When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were BirdsI picked this book for my book club to read because the internets had told me great things about it, and the conceit as explained to me was fascinating: Williams’s mother died and left Williams all her journals, of which there were many and of which all turned out to be completely blank. That’s crazy, right? Who keeps a bunch of blank journals? I needed to know more.

But it turns out there isn’t anything more to know. Williams has no idea why the journals were blank, and doesn’t really postulate on it at all. Instead, she gives us 54 odd, practically stream-of-consciousness essays on “voice” or lack of it, drawn from her own life and only rarely touching on her mother’s. Which is fine. But it’s not what I thought I was getting into.

To be fair, I can see what Williams is doing with these essays. She’s describing situations where her own voice or general idea of power come into play, times when she was as silent as her mother’s journals and times where she used her voice and power to leave some metaphorical journal entries. Some of the vignettes are completely self-contained, but some require background information that we never get — blank pages in the journal that is this book. All we can really know about a person is what they tell us, and sometimes they tell us nothing.

I get it. But I didn’t like it. I needed more. It felt like reading The Year of Magical Thinking with another book club, where all the people who actually knew who Joan Didion was were like, this book is amazing, and the rest of us were like, so, that happened. I don’t know anything about Williams, but based on the little information I got she sounds like a pretty interesting person, and I bet that if I had known she was a quasi-famous author and environmentalist and especially if I had read her memoir I would have been better placed to read this book.

Sorry, book club. I’ll do better next time.

Recommendation: For people who know anything about Terry Tempest Williams or people who can enjoy the conceit of a book without thinking too hard about the content.

Rating: 4/10

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

The UncouplingYou guys, I was so excited when a fellow book clubber announced this book as her pick. I had heard nothing but great things about The Uncoupling and about Wolitzer’s work in general, but had just never gotten around to reading any of it.

And I think I may have to just pretend that that’s still true in case I ever want to read another Wolitzer, because this book… uggggh.

I was not alone in this — I don’t think anyone in my book club actually liked this book. It was a quick and easy read, and the words themselves were perfectly nice, but the way they came together into a story absolutely did not work for our group of late-twenty-something females. Clearly we were not the target audience.

What happens in this novel is that a high school drama teacher picks Lysistrata for the school play and over the next couple of months leading up to the performance, a literal cold wind sweeps through town and causes the ladies to stop wanting their men. No sex, no cuddles, no intimacy if there’s a penis involved. The novel looks at all the different relationships in the town, from rock-solid marriages to rocky marriages to benefits-only relationships to high school romances, and shows us what happens when the women stop wanting the men.

And that’s a solid premise, which is part of why my friends and I were so upset at how the premise played out. Note: It’s pretty much complaints from here on out.

One big problem that I had was, simply, why. At the end you find out that this spell has been cast more or less purposely and for the purpose of strengthening relationships, but more than one relationships seems to be worse to me after the spell. And, okay, so, that’s on the spell caster and her weird priorities and maybe Wolitzer’s not saying that withholding sex is a winning relationship strategy, but she’s not not saying that either.

Another problem I had was, like, the core concept. In Lysistrata the women withhold sex for a reason, but in The Uncoupling it is withheld from them just as much as from the men. The men go a bit silly without their sex, and it seems like we’re meant to think that men can’t survive without sex or whatever, but it’s notable that none of them (that we see, anyway) leave their wives or girlfriends of their own volition. They’re all trying to fix their relationships, which from their perspective (I assume; we don’t actually get a male perspective) have been suddenly and irrevocably changed for no apparent reason. That would make me a little crazy, too.

It would be great if that were part of a nuanced story, but there’s an official publisher discussion question that reads, “Dory and Robby seem to be the perfect couple at the start of the book. How does the author signal that there might be problems beneath the surface?” She signals it by creating a giant problem beneath the surface! Come on!

So I just can’t even with the plot, is what I’m saying, and outside of main couple I didn’t particularly care about what happened to any of the characters. The sentences that made up the story were well written, and there was enough good in that to keep me reading and the book in one piece, but the ending was so completely unsatisfying that making it to the end wasn’t even consolation!

