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.

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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!

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticTrue story: the other day I was looking at my calendar to see what was up for the week, and I noticed a bright red appointment labeled BOOK CLUB! the next evening. I said to myself, oh, crap, I have book club tomorrow?! and dashed to the shelf to make sure I had even obtained the book. Luckily, I had, and even more luckily, the book is only 129 pages long, so I settled in on the couch with plans to read it in a couple of hours.

Several hours later, I was done, not because the pages were secretly printed in tiny font or because I wanted to savor the words, but because I kept stopping every chapter or so to go do ANYTHING else. Make dinner? Sure! Play an hour or two of video games? Yes, please! Read this book? Ugh, fine, but only because I have book club in less than thirty hours.

It is possible, well, probable, that I came at this book very poorly. If I had read it knowing anything about it, I would have had a better mindset for the unconventional narration style and maybe wouldn’t have been annoyed nearly as much.

See, the book is written in sort of a first-person-plural point of view, but not quite exactly that. The narrator says “we” and “us” all over the place &mash; “We had long black hair”, “We often wondered: would we like them?”, “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto” — but it’s a general, vague, hypothetical “we” instead of a specific one.

And of course there’s a reason for the broadness — the book is telling the general, vague, hypothetical story of Japanese women who came to America as brides in the years before World War II, and the point of view says both, yes, we are all doing different things but our cultural story is the same and yes, we all come from the same place but none of our lives are exactly the same. It’s fascinating and it makes you think about how many details of these women’s lives match your own, and but for happenstance this could be your life. The narrative stretches all the way to the departure of the Japanese for the internment camps, and the last chapter of the book abruptly changes point of view from the hypothetical we of the Japanese wives to the hypothetical we of the mostly white people left behind, and you can see the stark difference that those people didn’t think about how similar their lives were to their neighbors, that they took for granted that this wouldn’t, couldn’t happen to them.

So, fascinating. And sobering, if you’re, like me, a person who too often takes things for granted. But as a work of fiction? Sooooooooooooo boring. Those tiny details take up pages and pages of repetitive sentences and paragraphs and most of my breaks to go do something else came after me shouting, OKAY I GET IT, either in my head or out loud to my husband.

As a book club book, it was equally meh — it’s not a book that lends itself to strong opinions so we (we! augh!) were mostly like, yeah, it’s pretty okay. I think everyone else liked it a little better than I did, although I liked the switch-up in the last chapter more. I did find out during book club that the author has written other books with similar themes but different narrative styles, so we’ll see if I’m curious enough to read more.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a book club book, or as a last-minute read in general, but I do recommend it as a book to read when you want to get your thinky thoughts on and maybe one to get your bookish BFF to read and talk about with you.

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub

Modern LoversIn the spirit of using book club to read things I wouldn’t have already read, I voted against this book for my online book club, saying I’d probably read it anyway. Then I didn’t read it, and then another book club member picked it a few months later, and I was like, well, now this is the book club pick that forces me to read things, so my Book Club Taxonomy (TM) is still intact. Excellent.

This book has so many things going for it. It’s about a group of friends that have known each other since college, who went to college at Oberlin (near where I grew up), who are grownups with practically grownup children who are clinging to their own childhoods in vain, and also there are SECRETS.

I love a good SECRET, and I was quite taken with this book, as well. On the surface, it’s about this group of friends who used to be in a mostly terrible band together, but then the band broke up and one of the members, Lydia, went on to be a mega-star with the band’s one great song before joining the 27 Club. Now Hollywood is making a movie about it but needs the rest of the band to sign off, and although Elizabeth and Zoe are all in, Elizabeth’s now-husband, Andrew, is dragging his feet about it. (Spoiler: because SECRETS.)

As Elizabeth tries to convince Andrew to sign off, we find out that this story is also about Rich People Problems, as all three remaining band members are living comfortably in gentrified Brooklyn off of royalties from their song as well as trust funds and other parental monies. These RPPs take the form of Andrew’s not-gonna-sign-for-the-movie-inspired midlife crisis, which leads to him joining a weird yoga kombucha cult; Zoe maybe possibly finally divorcing her wife, with whom she’s been in a rut for years; and Elizabeth straddling the line between friend and real estate agent while also thinking, if she’s getting a divorce, should I get one, too?

