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

Swimming, by Nicola Keegan

SwimmingI think this book is going to be the When We Were Strangers of my online book club — I read it, it was okay, I’m already forgetting it just days later.

Swimming was selected by a couple of members to interrupt our highly sophisticated (read: barely existent) book selection queue, on account of it’s a book about the Olympics and I hear the U.S. may have brought home some large shiny pendants lately. It was also apparently blurbed by Judy Blume, whose books I must admit to having never read, and granted lavish praise by dozens of others, so the rest of us were like, sure, okay, let’s read that.

Problem One: This book is not about the Olympics. This book is barely about anything, so I guess if it has to be about something, it could be the Olympics. But for all that the main character is this wunderkind natural-born gold-medal-winning swimmer, the actual Olympics take up like ten pages, and even the training for the Olympics is maybe fifty more. The other two hundred and some pages are… something else.

Problem Two: I don’t know what that something else is.

We decided during our discussion that this book was kind of sort of maybe like a fictional memoir. The narrator, Philomena, basically tells her life story, from her first swimming lesson as a tiny person to her sister’s death to the Olympics to the aftermath of Olympic glory. But it’s not quite a memoir, because Philomena doesn’t seem to want to talk about anything interesting or important. And when you get to the end, you can kind of see why that might be, and I’ll begrudgingly allow it. This is definitely a book that is more about the how of the writing than the what.

But in the end, Problem One really clouds my whole judgment of this book, because I spent the whole time waiting for the awesome Olympics stuff to show up and it just refused. All those people lavishing praise on the book probably went in expecting your typical literary fiction offering, and I can recognize the ways in which the book would have been interesting if I had been, you know, reading the book in my hand instead of the one in my head.

Recommendation: Forget you read this review, forget that I said the word Olympics, and come back to this book in, like, a year. And let me know what you think!

Rating: 6/10

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

Zone OneSo I’m in a book club with a bunch of college friends, and one of them was like, “Hey, you guys ever read Zone One?” And I was like, “No, but you should make it your pick so that I have a reason to read it! ZOMBIES FTW!” And then another clubber, a friend whose opinions I tend to agree with, read the book and gave it two stars on GoodReads. And then hours later she changed it to one star. One star! I was concerned.

When I finally started reading the book, less than 24 hours before club time, I was already mentally preparing to come here and be all, I wanted to like this book but I really just couldn’t. The whole first chapter, which is like 100 pages long, is a Franzen-esque stream of big words that I had to look up and heady philosophical musings that seemed more than a bit out of place in a book I knew to be about ZOMBIES. I thought maybe this was going to be one of those books that’s just smarter than I am.

And it is, a little, because first chapter wow, but once Whitehead gets out of Friday and into Saturday (another 100-ish pages) and Sunday (the last 50), things pick up. The words get smaller or at least more commonly large, we start learning more about Our Protagonist Mark Spitz’s background, and the focus shifts from “This is the world now and this is what Mark Spitz is doing in it” to “Mark Spitz is wondering if maybe the world isn’t exactly what it seems oh here come the ZOMBIES.”

The aforementioned one-star-giver and other clubbers took issue primarily with the fact that Whitehead introduces a lot of stuff and brings up a lot of questions and basically the only one he answers is why Mark Spitz is called Mark Spitz and yes, it’s always Mark Spitz and never Mark or Spitz or whatever. On the one hand, I agree and am like “But wherefore zombies and also why do these ‘stragglers’ exist and what is the code on the highway and what the heck is Mark Spitz’s real name and and and….” On the other hand, with the different fingers, I am like, “So why are there zombies? I am intrigued by these stragglers and would like to know more. This book has left me with many things to think about.”

It’s a subtle distinction, sure, but I feel like I’ve learned enough about the situation as it stands over the three days of the novel that I don’t need to know why everything else exists or happened or whatever, because that’s not the point. The point is that Mark Spitz is living a really weird life and it concerns him a little bit but what is there to do about it, and at the very least the book makes me very glad I live in a world without zombies. For now.

Recommendation: For people who studied lots of SAT vocab, who are intrigued by the undead, and who don’t mind a book that doesn’t resolve itself in any useful way.

Rating: 8/10

The Unwritten Vol. 4, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Dear The Unwritten,

I love you so much. Let’s run off together.

Love, Alison
p.s. It’s cool if my husband comes too, right?

LeviathanI will grant that on its own, this volume was not quite as good as any of the first three, especially that last one with the parodies and the choose-your-own-adventure-ness. Dang, that was a good one. But it’s not really like those other ones anyway… we’re done with the “Is Tom Taylor actually Tommy Taylor? With, like, magic and stuff?” plotline and we are moving fully into “Is the world just entirely made of imagination?” existentialism. And vampires, because why not?

In this collection, aptly titled Leviathan, Carey and Gross treat us to a whale of a party, ha ha! Ahem. There are whales, is what I’m saying. A few of them. Including the ever-popular Moby Dick, whose story Tom ventures into and then breaks and then escapes only to find himself hanging out with Sinbad, Pinocchio, and various others inside an apparently very hungry whale. And then things explode.

Oh, and meanwhile our friends Richie and Lizzie only wish they were hanging out in the belly of a whale, on account of they’ve met up with a mean and slightly magical puppeteer who needs some information out of them. Things go as you might expect, there. And then at the end we meet up again with that foul-mouthed rabbit dude from the second volume, who has not gotten any pleasanter but has gotten some worshippers. Goody.

And there are so many other little things that have me intrigued to see where this story goes. It is clearly epic and intricate and fantastic. But I could also go for some more stories that are just full of awesome brain candy. Either way is good.

Rating: 8/10