Run, by Ann Patchett

RunI’ve had Ann Patchett on my list of authors to get around to for some time now, so I’m very glad my book club chose this book and gave me that push to actually do so. But now I think I have to put her on my list of authors to give another shot, because this book? Didn’t really do it for me.

It’s a weird book to try to talk about (note to book clubs: does not make a great meeting), because while I read it eagerly over the course of four hours or so, I managed to come away with no strong feelings about it.

The plot is… weird. It centers on this wealthy political family in Boston with a dad and three sons, two of whom are adopted and black in an otherwise very white family. The dad dotes on the adopted sons; the biological son is kind of a screwup. Then the dad and the two adopted sons go to a Jesse Jackson event and afterward one of the sons is very nearly killed by a car except that he gets pushed out of the way at the last moment… by his biological mother.

Now, that sounds really cool, I think, but the book does not do the cool things with it that I would have wanted. The mother stays mostly unconscious in the hospital for the duration of the book, so we don’t get terribly much from her except for a strange interlude where she talks to her dead best friend. Instead we focus on the mother’s daughter, who knows that the brothers are her brothers and has apparently been keeping an eye on them with her mother all her life and is now being taken care of by this family that apparently didn’t have enough issues already.

The book does some interesting things. It opens with this fantastic story about a statue that I probably could have read an entire novel about. I can see it doing cool things with repetition and layered meanings. It talks about race, class, family dynamics, how our choices affect other people, all that good stuff. But for all the talking it does, I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.

In our book club meeting, my friend who picked the book mentioned that this book reads a lot like a fairy tale, with allegories and magical realism and things that just don’t make sense if you’re trying to read this as a straightforward novel. Unfortunately, the allegories of the book are largely political, calling to mind to my friends the Kennedys and other politicians and their various scandals, but my understanding of these references ended at knowing that Ted Kennedy was a person, so.

So onto the list of authors to try again Patchett goes. Maybe if I can read her awesome writing with some references that I understand, I’ll do a lot better!

Recommendation: For people who know politics, probably, and people interested in some weirdly twisty plot lines.

Rating: 6/10

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunI know I say this a lot, but I am so thankful for my book club for introducing me to fascinating historical novels that I would never otherwise read. I am getting a bit better, though — I knew well before picking this book up that I was going to have to miss my book club meeting, but I had already checked it out of the library and I figured I might as well read it anyway, since it was there…

And I was mostly not disappointed, though I liked different parts of this novel than I was expecting to when I started it.

Half of a Yellow Sun covers the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, during which a small but significant part of the country broke off and became the country of Biafra. As usual, this is something I never learned in history class, so I was glad to have this book around to educate me on the many forces at play in Nigeria at the time, from fading British rule to Nigerian nationalism to religious and cultural clashes to anti-education sentiment and so on.

The main characters are Ugwu, a young servant boy who leaves a small town to work for a university professor; Olanna, the lover and then wife of said professor, whose family is quite important but who won’t leave her new home and family for safety when the fighting starts; and Richard, a British transplant in love with Olanna’s twin sister who adopts Biafra as his home but who has to straddle the political and cultural lines very carefully.

At first I was really intrigued by the characters, but as the book went on I almost felt like their actions and emotions were getting in the way of the real story of Biafra and the vagaries of war. These are serious vagaries, too, ranging from characters having to beg for food or to move house due to the whims of officials to random attacks on towns and buildings to a woman carrying around a severed head. It is so heartbreaking to read about the bad things that happen in war when there’s so much war going on right now, and so those boring character things like infidelity and depression fall completely off my radar.

I didn’t get 100 percent behind the war parts either, though, as much of Adichie’s plot relies on some very predictable turns and some moderately unbelievable ones as well. But most of it was solid and the history lesson was well appreciated, so overall I think this book is a win. It maybe could have been 100 pages shorter, but Adichie writes lovely enough sentences that even those pages are worth a read.

Recommendation: For history nerds and avoiders alike with lots of hours to spare.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Circuses and Villains

If we were playing Smash Up, my husband’s favorite genre-mashing card game, today’s post would be holding its own with the Steampunk and Shapeshifter factions. It would probably lose to me playing the Tabletop faction with anything else (man, is that deck overpowered), but it would do all right. And you will do all right to read either of these lovely stories, whether you understood any part of those first two sentences or not!

