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.

Weekend Shorts: Welcome to Persepolis

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

Anyway, let’s see what these are about!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeI brought this audiobook to listen to with my husband on a recent road trip, which was a great idea except for the fact that I haven’t listened to an audiobook in ages and I think I may have forgotten how to do it. I found myself often asking Scott to explain something that had just been explained thoroughly by the narrator, or backing up a track or two after a rest stop because in the five minutes I was away from the car I forgot everything that had happened. I will partially blame this on the narrator, who had a voice that was so soothing that I literally fell asleep to it, missing an hour or so of story that I wasn’t willing to make Scott listen to again.

But the parts that registered with me were super fascinating, so as soon as I got back to work I procured the print copy and proceeded to start the thing all over again, which was good because I missed more little details than I thought I did. It was also good because Atwood throws in a few “If only I knew then what I knew now”s which were all the more terrible for having that future knowledge.

I didn’t know when I picked this book out that it was going to be another in this year’s spate of superflu-type reads, but hey, it’s a theme, let’s go with it! The story starts after Some Terrible Thing has happened and a dude called Snowman is the only person left in the world except for a group of people he is sort of in charge of and who don’t understand clothes or body hair or meat-eating, for not-yet-explained reasons. Snowman tells them stories of Oryx and Crake, who are painted as vaguely god-like creatures who watch over this strange group, but it’s clear there is more to these stories.

So we jump back in time (yay!) to when Snowman was a child called Jimmy, living on a tech-business compound with his scientist dad and ex-scientist mom. His compound, and others like it, are basically gated communities designed to keep out the diseases rampant out in the pleeblands while the scientists work on curing them or at least genetically engineering ways to avoid them. Enter strange animal hybrids like the rakunk, bobkitten, and pigoon, the last of which is a breeder of new organs for humans, which is… cool? Anyway, Jimmy makes friends with a new kid in school named Glenn but called Crake, and as you can probably guess he plays a bit of a role in Jimmy becoming Snowman, and in the creation of Snowman’s odd friends.

The book is a great and terrifying bit of world-building, with great scientific advancements contrasted with some awful and/or disgusting ones that are going to put me off my chicken nuggets for a while (but not long, which is the worst part). There is fascinating commentary on all sorts of topics, from genetic engineering to scientific ethics to the exploitation of minors to the vulgarity of the internet, and Atwood is so good that I found myself agreeing with pretty much every side of every argument. I’m even kind of rooting for the Noodie News to exist… wait, it probably already does, doesn’t it? I am NOT googling that. I just googled that. It totally exists. Canada, you’re so weird.

Aaanyway, I quite enjoyed this book and I am super excited that there are two companion books that exist so that I don’t have to think too hard about my next road-trip listen. I’m just going to have to stay awake this time!

Recommendation: For anyone not sick of super-flu (haaa) and anyone who likes thinky speculative fiction.

Rating: 8/10

City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau

City of EmberAnother pick for my library book club — this one I hadn’t even heard of until I found four copies of it in my children’s section, and then I figured, hey, if we already have a lot of copies of it…

Also my coworker said it was good. I’m not that lax with my book club picks, y’all.

So this book. It is yet another post-apocalyptic kids book, but the twist to this one is that you find out at the beginning that some people called “Builders” built (naturally) the titular city after some catastrophe and left time-locked instructions to be passed down mayor-to-mayor for a couple hundred years so that the future residents could come back to wherever their ancestors started.

Except, of course, the instructions get lost, and now Ember is a couple decades past its expiration date and barely hanging on to its stores of canned food and lightbulbs, which are super important because when the lights go out they ALL go out, and there’s no sun or moon hanging around to help out.

Our hero Lina finds the instructions shortly after they’ve been baby-nommed, but with the help of our other hero Doon she sets off to solve the mystery of the instructions and of the weird way that Ember’s mayor has been acting lately.

And… that’s practically the whole book. It’s super short and super fast. It’s also the first book in a series of four, which is part of why it seems so fast — as soon as you reach what feels like the midpoint, the book is over and it’s time to go buy the next one. I was not warned of this! At least it’s not a cliffhanger; if you take the book as standalone, which I am likely to do, it ends in a place where you can kind of make up your own ending.

