How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Every year, in the thick of August, I stumble on a beautiful book that completely matches my mood. It happened again with Conversations with Friends, a perfect book that I’m going to do a disservice to by describing it as Millennial Discontent. It takes place in Ireland, though, so it doesn’t have the insufferability of A Sad Story About American Hipsters. Frances and Bobbi dated in high school and have remained besties who still create performance art together. After a show, they’re approached by Melissa, a well-known artist who invites them back to her home for a nightcap, then later into her life. Bobbi and Melissa develop a flirtation and, on the sidelines, Frances and Nick, Melissa’s actor husband, begin a strange and super-modern affair that includes wives who suspect and don’t necessarily dissuade, e-communications gone wrong, very personal approaches to making marriage work, and sneaky liaisons in back bedrooms that seem destined to be busted. Meanwhile, the dynamics in the foursome tilt and Bobbi and Frances struggle to readjust and nothing gold can stay. This book is amazing.

Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer
It’s been so long since I discovered a writer I dig on a personal level — a woman I didn’t know about who is living, sharing planet space, making sentences, raising kids, and perfecting yoga poses. Claire Dederer, essayist, is enough like me to make me want to read EVERYTHING and enough not like me to leave room for me to nod along with or frown and think, “Hmm.” I adore her.

It started with Love and Trouble, a collection of self-reflection she approaches with the curiosity of a detective. She examines old diaries to piece together her sexual past, which includes an unsettling encounter when she’s 13 with an older asshole, her teen years in Seattle, and what it felt like to have an emotional fling with another writer. Some pieces read like writing exercises, a sort of street map to her life and an open letter to Roman Polanski.

Regardless, I closed the book and went straight to the library for a copy of Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, which is essays about the early years of motherhood and more — using her place on the mat as a vehicle to dig deeper.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Aw, man. What a great story. The catalogue image of suburban America and a philosophical head-butting: Should the Asian baby, left behind at a local fire station, be adopted by the white couple who have struggled for eons to conceive or should she be returned to her birth mother, who dropped her off in a moment of postpartum gunk. Meanwhile, teens are teens and do quaint — and not so — teen things, abortion, girlfriend stealing, pyromania. A slice of life in slightly retro Shaker Heights.

Swimming with Elephants by Sarah Bamford Seidelmann
Where to begin. Where. To. Begin. This memoir chronicles Seidelmann’s growing discontent as a pathologist, and the route she takes to become a shamanic healer — while following words of wisdom from an otherworldly cast of animals like Mama Bear and Alice, a festively dressed elephant. She meets them while she’s in a trance-like state that she achieves by listening to shamanic drumming on her headphones, but she can find rocks to talk to her in the woods, too.

I love this book. It’s full of great ideas about reinvention, bravery, and chasing happiness and fulfillment. It’s also quirky, earnest, honest. Plus, if you ever meet Seidelmann, you’ll swear the sun shines directly onto her face at all times.

The Hot Oneby Carolyn Murnick
This is so in my wheelhouse, but. The author and Ashley Ellerin were best friends back in their school days, but eventually drifted apart. Murnick moved to New York City, successfully moving into a writing career; Ellerin moved to Los Angeles, where the party girl — who spent weekends as a stripper in Vegas,  settled into the fringe of celebrity culture. Most famously, she dated Ashton Kutcher. After Ellerin is murdered by a serial killer, Murdick immerses herself in the case and considers how she and her old friend landed where they did. The book is a little uneven. Murnick is working with a fascinating story that has the added appeal of the Celeb Lore that Kutcher was supposed to meet up with Ellerin the night she died, but she didn’t answer the door. When he peeked through the window and saw the bloodied carpeting, he assumed it was a red wine spill. But the introspection is repetitious and a truth-seeking trip to the West Coast to meet up with an old friend who had a one nighter with Ellerin seems like a fool’s errand and takes up too much space. Once the trial starts, Murnick hits her stride and the book becomes what it should have been all along.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
The thing that most interested me about this book was its complete nowness. It touched on a lot buzz topics: changes in sexual expectations in a time of easy-access to porn, empty nest reinvention, gender fluidity, what it’s like to be an entitled asshole from a little pond now thrust into a bigger pond, what it’s like to smart from the realization that you’ve raised an entitled asshole. It’s so now that by the time your eyes roll over it, it will be last week-ian.

Eve is a 40-something divorced woman with a son who is off to a college selected specifically because it’s a party school and he likes to party. In his final moments under her roof, she overhears him saying something sexually derogatory to his exgirlfriend that changes the way she sees him and makes her curious about online sex stuff. She takes a gender studies class at the local community college, kisses a girl, hosts a pretty terrific afterbar.  

This is all so Perrotta, right down to the fact that meatier issues get surface treatment and character development is sacrificed in favor of a swiftly told, almost funny story. What he does well is consider pop culture in a way that is smart, but not smart assy.  

Okay, there was one scene where I threw down the novel, horrified about what could potentially happen in the next scene. I needed to steel myself for reentry.

Joyland by Stephen King
This short, sweet, to-the-point novel by Stephen King has the very easy-obvious backdrop of an amusement park where Devin has taken a summer job — ultimately owning the hated role of park mascot. He develops deep friendships with two coworkers and  becomes obsessed with the age-old, urban legend story of a murder that occurred in the dark corner or a favorite ride. Devin encounters an all-knowing fortune teller, carnie lifers, a dying child with a sixth sense and the boy’s super-hot mama during a summer that wanes into fall. Ultimately his digging makes his life a little dangerous. This book is okay.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Carter and Seth meet in college, the former a rich white kid and the latter a not-so rich white kid, with a single thing in common: an obsession with music. Carter is in search of the perfect sound, unwilling to tolerate anything that falls short of his idea of perfection; Seth wanders around town making recordings of street sounds. One day, during playback, he hears a man singing an old bluesy tune. Carter freaks out, puts it on a record, oldifies it, and invents a name for the artist — Charlie Shaw — and a backstory about discovering the record. Except there is a collector of rarities out there who says that Charlie Shaw *did* exist and, um, how did they get this recording. Then weird junk starts happening, like Carter getting the crap beat out of him and Seth going places that later, seemingly, do not exist. Then, suddenly, we have a ghost story.

This novel starts so vividly and is a total page-turner. Then, suddenly, it’s a real slog and the ending isn’t satisfying at all.

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