The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAnother month, another library book club pick selected because I needed an excuse to get around to reading it! This book has been out for a while and shows up on my radar every few months or so when someone gets mad about the book being taught to poor innocent high-schoolers or whatever the case is at the time, and of course I am intrigued by books that make people mad (which is probably not what those angry people are going for), but I’d never managed to actually find out what the book is about, which is an important component in my book selection process. So I figured I’d find out, with some nice patrons along for the ride!

The main character, Arnold, is an Indian kid on a reservation outside of Spokane who also happens to have some physical problems, from a lisp and stutter to giant feet to seizures, that make him an outcast on the reservation. He has one best friend who hangs out with him and protects him a little bit, but that friendship becomes strained pretty quickly once Arnold decides he wants to go to school off the reservation.

That’s pretty much what this book is about — a kid leaving what he knows and doesn’t necessarily like very much to go do something new that he might like better. I had sort of presumed from Arnold’s self-description that this would be a book about overcoming physical impediments and realizing that everyone is as messed up as you are, but that’s really not the case. In fact, after those problems are listed at the beginning of the book, they almost never come up again. Arnold is, outside of his looks and his speech, a regular teenage dude who draws comics sprinkled throughout the novel, tries to figure out how to balance his home life and his school life, and, most importantly for the angry people above, thinks about sex.

What actually drives the novel is that second part, the disconnect between life on the reservation and life in the lily-white town of Reardan outside the reservation, where Arnold notes that he and the mascot are the only Indians. Arnold has to beg rides or hitchhike or walk 20 miles to get to and from school. His family is poor and alcoholic and becomes depressingly smaller over the course of the book. His friends and most of the other Indians on the reservation consider him a traitor for leaving. When he scores a personal victory by helping the Rearden basketball team beat his old school team, he quickly realizes that a white victory over Indians is not something he really wants to celebrate.

I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed this novel, which lacked the plot and character development that I was hoping for (that’s my bad) and had a sort of meandering diary-style narrative that left me confused at times, but I found it absolutely fascinating in its portrayal of Indian life, which I think we’ve established I don’t know too much about, and its portrayal of teens as kind of boring humans, which I don’t see all that much amidst my pile of dystopian YA trilogies. It’s definitely brain food rather than brain candy, and I will likely be seeking out more from Alexie in the future.

Recommendation: For those looking to learn more about Indian life and those looking for a more-realistic-than most tale of teenagerhood.

Rating: 7/10

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

Bad MonkeySomewhere around eight million years ago (read: before this blog and therefore lost to time), I read Carl Hiaasen’s book Skinny Dip and recall loving it dearly. But then somehow I managed not to read another of his books, which seemed like such a shame that I picked his newest book for my library book club just so I’d have an excuse to read it. I am smart like that.

Now I think I understand why I didn’t immediately read every Hiaasen available. Bad Monkey was funny, ridiculous, absurd, and weird, but it was also… weird.

So basically, there’s this guy, Andrew Yancy, who was a cop until he assaulted his girlfriend’s husband with a vacuum cleaner where the sun don’t shine, even in Key West. Now he’s on roach patrol, but angling to get back into the police department’s good graces. He gets tasked with driving a severed arm found in the Gulf up to Miami and ditching it for their cops to take care of, but instead he ends up storing it in his freezer and deciding to take on the case of this dead guy in order to get his job back. In the meantime, there’s a dude called Neville Stafford living in the Bahamas with his ex-movie star monkey, Driggs, trying to pull some voodoo on a rich white dude who bought Stafford’s land from Stafford’s sister. Stafford just wants his house back, but between the questionable loyalty of his voodoo witch and the strong right hooks of the white dude’s security team, he’s got some work to do.

The story was almost too obvious from the beginning — obviously Yancy and Stafford’s stories will collide, obviously the dead guy story has something more to it, obviously things aren’t going to be as straightforward as anyone (including me!) wants them to be. I thought one key plot point was so clearly labeled that Yancy would catch on immediately and then spend several dozen pages trying to convince everyone else, but instead he spent those pages and more doing everything but catch on. Come on.

But I suppose one doesn’t come to a Hiaasen novel for the intricate plotting, one comes for the zany characters and the hilarious writing, of which there are many and much, respectively. Yancy’s nuts, obviously. Then you’ve also got this poor guy trying to sell an eyesore house next door to Yancy’s place, which Yancy is passive-aggressively against (but more aggressive than passive, really). Then there’s Yancy’s old girlfriend, who turns out to be wanted by the cops for something completely unrelated, and Yancy’s new girlfriend, who works and does more than work in a morgue. Stafford and his monkey and the voodoo witch and the bodyguards and basically everyone we meet on the Bahamas is a little off, and the dead guy’s family is a piece of work, too. Altogether I am very happy with the relatively sane friends and family I’ve got!

