May was one of the best reading months I’ve had in a long while. For all but one week of the month, I was in Mexico reading in cafes, on beaches, in bed, and on my patio. Here’s what I read and loved.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Valley of the Dolls is one of those cult classics I’d always been curious about. No one I know has actually read it, but I saw it decorating the nightstands and side tables of one too many bloggers so I figured I’d see what all the hype is about.
The book tells the story of Anne, Neely, and Jennifer, three friends who meet in New York in their 20s and form a tight bond as they struggle to define their careers and relationships. No, this is not Sex and the City.
It’s a story of modern womanhood, fame, self-destruction, and what it looks like to settle. The story follows the women over two decades of their lives as they become successful actresses and models, get married, get divorced, nurture drug addictions, and have children.
I tore through it at lightning speed and only slowed down a bit toward the end when I got exasperated with some of the characters’ repeated antics. That’s the thing about this book—everyone is pretty despicable. Though Anne is a generally good person and often acts as the moral compass among her group of friends and acquaintances, she eventually makes choices so predictably stupid and pathetic that you want to hurl the book at her beautiful, telegenic face.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the scandal and sex appeal this book offers. The fact that it was written in 1966 makes it all the more interesting. If you want a juicy beach or poolside read, this is it.
Beach Music by Pat Conroy
I’d been dying to read this book ever since I learned it was the favorite of two very important women in my life. To say it dazzled me and ripped my heart to shreds in equal measure wouldn’t do it justice.
This 700-page book is a marvelous epic. It centers on the life of Jack McCall, a stubborn, witty, big-hearted travel and food writer who lives in Rome with his young daughter, Leah. Jack’s wife (Leah’s mother) committed suicide five years prior to the book’s beginning, and that incident propels the story both forward and backward as we learn how Jack has moved on since her death and what he left behind when he did.
The book takes us to South Carolina, where Jack was raised, and dips back in time to World War II and the Vietnam War. Never have I read a book with such a rich sense of place—Conroy’s descriptions of the South are so vivid and compelling you feel as if you lived a lifetime there after reading a single paragraph about a crab cookout.
The way Conroy writes about the past is incredible, too. For Jack, the past holds such a permanent, deep space in his heart. His childhood, his friendships, and his upbringing in the south have shaped him in innumerable ways, ways he doesn't even want to think about or confront most of the time.
My words here don’t do this book justice. I don’t know what more to say other than it’s such a powerful, fascinating, moving read. Do yourself a favor and take the journey with Conroy—you won’t regret it.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I’m on an Ann Patchett kick lately. State of Wonder is about Marina Singh, a forty-year-old former nurse who who lives a safe, comfortable life working at a pharmaceutical company in Michigan and nurturing a secret relationship with her older boss.
The company Marina works for has been conducting trials for fertility drugs in the Amazon for over a decade with little to no tangible progress. Esteemed gynecologist Doctor Swenson is at the helm of the project, but her refusal to communicate with her team forces Melinda’s boss to send another employee down to the Amazon to check up on her work. When that employee dies suddenly (don’t worry—this is all on the first page of the novel), Melinda’s boss decides to send her to the Amazon to get answers.
As always, Ann Patchett’s use of language is stunning. With every page you read, you can feel the thick heat of the Amazon close around you, you can taste the moisture in the air, and you can smell the musty, dried blood scent of the clothes people wear.
Beyond the words themselves, the story is riveting in its singular, distinct focus. Through the characters’ behavior and choices, the story presents fascinating moral dilemmas and poses questions about exploitation, entitlement, and ethics in science.
It went by way too quickly and I loved every word.
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
I bought this book from Powell’s bookstore in Portland because it was a recommended staff pick, and I firmly believe the good men and women of Powell’s know what they’re talking about.
I wasn't wrong. The book is a dystopian story about an America of the future where convicted criminals are no longer sent to prison to serve their sentences. Instead, they undergo a process called chroming, where their skin color is genetically altered to match the severity of their crime. Once they’ve been physically changed, they’re sent back out into the world to live their lives as best they can among the shame, humiliation, and stigma that follows them.
Hannah, a sheltered young woman who has grown up wholeheartedly believing the religious indoctrination pushed upon her by her family and society, is guilty of murder and becomes a Red.
The story follows her as she navigates life as an outcast, shunned by her family and society. This book also poses some fascinating moral and religious questions, and really makes you think about the way we as a society treat our fellow humans—whether convicted criminals or not.
It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but I really enjoyed it. Hannah’s growth and development as a character is reason enough to read it—her thoughts on religion, forgiveness, and self-worth are insightful and relatable.
If you were a fan of the Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies, you’ll definitely be a fan of this.