Run, by Ann Patchett

RunI’ve had Ann Patchett on my list of authors to get around to for some time now, so I’m very glad my book club chose this book and gave me that push to actually do so. But now I think I have to put her on my list of authors to give another shot, because this book? Didn’t really do it for me.

It’s a weird book to try to talk about (note to book clubs: does not make a great meeting), because while I read it eagerly over the course of four hours or so, I managed to come away with no strong feelings about it.

The plot is… weird. It centers on this wealthy political family in Boston with a dad and three sons, two of whom are adopted and black in an otherwise very white family. The dad dotes on the adopted sons; the biological son is kind of a screwup. Then the dad and the two adopted sons go to a Jesse Jackson event and afterward one of the sons is very nearly killed by a car except that he gets pushed out of the way at the last moment… by his biological mother.

Now, that sounds really cool, I think, but the book does not do the cool things with it that I would have wanted. The mother stays mostly unconscious in the hospital for the duration of the book, so we don’t get terribly much from her except for a strange interlude where she talks to her dead best friend. Instead we focus on the mother’s daughter, who knows that the brothers are her brothers and has apparently been keeping an eye on them with her mother all her life and is now being taken care of by this family that apparently didn’t have enough issues already.

The book does some interesting things. It opens with this fantastic story about a statue that I probably could have read an entire novel about. I can see it doing cool things with repetition and layered meanings. It talks about race, class, family dynamics, how our choices affect other people, all that good stuff. But for all the talking it does, I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.

In our book club meeting, my friend who picked the book mentioned that this book reads a lot like a fairy tale, with allegories and magical realism and things that just don’t make sense if you’re trying to read this as a straightforward novel. Unfortunately, the allegories of the book are largely political, calling to mind to my friends the Kennedys and other politicians and their various scandals, but my understanding of these references ended at knowing that Ted Kennedy was a person, so.

So onto the list of authors to try again Patchett goes. Maybe if I can read her awesome writing with some references that I understand, I’ll do a lot better!

Recommendation: For people who know politics, probably, and people interested in some weirdly twisty plot lines.

Rating: 6/10

Weekend Shorts: The Obligatory Running Post

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningIf you’re a friend of mine, on Facebook or IRL, you’ve probably heard that I’ve taken up that dread sport called running. Well, jogging, really, or as my husband’s uncle recently said, “fast walking,” which I don’t think is entirely fair but uncles weren’t made to boost your ego.

Anyway, regardless of how fast I’m moving, running is my new thing. I sort of half-heartedly started up in the spring with some very short jogs that could probably fairly be called fast walking, then I made a point of doing said jogs on a regular schedule, and then in September I found the Hogwarts Running Club and things got super serious.

In May, if you had told me I would run a 5k by the end of the year, I would have been like, “Sweet! Good job, me!” It’s absolutely baffling to me that I’ve run 10 5k or greater distances in the last two months, I ran 5 miles last Sunday, and I’m planning to run 6.2442 miles on Thanksgiving for a Hogwarts Running Club virtual race. And that 6+ miles isn’t even daunting. I’m looking forward to it!

To bring this back to books, I’ve been meaning to pick up another Murakami book since I liked that novel of his I read for book club, and it turns out that he wrote a whole memoir about running! And I needed a new nonfiction/memoir audiobook to listen to! It was kismet, obviously.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
Of course, it turns out that this book has almost nothing in common with his novels, which, why would it, as far as I can tell he writes nothing but bonkers fiction and this is a relatively straightforward memoir/travelogue. Blast.

Also, I’ve been spoiled by great audiobook narrators lately and this guy’s flat affect and snooze-inducing tone just did not make me super interested in what Murakami had to say. So it’s possible this book is absolutely fascinating, but I just missed out on it?

Unfortunately, my own takeaways from this memoir are basically, like, do your best and then do better but if you fail at least you tried and you can try harder next time or you can try something new and get better at that, whatever, you do you. Which does not a 5-hour audiobook make. The rest of the space is filled with Murakami’s training for various marathons (spoiler: he runs a lot and then runs some more), his insecurity over losing his speed as he ages, and his newfound interest in triathlons to make up for said loss.

It’s… I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s not unlike anyone you know talking to you for five hours about anything. He repeats himself a bit, he says things that don’t seem terribly important, and he lacks a focus that could have kept me more interested.

If you’re into running, I feel like this is one of those things you have to read just to check it off your list. But I’ll be sticking to my funny people memoirs in the future, I think.