Dream Eater’s Carnival, by Leslie Anderson and David T. Allen
Dream Eater's CarnivalI was thrilled by this pick for my online book club because a) it was tiny and b) it was on the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library so I could get it for free! I’m always a fan of free. I was hesitant about it because it’s a quasi-steampunk-fantasy-ish story and that’s just generally not my jam.

But you know what is my jam? Circuses, apparently. After a brief fantasy-grade backstory with, like, a church and an involuntary student and some amber that does stuff or whatever, said student, Leisl, runs off to join a travelling circus and it is the awesomest. This circus is, like, literally a travelling circus, in that all of the buildings are built on wheels and as it travels the members go to visit each other by hopping from one precarious perch to another. So cool! But behind that delightful circusy surface, of course, lies danger and intrigue, as the circus may not be exactly what it seems…

This story serves as a sort of prequel to a full-length novel coming out… soon?… from the same authors, so it ends up a bit packed full of tidbits that don’t make a lot of sense because I presume they’ll be explained later, but the atmosphere of the book is so fantastic that I will probably check out that novel whenever it arrives.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
NimonaIf you run in the same internet circles I do, you have been bombarded by the exclamation “NIMONAAAA!” for the last approximately ever. I finally got the book into my library recently, checked it out, and read it on a quiet vacation Saturday. And it was wonderful.

Nimona is, unsurprisingly, about a girl called Nimona, who shows up at the lair of an evil villain and basically bullies her way into being his sidekick. He’s hesitant at first about her literal take-no-prisoners attitude and propensity for rushing headlong into danger without even a plan, but she wins him over with her awesome shapeshifter abilities and general adorableness. As the story progresses, you get to find out more about both Nimona’s and the villain’s backstories and the weird world that they live in that allows for things like evil villains in the first place. It’s alternately hilarious, depressing, and intriguing. Also, the art is amazing, with this neat sort of active line style that makes it seem like Nimona’s just constantly bathed in caffeine while everyone else is practically statuesque.

It was a super fun time and while I’m not quite shouting “NIMONAAAA!” from the rooftops, you should definitely check it out if you like neat, moderately subversive fantasy stories.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsIt’s no secret that I love me some Sarah Waters, so when my dear friend Amy picked this book for our book club I was super excited. I looked at the high page count, figured it would take me about two weeks to read it on breaks at work, and started it at the appropriate time.

And then I finished it in one week, on breaks at work, and I was like, oh no, what am I going to do for a WHOLE WEEK while I wait for book club? Thank goodness there are other books in the world!

So yes, it seems like a long book, but it’s a super quick read, at least once it gets going. We start by meeting our protagonist, a Miss Wray, who lives with her mother in England in 1922. The war having taken the rest of their family in one way or another, the Wrays are a bit down on their luck and so have decided to let out most of their upstairs floor to lodgers, or, if we’re being polite, “paying guests.” What a strange way of being polite.

Anyway, said guests, the Barbers are a young married couple who don’t terribly much like each other but what are you gonna do in England in 1922 except stay unhappily married? Well, if you’re a lady in a Sarah Waters book (spoiler? Probably not…) you are going to have a love affair with your lady landlord. A very sexy love affair. Which I read on breaks at work. I rather recommend against that…

Miss Wray and Mrs. Barber spend most of the book sneaking off and having assignations and generally having fun, but then, because again, Sarah Waters, things go terribly horribly wrong and the tone of the book becomes completely different and I kind of actually liked this part of the book better because it had more semblance of plot and excitement but really the whole thing is super great.

I love the way Waters plays with her characters, making them seem sort of one-note at first but then delving slowly into the backstories that have brought them to this place in the novel. I also love how well she sets her scenes; I felt throughout the novel like I knew exactly how the house was set up and where everyone was at a given time so I knew just how worried to be about the things that were happening in one room or another. And, of course, I enjoyed the sneaky history lessons I got here with respect to post-war sentiment, being a lesbian at that time, the English legal system, and especially class structures and conflicts.

There is a lot going on in this book, is what I’m saying, and it’s lovely and wonderful and you should probably go read this immediately. But not at work. It’s weird at work.

Recommendation: For fans of Sarah Waters, lesbian love affairs, and gorgeous writing.

Rating: 9/10

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were BirdsI picked this book for my book club to read because the internets had told me great things about it, and the conceit as explained to me was fascinating: Williams’s mother died and left Williams all her journals, of which there were many and of which all turned out to be completely blank. That’s crazy, right? Who keeps a bunch of blank journals? I needed to know more.

