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.

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Necessity, by Jo Walton

NecessityThis is probably a very strange book to read on vacation, but nonetheless I found myself at my in-laws’ beach house, hiding out from the sun and the heat (because dudes, it is HOT in Florida lately), fully engrossed with this book. And then when I finished it, I went swimming, because I’m not a heathen.

My sister-in-law asked me for some book recommendations while I was in the middle of this novel, and I was like, you should totally read this series! The first book is about setting up Plato’s Just City, and then the second book is about how that actually works in actual life with actual humans, and then this third one is about, um, I don’t know, it’s weird?

Now that I’ve finished the book, it’s still kind of weird, though really, so is the whole series, so. But those first two books are really easy to summarize, and this one is… not. It’s partially along the same lines as the second book, in that there’s quite a bit about how Plato’s thought experiment is interpreted by different people and how the various cities made up of these people interact and how they’re all really striving to be their best selves no matter the interpretation. But then there’s also, well, lots of weird god stuff.

Spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t read the first two books!

So this book sees the death of mortal Apollo, who’s been learning important lessons about humans and their significance during the series. But of course, he’s a god, so he’s not actually dead and spends some time doing god stuff and god things and whatever, until he’s called by Hermes to go talk to Zeus and on the way determines that Athena (who set up the Just City experiment in the first place) has gone completely and totally missing, which is not actually possible. So Apollo has to go on, like, a quest to find Athena, who has left him some clues with various people in various times and all of this is moderately interesting but then there’s a whole thing with alien gods and stuff and I’m just going to give this whole plot the side-eye.

Way more interesting to me are the chapters from non-god points of view, talking about the stuff I said above with the Just City and whatnot, but then especially the chapters from the point of view of Crocus, who is a robot Worker with sentience and probably a soul and lots of interesting ideas about all of that. His very straightforward chapters are a lovely contrast to the incredibly confusing Apollo chapters.

Probably no spoilers after this!

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book, largely because of the way it plays off of the previous books and continues its own version of Plato’s Republic with commentary. You definitely would not be able to read this book on its own, and I wouldn’t say you absolutely have to read this if you’ve read the other two books, but if you read and and liked the other two this is a solid entry in the series.

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterI made an agreement with my boss that we would switch off reading the books for the library book club, which definitely seemed like a great idea after my disastrous first outing with them. But then the next book up, this one, sounded actually pretty interesting and so I stole it from my boss so I could have a good book club experience.

The best-laid plans…

Except this time, it was the rest of the club (only half of whom even showed up) that hated the book, while I was like, wait, I thought it was pretty okay!

It could have been better, sure, but it was so squarely in my wheelhouse I couldn’t hate it when I tried. It’s got multiple points of view, multiple time period settings, interwoven plot lines, Big Mysteries, awesome lady protagonists, and a hint of the supernatural. It’s also a quasi-gothic novel, which is a genre of book that I seem to like more in theory than in the reading but I really like it in theory, so.

What actually happens in the novel: In the present day, a woman violently kills her family and herself, and her estranged childhood best friends, who are sisters, come together to figure out if it had anything to do with that Big Mysterious Thing that happened to them as children. In that childhood period, the Future Murdery Woman and the sisters hang out and navigate teenagerhood and also try to figure out the Big Mystery of the motel FMM’s family lives in. In the farther past, FMM’s mother navigates her own teenagerhood and also tries to figure out the Big Mystery of her sister, who she thinks might be a shapeshifting mare of the kind that her grandmother once warned her about.

It’s a fascinating novel, playing with genre and switching styles between the three time settings as the location setting stays the same — or rather deteriorates, as vacant motels are wont to do. There’s something cool to be seen in the fate of the motel through the generations and in how it is represented, first as a strongly gothic imposing presence and eventually just as a creepy sort of place. There’s a not-subtle nod to Hitchcock and Psycho included in the book as well, and he’s definitely a strong influence on the story.

