Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl EarringI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it has been nothing but comics and book club books for the last couple months ’round these here parts. This year that’s been a pretty good thing, because I’m picking the books for one club and my friends are picking the books for the other, and there’s always great discussions to be had.

This book, however, definitely suffered from New Book Club Syndrome. The club at my library wanted an official library moderator, so I stepped in and read the book at the last minute and spent all the time after that nervous about meeting new people whose opinions I don’t already understand. Noooooot the greatest reading environment.

It is possible that NBCS is why I got to the book club meeting and wondered if the other members and I had read the same book, but it’s also possible that this is a terrible book and they’re all just wrong. I’d tell you to read it and get back to me, but I really don’t want to inflict the book on you.

Here’s the basics: The book purports to tell the story behind the painting Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is a pretty plain painting of… a girl… wearing a pearl earring. This is not rocket science. In the story, a girl called Griet (who is, as I understand, completely invented for this book) must leave her family, suffering after her father’s loss of sight and thus loss of tile-painting job, to go work as a maid in the Vermeer household. Life as a maid is rough, but things get much better and much worse for Griet when Vermeer decides to make her his secret assistant, having her prepare paints for him and eventually sit as his subject.

And, seriously, if I had known that was what this book was, I would have read the Cliff’s Notes of the movie and called it a day. But the book is short, and I wanted to do it right, so I ended up reading the whole thing. Ugh.

At book club, after everyone else talked about how great the writing was and how evocative the imagery was and how wonderful the historical setting was, they were like, so, what did you think? When my attempt to plead the fifth failed, I said something like, well, the writing was terrible and the characters were boring and I just didn’t care about any of it. And then I sat quietly and let them love on the book because I’m not a monster.

But, seriously. From the very beginning I knew the writing wasn’t for me — there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, there’s a lot of Griet knowing things that she doesn’t seem like she should know anything about, and the sentences are full of unnecessary words or missing important words like “Vermeer”. But maybe the characters would make up for it? No, it’s mostly just Griet in the book and she’s the one thinking all those unnecessary words and also painting all the other characters as just one thing, good or bad. Maria Thins was okay, but even she was mostly inscrutable.

And then I didn’t care about the plot because I didn’t care about Griet and she is the only thing going in this whole darn book. I don’t care how hard your maid work is, I don’t care about your weird suitor and your weirder crush, I don’t care about this apparently horrible scandal that you don’t seem to be getting that worked up about.

The one maybe interesting bit of the novel is the part where Vermeer recruits Griet to make paint and we get a couple pages about how paint used to be made with bits of bone and other weird stuff and stored in… kidneys? I think?… and then we get a couple other pages about Vermeer’s painting process, which involves a camera obscura so that’s pretty cool. Facts! I like them!

So, yeah. I was definitely not the target audience for this book, and I definitely wish I hadn’t bothered reading it, but if you’re an art person or a Netherlands person or an historical fiction person, you’ll probably like this a heck of a lot better than me.

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

In the Unlikely EventConfession time: This is the first Judy Blume book I have ever read. I know that her other books exist, and that some are controversial, but until a fellow book-clubber gave me a summary of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I could not have told you anything about it.

When this book came out, I was intrigued by the premise but not in any hurry to read it… until I needed some ideas for my book club and a friend in my other book club (so many book clubs, guys) recommended it. I put it on the list, picked up a copy early so I’d be able to finish it in time, and then promptly read it in three days with almost two weeks left before talking about it. Timing, I am bad at you.

But that’s really because this book was SO GOOD. I knew going in that there were going to be some plane crashes, so when I didn’t get a plane crash right at the beginning I was kind of impatiently waiting for one to show up, but I was interested enough in the characters (especially the main character, Miri) that when that first plane crash does happen I had almost forgotten to be on the lookout. This Judy Blume lady, she can write a book!

So yeah, there are plane crashes, and they’re actually real plane crashes that actually happened in the town Blume grew up in when she was growing up in it, and they must have left an indelible impression on that town, because I’m spooked out sixty years later just reading about them. And it seems I was tricked into reading historical fiction again, as the early-’50s setting is practically a character in the novel, dictating the way everyone interacts with each other and how they react to the planes and just how everyone exists. I learned so much about the history of air travel because of this book — not necessarily from the words on the page but from my curious Googling of “non-sked” flights and airlines. Those 1950s people, they were daredevils!

The novel uses these events as a way to look at life in the ’50s from a ton of different perspectives. The main character is Miri, a teenager just trying to get through high school and these plane crashes are not helping, and most of the other perspectives are tangential to her — her mother, her grandmother, her uncle, her friends and their families, and so on. We also get a few interludes from Miri’s uncle’s newspaper articles and from people who end up on the doomed flights, the latter of which are the saddest ever. Through these characters we get impressions of Issues like sexism and racism and wealth inequality and issues like growing up and loving people and finding out things you never wanted to know.

