The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina HenrĂ­quez

The Book of Unknown AmericansFor some reason the universe didn’t want me to be able to talk to my book club about this book — we managed to get rained out two weeks in a row and for my neighborhood’s sake I didn’t want to try for a third. I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to talk about it, but then I remembered that I still have you guys! Yay!

This book has so many of the things I love in it, including multiple narrators, gorgeous writing, quirky characters, a peek into a culture I don’t know a lot about, and teens rebelling pretty tamely against their parents. It also has a thing I hate in it, which is plot points that wouldn’t have happened if people would just TALK to each other, but the book recognizes and points out this fact and so I ended up liking even that part!

The narrators here are people in a small Hispanic neighborhood in Delaware. The main characters we meet are from a family that moved to the neighborhood from Mexico so that their brain-damaged daughter could attend a special-needs school that the mother hopes will bring her daughter back to normal, or as normal as possible. We also meet their close neighbors, a family from Panama with a son who at first dislikes but eventually takes an interest in the aforementioned daughter, and a few of the other neighbors from various countries.

The plot focuses on the two kids, Mayor and Maribel, and how Mayor comes to like and then like like Maribel as he gets to know her past her extreme shyness and mental problems. But of course making friends can’t be easy, and both sets of parents end up having issues with the friendship in addition to and as a proxy to the issues they’re having in their own lives.

It’s a hard book to describe without giving a lot away — this is the kind of book that isn’t spoilable, exactly, but in which not knowing things definitely makes the reading more interesting. But trust me that it’s worth the read if you’re looking for a book that will remind you how fallible humans are and that will make you a little bit sad when you’re done with it.

Recommendation: If you like Everything I Never Told You, this is not a terrible way to pass the time until Ng’s next book. (In September! I cannot wait!)

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The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleConfession time: I watched the first two episodes of the Amazon version of this book back when it first came out, and then a few months back I thought I would start it up again, since I’d be reading the book for book club. Ten minutes into the episode, I realized I had pulled up episode three of the second season instead of the first. Ten minutes of watching, just slightly baffled, not sure why the show seemed so off.

As you may guess, that’s kind of how I feel about this book. Part of this is because the book and the show are not the same at all, except for the very basic premise, and part of it is because the book does such weird things with that premise that I could barely keep up with what was going on.

The basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War II, and Germany and Japan have divided up the United States, east and west, respectively.

In the book, we stay on the Japanese side of the States, where lots of things are going on. There’s a guy who sells pre-war American merchandise to wealthy Japanese collectors, and who wants very badly to sell nice things to one couple, and also maybe sleep with the wife? Then there’s another dude who works in a factory that makes counterfeit collectible merchandise, and he leverages his knowledge of that illicit fact to start a business creating fancy post-war American jewelry, which is not in any sort of demand but he hopes it could be. Then there’s yet another dude who is some sort of German spy type fellow who wants to make a deal with some high-powered Japanese, but when his Japanese contact is held up he has to decide between making some potential waves or losing the deal entirely.

Also, meanwhile, in a DMZ area between the two halves of the States, there’s a chick who gets involved with a dude who is a little obsessed with this book that everyone else in this book is also obsessed with, in which that author posits what would have happened in a world where the Allied powers won the war, which is not what actually happened in our world but is not a terrible approximation of what could have happened, I guess? And so they go to meet the author, but weird things happen, and weirder things happen when the woman arrives, and this whole plotline is so strange, I can’t even.

This book, the one I read, is far more interesting academically than entertainingly. I like what Dick does with the ideas of class and race and what it’s like to live as a second-class citizen in what used to be your own dang country. I also like how he uses the I Ching to talk about ideas of destiny versus free will. There’s a lot of thinky thoughts to have while reading this book. But as a story, as something with a beginning and middle and an end and a plot and characters and all that? Eh. It’s all right. It kind of makes me want to go watch the show, which takes a much more story-focused tack from that basic premise, but then I remember those ten minutes and I’m like, eh.

Recommendation: Eh. Unless it’s for book club, in which case there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about and it gets a solid “Yeah.”

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeMy library picked this book for their Big Read title this year, and so of course I picked it for my library book club to read and talk all about!

The discussion turned out kind of awkward, as only two people (neither of them regulars!) came, and one hadn’t read past maybe page ten, but the book itself was pretty darn good and I think had more people come it would have been a decent discussion as well.

The Namesake takes place over about 30 years, following the lives of a Bengali family from Calcutta to Boston to New York and beyond. The three main characters are Ashima, a woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage that will take her from her Calcutta home to far-off Boston but strives to make the best of it; Ashoke, the man Ashima marries who is very happy to be so far from home and who once very nearly died in a train accident; and (mostly) Gogol, their son, who gets his weird name from the author of the book his dad was reading at the time of the accident and who spends all of his life trying to reconcile his Bengali roots and his American upbringing, with more or less predictable results.

“Predictable results?” I hear you saying. “I thought you said this book was pretty darn good.”