So, A for absurd characters but, like, D for deranged but dragging plot. I might read another Hiaasen in the next eight million years, but it’s going to have to come with some strong recommendations.

Recommendation, mine: Read it if you love everything Hiaasen or need a book that will break your brain in the best ways.

Rating: 7/10

In the Woods, by Tana French

In the WoodsIf you’ve been around this blog for a while, this title might sound a little familiar. Yes, indeed, this is the third time I’ve read this book, and the second and third time I’ve inflicted it on a book club (multi-tasking!). So I’m just going to skip the plot rehashing (previous blog posts linked below) and go straight into the thinky thoughts.

It was really fascinating to read this book a third time; I almost never re-read books and this may be the only book I’ve read three times in adulthood (well, maybe The Phantom Tollbooth?). In my first reading, my big takeaway from the novel was the insane, convoluted path the case took to the absolutely frustrating ending. Throw-the-book-across-the-room frustrating. Uggggh. In the second reading, I made a point of looking for all the hints and clues French left pointing toward said ending, and oh my goodness there were so many.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this reading — what could possibly be left to interest me for 400-some pages? Lots, actually. This time around I found myself drawn to Rob Ryan’s constant refrain of “I’m a liar” and “I am not to be trusted” and noting the holes in his narrative. How did he really feel about Cassie? Why was he so set on remaining on this case? What the heck really happened in those woods all those years ago? My book-club-mates came up with some ideas for that last one that I hadn’t thought of through three entire readings, and that I would have dismissed out of hand after two of them, but now I am definitely wondering. Darn you, unreliable narrator!

The other thing I noticed more in this reading was French’s devotion to the setting. I wasn’t really versed in Gothic literature until well after reading this book the first time and maybe even after the second, so I kind of didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the Knocknaree woods are practically a character in their own right, hiding secret castles and spiriting away children and becoming an obsession for more than one otherwise-rational dude. At first, French’s attention to detail frustrated me a bit, as I was like, dude, I forgot how long this book is and book club is coming faster than I anticipated and let’s just get back to the horrifying murder, ‘kay? But then her gorgeous writing won me over and I was happy to let her words wash over me late, late into the night so that I could finish the book in time.

I warned one of my book clubs that they were all going to hate the ending, as there is absolutely no way to finish this book the first time and not want to punch one or more fictional characters right in the face, and at the meeting they were all like, you were SO right. But it’s a testament to the strength of French’s writing that half of them were excited to hear that there were more books to read and more ridiculous murders to solve (or not solve, as the case may be).

The fact that I was willing to read the book three times is also telling, although there is very little that would compel me to go for four. I actually liked this book better the second time around, when I could see all the awful coming and note how skillfully French made it impossible to see the first time, but on a third reading it became less of a fantastic story and more of a piece of literature to be broken down and analyzed and while it was a fascinating read, it just wasn’t as fun as I remembered. Luckily French continues to provide me new things to read, including this fall’s The Secret Place (which I am SO EXCITED about omg), so I can get back to having fun very soon!

Recommendation: For those who’ve bought a hard copy ready to be thrown across the room and those who love a great turn of phrase as much as a great plot twist.

Rating: 8/10 this time, but grudgingly.

City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau

City of EmberAnother pick for my library book club — this one I hadn’t even heard of until I found four copies of it in my children’s section, and then I figured, hey, if we already have a lot of copies of it…

Also my coworker said it was good. I’m not that lax with my book club picks, y’all.

So this book. It is yet another post-apocalyptic kids book, but the twist to this one is that you find out at the beginning that some people called “Builders” built (naturally) the titular city after some catastrophe and left time-locked instructions to be passed down mayor-to-mayor for a couple hundred years so that the future residents could come back to wherever their ancestors started.

Except, of course, the instructions get lost, and now Ember is a couple decades past its expiration date and barely hanging on to its stores of canned food and lightbulbs, which are super important because when the lights go out they ALL go out, and there’s no sun or moon hanging around to help out.

Our hero Lina finds the instructions shortly after they’ve been baby-nommed, but with the help of our other hero Doon she sets off to solve the mystery of the instructions and of the weird way that Ember’s mayor has been acting lately.

And… that’s practically the whole book. It’s super short and super fast. It’s also the first book in a series of four, which is part of why it seems so fast — as soon as you reach what feels like the midpoint, the book is over and it’s time to go buy the next one. I was not warned of this! At least it’s not a cliffhanger; if you take the book as standalone, which I am likely to do, it ends in a place where you can kind of make up your own ending.

I enjoyed the trade-off in narration between Lina and Doon, and I liked that they were young enough that there was no dang love story mucking everything up (though I’m sure that’ll come in a few books…) and that they shared pretty equally in responsibility for solving the instruction puzzle and attempting to follow through on said instructions and generally trying to make their town a better place. And I’m intrigued by a a lot of the details that didn’t get explained in this book — the unknown area outside of Ember’s light, the reason for building Ember in the first place, why Ember wasn’t made self-sustaining in the first place — all those sorts of things that will probably get explained in later books.