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

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAnother month, another library book club pick selected because I needed an excuse to get around to reading it! This book has been out for a while and shows up on my radar every few months or so when someone gets mad about the book being taught to poor innocent high-schoolers or whatever the case is at the time, and of course I am intrigued by books that make people mad (which is probably not what those angry people are going for), but I’d never managed to actually find out what the book is about, which is an important component in my book selection process. So I figured I’d find out, with some nice patrons along for the ride!

The main character, Arnold, is an Indian kid on a reservation outside of Spokane who also happens to have some physical problems, from a lisp and stutter to giant feet to seizures, that make him an outcast on the reservation. He has one best friend who hangs out with him and protects him a little bit, but that friendship becomes strained pretty quickly once Arnold decides he wants to go to school off the reservation.

That’s pretty much what this book is about — a kid leaving what he knows and doesn’t necessarily like very much to go do something new that he might like better. I had sort of presumed from Arnold’s self-description that this would be a book about overcoming physical impediments and realizing that everyone is as messed up as you are, but that’s really not the case. In fact, after those problems are listed at the beginning of the book, they almost never come up again. Arnold is, outside of his looks and his speech, a regular teenage dude who draws comics sprinkled throughout the novel, tries to figure out how to balance his home life and his school life, and, most importantly for the angry people above, thinks about sex.

What actually drives the novel is that second part, the disconnect between life on the reservation and life in the lily-white town of Reardan outside the reservation, where Arnold notes that he and the mascot are the only Indians. Arnold has to beg rides or hitchhike or walk 20 miles to get to and from school. His family is poor and alcoholic and becomes depressingly smaller over the course of the book. His friends and most of the other Indians on the reservation consider him a traitor for leaving. When he scores a personal victory by helping the Rearden basketball team beat his old school team, he quickly realizes that a white victory over Indians is not something he really wants to celebrate.

I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed this novel, which lacked the plot and character development that I was hoping for (that’s my bad) and had a sort of meandering diary-style narrative that left me confused at times, but I found it absolutely fascinating in its portrayal of Indian life, which I think we’ve established I don’t know too much about, and its portrayal of teens as kind of boring humans, which I don’t see all that much amidst my pile of dystopian YA trilogies. It’s definitely brain food rather than brain candy, and I will likely be seeking out more from Alexie in the future.

Recommendation: For those looking to learn more about Indian life and those looking for a more-realistic-than most tale of teenagerhood.

Rating: 7/10

In the Woods, by Tana French

In the WoodsIf you’ve been around this blog for a while, this title might sound a little familiar. Yes, indeed, this is the third time I’ve read this book, and the second and third time I’ve inflicted it on a book club (multi-tasking!). So I’m just going to skip the plot rehashing (previous blog posts linked below) and go straight into the thinky thoughts.

It was really fascinating to read this book a third time; I almost never re-read books and this may be the only book I’ve read three times in adulthood (well, maybe The Phantom Tollbooth?). In my first reading, my big takeaway from the novel was the insane, convoluted path the case took to the absolutely frustrating ending. Throw-the-book-across-the-room frustrating. Uggggh. In the second reading, I made a point of looking for all the hints and clues French left pointing toward said ending, and oh my goodness there were so many.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this reading — what could possibly be left to interest me for 400-some pages? Lots, actually. This time around I found myself drawn to Rob Ryan’s constant refrain of “I’m a liar” and “I am not to be trusted” and noting the holes in his narrative. How did he really feel about Cassie? Why was he so set on remaining on this case? What the heck really happened in those woods all those years ago? My book-club-mates came up with some ideas for that last one that I hadn’t thought of through three entire readings, and that I would have dismissed out of hand after two of them, but now I am definitely wondering. Darn you, unreliable narrator!

The other thing I noticed more in this reading was French’s devotion to the setting. I wasn’t really versed in Gothic literature until well after reading this book the first time and maybe even after the second, so I kind of didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the Knocknaree woods are practically a character in their own right, hiding secret castles and spiriting away children and becoming an obsession for more than one otherwise-rational dude. At first, French’s attention to detail frustrated me a bit, as I was like, dude, I forgot how long this book is and book club is coming faster than I anticipated and let’s just get back to the horrifying murder, ‘kay? But then her gorgeous writing won me over and I was happy to let her words wash over me late, late into the night so that I could finish the book in time.

I warned one of my book clubs that they were all going to hate the ending, as there is absolutely no way to finish this book the first time and not want to punch one or more fictional characters right in the face, and at the meeting they were all like, you were SO right. But it’s a testament to the strength of French’s writing that half of them were excited to hear that there were more books to read and more ridiculous murders to solve (or not solve, as the case may be).

