I've officially hit the halfway point of my reading challenge for the year (which I keep track of on Goodreads—let's be friends!). I just finished my 26th book and I've pretty much consistently been one book ahead of schedule because I'm great at deadlines and being behind on anything makes me nervous. I don't always finish a book a week, but I did read three of the below books in less than a week so it averages out.
I've cherished books my entire life, but this year I've been more excited to read than ever before. Maybe it's the cheesy congratulatory emails I get from Goodreads every time I finish a book or maybe I've just lucked out with some wonderful books, but almost nothing makes me happier than settling into my commute twice a day and not looking up from my book until I reach my destination. Here's what I've been reading lately:
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance
I don't know if this memoir is as important as it's been made out to be, but I do understand why people have sought it out, especially after Trump got elected. Vance grew up splitting his time between southern Ohio and Kentucky, and while I grew up about four hours away in Northeastern Ohio, a lot of what Vance describes as "hillbilly culture" still felt familiar to me. At times his recollections are humorous, and at times they're deeply sad, but he has a valid and unique point of view. His story might ultimately veer from the norm (he eventually attended Yale Law and now lives in San Francisco), but his commentary on what it means to grow up as part of a crazy, erratic, sometimes abusive but always loving family is worth reading—even if it mirrors your own experience, but especially if it does not.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel
In 1986, Christopher Knight abandoned his car and disappeared into the woods of Maine. For 27 years he lived a completely solitary existence, carefully (and by his account, reluctantly) breaking into nearby vacation cabins only when he needed supplies. He was finally caught in 2013, and his story is fascinating. This account—a compilation of Finkel's uninvited visits and reluctant interviews with Knight while he was being held in jail—does feel a bit exploitative, and I found myself feeling bad for Knight more than anything else. He had always been uncomfortable with human contact and was content to have removed himself from society forever. Sure, stealing from others was undeniably wrong, but otherwise I identified with Knight's antisocial tendencies more than I even expected to. I couldn't survive alone in the wilderness for a few hours, but not having to deal with other people for 27 years sounds pretty darn appealing.
All the President's Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
This was the very wrong book to take with me on our two-week South American trip. I think I read a total of nine pages, and I was immediately confused by the introduction of so many players and a complex story. I picked it up again when I got back to New York, and while it took me a while to (mostly) keep everyone straight, I was engrossed until the very end. This is as much a story about journalism as it is about Watergate and politics and it reads like a true crime thriller (and I guess it technically is).
I had watched a great hour-long documentary about Watergate on Netflix (part of CNN's 70s series), wanted to know more, and figured it was about time that I read this classic. I'm still not entirely sure who everyone is and what their role was (I'm sure there's a Watergate cast of characters flow chart somewhere) but this book should be required reading for anyone at all interested in the current Trump/Russia mess. Aside from the absence of the Internet and the constant smoking, this feels like it could've been written a few years from now about current events.
Girl Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
I recently got the urge to re-watch the movie version of Susanna Kaysen's famous memoir of her two years spent in a mental institution in the 60s, and it made me realize that I had never properly read the source material. It's one of my favorite movies, and it follows the book very closely. Kaysen writes with great clarity and insight on her struggles and paints a vivid picture of what her day to day life was like at McClean, a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts whose famous past residents included Ray Charles, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
After I finished The Rules of Civility, Towles's excellent first novel, I wanted more. Luckily, A Gentleman in Moscow, his second novel, had just been published but I thought I could wait until the paperback edition came out. Turns out I couldn't, and so I recently caved and put the 400+ page hardcover on hold at the library. This book has been very popular so it took a while for me to get it, but now I understand the interest.
Set in a Moscow hotel, where Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest after the Russian Revolution, A Gentlemen in Moscow is one of the best novels I've read in recent years. I'm already interested in everything Russian so it wasn't a hard sell, but Towles has a way with words, characters and environments that just begs to be savored. The story spans several decades of the Count's life which, despite the confines of the hotel, manages to be full and fascinating. There are dramatic moments and important events of course, but Towles expertly makes the case that life mostly unfolds quietly and unassumingly, but that's where the real magic lies.