The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyI saved this book to read with my book club because it seemed like the sort of book that would have a lot of thinky bits to talk about, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to said book club meeting due to unexpected depressing vacation, so I didn’t really get a chance to refine all the thinky thoughts I wanted to about this book before committing them to the internet. Oh, well, it’s the internet, no one will notice!

But really, this is just the sort of book you need to unpack with a friend or two. It’s a fairly quiet book and for most of the book it doesn’t really seem like anything is happening, but by the time you get to the end you’ve learned a lot of things about the characters and about life in general and you’re like, huh.

A lot of details are parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book, so there are probably unintended spoilers ahead as I forget what we know at the beginning of the book and what we learn later. Fair warning!

Okay, so, this girl who fell from the sky is our protagonist, Rachel, who literally survived a fall off the top of an apartment building — a fall that killed the rest of her family and left her to be shipped off to Portland to live with her grandmother. After a childhood in Germany and an all-too-quick stint in Chicago, Rachel, daughter of a black American father and a white Danish mother and now living with her father’s mother, finds it difficult to navigate the racial complexities of middle and then high school. She also finds it difficult to properly remember her parents, who left her under very different circumstances, neither of which Rachel can understand.

Rachel’s story in the present is told in a pretty linear fashion, following her as she grows from a child to a teenager. Her story in the past, on the other hand, is largely told through other people’s eyes, specifically her mother’s, in the form of her mother’s diary of their life in Chicago, and those of a young boy who saw “the girl who fell from the sky” as a child and who becomes kind of obsessed with her in the mostly non-creepy way of a child. All of these points of view weave together a story that is incredibly sad and makes me want to hug all the people and pets and inanimate objects that I like a lot.

I’ll admit that that’s not quite what I was expecting when I picked the book — with a title like that I was ready for more action and intrigue than quiet reflection, but I quickly got over that and enjoyed the book quite a bit. I would still love to talk thinky thoughts with other people about some of the specifics, though, so if you read this book, share yours with me!

Recommendation: For thinky thought thinkers and those who enjoy a multiple-point-of-view story.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchI read Tartt’s The Secret History a few years back and said then that I liked it okay but would probably like it better with time. This was a very accurate statement, as I remember the book fondly enough to be kind of excited about reading an 800-page novel by the same author. Eight hundred pages. Criminy.

I actually had to take a break in the middle of reading this book to go read Their Eyes Were Watching God for my book club, this book was so long, and it was kind of weird, actually, because I found myself thinking that Hurston’s novel was kind of not really about anything and therefore kind of boring, while at the same time being really excited to get back to Tartt’s novel, which was kind of not really about anything but somehow quite gripping.

Probably this has to do with the fact that there is one overarching plotline through the whole book, which is that at the very beginning of the book our protagonist, Theo, survives a terrorist attack at a New York art museum and also kind of maybe steals a really famous painting on his way out, for reasons that make sense at the time. Theo’s mother does not survive the bombing, and so Theo and the painting get shuffled around the country as he goes to live with a friend’s family and then his own deadbeat father and then with a person he met via the terrorist attack. And of course the longer Theo has this painting the harder it is to a) give it up and b) give it up without getting in scads of trouble.

The rest of the story, during the first part of the book, is about Theo dealing with his mother’s death and the indifference of his father’s family and his missing father and then his suddenly fatherly father and how a kid can survive an event so catastrophic. There’s a lot about Theo going about his life in New York, and then creating a new life with his father in Las Vegas that involves doing pretty much every terrible thing a teenager can do, because why not, and then going back to New York and trying to figure out what kind of life to live there. It is not unlike reading about your own childhood, though yours probably had less drug-taking, but there’s also this painting and what the heck is going to happen with this painting??

Then in the second part everything changes — Theo, who I was totally rooting for even in Las Vegas, turns into an adult who makes incredibly poor life choices and I was like, fine, don’t be a decent human being, see if I care. And then his bad decisions start having consequences and people are threatening him and other people are showing up with some nasty surprises and then the whole thing goes to Amsterdam and nothing good can come of Amsterdam. (Actually, I adore Amsterdam and had a fine bad-decision-free time there, but you know what I mean.)

I like the first part of the book quite a lot, and I liked the second part quite a lot probably only because of the first part. The story goes a little off the rails with all the stuff that is happening to Theo all at once and with the forgeries and the thievery and the guns and violence… it’s obviously super exciting at this point, and I really kept reading hoping that Theo would make it out of all these situations relatively unharmed, but it is rather more bonkers than I was prepared for.

And then the ending… much as I did with The Martian, I am allowing most of the ending but pretending the last couple of pages were mysteriously missing from my copy of the book, because I hear that those last couple of pages tie things up just a little too neatly for certain people’s sensibilities and that it probably does a disservice to the rest of the story. I hear.