Where it went wrong for the rest of the club and admittedly a little bit for me as well is the ending, which [SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH] takes what I expected to be either an ambiguous ending or a heavy metaphor about life and swerves to the completely literal, having those mares be real and having some of the characters actually be these shapeshifters. This revelation doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the novel and so is completely jarring, leaving me with a “Bwuh?” face and then a “Hmmph.” face as a finished it. But with some space between me and the book, I find that I kind of liked it as a “twist” ending. It reminded me a bit of another novel I read a few years ago, though I’m pretty sure there weren’t actual demons in that one? Man, I need to write more spoilers in my reviews so I can remember these books better.

That was a long spoiler tangent, sorry!

Anyway, I ended up liking the book more academically, for playing around with literary conventions, than for its entertainment value, as it is lacking a bit in the plot and character departments. My book clubbers would argue that it’s lacking completely in those departments, but I stayed intrigued the whole way through so I’ll give McMahon points for that. And I will definitely be putting her on my list of Authors Whose Best Works I Should Read Some Day, as she’s pretty prolific and has some apparently very good works to her name.

Recommendation: For those looking for a moderately spooky read and who like a novel that plays with convention and expectation.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesHey, look, another book club book! This one turned out much better than the last one, thank goodness!

I picked this one for my in-person book club off of a list of suggestions I got from my online book club friends, because man, I am so out of book ideas. (Do you have some? Let me know! Ahem.) I had heard enough of it to be like, “Oh, is that the one where the Earth’s spin slows down?” but not much else, but that sounded like a pretty good premise and something to talk about so I put it on the list.

Sometimes with these apocalyptic-ish books you get a story where it’s heavy on the plot and the Big Event is super important, and sometimes you get a story where a Big Event is happening but that really doesn’t matter at all except for setting. This book was, kind of surprisingly, right in the center of those two styles. We have a super important Big Event, but the focus is on the humans and how they’re reacting to the Event, both as humans do and possibly as is caused by the Event itself.

What happens, of course, is that the Earth’s spin starts to slow for no apparent reason. Scientists are like, WTF, but for most people it’s not a hugely big deal that there are now a few more minutes in the day. Except that the spin keeps slowing, and soon there are a few more hours in the day, and eventually a few more days in the day, and of course this insane day and night pattern takes its toll on the Earth and its plants and animals, especially those emotional humans.

What makes the book most interesting to me is that it’s told in the past tense, so we know that people are going to survive but we’re not quite sure how, and also that it’s told from the point of view of a young teenager, giving us the double uncertainty of adolescence and apocalypse.

It helps, too, that the sort of Big Conflict laid out in the story is so unexpected to me, this completely baffling conflict between the people who choose to live “on the clock”, following the standard 24-hour day regardless of what it looks like outside, versus those living off the clock and following the sun for their days and nights. You’d think it would be as simple as ignoring the people doing what you think is a crazy thing, but if you’ve lived in this world for any amount of time I think you can guess how ridiculous the tension between the groups gets.

Outside of that Big Conflict, the rest of the book is really a look at relationships and how they function under big stresses and little stresses and the everyday realities of life, which is a book I can totally get behind.

It’s not a perfect book, sadly, as the characters end up being a bit simplistic and certain actions and events are more cliché than I wanted them to be, but I think it does such a great job with its premise and elsewhere that it’s worth your time, especially if you have some people to hash out the details with.

Recommendation: For fans of quasi-apocalyptic books, weird science, and teen protagonists.

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

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.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

The DinnerWell, this was a book. A book I had no intention of reading, but then my book club picked it and I was in a reading slump with literally nothing else I was interested in and I figured, hey, maybe this will get me consuming books again. And it did, so plus ten points to my book club on that one?

But the book itself? Blergh. I had one of those strange reading experiences where I wanted to know what the heck was going on, so I was turning pages rapidly and taking very few breaks from reading… but I was not really enjoying the experience. Sure, I was curious how everything was going to turn out, but I didn’t actually care about the plot or the characters or anything in the book.