I enjoyed the trade-off in narration between Lina and Doon, and I liked that they were young enough that there was no dang love story mucking everything up (though I’m sure that’ll come in a few books…) and that they shared pretty equally in responsibility for solving the instruction puzzle and attempting to follow through on said instructions and generally trying to make their town a better place. And I’m intrigued by a a lot of the details that didn’t get explained in this book — the unknown area outside of Ember’s light, the reason for building Ember in the first place, why Ember wasn’t made self-sustaining in the first place — all those sorts of things that will probably get explained in later books.

But I probably won’t read those later books, because there was so little to the book as it stands that I’m just not invested. Like Divergent, if I had had all the books sitting in front of me it might have been a different story, but sadly, I did not. I will definitely be foisting the series on all my little library patrons, though, and I am positive they will tell me all about it when they’re done.

Recommendation: For kids who haven’t yet delved into post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds and/or are slightly too young for The Giver.

Rating: 6/10

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of SamarkandDear Bartimaeus, You are wonderful, let’s go hang out together. Love, Alison.

I listened to this book back in the day and fell madly in love with it — I mean, how could you not fall in love with Simon Jones? It’s impossible! Ever since, this book has been one of those books that I find not many people know about, and when I do find a person who has read it and loved it we are clearly meant to be BFFs (well, at least in one case!). So obviously I was really excited when my in-person book club put it on the schedule for September, although I wasn’t going to have time to listen to it again and was a bit worried about reading the book without the help of the handsomely voiced Mr. Jones.

I needn’t have worried; the book is nearly as fantastic as read by the voices in my head and also THERE ARE FOOTNOTES. Why was I not informed of the footnotes earlier? Goodness me I love a footnote, and actually I felt like the constant asides made a heck of a lot more sense having a party at the bottom of the page as opposed to hanging out in parentheses as I had assumed. There’s just something about seeing that little superscript and knowing there’s something hilarious waiting for you just inches away…

Ahem. I digress. Without footnotes. How disappointing!

So anyway, the book is as hilarious as ever. Our intrepid narrator is the aforementioned Bartimaeus, who enters the book in a cloud of stereotypical demon trappings because wouldn’t you, if you were a demon, and proceeds to joke and trick and mostly luck his way out of all sorts of magical problems, most of which are caused by the third-person-narrated Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a very young magician in a world where magicians rule via threats, intimidation, and the enslavement of demon-types, and even though we first meet him doing that third thing and also he’s young and therefore dumb and annoying (I do not miss being dumb and annoying), he’s a decent kid and I was pulling for him the whole book.

The plot of the novel involves Nathaniel having Bartimaeus steal an unexpectedly potent magical thing from an expectedly potent magician, which of course turns out to be a very terrible idea and ends with lots of magical fights and a few deaths. But the reason I love this novel is its world-building. Stroud takes your average fantasy world with magic and spells and pentacles and whatnot and makes it disturbingly like our regular world with class struggles and power-hungry politicians and foolish children and also wisecracking djinnis. Well, I wish our world had wisecracking djinnis, anyway.

I also, as you may guess, love Bartimaeus, who is basically the greatest character ever characterized. He’s a demon who just wants to do his thing, no matter what he is actually required to do, and who will grumble amusingly until such time as he can figure out how to do his thing. He also has a healthy sense of his place in society (not too high on the demon scale, not too low) and uses it to great advantage, which is a pretty good life lesson, actually!

I’ve read the rest of the (increasingly inaccurately named) Bartimaeus Trilogy, and they were all pretty decent, but this remains my absolute favorite of the series and one of my favorite fantasy novels in general. If you haven’t read it, take a few hours and rectify that situation!

Recommendation: Read it, even if you don’t think you like fantasy, and especially if you like sarcasm and awesome fight scenes.

