The Human Division Parts 6 & 7, by John Scalzi

I really cannot help but enjoy The Human Division. It’s like a present (that I paid for) every week! Here are some more thoughts on recent stories:

#6: The Back Channel

The Back ChannelI really think the best part of this story series, and eventually this novel, is that we get a chance to see what’s going on from all sorts of different points of view (without having to read an entire other novel, though that’s fun too!). This story is especially interesting because it’s from the point of view of the generally accepted bad guy, though of course he’s not as bad as people make him out to be. In fact, it seems that he’s just like any of our good guys, doing the politics and making the promises and getting people to solve his problems with threats of violence. As it goes.

#7: The Dog King

The Dog KingThis is a story that I found probably more amusing than it was, on account of I was reading it while doing my treadmill thing (as I’ve done for all of these stories) and it was a delightful distraction. There’s a tiny puppy and carnivorous plants and you might be able to see where this is going but of course things are slightly wackier than that. It was definitely cute when I read it, but it hasn’t really seemed to further the story even having read a little farther in the series, so that’s a bit disappointing. But whatever, it’s a wittle puppy! I’m okay with it.

Rating: 8/10 and, say, 7/10 (with bonus points for adorable dog)

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the BonesPer our book club discussion last week, this falls into the “finally having an excuse to read a great book” category. I actually had this book in my hands right after it was published, because it sounded so interesting when I was cataloging it, but I never got around to reading it (as it goes with so many books I check out!) and then it won the National Book Award and there was no getting it back from the library for a while and so I kind of totally forgot about it. And then, book club! Yay, book club!

I guess part of the reason this one fell off my reading list is because as I heard more about it I found out it was one of those literary novels that is more about people and places and Social Truths than about, like, a story. So luckily I was prepared for that going in, because many of my fellow readers were disappointed by the lack of plot.

It was still really interesting to me, though, partially because it takes place right before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast and I still am not so knowledgeable about that particular disaster and partially because it’s about a poor black family living on said Gulf Coast and that is a topic I am basically unknowledgeable about. So it was a learning experience!

The novel opens with the birth of a litter of pit bull puppies and, soon after, the revelation that our protagonist, Esch, is totes a pregnant teenager, but not in the fun Juno way. Esch spends the rest of the novel, which is just a few days in story time, dealing with this fact on all the levels from “omg there is a thing inside me” to “omg this thing is going to become a baby in nine months” to “omg what is the father going to think about this?” Meanwhile, her brother Skeetah is raising his own babies — the aforementioned puppies — and worrying himself over whether they’ll survive and whether he can sell them for good money for his family and whether his beloved dog will still be able to fight (yes, dog fighting, I’m sorry) after all this puppy-rearing is over.

And that’s… basically it. There’s a little bit about the impending hurricane but it’s not nearly as important as the family relationships or Esch’s relationship with her tiny fetus and its father. And boy, do those relationships resonate. I felt my heart breaking more than once for Esch as she dealt with lame “friends” and stubborn family, for Skeetah as he did his best for his two families (human and canine), and for a few other characters unwillingly caught up in Esch and Skeetah’s dramas.

On the down side, there are also many references to Medea and Jason of Greek mythology that I have to admit that I didn’t understand even though it seemed like Ward was almost over-explaining them. Also dog fighting. Also sometimes Ward was a bit unclear with things like dialogue and chronology and my brain was not pleased at having to do this work itself.

All things considered, though, I thought this was a great look into a little piece of a life that is not mine and, as another book club goer said, an excellent answer to the question of why people like Esch and her family did not evacuate before the giant scary hurricane, which presumes a lot of things about wealth and privilege. It’s a thinking book, but one well worth thinking about.

Recommendation: For those like me who need more diversity in their reading and actual lives, or in general those who don’t mind a book without a story.

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

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle (2 September — 3 September)

I’m finally getting a start on that Baker Street Challenge I’ve been neglecting! Yay! (And it’s a mystery and kind of creepy, really, so I’m gonna throw it in with RIP as well.)

This is one of those books that I’ve never read but that I feel like I’ve read because I saw a version of it on television, though it was many many years ago and it was the Rescue Rangers “Pound of the Baskervilles” and I don’t remember it very well but I don’t think it was much the same. 🙂 It might have been, though.

In the novel, a Dr. Mortimer seeks Sherlock Holmes’s help in a supernatural mystery; Mortimer’s patient and friend Sir Charles Baskerville has died in mysterious circumstances that fit in with the family legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles. This Charles was declared dead of a heart attack, but Mortimer believes that a large hound was involved, judging by some footprints a ways away that the police didn’t care about. If that wasn’t bad enough, the last remaining Baskerville, a Sir Henry, is on his way to take over the estate and Mortimer fears for Henry’s life.

Holmes, as ever, does some deducting and sends Watson out to the moor with Sir Henry to watch over him and report back. While there, Watson encounters some rather odd things that make him wonder if there isn’t a spectral hound out to get the Baskervilles!

So, now I have read this book, and it was good! And, I will admit, the atmosphere and the case were just creepy enough that I was a little jumpy toward the end of the book and in fact was briefly scared by Scott holding a Wiimote over my head. And then I was just confused. 🙂

Rating: 7/10
(Baker Street Challenge, RIP Challenge)

See also:
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Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (10 November — 16 November)

I put this book on hold at the library some very long time ago, after I heard an interview with the author on NPR and thought the book sounded decent. I finally got it last week, and was possibly over-excited to read it.

The premise of the book is a sort of updated version of Hamlet. Edgar Sawtelle is a mute 14-year-old who breeds dogs with his family in far northern Wisconsin. His uncle, Claude, comes back into the family after a long leave of absence, but sibling rivalry sort of explodes and Edgar’s father, Gar, sends Claude away. Soon enough, though, Gar ends up dead in the kennel and Claude starts moving in on his sister-in-law. Gar’s ghost tells Edgar that Claude is the murderer, but Edgar can’t tell anyone — not just because he can’t speak but because he’s pretty sure they won’t believe him.

More Hamlet happens — the Polonius character dies, Edgar goes off on an adventure, et cetera.

And I think that’s my problem with the book. I liked the beginning of the novel, wherein we learned about training dogs and Edgar’s relationship with his mother. I liked the part when Edgar runs away and has a great woodsy adventure with his dogs. But I didn’t like the parts where I said to myself, “Oh, look, Polonius is dead now! And hey, I thought Laertes was supposed to kill Hamlet!”

Ah, well. It doesn’t follow Hamlet to the letter (see Laertes comment), so there’s quite a bit of wondering how the plot will turn out, which is good. And those parts that I liked, I really did like. I just don’t think that the book as a whole really fit together well.

Definitely a good read if you’re a Hamlet scholar or dog enthusiast.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008)