But I probably won’t read those later books, because there was so little to the book as it stands that I’m just not invested. Like Divergent, if I had had all the books sitting in front of me it might have been a different story, but sadly, I did not. I will definitely be foisting the series on all my little library patrons, though, and I am positive they will tell me all about it when they’re done.

Recommendation: For kids who haven’t yet delved into post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds and/or are slightly too young for The Giver.

Rating: 6/10

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilI chose this book for my book club not because I should have read it a long time ago but because I think everyone else who lives in the South has read it and I need to catch up on my Southern literature, even that written by a Yank.

This book was a little weird to read; like In Cold Blood before it this book is a sort of non-fiction novel where most of the facts are true but Berendt takes some liberties to protect the innocent and make the story sound better when needed, which at least he acknowledges up front unlike a certain Mr. Capote.

So all this stuff happens and it’s absolutely bonkers crazypants and I am like, I really hope this is all creative license, but there is so much of it that a lot of it must be true…

Anyway, what happens is John Berendt goes down to Georgia and stays awhile and makes friends with all the people in Savannah, rich and poor and middle class and black and white (which is still a HUGE distinction in 1980s Savannah), which is pretty easy because he’s clearly told everyone he’s planning to write a book, what with all the times he writes about people telling him to include such-and-such in his book. So meta.

And so we learn a lot of the gossip of Savannah, especially about the big shots and how they all secretly hate each other (I mean, of course they do) and also about this weird dude who lives in a big house and has a tantrum-throwing hired kid living and working with him and sometimes flies a Nazi flag to annoy film crews and possibly inadvertently his Jewish neighbors.

The focus on this weird dude makes more sense when he kills the hired kid and is put on trial, with said trial taking up the last half of the book. The whole thing is nuts — the dude pleads self-defense, but it’s pretty obvious that he did some staging of the scene after the fact, but then also it turns out that police did a grand job bungling the whole case, including waltzing all around the murder site before all the pictures were taken, and also also the prosecutor is an idiot and the trial gets retried a bunch of times before a decision is made that sticks.

The whole book is nuts, but it makes a lot of things about living in the South make more sense and has a lot of interesting things to say about race and class and especially gentrification, so it’s actually a pretty useful read for new Southerners as well as a page-turning story. It also makes me want to visit Savannah again with an eye to all of this insanity, so I’m sure the Savannah tourism board loves it.

Recommendation: For those who like bonkers stories that also happen to be mostly true.

Rating: 8/10

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

A Separate PeaceThis was the first book I chose for my library book club (because you know I need another book club…) for some very specific reasons: It had several copies available in the system, it was not terribly long, and it was a book I thought I probably should have read by now.

And, in fact, yes, this is a book that I should have gotten around to long ago, but it was never required in school and so I hadn’t actually heard of it until maybe a few years ago. It’s an obvious precursor to many of my favorite novels and very likely to my absolute favorite movie, Dead Poets Society. Young boys in boarding school coming of age? That is totally my jam.

This particular boys-coming-of-age-at-boarding-school story takes place in New England shortly after the U.S. entered World War II and is narrated by an adult Gene looking back at his time on campus, particularly one terrible horrible no-good very bad year. In that year, Gene and his bffaeae Finny avoid thinking about the war by doing other foolish and dangerous things, all leading up to this one thing that happens that haunts Gene for the rest of his life.

And it’s pretty great. Most War-era books I’ve read have taken place in the middle of the war and especially in the middle of the fighting, so reading about these boys so close to going off to war but so removed from the war itself was really interesting to me. And of course there’s the whole boarding-school/high-school atmosphere of everything mattering oh so very much and the incomparable importance of friends and grades and sports, which I cannot help but love from afar.

Gene’s internal struggles are the true heart of the novel, though, and they are struggles that I can sadly understand. He spends a lot of the novel wondering whether his best friend is really a friend trying to make Gene a better person or actually an enemy trying to bring Gene down to lift himself up, and although it’s obvious that it’s the former, Gene is pretty convincing that it could be the latter. I found myself shouting at the book more than once, “Hey, idiot! Seriously! What is wrong with you?!” Oh, how glad I am that I never have to be sixteen again.

The big downside to reading this novel is that I have read and watched so many of its direct and indirect descendants, so some of the important twists and consequences of the novel were preeeeeeeetty obvious because I’d seen them before. But I really would never have seen Leper’s (yes, that’s a character’s name) storyline coming. Poor kid.

Recommendation: For fans of boarding-school coming-of-age novels and those who have ever been insecure.

Rating: 7/10