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For a lot of law students, summer is the only time we can really sink into a good book. Here’s my super-sized round-up of the books worth your limited, precious reading time this summer. Read something good? Let me know at features@morningsidemuckraker.com. Ran through these & looking for something new? Find me on Goodreads.

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goldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company)

I had been saving this review for my summer list, and then the Pulitzer Prize Committee went and scooped me. Although the literary world had been waiting over ten years for Donna Tartt’s next book, and over twenty since her cult favorite “The Secret History,” “The Goldfinch” is the first of Tartt’s books I’ve read. Now I get what all the fuss is about, and will be tackling her previous two novels this summer.

“The Goldfinch” is the story of Theo Decker and his relationship with a tiny, unusually valuable painting. His life on the Upper East Side is turned upside-down when his mother is killed in the same accident that begins his journey with Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” from which the novel takes its name. The plot is full of twists and turns, suspense and drama laced with humor. The secondary characters are every bit as fleshed out and intriguing as Theo, if not more so. Personally, I was thrilled whenever Hobie or Boris showed up for a scene; though they are polar opposites, and each is endearing in his own way.

I held this review until the summer issue because I do not suggest you read this book during the semester. The 750 pages fly by, so make sure you have enough time to settle into a comfy chair with your tea for an hour or two and fully appreciate Tartt’s masterful use of language. Simple observations are breathtaking and precise, like “[the shop’s] bittersweet gloom like rainy dark classrooms of childhood,” or “…Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere.” I’m not usually one for lengthy descriptions, tending to skim the 900th description of a forest I’ve ever read. I not only read these descriptions, but re-read them. And as I write this review, I’m re-reading the passages I bookmarked to talk about.

Verdict: Affirmed. When you’ve finished your last final and are looking for a book that will make you forget the stress of the semester, pick this up & lose yourself in Theo’s world of high society New York, seedy Las Vegas, and the underground art market.

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I Don’t Know What You Know Me From- Confessions of a Co-StarI Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Starby Judy Greer, narrated by Judy Greer (Random House, Random House Audio)

I actually know exactly what I know Judy Greer from – she played the best friend in “27 Dresses.” Others will recognize her from “Arrested Development,” “13 Going on 30,” “The Descendents,” or one of the other 40+ movies or countless television guest appearances she’s made. Judy Greer is a perpetual co-star.

In her new memoir, Greer dishes on how she became an actress, her life growing up outside Detroit, going to acting school in Chicago, and moving to LA. She does her own audiobook narration, and it is fantastic. It feels like you’re having a conversation with your best friend – complete with cursing, tangents, and the occasional heartfelt reflection. If you’re looking for celebrity name-dropping, there’s a handful of those anecdotes, like the time Ashton Kutcher bought Greer’s dad a motorcycle or the time she peed next to Jennifer Lopez.

She’s just as excited about the cool things she gets to do as any of us would be. Greer relates her thoughts and experiences as if she’s talking to her best friend over a cup of coffee, and it makes her book all the more enjoyable. I laughed out loud and genuinely relaxed while I listened, which is a hard thing to do the week before finals.

Verdict: Affirmed for anyone looking for a beach read in the vein of Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” or Chelsea Handler’s memoirs. It’s off-color at times, so if cursing & discussions of dog slobber aren’t for you, look elsewhere.

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We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselvesby Karen Joy Fowler, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy (Penguin, Penguin Audio)

Rosemary Cooke has two siblings, but both are missing.  Now in college, she struggles with her own identity, repressing her childhood memories as she hides them from the people around her and struggles to relate to others.

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is the story of Rosemary, Lowell, and Fern Cooke – three children who shared an unusual childhood that ended abruptly and unexpectedly. Rosemary bounces through time as she shares their story, revisiting and revising old scenes as new memories surface. We come to realize she may not be the most reliable of narrators, but at least she’s aware of this, and seems to be trying her best. Fowler uses both nonlinear storyline and the unreliable narrator well, without either coming off as a gimmick.

The novel deals with complex questions of family and memory: What does it mean to be a sibling? How deeply do the people with whom we share our lives shape who we become? Just how reliable are our memories, and should we trust our own recollections or allow others to re-shape them? It tackles these issues in a mere 310 pages, or just under 9 hours if you try the audiobook, as I did. Orlagh Cassidy narrates expertly, coming off as appropriately detached at times, but infusing Rosemary’s story with emotion at all the right points.

Verdict: Affirmed. Don’t read any other reviews of this novel, all of which tend to spoil a key fact regarding Fern’s identity. Go in blind, and enjoy it all the more. If you were spoiled like I was, it is still well worth your time.