Well, yes. The plot, what little there is, is pretty standard. Immigrant parents have American kid, he rebels against his parents’ values and goals for him, he has a series of relationships (some ill-advised), at the end of the book he has more respect for his parents and their lives than he previously had.

But! The characters are super interesting, Gogol foremost to me because he follows a similar path with his name as I did, shunning the name he grew up with to choose his own name and create his own identity. I was going to say I never went so far as to legally change my name and then I remembered that in fact, I got married and changed my last name, so. I am fully on board with the story of how a person’s name impacts their life.

And it’s a fascinating topic in this book, especially, as Gogol’s name comes out of a Bengali naming tradition that I can’t quite wrap my head around, which is that a person gets a “good name”, like Ashima, to put on birth certificates and passports and school papers and whatnot, and a “pet name”, like Monu, that everyone who actually knows you calls you. In this book, Gogol is meant to be a pet name, but Gogol’s parents take too long coming up with an acceptable good name and they, and he, end up stuck with this one, at least until Gogol turns 18 and can fix it himself.

But back to the characters — I love Gogol’s parents, too, who could easily have been left out in favor of Gogol’s story, but whom we see adapting in their own ways to American life and carving out a semblance of home with the apparently fairly large Bengali community in eastern Massachusetts. Ashoke’s train accident story and his reticence to share it with his son rings very true, as does Ashima’s propensity for feeding too much food to family, friends, and strangers.

Also delightful is Lahiri’s writing, which isn’t beautiful in the “here, look at this particular sentence and adore it” sort of way, but which, when all those sentences combine, is a subtly descriptive and engaging sort of writing that I just fall for every time. If Lahiri’s writing were a voice, I would probably listen to that voice read the phone book, as they say. Is there a better analogy for that? I bet there is, and I bet Lahiri could tell me what it is.

I’d read and loved Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” in some collection I can’t even remember ages and ages ago, but somehow never read any more of her work until this book. This vast oversight is going on my “Vast Oversights to Rectify in the Soon-Time” list, for sure.

Recommendation: To read when you’re looking for a quiet family story, or if you want to think to hard about what life would be like if your parents had just named you something different.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Arrival (Stories of Your Life and Others)My husband and I went to see Arrival a few months back, and it was so much more awesome than we had anticipated it would be that we started telling all our friends to go see it so we could talk about how awesome it is. Have you seen it? GO SEE IT.

So when, shortly thereafter, it was my turn to pick a book for my online book club, a little lightbulb went off over my head and I picked the short story collection that contains the story that inspired Arrival, “Story of Your Life”. Now I could have some guaranteed people to talk about the story with!

What I didn’t expect was how fascinating the whole collection would be, and how full of science! So much science. And math. And more science. And a little bit of philosophy. And then more science.

So let’s take these stories one at a time. Warning: Ridiculously long post ahead! It’s so long, in fact that I’m going to put my usual end-of-post recommendation up here: READ THIS BOOK. Do it.

Now, the stories!

“Tower of Babylon”
I wasn’t super sure about this story, or the whole book, when I started it. People climbing a tower to get to heaven? Pretty sure I’ve heard that one before. (Note this sentence, as it is a refrain throughout the collection.) But the description of the tower, the journey upward, the idea of people living miles up in the air their entire lives and never knowing the ground… wow. And then when our party reaches the top, and we find out just what is waiting for them at the edge of heaven… totally not what I was expecting. I was way more excited for the rest of the collection after finishing this first story.

“Understand”
Remember that sentence I told you to note? Yep, here it is again. As I started this story, of a man who takes some pills as part of a medical experiment and becomes very very smart very very quickly, I was like, all right, Flowers for Algernon. Let me go get some tissues for the inevitable… wait. Where is this going? Is this a thriller now? How the hell smart can one dude get? IS THERE ANOTHER DUDE OMG. Again, not what I was expecting, and again, super interesting.

“Division By Zero”
This story was a bit harder to read, as it is a little more experimental and abstract in its narrative, but the core concept is still brain-breaking. In this one, a mathematician discovers the terrifying fact that mathematics might not actually work, while meanwhile her husband discovers the terrifying fact that their marriage might not actually work. Sad on multiple levels, this one, if you like yourself some math.

“Story of Your Life”
The big story! The reason for reading this book! And it is just as good as the movie, if you’re of a scientific bent. The movie is definitely more exciting and fast-paced and has higher stakes, but the story, as quiet as it is, explores the same themes of SPOILER FOR THE MOVIE OH NO. I found the story more interesting in that what the movie turns into a twist is made obvious from the beginning of the story, which, when you read the story and see some fancy diagrams, is a weirdly totally meta way of doing the movie, brain explosion! Aah! I don’t want to spoil the story or the movie for you, whichever you happen to consume first, but know that I’m here for you to discuss all the feels you might have about either.