The fact that I was willing to read the book three times is also telling, although there is very little that would compel me to go for four. I actually liked this book better the second time around, when I could see all the awful coming and note how skillfully French made it impossible to see the first time, but on a third reading it became less of a fantastic story and more of a piece of literature to be broken down and analyzed and while it was a fascinating read, it just wasn’t as fun as I remembered. Luckily French continues to provide me new things to read, including this fall’s The Secret Place (which I am SO EXCITED about omg), so I can get back to having fun very soon!

Recommendation: For those who’ve bought a hard copy ready to be thrown across the room and those who love a great turn of phrase as much as a great plot twist.

Rating: 8/10 this time, but grudgingly.

The Woods, by Harlan Coben (12 July)

Let me just start by saying that I am very glad I only paid 14.7 cents for this book. Yeah. I must have read a glowing review somewhere, but honestly I would not have finished this book if it weren’t the only book I had to read on my drive home Sunday.

Maybe it’s because it’s Coben’s what, fourteenth book (and I haven’t read any others), but the premise seems a little… out there? and also it seems that his editors took a nap on this one. There are a lot of little annoyances, like using seem(s) in three of four consecutive sentences, and a couple big things, like harping on a character’s hatred of the outdoors for a paragraph and then five pages later telling me that she’s enjoying climbing on rocks and around trees, that just made it really hard to get into the story.

But back to the premise: Paul Copeland was a camp counselor at a summer camp the year that his sister and three other kids disappeared into the woods. Two of them turned up dead; Paul’s sister and one of the boys were never found. Now, 20 years later, Copeland is a county prosecutor, trying high-profile cases in Essex County, New Jersey. He’s dealt with his sister’s ambiguous death (with just a disappearance, there’s always hope) as best he can, but then a couple of cops show up with news that a now-dead guy seems to have been looking for him in relation to the camp deaths. When Copeland goes to identify the mystery man, he realizes it’s none other than the boy who disappeared from the woods along with Copeland’s sister. Copeland starts an investigation into this thing (yeah, I don’t know how that works, either) and learns a lot of things he might not have wanted to know about what really happened.

And that seems okay, I guess, but there’s a lot more to it — Copeland’s high-profile case has a couple of defendants whose parents decide to drag his name through the mud a few dozen times, he reunites with his summer-camp girlfriend who also wants to know what’s going on, his dad may or may not be KGB, there are cover-ups of all sorts of different crimes rolled up into this one…. It’s just too much. It’s like Coben thought, how many different twists can I throw into this mystery before my readers will strangle me?, and then added two or three more. And then he pulls the “I don’t care that the mystery is over, let me throw in just one more twist that the readers will find shocking but that doesn’t really factor into the story at all” bit that Jodi Picoult likes so much, and really. Come on. Come on.

I understand that Coben has won some awards for previous novels. If you’ve read both this one and (one of) those — are they better?

Rating: 4/10

Captain’s Fury, by Jim Butcher (3 July — 4 July)

I took a long (for me, anyway) break from the Codex Alera series because of the “little tiny major thing that happens at the very end and makes me want to scream in frustration” part of the third book. I was like, no way. Uh-uh. And then I was in the library, and the fourth book was there, and I was like, who knows? Maybe it could be okay.

And, well, you know, I’m glad I did. Because the thing that could have been frustrating was actually very well-handled and blah, blah, if I had a hat I didn’t care much for, I’d eat it. And since it’s not really central to the plot, I will just move along now.

So it’s been two years since that big battle with the Canim, and Tavi is still leading his army under the guise of Rufus Scipio. Things are as they ever were, except that an Aleran senator called Arnos thinks that fighting is easy-peasy and brings in a couple of legions of his “First Senatorial” to complement (read: take over for) Tavi’s First Aleran. Arnos is ready to lead his troops to their death, which was not on Tavi’s agenda for the year and as such Tavi does what he can to thwart Arnos’s plans. Of course, then Arnos thwarts Tavi by catching him at “treason” (read: talking to the head of the Canim troops to attempt to declare a cease-fire) and gets Tavi thrown in jail. Oops.

Meanwhile, the First Lord has decided that being passive is for losers and recruits Amara and Bernard to help him walk into Kalare’s stronghold (literally; Gaius Sextus’s furies are being tracked so he can’t use them) and stop Kalare from a) destroying his own people and b) destroying the Aleran government. This is a good plan until Sextus injures himself but good and walking becomes limping becomes riding a sled through a swamp.

As usual, there is lots of fighting and lots of furycrafting and a little bit of sexing and some double-crossing and maybe triple-crossing but I can’t keep track of all that intrigue. This series is definitely back on my good list.

Rating: 7.5/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Chunkster Challenge)