Meanwhile, their high-school children are coming of age for the first time, trying to shed their childhoods rather than hang on to them and getting into mild legal trouble while they’re at it. As you do.

As a person at an age right between this book’s children and adults, I think I may have been in the sweet spot to get hit right in the feels with this novel. The kids’ plot reminded me more or less of my high school days, but especially of the feeling that you’re not the person everyone expects you to be. The adults’ plot goes the other way and gives me future nostalgia for my current happy days, and also gives me more things to tell my husband not to do; i.e., don’t join a yoga cult, don’t forge my signature on legal documents, don’t get bored of me but be so apathetic that you can’t leave me.

Also, and this is something I never say — I loved the epilogue. Instead of “and then all these people did all these things the end”, we get newspaper clippings, which, one, newspapers yay!, and two, I love that the viewpoint of the epilogue is completely disconnected from the very close viewpoint of the rest of the novel. Learn from this, other epilogue writers!

I have already recommended this book to the members of two of my other book clubs (out of four these days, sheesh), and I recommend it highly to you if you are a fan of Rich People Problem books with a slightly silly sensibility.

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

ArcadiaI read this book a couple months ago for book club, but due to scheduling issues I didn’t get a chance to talk about it with them until just a couple weeks ago. I had hoped that our meeting would give me a better understanding of the book or at least an upgrade in emotions from “…meh.”, but sadly, we were all more or less the same amount of baffled by this book.

It seemed promising-ish in the beginning. The book is divided into four parts, and the first two take place in Arcadia, a hippie commune where our protagonist, Bit, lives with his parents. Bit was born in the commune and so sees it as a totally normal existence, but as outsiders we can see that some of what he sees has a very different meaning than he thinks it does. Life on the commune is tough but bearable, and we come to learn why various people have decided to live there and why some decide to leave. It’s an interesting viewpoint to think about, certainly, though the writing to get there makes very slow reading.

Then we move on to the third part, which skips from Bit’s adolescence on the commune at the end of the second part to his adulthood and the disappearance of his wife and how he’s surviving as a single parent and photography professor. It is… just about as boring as it sounds. My book club was in agreement that we would much rather have had the part that Groff skipped over, where Bit is introduced to non-commune life, even if that’s a more obvious way to go, because it at least would have been amusing in some way.

The last part, which takes place in the near future and sees Bit’s parents in their old age, is also a jarring jump in the narrative, and serves only, as far as I can tell, to tell people that ALS is a horrible terrible disease that no one should ever have to live with. Was there more to this part than that? Maybe, but I can’t remember over the awfulness that is ALS and the cuddles that I am requiring of my cats just thinking about this right now. Ugh.

Ugh.

So… yeah. This was a book, it had words, ALS is bad, communes are not utopias, sometimes bad things happen to Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But even though I was not enamored of the plot, I did feel a certain fondness for something in Groff’s writing which makes me interested in checking out her other books, which everyone I’ve talked to about this has assured me are much better.

Recommendation: Yeah, just skip this one totally.

Weekend Shorts: Wayback Machine Edition

So, this summer went kind of insane on me, and I ended up reading a bunch of comics and then not blogging about them. So this post is about things I read, uh, two or more months ago and am just now getting around to writing about. Please forgive me for everything I am about to forget to mention!

Locke & Key, Vols. 2 & 3, “Head Games” and “Crown of Shadows”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key Vol. 2Man, I really do love Locke & Key. The art is amazing, the colors are amazing, the stories are amazing… it’s a complete package.

In Volume 2, our creepy ghostly Bad Guy, Zack, has failed to think about the fact that teachers remember their students, especially when said students show up in the exact same high-school age body decades later. While Zack’s cleaning up that mess, Bode finds a key that literally opens up a person’s head and lets you put things in and take them out. This is useful for both studying for a test and for removing debilitating fear, but of course these benefits don’t come without consequences.

