If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself winding between the narrow shelves of used book stores, snapping up worn paperbacks that catch your eye and coughing from their dust. If you’re anything like me, you start more novels than you finish. You read multiple books at once. You stack them beside your bed and carry them on the train with the vain hope that this time, this time, you’ll finally read it all the way through. I began my summer with the goal–not to read more, but to finish more–and read cover to cover a few novels I failed to complete on their first round off the shelf.
This is what I have finished lately.
1. Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews
This is a paperback I picked up a few years ago at the Amherst Bookstore in Amherst, Mass. My copy is tattered from years spent in backpacks, water warped from the bath and dog eared from my many attempts to finish. I kept coming back to it. Something about the gloomy grays on the cover spoke to me.
This novel is a historical fiction that casts a young John F. Kennedy as a spy for President Roosevelt in Europe at the dawn of WWII. It is equal parts mystery and thriller with a vibe that transports you to gloomy city streets in pre-war Europe. I loved it, you’ll love it, check it out.
2. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
If you thought it was impossible to inject humor into cremation, you were wrong. At the very least, you will walk away from this novel gung-ho for a revolution in the way we consider and struggle with the fear of dying. This is the memoir of mortician Caitlin Doughty who also amassed a large audience for similar death-related content on her YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” (including me!). Her YouTube channel, her book, and several college courses about death have radically diminished my anxiety about dying, which I’ve written about on the blog many times before. This novel is dark, funny and full of interesting corpses that satisfy your morbid curiosity about the rather mundane end event that comes for us all.
3. The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’m a sucker for the 1920s. The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald is as much a portrait of the roaring Jazz Age of New York as it is a portrait of the doomed aristocrats Anthony and Gloria Patch. The relationship between Anthony and Gloria was inspired in part by Fitzgerald’s own relationship with his celebrity wife Zelda. Their fall from golden heights reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. The characters feel raw, honest and real in a way that resonates nearly a century later. If you liked The Great Gatsby, this is something for you.
4. Z a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
I simply cannot get enough Zelda in my life. Admittedly, I am still in the process of reading this book but I highly recommend it to you. See if you can finish it before I do. This book is not quite a biography of Scott Fitzgerald’s famous wife Zelda whose very public and rather tragic life inspired many of the women in his novels. Rather, this novel is a portrait of the evolving relationship between the pair who struggle with the exposure and unsustainability of celebrity life. Fowler creates a Zelda that is electric and dizzyingly complex. You can practically see the Hollywood lights, bubbles of champagne, and despair.