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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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.