“Seventy-Two Letters”
This was a friend’s favorite story of the collection, due to its lesser focus on math and physics and greater emphasis on the philosophical. Here we have a world where people build golems to take on menial tasks, and a bright young man with aspirations for the lower classes seeks to find just the right word to make golems that will automate enough slightly-less-menial tasks to improve the lives of everyone. Of course, some see his ideas as Taking Our Jobs (TM) and others see them as a way to improve the lives of only the rich, and our fellow gets caught up in politics instead of science, which is never fun.

“The Evolution of Human Science”
A story so short that my book club mates forgot its existence! This three-page story is very short but it still posits a fascinating future world where humans don’t really do science anymore, which, sad face. And, read in the context of this collection, it harkens back, intentionally or not, to “Understand”, which fills in some blanks quite nicely.

“Hell is the Absence of God”
I think this was my favorite story of the collection — it might be tied with “Story of Your Life” but it’s hard to say, since I sort of already knew the latter story. But as a brand-new story, this one was sooooo good. In the world of this story, everyone knows that God is real because His angels show up every once in a while to… I don’t know what their actual purpose is, but the result is that they wreak havoc and kill some people and the remaining living can see whether those souls go up to Heaven or down to Hell. It is also known that Hell is simply, as the title says, the absence of God, as sometimes portals open up and people can see into Hell and it’s just basically like living on Earth except you’re dead. This story covers the lives of a few different people, but the main character is a fellow who loses his wife to Heaven during one of these visitations and is faced with a serious quandary. He wants to be with his wife, but he’s not devout, and only the devout go to heaven. He has the rest of his life to become devout, but are you really devout if you only become so to fulfill a selfish need? Bonus: Try reading this story while also watching The Good Place. You’re welcome.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”
This is another story with an offbeat narrative, this time in the form of the narrative of a documentary film. Said film follows the story of a college campus that wants to make required the process of calliagnosia, a sort of induced beauty-blindness in the brain. People with “calli” see faces just fine but couldn’t tell you if they’re beautiful or ugly or anywhere in between. The documentary crew talks primarily to a woman who has had calli all her life and who is against its requirement so much that she has it turned off and starts to experience the world in an interesting new way. Between this woman and the other characters, the story explores the implications of beauty and a lack of beauty and how people are perceived, and also the concept of what happens when we let people define other people’s behavior, even when it seems to be in everyone’s best interest. The story was written a little earlier than the trigger warning zeitgeist, but it could easily have been written during it. This piece is interesting in itself, but what I find most intriguing is that Chiang turned down a Hugo nomination for it, saying that it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted it to. I want to know how it might have turned out had he had more time!

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

ElantrisHoly cow, has it really been eight years since I first read this book? It was definitely long overdue for this re-read, and this time I got to make a bunch of other people read it for book club! I love this power.

Eight years ago I was taken in by the first sentence — “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” This year? Same. Is that not a great sentence? Is Brandon Sanderson not a master of sentences? Ugh, so good.

I’ve explained the story pretty well in my first post about this book, so I’ll let that all stand and talk about how this holds up to a re-read. Spoiler: pretty well!

It turns out that I retained only the vaguest of details about the book, except for the one big reveal about why Elantris’s magic stopped working, so it was pretty much like reading the book for the first time. Except, of course, that I am a different person now, and so the constant sexism toward women, and, conversely, the Sarene’s constant commentary on the backwardness of Arelon rankled. Did Sarene have to be an underestimated and ignored component of Arelon society to achieve the books results? Probably not! Also, I’m not not a fan of stories where the characters are witty and smart and have answers for every problem thrown their way (see: everything Sanderson and John Scalzi have ever written), but it becomes tiresome after 600 pages to keep reading things like, and then Sarene was witty and smart and had all the answers, and so did Raoden, and then Hrathen used this against them, but it’s cool, Sarene and Raoden just invented better answers.

That aside, the plot is still really well done and the ideas of government as rule by the wealthy or rule by religion are almost creepily relevant today. I found myself drawing more than a few parallels between the power-hungry characters of the book and certain political figures who have recently come to power. Oh, politics. You never change.

I also still love the world that Sanderson built for this story, with its weird magic Aons and familiar world religions and strangely small footprint on what I presume is the Earth. Sanderson has written a couple of other stories meant to take place in the same world, but what I really need is a book about Dreok Crushthroat and maybe one about Fjordell before Wyrn Wulfden.

Probably the thing I liked least about this re-read, and this is a really weird thing, is that my husband listened to the book while I eyes-read it and it turns out that all of the proper nouns in the book are pronounced VERY DIFFERENTLY from how I think they should be pronounced. I would hear Scott listening to the book and be like, who the heck is Ay-hane? Oh, Ahan. And See-in-ay-len? Oh, Seinalen. Darn your vowels, Sanderson!

But hey, if you eyes-read it, you can do like my book club mate and just give everyone names like Bob and George and not even worry about it!

Recommendation: Totally worth a read, especially if you need a book where the good guys win. (Spoiler?)