Booked: Winter Break Reads

While were heading into finals crunch time, here are a few books to put on your holiday wish list, as a light at the end of the dismal finals tunnel. Looking for more ways to procrastinate? Check out my blog, Sometimes I Read.

ColorlessTsukuruColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf Publishing Group)

Murakami has been having a bit of a moment, to say the least. After finally reading one of his novels, I will join his fans in saying that he is finally garnering the international recognition he has deserved.

When Tsukuru Tazaki was in high school, he and his four best friends were inseparable. Now, he is a train designer living alone in Tokyo and has not spoken to his friends in years. When he begins a new romance, he is encouraged to reach out and find out why his friends abruptly cut him out of their lives. This novel is the story of his journey to figure out what exactly happened.

For those who have not heard of Murakami yet, he is a surrealist writer whose massive tome “1Q84” was an international bestseller. Some of his books have more strange or fantastic elements than others. Without having read his other novels, I highly recommend “Tsukuru” as an accessible jumping off point. It is fairly short, but I found myself wanting to take my time with it – read a chapter, stop and mull it over, repeat every few days.

The writing is simple and elegant, and doesn’t get in the way of the story. Tsukuru’s earnest humility and intense desire to find out what happened with his friends infuses the story with a steady passion that kept me hooked. Whether the stark simplicity is an effect of translation or Murakami’s style, I can’t say, but it was highly enjoyable.

Verdict: Affirmed. An excellent read from a world-renowned writer. Plus, if you’re a collector of books, the hardcover design is beautiful, so make sure to pick it up in print.

BadFeministBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial)

In law school, it’s easy to fall out of touch with the pop culture consumed by the rest of the world. It’s also easy to forget that the legal issues and themes we discuss in class manifest real-world consequences in the lives of millions. If you want to get back in touch with pop culture through smart, timely commentary that focuses on the real issues beneath it, this is your book.

I’ve previously proclaimed my love for books that law students can wander in and out of without making a commitment to a full novel. Gay’s essay collection fits perfectly into this category. Feel like revisiting your youth with a discussion of “Sweet Valley High” novels? There’s an essay for that. Discussing issues of race and feminism in modern film & literature (“The Help,” “Girls,” “Django Unchained”)? There’s an essay for that. Violence against women & Chris Brown? Trayvon Martin and the Boston Marathon bomber as cultural touchstone counterpoints? Check and check.

While I might not agree with every argument Gay makes, I was nodding along pretty often and tweeting out her pithier statements. More importantly, and more strikingly, the book explores a dichotomy that Gay fully embraces: she’s a feminist and will stand up for women in every context, but she also loves trashy television; she’s a shameless consumer of the very pop culture that she critiques.

As someone who enjoys my share of Bravo TV, I appreciate her stance that you don’t have to be a “good” feminist – you have to find what works for you, choose the beliefs you choose to live by, and raise your voice in the face of oppression of others.

Verdict: Affirmed, for those of us who want to get back in touch with the larger cultural conversation and seek out opportunities to reflect on and discuss the issues that matter most, but are too often overlooked in legal study.

TheFeverThe Fever by Megan Abbott, Narrated by Caitlin Davies, Kirby Heyborne, and Joe Barrett (Little, Brown and Company; Audio by Blackstone Audio)

I snagged this audiobook from the library on a Monday morning, and by Tuesday night I had already finished the nine-hour audiobook. “The Fever” had me on my toes, thinking about what would happen next whenever I wasn’t reading.

Deenie lives in a small town with her dad, a teacher at her school, and her brother Eli, a popular hockey player. One day, a best friend of hers collapses in school from a horrible seizure. Soon, Deenie’s other friends fall mysteriously ill, and the town is in full-on panic mode. What is making the girls sick? Everyone has ideas and no one has answers.

Narration rotates between Deenie, her dad, and her brother, and the three audio narrators capture each of these characters perfectly. The transitions between them aren’t too jarring, but their voices are still distinct enough to make it easy to tell whose chapter is whose. The rotating perspectives give the reader a full view of the town in crisis—a potential victim, a confused male peer, and a terrified, protective parent each offer a glimpse how each respective population segment is handling the illness. Since they’re a family, you also see how the fever affects and shapes their interactions and relationships.

Relationships are where this novel truly excels. Deenie’s life centers around her best friends, with her family a distant second. The group of girls has its own hierarchy and complex dynamic that any girl who has lived through high school has experienced. Abbott captures the kinship, jealousy, affection, and competitive secrecy that accompany such close-knit friendships. I loved Deenie’s friends as much as she does, was fascinated and confused by them like her brother, and cared about them like her dad. Above all, I wanted to know what was making them sick.

Verdict: Affirmed. There’s a little something for everyone – a mystery to keep you guessing, complicated friendships, family dynamics, and excellent audio narration.

NPHAutobioNeil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (Crown Archetype)

Let me disclose my bias upfront: I am a big NPH fan, largely because of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” I had my name on the waitlist for this book at NYPL months before its October publication date – there was no way I would not read this book. Luckily, it meets fans’ expectations.

The formatting is a bit of a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that works. Like any good choose-your-own adventure novel you may have enjoyed as a child, there are plenty of forks in the road with opportunities for ill-fated ends and happy endings. Amid this wandering format are magic tricks that you can actually perform as you read, drink and food recipes, home photos, celebrity cameos-in-writing, and touching home stories from NPH’s life.

For a quirky, humorous book, Harris is honest in discussing his personal journey toward coming out; loving when discussing his parents, brother, husband, and kids; and unsparing in glamorous details when discussing his vacations with Sir Elton John. There’s a little something for fans of all aspects of his work, from theater to TV to awards-show-hosting. Would it hold up for non-fans? I can’t say, I don’t personally know anyone who admits to not being at least a mild NPH fan.

To tell too much more would give away from of the book’s quirks. If the choose-your-own format is not for you, rest assured that you can read this book from cover to cover with minimal confusion (though you’ll gain a few extra laughs if you occasionally flip around as instructed).

Verdict: Jurys Out if you’re a fan of NPH, are down for something a bit different, or are remotely interested, definitely try it out. But it’s just not an absolute must-read for anyone who doesn’t have an initial spark of interest.

Verdict Update: In September, I reviewed Gregory Sherl’s debut novel. It has since come to my attention via a tweet from author Roxane Gay that he has been accused of abuse by several women. I was unable to find a comment on the accusations from him or his publisher. In light of this new evidence, I am vacating my early judgment and remanding for further review. I want to ensure that potential readers are fully informed when making decisions about what authors they choose to read and/or support.

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