But as I said at the beginning, the plot of the story isn’t really the important part; the story is really about Theo as a character and his interactions with the other characters and Tartt, as always, brings it in that regard. I loved and hated Theo, and although I enjoyed discovering the personalities and secrets of the other characters along with him, I liked also that Tartt gave those characters enough personality that I could tell when Theo was being particularly obtuse about one friend or another. Or all of them, really. Possibly most impressively, Tartt gives the titular painting its own sort of enigmatic personality, enough that I totally want to go see this painting in person along with apparently every other person who read this book. This is clearly a good reason to go back to The Netherlands, yes?

Recommendation: For people with a lot of time to give to this novel, people who like to hate characters, and people who don’t mind some bonkers in their literary fiction.

Rating: 9/10

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

A Separate PeaceThis was the first book I chose for my library book club (because you know I need another book club…) for some very specific reasons: It had several copies available in the system, it was not terribly long, and it was a book I thought I probably should have read by now.

And, in fact, yes, this is a book that I should have gotten around to long ago, but it was never required in school and so I hadn’t actually heard of it until maybe a few years ago. It’s an obvious precursor to many of my favorite novels and very likely to my absolute favorite movie, Dead Poets Society. Young boys in boarding school coming of age? That is totally my jam.

This particular boys-coming-of-age-at-boarding-school story takes place in New England shortly after the U.S. entered World War II and is narrated by an adult Gene looking back at his time on campus, particularly one terrible horrible no-good very bad year. In that year, Gene and his bffaeae Finny avoid thinking about the war by doing other foolish and dangerous things, all leading up to this one thing that happens that haunts Gene for the rest of his life.

And it’s pretty great. Most War-era books I’ve read have taken place in the middle of the war and especially in the middle of the fighting, so reading about these boys so close to going off to war but so removed from the war itself was really interesting to me. And of course there’s the whole boarding-school/high-school atmosphere of everything mattering oh so very much and the incomparable importance of friends and grades and sports, which I cannot help but love from afar.

Gene’s internal struggles are the true heart of the novel, though, and they are struggles that I can sadly understand. He spends a lot of the novel wondering whether his best friend is really a friend trying to make Gene a better person or actually an enemy trying to bring Gene down to lift himself up, and although it’s obvious that it’s the former, Gene is pretty convincing that it could be the latter. I found myself shouting at the book more than once, “Hey, idiot! Seriously! What is wrong with you?!” Oh, how glad I am that I never have to be sixteen again.

The big downside to reading this novel is that I have read and watched so many of its direct and indirect descendants, so some of the important twists and consequences of the novel were preeeeeeeetty obvious because I’d seen them before. But I really would never have seen Leper’s (yes, that’s a character’s name) storyline coming. Poor kid.

Recommendation: For fans of boarding-school coming-of-age novels and those who have ever been insecure.

Rating: 7/10

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

So here’s a book I was probably never going to read, because everyone and their brother was fawning over it when it came out a couple years ago and I only go for those massively loved books if they sound like something I’d read anyway (see The Night Circus). And while I have a soft spot for Holocaust books, I have somehow never gotten into other World War II books in the same way. But perhaps this will change, because this was a pretty good book!

Hotel, as I will call it because dang, long title, is about a dude who hears about a trove of unclaimed stuff left after the forced removal of Japanese Americans from Seattle during “the war years” and is like, “Hey, I know a person who left her stuff there! I’mma go looking for a specific thing that might be there, but also I’ll take some time to prove to my estranged son that I have layers and maybe also stop acting like my father while I’m at it.”

Hmm. That sounds pretty bad. But for all that I love frame stories, I really prefer the frame to be around the story, not all up in it (see The Madonnas of Leningrad), and so this outer story with the dad and the son and the dead wife was pretty meh to me.

What I really enjoyed was the past story, with Our Dude, Henry, growing up Chinese and American at the same time and dealing with all of that drama and then also dealing with having a Japanese best friend (not good for Chinese or American kids at the time) and watching how her life goes terribly and unfixably wrong. There’s so much truth and sadness to Henry’s life at a new, white school — the loss of his old friends, the rejection by his new classmates, his parents’ pride in the scholarship that has him slinging food in the cafeteria every day, his attachment to the only other person who might understand. It’s quite beautiful.

I wish the whole of the book had felt that way; there was a lot of the frame story that was less than truthful and often boringly predictable. But not offensively so, and I was so excited to get back to kid Henry’s story that it didn’t bother me terribly much.

I’m not sure I would ever have picked this book up were it not for my book club, and I’m not sure I would go recommend this book to my past self without the reward of the book club, but I am glad that I read it and I hope it opens up a whole new section of war stories for me.

Recommendation: For fans of war stories and coming-of-age stories, and also possibly people who like jazz music.

Rating: 7/10