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The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books)

This is the second book in two months that has snuck its way into my review list, and wow is it deserved. I read this book every chance I got – alternating between my Con Law casebook and this slim library volume, while walking the four blocks from my apartment to the law school, in the ten minutes between classes. The characters would understand this approach.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is the tale of a curmudgeonly bookseller on a remote Massachusetts island whose wife has recently passed away. His retirement fund, in the form of a rare book, is stolen and a two-year-old girl is abandoned in his shop in the same week. It’s a novel about how stories shape both your own outlook and your relationships with those around you. The twists are subtle and unexpected, while the relationships between characters develop naturally over the course of the novel’s mere 260 pages.

Reading this book is your soul’s equivalent of wrapping yourself in the fuzziest blanket on a chilly evening. I found myself pausing to re-read the simple, elegant prose and generally slowing myself down to savor the experience. Immediately upon finishing, I purchased a hardcover copy to re-read concurrently with all the short stories mentioned throughout the novel. Zevin’s homage to reading, independent book stores, and the book publishing industry generally will be greatly appreciated by people who share my passion for all things literary.

Verdict: Affirmed for book lovers everywhere. If you’ve enjoyed “The Thirteenth Tale,” “The Shadow of the Wind,” or “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” this is the perfect next book-about-loving-books.

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Reading Style- A Life in SentencesReading Style: A Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson (Columbia University Press, expected June 24th, 2014)

Like many readers, I keep a notebook where I jot down quotations and passages that jump out at me or that I think I’ll want to return to later. I flip through it periodically, and am amazed at how a single line can bring me back to wherever I was when I first read it. Reading “Reading Style” is like reading someone else’s notebook of quotations.

Jenny Davidson is a similarly passionate reader, who embarks on a mission to identify it is precisely that speaks to her (or fails to) in certain passages and quotations. She offers a quote, and then dissects it to figure out just what makes it tick. With authors from Stephen King to Marcel Proust, Neil Gaiman to Jane Austen, and Henry James to Helen DeWitt, there is a little something in here for readers of all types of fiction.

Though the book was a bit too academic at times for my personal purely-pleasure reading, I enjoyed the romp through Davidson’s favorite passages. As with any good book-about-books, you’ll risk discovering new titles for your to-read list.

Verdict: Jury’s Out. Recommended for language and literature lovers alike, but with a warning that Davidson employs an extremely close read of her selected passages that may not be to everyone’s taste.

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The Golem and the Jinni
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker, narrated by George Guidall (Harper Collins)

At the dawn of the 20th century, two supernatural creatures find themselves in New York City. Chava is a golem, a being created to meet the every whim of her master, who died on their voyage to America. Ahmad is a jinni, released from an ancient flash in America and bound to the physical world by mysterious iron bands on his wrists. These two characters navigate their new country and the immigrant communities in which they’ve landed, accompanied by a full and varied cast of characters.

Sure, this is a fantasy novel, but it is firmly grounded in its historical setting. Wrecker uses Chava and Ahmad to explore Syrian and Jewish immigrant communities and their intersections. The supporting characters are rich and fleshed out, and they make the story come alive. For those who enjoy deeper themes within their enchanting tales, Wrecker raises questions of free will and identity that will leave you pondering after you’ve closed the book or pressed pause.

There is something special about reading a book set in New York City when you live here. This was the first novel I’ve read since moving here where I recognized the streets and landmarks the characters inhabit and visit. Whether you’ve been in NYC for years or are still asking Google Maps how to get downtown, Wrecker’s descriptions of early 19th century New York will ring true and familiar.

Verdict: Affirmed, especially for fans of historical fiction and fantasy. If you’re a fan of audiobooks, George Guidall’s narration is also excellent.

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The Transcriptionist

The Transcriptionist” by Amy Rowland (Algonquin Books)

Lena works as a transcriptionist for a newspaper. When a blind woman is killed by lions after finding her way into their cage, Lena is shocked that she recognizes the woman. They had met on a bus just a few days earlier. This incident sparks introspective reflection in Lena as she begins to question her job, her employer, and where people go when they disappear.

Rowland has a way with words – she describes a transcriptionist’s work as “a willingness to become a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.” Yet amid these sparks are confused plotlines – at times I wondered how we got from one place to another, or how Lena went from doing one action to doing something completely different. It takes some getting used to, but in the end it added to the muddled transience of the book, putting the reader in the same head space as our conflicted heroine.

This novel captures the anonymity among chaos that those who live in New York City will recognize as part of our daily lives. It raises questions about ethics in journalism and how society can forget its members as everyday life moves on.

Verdict: Jury’s Out – It’s not a book for everyone, as it’s not straightforward and plotlines occasionally drop off, only some of which are later picked back up. But if you want to try something different that you can puzzle over, check this one out.

 

Disclosure: I received e-copies of “The Transcriptionist” and “Reading Style” in exchange for an honest review through NetGalley.

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