But it turns out there isn’t anything more to know. Williams has no idea why the journals were blank, and doesn’t really postulate on it at all. Instead, she gives us 54 odd, practically stream-of-consciousness essays on “voice” or lack of it, drawn from her own life and only rarely touching on her mother’s. Which is fine. But it’s not what I thought I was getting into.

To be fair, I can see what Williams is doing with these essays. She’s describing situations where her own voice or general idea of power come into play, times when she was as silent as her mother’s journals and times where she used her voice and power to leave some metaphorical journal entries. Some of the vignettes are completely self-contained, but some require background information that we never get — blank pages in the journal that is this book. All we can really know about a person is what they tell us, and sometimes they tell us nothing.

I get it. But I didn’t like it. I needed more. It felt like reading The Year of Magical Thinking with another book club, where all the people who actually knew who Joan Didion was were like, this book is amazing, and the rest of us were like, so, that happened. I don’t know anything about Williams, but based on the little information I got she sounds like a pretty interesting person, and I bet that if I had known she was a quasi-famous author and environmentalist and especially if I had read her memoir I would have been better placed to read this book.

Sorry, book club. I’ll do better next time.

Recommendation: For people who know anything about Terry Tempest Williams or people who can enjoy the conceit of a book without thinking too hard about the content.

Rating: 4/10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis is kind of a difficult book to talk about, as I and my fellow book clubbers quickly found out when we sat down to talk about it. But it’s the good kind of tough to talk about, where all the stuff you want to talk about is, like, “Look what the author did here! Isn’t that cool?”

Cool thing number one: The core part of the narrative takes place over a five-day span in 2004, telling the story of a young Chechen girl whose dad is disappeared by Russian soldiers and whose neighbor takes it upon himself to find her a safe place to stay before the soldiers come back for her. Havaa, the girl, and Akhmed, the neighbor, make their way to the place Akhmed thinks is most safe — a hospital run by a doctor whose name Akhmed once came across. That doesn’t sound terribly safe to me, but we soon find out that this situation is the least of everyone’s worries.

Cool thing number two: In between pieces of the main narrative, the author jumps back to various points between 1994 and 2004 to talk about the history of the characters, of Chechnya in general, and of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia. He puts in just enough information that you understand why things like the Landfill exist and are so awful, but not so much that it feels like a history lesson. There were a couple of times I found myself reaching to Google to, say, remember where Chechnya is in the first place, but that was more because I was curious and had Google at hand than because of any confusion.

Cool thing number three: The author leaves the narrative at points to remark on things that the characters don’t yet or can’t possibly know, like what their parents felt about certain things or what will happen to them in the future. Sometimes these bits help put events in perspective, and sometimes they help to show how this limited narrative fits into the larger world. Either way, they prevent a terrible horrible epilogue and I am indebted to the author for that.

Other cool things: The characters are all “real” in that none of them are entirely good or entirely bad, even the ones who are really really super bad. Almost all of the characters interact at some point during the novel, but none of these interactions ever seem forced. There is, in my copy at least, a little Q&A with the author that is one of the few actually interesting Q&A’s I’ve seen.

I said when I got to book club that I thought the novel was really good, really well written, but that I wasn’t sure if I could say that I liked it, exactly, what with all the bleakness and desolation. That may still be the case; I’m not ready to go out and buy a copy to foist on anyone. But I do think it’s fantastically written, and I will be talking it up to other book nerds.

Recommendation: For book nerds of the sort who like a well plotted, tightly woven novel. Also people who want some sneak attack history.

Rating: 9/10

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

The UncouplingYou guys, I was so excited when a fellow book clubber announced this book as her pick. I had heard nothing but great things about The Uncoupling and about Wolitzer’s work in general, but had just never gotten around to reading any of it.

And I think I may have to just pretend that that’s still true in case I ever want to read another Wolitzer, because this book… uggggh.

I was not alone in this — I don’t think anyone in my book club actually liked this book. It was a quick and easy read, and the words themselves were perfectly nice, but the way they came together into a story absolutely did not work for our group of late-twenty-something females. Clearly we were not the target audience.