Rating: 9/10 (I have to admit that Simon Jones is what makes it a 10!)

an RIP read

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

StiffMary Roach is one of the few nonfiction authors whom I have on my list of “authors whose entire backlist I should go read right now,” which is partially because I just don’t read that much nonfiction but mostly because Mary Roach writes that special kind of nonfiction that doesn’t feel like learning and therefore I am more willing to listen to it!

And I do mean listen — I don’t actually have any experience with Mary Roach in print form because I take her on road trips with me instead! This is good, because I get to listen to awesome and weird and often gross things that help keep me awake in the umpteenth hour of driving, but also kind of bad because the books end up running together with all the other podcasts and NPR segments I listen to.

That’s not so much a problem with this book, Roach’s first and the last of her backlist I had yet to read (now on to her newest book, Gulp!), because it’s about dead bodies and what strange things we do with them, like donating them to science or breaking them down via composting or plastinating them (is that a verb? I’m going with it) and showing them off to people who can’t decide whether to be intrigued or creeped out. I don’t hear much about that on NPR these days…

I think I was most interested by the parts about donating bodies to science and what sorts of rules and regulations there are for using said bodies and also the strange visceral reactions people have to the use of their dead relatives. I found it strange that a person might have a problem with a relative becoming a crash test dummy or otherwise being an entire body doing something gross or embarrassing for a live person, but be perfectly fine having a relative sort of chopped up into pieces suitable for use on smaller-scale experiments.

I also liked the foray into the funeral business and the true creepiness that is the embalming and beautifying process for those open-casket funerals (which will not be happening to any relatives on my watch, because seriously, creepy), and was supremely grossed out by the chapter on head transplants and the scientific experiments on animals who deserved better from life than to suffer that indignity.

But as always, no matter whether I’m amused or disgusted by what Roach is talking about, she makes the topic as accessible and humorous as possible. I think Roach could do wonders for education if she sat down and wrote a science curriculum or two, but then I wouldn’t have her available to write books for me, so I guess those kids will just have to deal with what they’ve got!

Recommendation: For people with strong stomachs and a love of weird science trivia.

Rating: 7/10

The Dogs of Babel, by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of BabelMy book club is reading Lost and Found later this year, and maybe a few months ago at a meeting someone was waxing ecstatic about Parkhurst’s first book, The Dogs of Babel, “You know, the one with the talking dogs?”

Right, yeah, that one, no thank you.

“But it’s so good! Look, it’s in the library that you are in RIGHT NOW!” Fine, fine, I said, and then it languished on my shelf for many months until the library was like, no, seriously, bring that back on Monday or you will owe us a dime!

And I had just finished reading The Whore of Akron and I needed something less angry and so I ended up reading this really intriguing and awesome book.

I love it when that happens.

So, this book, it is not actually about talking dogs, not really, but kind of? There’s this fellow, our present-tense narrator, whose wife has died from falling out of a very tall tree and it’s a horrible sad accident except our narrator thinks maybe it wasn’t an accident because of reasons. The only witness to the event is the family dog, and conveniently our narrator is a linguistics professor and conveniently in this fictional world there’s a guy what made a dog actually talk, and so our narrator takes a sabbatical to see if he can’t teach his dog some rudimentary language skills.

But of course there’s more to it than that, and our narrator also spends his sabbatical trying to piece together what might have happened on his own, and what I think is really interesting about this novel is that the wife is a total Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I think this is the first time I’ve encountered an MPDG story in which said MPDG settles down and makes a life with her besotted man, although it would be more exciting if she weren’t, you know, dead. Alas.

Now I really want someone to write a story from the perspective of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Has this already happened? Make this happen!

So, anyway, the story was really engaging. I wanted to know what happened to the wife, and what would happen with the dog and the talking, and Parkhurst added in more things I wanted to know about at just the right intervals and then at the end she made me cry and hug my husband and warn him against climbing any incredibly tall trees. And I am now super-excited for Lost and Found, which is apparently about people on an Amazing Race-like show and hey, is it December yet so I can read that book? Hurry along, year!

Recommendation: Read this if you’re looking for a quick page-turner and/or a decent cry.

Rating: 9/10