the destiny of poor kids in America has broad implications for our economy, our democracy, and our values”. When a representative democracy depends on civic engagement, and when people of lower socioeconomic status consistently participate less in all aspects of political life, our government does not indeed represent its citizens and we don’t have a democracy. It’s up to everyone to take a community approach to this problem and see all kids from all backgrounds as Our Kids, and invest the time and care into building a ladder out of poverty. Putnam offers societal ways we can do this, such as reducing the number of unplanned births by making contraceptives more easily accessible and reforming the criminal justice system to reduce incarceration for nonviolent crime, as well as individual actions, like serving as a mentor and helping to create stronger school-community connections. Our Kids is dense to be sure, but very convincing in its argument that we are indeed all in this fight together.


45. Life: An Exploded Diagram By Mal Peet (YA Fiction)

I would have probably never happened upon this striking novel if not for Max Porter’s Twitter account. Porter is the author of one of the coolest books I’ve ever read, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, and it’s a safe bet that if he likes a book, I’ll probably like it too. So hot tip – follow your favorite authors on social media and take note of their recommendations. Life: An Exploded Diagram is apparently a YA novel, though it’s certainly unlike any I’ve ever read, and I checked the front matter more than once to verify that its publisher did indeed classify it as such. For one thing, there are adults in it, and not just to serve as obstacles or symbols of disconnection. The novel begins in rural Norfolk, England during WWII, with a young woman named Ruth going into premature labor induced by the surprise crash landing of a Nazi fighter plane. Her husband is also at war and their son, Clem, doesn’t meet his dad until his third birthday. This detail is one of many poignant threads that Peet weaves into a rich and complex coming of age story set against the tension of social change and moments of profound historical importance. Much of the narrative explores first love in all its agonizing, sublime glory. Something so typical as Clem’s fraught attempts to get his girlfriend, Frankie, to have sex with him are here imbued with a sense of extreme, world-ending significance – probably because Clem is fairly sure the end of the world is imminent. That’s the other wholly-unique aspect of this novel: halfway through it switches to the perspectives of President Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev as the escalation of their dispute over some missiles in Cuba brings the world as we know it ever closer to mutually assured destruction. It’s terrifying to even imagine how close we came to nuclear war. Life: An Exploded Diagram portrays not merely the effects of such fear and uncertainty on psyche of an adolescent, but also how the scars of war and policies of brinkmanship echo down through generations. These characters are connected by WWII, the Cold War, and even the events of September 11th, 2001. This novel is sophisticated, subtle, and inventive; it is many stories in one and it is tremendous fun to see how Peet manages to link them all.


46. The Female of the Species By Mindy McGinnis (YA Fiction)

As I read this provocative novel, I pictured the specific teen girls I know who would really appreciate how boldly author Mindy McGinnis cuts through the high school bullshit to call out the double standard girls are held to from an early age. They wear t-shirts with slogans like “Feminist AF” and “You Had Me At ‘I Hate People Too’”, often accompanied by a wry smile and a wicked talent for holding their tongues. I exchange a lot of knowing glances with girls like this, incidentally. Split among the perspectives of three teenagers throughout their senior year of high school, The Female of the Species examines the insidious and pervasive violence that rape culture inflicts on the developing adolescent. The most complex and brilliantly drawn of these is Alex, whose older sister Anna was tortured, raped, and murdered when Alex was in middle school. After the prime suspect went free, Alex took matters into her own hands and killed him herself. This isn’t a spoiler; it’s recounted in the first chapter of the book (though I had a little trouble discerning whether she had actually done it or was rehearsing to do so, which would then be the climax, probably a better one than what actually happens, though honestly, the plot of this novel is almost secondary to the harsh cultural critique, which is terrific). Alex’s attempts to control her rage over the acts of everyday misogyny she witnesses everywhere she looks is her prime struggle. Another character, known to everyone except Alex as Peekay, as in P.K. – Preacher’s Kid – feels blinding adolescent rage too, but it’s directed at another girl, the beautiful object of every boy’s desire, Branley, for whom Peekay’s boyfriend dumps her early in the novel. Through her friendship with Alex, Peekay learns that Branley is a victim of misogyny as much as anyone else, and though they don’t become best friends, neither are they enemies (aside, I absolutely love stories that involve girls who start out hating each other, usually over a guy, joining forces in The Good Fight by the end, see Legally Blonde). The other perspective is Jack, who on the surface seems like a typical All-American Boy with the kind of life everyone dreams about, but, like everyone, is fighting personal battles no one knows about. I liked him and appreciated his struggle to resist the lure of toxic masculinity, but his arc didn’t go much deeper than trying not to be a dickhead and I found myself wishing for an inside look at Branley instead. Despite this, I really do appreciate what McGinnis set out to accomplish in this novel. There is a tense climax – it is quite violent. And I know the ending is going to have some people throwing the book through a window like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. But for its insight into the complexity, turbulence, and power of teen girls – hell YEAH, you should read this book.


47. The Order of Time By Carlo Rovelli (Nonfiction – Science & Philosophy)

I have a couple of perhaps embarrassing confessions to make before I start this review:

  1. I bought this audiobook because I saw that Benedict Cumberbatch narrated it, and his is one of the most beautiful voices in the history of recorded sound
  2. I had to listen to it twice because I didn’t understand it the first time. I only understand it slightly better after the second listen

Oh wait, here’s another – the second time I listened to it, I took copious notes because I’m the type of person who monitors their comprehension through writing. I’m really glad I did because it’s going to allow me to write a hopefully coherent review of this arresting meditation not simply on the physics of time, but how this informs our understanding of memory, free will, and identity itself. Rovelli, a theoretical physicist who specializes in the field of quantum gravity, is a stunning and accessible writer, using verses from Horace’s Odes to introduce the unifying themes of his chapters. He also traces ancient understandings of what time is and how we experience it as he explains the history of what scientists and physicians have come to understand about the nature of time. Aristotle thought that the phenomenon we call “time” is simply an observation of change – if nothing ever changed, time would not exist. Newton believed in a universal “absolute time”, something that marched ever forward, independent of our experience of it. Einstein’s work in relativity argued that both were right, and introduced gravity as the essential element linking space and time. From here, Rovelli explains how, with every new discovery, time loses a layer of definition. He unstrips time of all of humanity’s prior attempts to pin it down in order to build a fresh understanding that is, if nothing else, at least closer to articulating why what we call “the past” is knowable and fixed and what we call “the future” is a mystery (also, Cumberbatch’s pronunciation of the word “layer” is one of the most gorgeous sounds I’ve ever heard). In his conclusion, Rovelli manages to link the physical and observable with the philosophical and existential in a way that had me shaking my head, mouth agape, wondering what the hell had just happened to me. I don’t know how to describe it. For the briefest flash, I felt the most profound peace, like some grand, invisible force had just lifted a curtain and said, “Here, you really wanna know the reason for everything? Have a look”. This book feels special, alive, the way some books do when you read them at different points throughout your life and you realize how much you’ve changed in the interim. I know I’ll revisit The Order of Time many times throughout my life, and I know that maybe sounds a bit crazy. But that’s the beauty and the power of books; sometimes it’s them reading you, rather than the other way around.

One of the many pages of notes I took while reading The Order of Time

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