But the woman who picked this book assured us that at least Wolitzer’s The Interestings was completely different than this book, so there’s hope that Wolitzer and I can be reconciled and that I can figure out what all the hullabaloo is about. Just not anytime soon.

Recommendation: For… fans of Lysistrata? Women who are considering sex strikes? Other… people…?

Rating: 4/10

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustI just don’t even know what is going on with Flavia these days. I mean, I’ve always had my problems with these books, which have decently interesting mysteries and a delightful protagonist but which can’t decide if they want to drag on too long or not enough. But there was that short story a month or so back that just left me kind of cold, and then… this novel.

I was pretty excited about this book and the fact that we were going to get Flavia! In! Canada!, because seriously those graveyards in Bishop’s Lacey must have been overflowing after six books. And also because I was promised intrigue and secret organizations and general interesting new things. But what I got was confusion and more confusion and also some befuddlement.

So Flavia takes the boat to Canada, right, and then she settles into her dorm room at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy and then there’s a strange altercation and then there’s a dead body. In Flavia’s room. On day one. I’m not sure even Jessica Fletcher could do better. But this time Flavia doesn’t get to be terribly involved in this investigation because there are actual functioning adults around to take care of such things, and also because she has to, like, go to school and try to work out a dozen other mysteries of the campus.

Well, probably not a dozen. But there’s a lot. There are mysterious disappearances and faculty acting oddly, and then also there’s this whole thing about Flavia being in a society so secret that she apparently doesn’t even get to know who else is in it? Except that some other students are possibly dropping hints about it, but they’re so subtle they might not actually be hints, and then Flavia’s trying to drop hints and getting the stink-eye, and I am like omg wtf.

In the midst of all this Flavia does actually manage to solve that whole murder thing and also the disappearing students thing, but the solutions are both so ridiculous I don’t even want to talk about it except to say OMG WTF.

And then it gets worse! SPOILERS AHEAD: After Flavia solves these mysteries it is somehow determined that she no longer needs to be at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy even though she was there for like ten seconds and she gets shipped back to Britain to do God knows what. I wonder if Bradley realized his geographical mistake in the middle of writing the book, but having promised us Canada couldn’t take it back and this was his way of “fixing” things? Ugggggggh. (END SPOILERS)

It’s so awful. I mean, Flavia is still delightful, but the mystery is bad and so is the rest of the plot and I am just so disappointed. And yet you and I both know that as soon as the next Flavia book comes out I am going to read it, because I am a glutton for punishment and precocious eleven-year-olds. And really, it can only be better than this one. (She said, jinxing everything.)

Recommendation: For Flavia addicts only.

Rating: 4/10

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your NameLet me get this out of the way right now: the best part of this book is that it took me just two hours to read. The worst part? Everything else.

Is that fair? Maybe not; my fellow book clubbers seemed to actually like the book, so clearly your mileage may vary. But I really disliked this book, from the awful main character to the impressively contrived “plot” to the eye-roll-inducing ending.

See, there’s this woman, Clarissa, whose mother skipped out on the family when Clarissa was a teen and whose father has just died. In the process of cleaning up her dad’s house, Clarissa sees her birth certificate for the first time and is like, hey, that’s not my dad’s name, what gives? And her fiancé is like, oh, sweetie, that’s terrible, bee tee dubs, I’ve known this for like fifteen years, no big. Understandably, Clarissa is pretty upset; less understandably, she decides to fly to Scandinavia to meet her “real” father without telling anyone.

As you might guess, this does not go as well as maybe she anticipated it would, but it gets worse when it turns out (and this is not really a spoiler as it is heavily implied beforehand) that this guy isn’t her father either, and Clarissa ends up drifting around Lapland, hoping to find herself.

I’m reading what I just wrote, and I’m like, huh, that story sounds pretty good, actually. And it could have been, but then shortly after what I just described things get really awfully convenient for Clarissa and she finds, well, a heck of a lot more family than she expected to, and in the oddest of places, and under incredibly unlikely circumstances (such as booking a room in the Ice Hotel on opening day because they accidentally built extra rooms and somehow didn’t sell them, because that makes total sense). Even worse is that the narrative is first person and apparently Clarissa is the kind of person who enjoys making droll witticisms except she’s really not very good at it and so the story ends up getting across some important points in a really clunky manner.