This is probably partially by design — the book is written in a close first person that gives no details about anything useful and all the details about the things that don’t matter, because that’s what the narrator wants to focus on.

The book takes place over the course of the titular dinner, with scenes from the dinner interspersed with flashbacks to earlier that evening, earlier that year, and earlier in various relationships that give varying degrees of context to the dinner at hand. At the beginning, all you really know is that a dude doesn’t want to go out to dinner with his brother; at the end there are far more pressing concerns about everyone at the table.

It’s a neat conceit, I’ll admit, and that conceit is definitely what kept me flipping pages. How is this detail going to come into play later? Does this seemingly throwaway sentence have greater import? How is the narrator going to reconcile this situation he’s describing with the life he thinks he’s living?

But the problem is, I didn’t really care about the narrator. He seems set up to be an unlikeable narrator, and I’ve seen this book compared to books like Gone Girl in that regard, but he is so completely detached from the unlikeable things that he does that I just can’t muster up feelings for him either way. I would love to hate him. But I don’t. Ditto for every other character in the book.

As often happens in cases like this, going to book club was helpful for increasing my respect for the book, if not my enjoyment of it. One of the more interesting things I picked up was a perspective on the book from someone who is a little bit obsessed with the Netherlands (the book is set there and translated from the Dutch). There is a particular event that this book, and the dinner itself, centers on, and it’s kind of weird, but my friend pointed out some social norms and policies that are different in the Netherlands that make the event, and the characters’ reactions to the event, make far more sense. So therefore I’m going to chalk up all the other things I didn’t understand to the cultural gulf between me and Holland.

So, yeah. It’s an interesting book to read, style-wise, but I wish the style had been wrapped around, say, any other story. Not the greatest book to kick off 2016 with, but it definitely inspired me to get reading and get some better books in my brain! Any suggestions for the year?

Recommendation: For fans of style over substance, Dutch-ness, and weird people doing very weird things.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilI’ve got two words for you: mystery metafiction. If you like either of those words, you’ll probably like this book.

The conceit: this book is set up as if someone has found two manuscripts by an author and some letters sent by his editor and published them together as this new book. One manuscript, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.

The book starts with the first chapter of The Revised, which is a fairly traditional mystery except that it’s set in 1941 riiiiight before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And has a Japanese protagonist. And a white villain. And a Japanese author, writing the book at the same time it’s set. So when the US jumps into World War II, well, the book has to change.

The author’s editor sends over a letter saying that the story’s got to change or go, and we can see that he decides on change, as the next bit we get is the first chapter of Orchid, with a completely different writing style, a Korean protagonist, and Japanese antagonists. But meanwhile the author is wondering what might have happened to the protagonist from his first draft, Sam Sumida, and we get the rest of Sam’s story woven throughout this book, and, we find, throughout the new novel as well.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it reads just fine, with bits of each manuscript and the letters from the editor (the titular woman) trading off easily to form a story far more complex than its parts. You get the main mystery of Orchid, of course, but then you get a sort of science-fictional story in The Revised, as the author chooses to have Sam go into a theater before Pearl Harbor and come out of it afterward into a world where he no longer exists. And of course you get a story about how Americans treated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and how they treated anyone vaguely Asian, and how this played out in direct and casual prejudice. And then on top of that you get a sprinkling of the fight between writer and editor to create the best story versus the most sellable story.

This is a really cool book, guys. The stories themselves as written are a little rough, as a consequence of their conceits and of the fact that we don’t actually get a complete story out of either of them, but put together they form something really intriguing. I have a feeling this is not going to be the next blockbuster novel, but if you can get your hands on it it’s a fun, quirky, and short read that is more than worth the time you’ll put into it.

Recommendation: For people who like their books a little thinky and a little weird, but not too much of either.

Rating: 8/10

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