What happens in this novel is that a high school drama teacher picks Lysistrata for the school play and over the next couple of months leading up to the performance, a literal cold wind sweeps through town and causes the ladies to stop wanting their men. No sex, no cuddles, no intimacy if there’s a penis involved. The novel looks at all the different relationships in the town, from rock-solid marriages to rocky marriages to benefits-only relationships to high school romances, and shows us what happens when the women stop wanting the men.

And that’s a solid premise, which is part of why my friends and I were so upset at how the premise played out. Note: It’s pretty much complaints from here on out.

One big problem that I had was, simply, why. At the end you find out that this spell has been cast more or less purposely and for the purpose of strengthening relationships, but more than one relationships seems to be worse to me after the spell. And, okay, so, that’s on the spell caster and her weird priorities and maybe Wolitzer’s not saying that withholding sex is a winning relationship strategy, but she’s not not saying that either.

Another problem I had was, like, the core concept. In Lysistrata the women withhold sex for a reason, but in The Uncoupling it is withheld from them just as much as from the men. The men go a bit silly without their sex, and it seems like we’re meant to think that men can’t survive without sex or whatever, but it’s notable that none of them (that we see, anyway) leave their wives or girlfriends of their own volition. They’re all trying to fix their relationships, which from their perspective (I assume; we don’t actually get a male perspective) have been suddenly and irrevocably changed for no apparent reason. That would make me a little crazy, too.

It would be great if that were part of a nuanced story, but there’s an official publisher discussion question that reads, “Dory and Robby seem to be the perfect couple at the start of the book. How does the author signal that there might be problems beneath the surface?” She signals it by creating a giant problem beneath the surface! Come on!

So I just can’t even with the plot, is what I’m saying, and outside of main couple I didn’t particularly care about what happened to any of the characters. The sentences that made up the story were well written, and there was enough good in that to keep me reading and the book in one piece, but the ending was so completely unsatisfying that making it to the end wasn’t even consolation!

But the woman who picked this book assured us that at least Wolitzer’s The Interestings was completely different than this book, so there’s hope that Wolitzer and I can be reconciled and that I can figure out what all the hullabaloo is about. Just not anytime soon.

Recommendation: For… fans of Lysistrata? Women who are considering sex strikes? Other… people…?

Rating: 4/10

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

City of BohaneFile this one under: Books I would never have gotten past page five of except that they were being read for book club.

Also file under: Books I don’t really understand why anyone would bother to read past page five of.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. It’s just that on the Style-Plot-Character triangle, I tend to be swayed toward plot and character, and this book is like 99 percent style. Check this opening paragraph:

“Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.”

That’s not just some fancy opening. That’s the style of every paragraph of this book. Usually I’m reading on my lunch break and trying to figure out how to squeeze in two extra minutes to get to the end of a chapter when I’m reading, but with this one I found myself stopping early and giving my brain a rest with games on my phone. The book is flowery and dense and all about that dark, gritty atmosphere, and it just wasn’t for me.

Usually I try to lead with what the book is about, but I really just don’t know in this case. There’s this dude, like, and he’s the head of the mob equivalent (the Fancy) in Bohane, and he’s got this wife, and there’s this other dude who used to date said wife and also I guess run the town and now he’s back in town after 25 years and everyone’s freaking out? But as I said, there’s not much plot to the book and what it’s really about is getting into various characters’ heads and getting a sense of this city of Bohane and, I don’t know, stuff.

And that’s fine, as it goes. I’ve certainly read and at least appreciated books that are mostly style (see: Flavia and also Jasper Fforde’s entire oeuvre). But what was really weird about this book was that when I got to book club, there were discussion questions that put a heck of a lot more thought into the book than I did. Questions looking at motivations and reasons for settings and actions that I probably couldn’t answer even if I read the book again looking for those answers. So I don’t know what is going on here.

Barry mentions in his afterword (see that link above) that one of his influences for this novel is Cormac McCarthy, which makes a lot of sense as I literally did not get past page five of The Road even though that one was a book club book as well. But I know a lot of people who loved that book, so obviously I am the problem here and you should not discount this book just because I didn’t like it. Unless you dislike similar things. Then you should probably listen to me.

Recommendation: For people who LOVE style and grit. (Not me.)

Rating: 5/10

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your NameLet me get this out of the way right now: the best part of this book is that it took me just two hours to read. The worst part? Everything else.

Is that fair? Maybe not; my fellow book clubbers seemed to actually like the book, so clearly your mileage may vary. But I really disliked this book, from the awful main character to the impressively contrived “plot” to the eye-roll-inducing ending.