I’ll allow that the ending does give me a bit of food for thought; the moral that Clarissa seems to impart is that running away from your problems is a totally viable way of moving on and leading a happy life, though it is obvious from the entire rest of the story as told by Clarissa that that’s kind of a jerk move. Which is true? Should you live your life for you or for the people that love you? It’s an interesting question.

I don’t know what could have made me like this book better. Third-person narrative? A longer timeframe for the story? Fewer “coincidences”? A completely different author and book? Probably that one. I’m just glad it’s over.

Recommendation: For fans of unlikeable characters, stilted writing, and plot contrivances.

Rating: 3/10

Stolen Bases, by Jennifer Ring

Stolen BasesI often say that being in a book club is great for reading books you would otherwise not have picked up or even heard of at all. But sometimes, and this is one of those times, I must also say that those books are not always good ones.

Our pick this time was ostensibly about the history of baseball and why girls don’t play it, which seems like a pretty interesting topic, actually. I’ve certainly watched the heck out of A League of Their Own, and was a rabid baseball fan back in the ’90s along with all the other Clevelanders, and even played softball for a summer before realizing I was absolutely terrible at it.

But this book was basically doomed for me from the beginning for the faults of being a) nonfiction, but moreso b) academic. If I’m going to read nonfiction, it’s going to be some Mary Roach-style, dryly funny, oddly interesting nonfiction that has me bothering Scott with “did you know?”s all day long.

Stolen Bases, to put it mildly, does not do that. I did learn some things that I did not know, like that Bob Feller was a little racist and that Albert Spalding apparently had some daddy issues, but they weren’t terribly interesting things. And the book was less dryly funny and more just painfully dry — it often read to me like someone’s research paper that they found out after finishing it was supposed to be 200 pages instead of, like, 20. There was a lot of repetition and redundancy and more than a little bit of seemingly baseless (ha!) speculation, and then some entirely different topics thrown in for good measure.

Those topics were pretty interesting, like the parts about the history of baseball as she is played and about racial discrimination in professional ball and how ladies totally play cricket all the time in those weird countries that play cricket, but they didn’t tie in terribly well with the alleged theme of the book. Even the parts about women playing baseball were presented less from the standpoint of “why aren’t women playing baseball” and more from the standpoint of “why are women systematically oppressed, even when it comes to sports”, which is not quite the same thing. I think if the book had just been called, like, How Baseball Hates Ladies and Non-WASPs and also Britain: a Study of Gender Politics, it would have been covered.

It might also have been helpful if Ring had gone out and interviewed baseball players and softball players and coaches and professional league administrators and whatnot and had gotten some current opinion on the topic, rather than collecting the opinions of dead people and calling it a day (not that you don’t need dead people, there are just a lot of dead people in this book). Or if she had picked a baseball-playing woman, like, say, her daughter, and written a biography of her… basically, I wanted this to be a very different book and I was sorely disappointed.

I thought perhaps I was just too far out of school and all that academic writing business, but those members of my book club who are in the business of writing academic things were also put off by the writing style and the lack of focus in the book, so at least it’s not just me?

Recommendation: Only read this if you’re super-duper interested in baseball and gender, and if you are that interested maybe go write me the Mary-Roach-ified version?

Rating: 4/10

A Mutiny in Time, by James Dashner

A Mutiny in TimeOkay, so, twenty pages in I knew this wasn’t the book for me. However, I promised my younger brother that I would read it and he is not the type to forget a promise made to him, and also the book is really short so whatever, I read it. And it was soooo bad.

Basically, this is the first in a series that is similar to The 39 Clues — two precocious kids find themselves in the middle of a crazy plot that extends hundreds of years into the past and are the only ones who can solve the puzzles and save the world, with the help of a slightly older but still underage guardian. I don’t know if there are trading cards with this series, but there’s definitely an online component and I’m sure there’s lots of money being made.