In Volume 3, we get an awesome Bad Guy Spirit Fight to start things off, which, awesome. Then we see Kinsey making some new friends who lead her off to see some weird and dangerous stuff for funsies, and we see that Nina’s alcoholism is both out of control and maybe possibly kind of useful in this strange house. But mostly out of control. Also, even better than the Spirit Fight, we get a creepy-ass Shadow Fight, which is really kind of horrifying if you stop to think about it too long.

I’m going to stop thinking about it right now, and maybe go grab some more of these trades off hoopla. Love!

Giant Days, #13-14, by John Allison and Max Sarin
Giant Days #13After the Great Binge of Spring 2016, it took a while for new issues to show up on hoopla. But when they did, I grabbed them! (Of course, now there are a bunch more and I must go get them all!) Issue #13 is a day in the life of Esther — she’s run away from university back to mum and dad, and although it seems like a great adventure at first, it’s not uni and therefore is the worst. Luckily Susan and Daisy are on the case! Issue #14 covers the college student’s worst nightmare — putting off housing so long that there’s nothing left to find! A mad dash and a secret app may or may not get my favorite girls a home in the end. Can’t stop, won’t stop, loving this series.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThis one’s not a comic, but an audiobook. One of my book-club-mates picked this one out as an easy summer read, which, yes, but after my discovery, uh, seven years ago (so ooooold), that the series doesn’t really hold up to a second reading, I was not terribly excited. Then I discovered that I had the option to have Stephen Fry read the book to me, and I was like, oh, well, that’s all right then.

As I said oh those many years ago, a lot of this book relies on its unexpectedness, so again, it wasn’t really the most exciting re-read. But! If you have the chance to talk about the book with a bunch of people reading it for the first time, it’s totally worth it, even if the book club meeting is just people going, “42! Slartibartfast! Vogon poetry! Fjords!” Also, Stephen Fry.

Sisters in Law, by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in LawIf there’s one genre I read less than historical fiction, it’s nonfiction, and this book club pick is more or less historical nonfiction. Indeed, I was tempted to feign food poisoning and avoid this meeting altogether, but by the time food poisoning would have been a valid excuse, I had already read, finished, and kind of actually liked this book. Best laid plans and all that.

This is a relatively academic work of nonfiction (though not nearly as academic as a previous club pick), and a few members of the club are academic types, so from their comments I will say that if you read a lot of academic nonfiction this one may not be one of your favorites. But as a person whose nonfiction reads are generally limited to awesome pop-science nonfiction (yeah, Mary Roach!), this just seemed… different.

The obvious point of this book is to tell the stories of the first two female Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hirshman does a very quick trip to their childhoods at the beginning of the book, but the meat of the book starts with their respective law school careers. Hirshman talks about the sexism these ladies faced in attending law school only a few years apart, and how difficult it was for both of them (O’Connor more so) to get a foothold in the male-dominated world of law.

Then Hirshman gets to her real point of the book, which is to talk about the myriad legal cases argued and judged by the two women, as lawyers and later justices, that have to do with women’s rights. Hirshman lays out all of the equal-rights cases that Ginsburg helped put before the Court and how the results of those cases generally moved the rights argument forward, and also talks about how each of the ladies and their male counterparts voted and opined on these cases.

Since it’s the Supreme Court we’re talking about here, this actually gets pretty interesting as we see how the various justices vote on cases either with their respective leanings (conservative vs. liberal) or with the influence of justices on the other side. Each case plays into the next and it’s fascinating to see how justices who might not have voted a certain way on a case feel compelled to do so after seeing how other cases have set precedent. (Or, later, how they completely ignore precedent and start rolling back Court decisions, which is nuts.)

Hirshman does a pretty good job of making Supreme Court arguments and decisions accessible to people like me who almost actively avoid politics and history and boring things like that. There are a few places where she brings up a “famous” or “landmark” case and then assumes the reader knows what’s up, but generally there’s enough information to get by.

As I mentioned above, I am a big fan of the pop-science book of the sort where you have to stop reading every few minutes to let the people around you know a cool new fact you just learned. This book doesn’t have many of those cool new facts, but it did, for me, impart a new base of understanding the Court and politics in general, so that’s probably a good thing!

Recommendation: If you know a lot about the Supreme Court and/or O’Connor and Ginsburg, this is probably not the book for you. But for total newbs like me, this is a pretty decent read.