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.

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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!

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?)

Weekend Shorts: Welcome to Persepolis

I’ve got two rather different offerings for you today. One is a graphic (as in pictures) memoir of Iran after the Islamic Revolution, the other is the first volume of scripts for the Lovecraftian podcast Welcome to Night Vale. You know, I said rather different, but there are probably more similarities between these two things than anyone wants to admit…

Anyway, let’s see what these are about!

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
The Complete PersepolisThis was yet another of those book club picks that make me read a book I should have read a long time ago. I hadn’t read it because a long time ago, I was totally not into comics things (I know, right?) and had no interest in some picture book even if it was important or whatever. Oh, me. And unfortunately, oh, several of my book clubbers, as the low attendance at this meeting will attest.

But those who did come loved it, and I liked it quite a lot as well. It is a little difficult to get into, even aside from the pictures aspect, as the book is written as a series of vignettes of Satrapi’s life in Iran and Europe that don’t always flow smoothly one to the next. The breaks can be a little jarring and at least once I found myself wondering if I had managed to skip a bunch of pages because I had clearly missed something.

But the vignettes themselves are super interesting. Satrapi starts at the end of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew one terrible government for a differently terrible government, as seems to happen in these sorts of revolutions. She talks about the abrupt change from co-ed secular schooling to sex-segregated Islamic schools, the new requirement to wear the hijab and other clothing restrictions, her own anti-authoritarian streak that got her in all sorts of trouble, her family’s involvement in the revolution and post-revolution politics, the bombings from Iraq, her time in an Austrian high school, her return to Iran, her marriage, and more. But the clear through-line is Satrapi’s difficulty in reconciling all of these parts of her life which have defined her in so many different ways that it’s hard to say who the “real” Marjane Satrapi might be.

Satrapi’s art style is kind of rudimentary, with imperfect lines and a pure black and white palette, but somehow she manages to capture the individuality of each of her characters and even of herself growing up and changing from a girl to a young woman to an adult. I was really impressed with this book all around and would definitely recommend it to you and your book club.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Mostly Void, Partially StarsYou guys already know my obsession with Welcome to Night Vale, but now you know that the obsession extends to reading written versions of episodes I have already listened to, which sounds weird even to me and I’m the one doing it!

And yes, it did take me rather longer to get through the book than I thought it would, partially because Night Vale is kind of a small doses thing and partly because, I mean, I already know what’s going to happen, here. BUT, it was absolutely worth it to pick up on little references and continuity things I missed the first time and for the short intros to each episode written by various Night Vale-adjacent people. I love a behind-the-scenes anything and this one is excellent.

If you’ve never listened to Welcome to Night Vale but want to, definitely listen first. If you’ve been interested in Night Vale but are not into the podcast thing, this is what you’ve been waiting for! If you love Night Vale, I’m sure the Sheriff’s Secret Police have already delivered you a copy.

Dept. H #1, by Matt Kindt
Dept. H #1Sneak attack bonus! I left this comic off my post-hurricane comics roundup a few weeks back, for reasons I cannot currently remember, so you get to hear about it now!

I pre-ordered this comic when I heard it existed because a) Matt Kindt, and b) the cover tagline that says “murder six miles deep.” Murder! In an underwater headquarters! Take my money!

This is just the first issue, so it has to cover some boring backstory bits, but it gets quickly enough into the going underwater business and the big murdery reveal. I’m super into the protagonist, who is a space person (not, like, an alien — I just don’t know what she does for the space program!) sent underwater to solve this murder for mostly bureaucratic reasons but also personal ones, and, as I knew I would be when I ordered it, I am loving the artwork, which is very similar to MIND MGMT and has a colored-pencil-and-watercolors quality to it that I like a lot. This series somehow didn’t make it to my comics pull list proper, but I’ll definitely be picking up the trade when it comes out in a couple months.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a very last-minute pick for my library book club, with the conversation going something like this:

A: “What’s the next book?”
B: “I don’t know, you haven’t told me.”
A: “We have a list somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
C: “I read a book about a potato society once and it was really good.”
B: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I have heard good things about it.”
A: “Okay, that’s our next book!”

This is how all the best decisions are made.

Well, actually, this was a pretty good decision. The book is lovely and perfect for book clubbing, following The Nightingale‘s note that World War II books are prime book club fodder.

Like The Nightingale, this book also covers a geographical area I’d never considered before in relation to World War II, the Channel Islands. Part of the Commonwealth but not of the UK proper, and located rather closer to France, these islands were occupied by German forces and their Todt slave laborers but their inhabitants were apparently, comparatively, left alone to weather out the fighting. I learned all sorts of new things reading this book!

I also rather enjoyed the story part of the story, which is told in the epistolary style I adore so much. Our main character, Juliet, finds herself in correspondence with a man on Guernsey who picked up a book she used to own in a used book store and wrote to her to learn more about the author. As… you do? I don’t know, I didn’t live in the late forties. Anyway, Juliet is a writer looking for a new book idea, and her new pen pal turns out to have a fantastic story. He and his neighbors put together a sort of book club on the island to hide some illicit activity, and that club helped a lot of the members through the war. Throughout the book Juliet writes to these people and they write back to share their stories, and we get these great little vignettes of the war from several different viewpoints. Well, “great”. Most of them are terrifically sad, especially the sort of through-line through everyone’s stories about a neighbor lost to a concentration camp. Nazis are awful, I think it is safe to say.