Anyway. The premise here is that a history-loving kid, Dak, has a great idea to let his science-loving “BFF forever” Sera into his science-loving parents’ lab, and she goes ahead and finishes building their time travel device, as a ten-year-old is wont to do. But of course, it’s not quite that simple, as the two kids are living in an alternate universe where some shadowy organization (the SQ) runs everything because they’ve changed history in their favor, and the kids end up recruited to a second shadowy organization (the Hystorians) dedicated to putting history right, but before they can learn all the things they need to save the world the first shadowy organization attacks the second one and Dak and Sera and Riq (a language-lover) end up going back in time by themselves.

There’s… kind of a lot going on. And it happens really really fast, because there are not many pages in this book and they have to invent time travel and then use it and then solve some puzzles and then fix this first problem in history. So the last part is like, look! We’re in Spain in 1492! The voyage to America must be the problem! Oh no, we’re being attacked by an SQ operative! Oh, good, we’re saved by a Hystorian! Now we’re on a boat! Now we know how to solve the problem! Now we’re in the brig! Now we’re not in the brig! Now we’ve saved the day!

The speediness wasn’t the only thing that bothered me, either. The very first thing that made me wary of the book was the naming. Dak Smyth. The Hystorians. Riq. Brint. Fraderick. I get it, we’re in an alternate universe where people don’t know how to spell. Awesome. But then also I noticed that this book was ostensibly about history and didn’t teach me a darned thing. Sure, Dak spouted off a bunch of history stuff, but considering what universe he lives in I’m not sure how true it is. And even when we’re actually on Columbus’s ship and the kids are trying to stop a mutiny, I was like, well, was there a planned mutiny? Are these SQ mutineers real people? I’m thinking maybe or sort of.

Probably a lot of what I didn’t like was caused by First-Book Infodump Syndrome, but I can’t imagine the series is going to get vastly better. Maybe if I were ten again I would be totally into this — my brother certainly loves it at fourteen — but as it stands I’m glad I have Liar and Spy on my TBR pile to cleanse my brain.

Recommendation: Probably for the tweenage history buff or series devourer in your life.

Rating: 4/10

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable WifeA disclaimer — I read this for a book club and put it off so long that I literally finished the book in the parking lot of the restaurant where we had our book club meeting. So I may not have been paying the closest attention to the book or the ending and therefore I may have missed all the parts that made this book a beloved bestseller.

Because, yeah. I definitely do not get the appeal of this book. I will grant that the premise is interesting — a fella advertises for a reliable wife, procures a lady allegedly such and also allegedly willing to spend her life in Practically Canada, Wisconsin, but then it turns out that not only are these facts false, but both parties have some ulterior motives for this seemingly innocent transaction. I suppose I should mention that the book takes place in the early 20th century, so the whole advertising-for-a-wife thing is not as weird as it could be.

Part of the problem I have with this book is that the premise invites intrigue and mystery and perhaps some plot, but it’s one of those gothic novels that is more about how snow-covered Practically Canada is and how pretty flowers are and blah blah imagery blah. And yeah, sometimes I like me a gothic novel but this one was just not holding my interest at all.

And I think that’s probably because Goolrick goes for the twist, like, every chapter, and sometimes the twists are “twists,” like, yeah, saw that coming, and sometimes the twists are so completely outlandish that I’m like, “WHAT.” and I just have to go on with my day and not think about it because it will just make my head hurt. I mean, really, let’s make our twists actually consistent with the rest of the book, yes?

I was also let down by the characters, none of whom I liked or really cared about at all. There were a few moments in the story that might have been touching or sad or even just interesting had I felt like I had any connection to the characters involved, but instead I was just left baffled by their actions.

Yet somehow I managed not to hate this book as so many in my book club did. I suppose I’ve read enough gothic novels to know to appreciate the descriptions and recurring themes, and an undergraduate English class could certainly have a field day analyzing the way the characters keep mimicking each other throughout the story. The book’s got its merits certainly, but strictly on the basis of sitting down and enjoying a good read? This is not that book.

Recommendation: For fans of the gothic and maybe book clubs (like mine) whose members like to complain about things?

Rating: 4/10