See, there’s this woman, Clarissa, whose mother skipped out on the family when Clarissa was a teen and whose father has just died. In the process of cleaning up her dad’s house, Clarissa sees her birth certificate for the first time and is like, hey, that’s not my dad’s name, what gives? And her fiancé is like, oh, sweetie, that’s terrible, bee tee dubs, I’ve known this for like fifteen years, no big. Understandably, Clarissa is pretty upset; less understandably, she decides to fly to Scandinavia to meet her “real” father without telling anyone.

As you might guess, this does not go as well as maybe she anticipated it would, but it gets worse when it turns out (and this is not really a spoiler as it is heavily implied beforehand) that this guy isn’t her father either, and Clarissa ends up drifting around Lapland, hoping to find herself.

I’m reading what I just wrote, and I’m like, huh, that story sounds pretty good, actually. And it could have been, but then shortly after what I just described things get really awfully convenient for Clarissa and she finds, well, a heck of a lot more family than she expected to, and in the oddest of places, and under incredibly unlikely circumstances (such as booking a room in the Ice Hotel on opening day because they accidentally built extra rooms and somehow didn’t sell them, because that makes total sense). Even worse is that the narrative is first person and apparently Clarissa is the kind of person who enjoys making droll witticisms except she’s really not very good at it and so the story ends up getting across some important points in a really clunky manner.

I’ll allow that the ending does give me a bit of food for thought; the moral that Clarissa seems to impart is that running away from your problems is a totally viable way of moving on and leading a happy life, though it is obvious from the entire rest of the story as told by Clarissa that that’s kind of a jerk move. Which is true? Should you live your life for you or for the people that love you? It’s an interesting question.

I don’t know what could have made me like this book better. Third-person narrative? A longer timeframe for the story? Fewer “coincidences”? A completely different author and book? Probably that one. I’m just glad it’s over.

Recommendation: For fans of unlikeable characters, stilted writing, and plot contrivances.

Rating: 3/10

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

The Good Lord BirdI don’t know what it says about me that every time my book club picks a historical novel, I finish the book and am like, wow, I learned things and am interested in learning more, but then my book club picks another historical novel and I am like, ugh, not this history crap again. I need to have more faith in my friends, is probably what it says.

I was so against reading this book that I was kind of happy to miss my first meeting due to honeymoonaversary, but then everyone else had to push back the time so much that I found myself reading it instead of all the funner things I had loaded on my Kindle. And for the first lots and lots of pages I was mentally rehearsing my litany of complaints to start off book club — why is the whole darn book written in dialect, what the heck is wrong with basically everyone in this novel, is there supposed to be a plot, I feel like I would like this book a heck of a lot better if I had paid attention in history class.

And, I mean, for the most part those are still valid complaints. Dialect sucks, there’s not a strong plot (but there’s not supposed to be), and after looking up Harper’s Ferry I know that I missed a lot of interesting pieces. But, once I really got into the story, I was interested to see where it would go and what all these crazy people would do.

The frame of the story is that it’s the written account of an oral account of a dude what pretended to be a girl when John Brown “rescued” him from slavery, called him Onion, and made Onion part of his sort of entourage. Onion (I can’t for the life of me remember his real name) gives the reader a sort of behind-the-scenes look at John Brown and his scheming and planning up through the infamous Harpers Ferry

That fine and all, but it gets way better when you realize that McBride’s John Brown is prooooobably not actually anything like the real and actual John Brown. McBride’s Brown is this crazy-pants religious zealot who literally spends so much time praying before every meal that the meal gets cold and his entourage goes off and finds other things to do in the time before the amen. He makes plan after plan after plan but then throws them out the window when God or almost anyone else gives him a sign to make a new plan or go without. And then the end of the book is practically a comedy of errors, with misunderstandings and mistakes that seem like they should be the ruin of the Harpers Ferry plan but then actually things kind of go okay until they don’t.

I was pretty down on this book right after reading it because I just didn’t get it at all, but once I talked about it with everyone and we decided we weren’t really supposed to get it I started to remember it more fondly.

But still, the best part of this book club meeting was the discovery of a John Brown biographer’s website and all the wonderful things going on in that sidebar. You’re welcome.

Recommendation: For people amused by pseudo-history and satire.

Rating: 7/10