I think I may have liked this book more than everyone else in my book club, so maybe don’t take just my word on how wonderful this book is, but that’s definitely better than the other way around. I will just be over here, happy in my bubble of lovely sentences and characters and looking forward to more books that hit this particular chord in my heart.

Recommendation: For those who have finished the most recent Literally Big Literary Novel and need something a little smaller to think about.

Weekend Shorts: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

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

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and TechnoI read Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book club a few months back and it was such a surprisingly awesome novel that I absolutely had to snap up this follow-up. More of Marra’s Chechnya? Extra Russia? That cover? I was sold.

This novel is one of those fancy linked-short-stories books, where the stories could conceivably be read on their own and still make sense, but where the combination of the stories makes everything so much better.

The first story was, for me, the strongest in that stand-alone sense. In it, the main character is a Russian art censor whose job it is to “fix” paintings so that people who shouldn’t be there, people who are non-entities, are no longer in those paintings or that people who should totally obviously be in paintings can take their rightful place. His story opens with a trip to his sister-in-law’s house to get her to scratch her dead husband out of some photographs and to impart some wisdom to his nephew, and then later centers on his poorly thought-out half-censorship of a painting of a prima ballerina. You can’t censor by halves, it turns out, and the story shows us just what exactly happens to people accused, rightly or wrongly, of treason against Russia. It is a fascinating and moving story, and I could have read just that and been happy.

That’s not to say that the rest of the novel wasn’t excellent, but that the rest of the stories in the novel rely heavily on references to the other stories to get their heft and depth across. After the censor’s story, we move on to the story of the prima ballerina’s granddaughter, and to the stories of people in the village where the granddaughter grew up, moving forward and backward in time to pick up the history of that corner of Russia (near Scandinavia) and of Chechnya. It is an incredibly bleak history, but it has its delightful moments, most especially finding out that the Chechen president used to have an apparently amazing Instagram account, with photos of him and various adorable animals. Why did I not know this when I could have followed it??

On the whole I quite enjoyed this novel, if enjoyed is the right word for all that depressing awfulness. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous. But still the book lacked whatever qualities made me love Constellation so hard and so it suffered by comparison. It’s still definitely worth a read, but maybe lower your expectations first?

Recommendation: For fans of Marra, Russian history, and books that will give you feels, but not too many.

Rating: 8/10

Black Dove, White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenSo continues my love affair with Elizabeth Wein. If she could just write YA fiction about every historical event, ever, I would know SO MUCH world history. I managed to learn new things about World War II in her first two books, but this book absolutely astounded me with all the history I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

See, it turns out that there were not one, but two wars between Ethiopia and Italy, one at the end of the 19th century and one right before the start of World War II. In fact, the second Italo-Ethiopian war may have helped give Hitler the confidence to go invade all the places, because it showed that the League of Nations was really bad at its job. Italy didn’t even bother pretending to play nice, bringing in planes to fight against spear-carriers and dropping mustard gas in spite of a little thing called the Geneva Convention.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Emilia and Teo, the respective children of White Raven and Black Dove, an interracial female barnstorming duo. Emilia’s dad is Italian, Teo’s dad was Ethiopian, and they and their parents lived together in the US until Teo’s mother died in a plane accident. Teo’s mother had wanted everyone to move to Ethiopia, where Teo and Emilia could play together without all the wonderful US racism, so when that option presents itself, Emilia’s mother moves everyone over. Then the war starts, slowly but surely, and things go very wrong.

The novel is written sort of end-first, opening with a letter from Emilia to Haile Selassie begging for a passport for Teo after these very wrong things have happened. Then, through essays and “flight logs” and diary entries we get the full story.

In that story lies all the learning stuff. There’s lots of history, of course, but also quite a bit of sociology. There’s talk about religion and spirituality and their role in each character’s life, and there’s also a look into the prejudices of society. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at racism and sexism and classism in both the US and Ethiopia at this time and see how they intersect. And then of course there’s flying and action and adventure and it’s all so exciting!

I do have to admit that the diary conceit only just barely holds this novel together, as I found myself constantly thinking, “Wait, why is she showing all of this stuff to the emperor? How does she think this particular story is going to get Teo a passport? How is she remembering all this heavy dialogue with such accuracy?” I like the immediacy and intimacy of the diary conceit, and I think Wein does great things with it, but it definitely needed a better frame story.

But, whatever, I loved the heck out of this book and I found myself between breaks thinking, “I hope everyone’s okay! I hope no one dies! Someone’s going to die, but I hope it’s not anyone I’ve grown fond of!” My coworker did not quite understand my concern, but I’m sure some of you do! I cannot wait to see what Wein’s got up her sleeve next.

Recommendation: For fans of Wein’s other work (Code Name Verity I love you!) and also history and planes and excitement.

Rating: 9/10

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