There’s also a love story, but I cared about that very little except that I am satisfied with how it ended. There’s also also some sly social commentary that may or may not be historically accurate but I will happily believe that it is.

I liked the book quite a bit, and my sister-in-law and my book clubbers all seemed to absolutely love it, so I think I can readily recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, sad but happy, history-teaching novel.

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Beat the ReaperSometimes the scariest thing about re-reading books is realizing how long ago you read them the first time… this one’s from waaaaaaaay back in 2009 when I was still posting reviews the day I finished every book. Oh, past self. You were so cute.

I picked this one out for my in-person book club because I remembered liking this book a surprising amount and because we’ve been reading a lot of relatively serious books lately and I thought a nice bonkers quasi crime novel would hit that beginning-of-summer sweet spot. After the turnout at the last few meetings, I was sure this ridiculous book would net me a handful of book clubbers, but instead this was our best turnout of the year. Don’t underestimate bonkers fluff, is what I’m saying.

My opinion on the book hasn’t really changed in seven years, although I thought it might when I started listening to it on audio. I guess I sort of had a voice in my head already for our hero, Peter Brown, and the narrator’s voice was just… not that. It was very impersonal and flat and matter-of-fact where I thought it would be more sarcastic and emotive, rather like that time I listened to The Eyre Affair. Also, I had forgotten about the twenty-seven (this is an estimate, I did not count them, though now I feel like I should have) F-bombs Peter lays out in the first, like, two pages, and I was very nervous that my book club would not make it past that minefield.

But either the narrator gets better or the story does or both, as I was quickly drawn back into the weird world of Peter Brown, ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection. His hospital is weird and terrifying, especially when your fellow book clubbers tell you that yeah, no, it’s totally believable that that terrible thing would happen in a hospital. His childhood is weird and awful as you learn more and more about the circumstances of his grandparents’ untimely demise and his entrance into the Mafia world. His present circumstances are weird and nerve-wracking as everything keeps going wrong, and then vomit-inducing at the end when a certain weapon is procured. Ugh.

I’m not sure I liked the book quite as much this second time around, possibly due to the only-decent narrator and the lack of footnotes (!) in the audio version or possibly due to the lack of surprise when the craziest of things happen. But I still enjoyed it immensely, and I was happy to find out that most of my book club agreed save for two very upset members who came just to tell me, personally, how much they hated the book. But they showed up, so the joke’s on them!

If you’re intrigued by the “ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection” conceit, and you like your crime hard-boiled, and you like your humor sarcastic and cutting, AND you don’t shy away from an F-bomb or twelve, this is definitely a book to pack in your beach bag this summer. There’s even a sequel, if you end up loving it!

Weekend Shorts: More Volume Ones

I feel like I read a LOT of Volume Ones these days, and then I just, like, forget to read the rest of the series. And it’s not like I’m reading a lot of terrible series; it’s just that there are so many new ones to try that the good ones still get lost in the shuffle.

But, whatever, here are three more Volume Ones to add to the collection!

Descender, Vol. 1: “Tin Stars”, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
Descender, Vol. 1I read the first couple of issues of this series in my catchup binge a couple of months back, and I was like THIS SERIES HAS A ROBOT BOY YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID. Which still stands, really, but I’m a bit less excited about it now.

These six issues lay out some very interesting backstory with the promise of intrigue and subterfuge, which are things I am a big fan of, in the present. But the intrigue is less about strategy and more about brute force, which gets boring pretty quickly. I’m really not clear what is up with all the people trying to find my Robot Boy, and I’m not sure the book is either, what with all the trips into Backstory Land that are much more interesting than the main story.

I do have the second volume on hand, purchased at half price before I had finished the first one, and so probably maybe someday I will continue on with the series. But there will be dozens of other Volume Ones ahead of it, probably.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls, Vol. 1This one, on the other hand, I’m regretting reading only because the next issue JUST came out and therefore a Volume Two is still in the distant future. Which is appropriate to the content of the book, I suppose.

The first issue promised me aliens in Cleveland, so of course I was all over it, but what we get is even stranger — time travelling teenagers in some kind of war with a different set of time travelling people, with dinosaurs, and Apple products, and I don’t even know what’s going on but man Cliff Chiang’s art is the prettiest.

This volume could almost have fallen into the same “too much brute force” category as Descender, but there’s enough subtle intrigue with the time travelers (and such a smart cliffhanger ending) that I am happily looking forward to more.

Preacher, Book 1, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Preacher, Book 1I guess this isn’t technically a “Volume One”, as it collects a few more issues than the official Preacher, Vol. 1, but it’s got a 1 on the cover so it counts!

I read this because the people at my favorite comics podcast did a show on it and while I usually skip the shows about things I haven’t read, the discussion was interesting enough to keep listening. That sounds like a vote for a series in my book! And then it was free on hoopla, so it was clearly fate.

But, well, I definitely won’t be reading more of this. Not because it’s not interesting, which it is, with its concepts of gods and religions and hate and fear-mongering and all sorts of other fun human stuff. And not because the art’s not gorgeous, which it is, with incredibly detailed drawings and lovely colors.

What it is is that the story and the art are both just too gruesome for me. There’s this crazy scene that I had to show my husband, because I couldn’t be the only one to see it, with a guy whose face has been flayed and, like, tacked back on, and it is objectively a fascinating panel and an intriguing bit of story, but the fact that it’s only marginally weirder and grosser than other bits of the story means this book is just not for me. I’m really wondering how this has been turned into a TV show, but I really don’t think I want to watch it to find out!