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

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable WifeA disclaimer — I read this for a book club and put it off so long that I literally finished the book in the parking lot of the restaurant where we had our book club meeting. So I may not have been paying the closest attention to the book or the ending and therefore I may have missed all the parts that made this book a beloved bestseller.

Because, yeah. I definitely do not get the appeal of this book. I will grant that the premise is interesting — a fella advertises for a reliable wife, procures a lady allegedly such and also allegedly willing to spend her life in Practically Canada, Wisconsin, but then it turns out that not only are these facts false, but both parties have some ulterior motives for this seemingly innocent transaction. I suppose I should mention that the book takes place in the early 20th century, so the whole advertising-for-a-wife thing is not as weird as it could be.

Part of the problem I have with this book is that the premise invites intrigue and mystery and perhaps some plot, but it’s one of those gothic novels that is more about how snow-covered Practically Canada is and how pretty flowers are and blah blah imagery blah. And yeah, sometimes I like me a gothic novel but this one was just not holding my interest at all.

And I think that’s probably because Goolrick goes for the twist, like, every chapter, and sometimes the twists are “twists,” like, yeah, saw that coming, and sometimes the twists are so completely outlandish that I’m like, “WHAT.” and I just have to go on with my day and not think about it because it will just make my head hurt. I mean, really, let’s make our twists actually consistent with the rest of the book, yes?

I was also let down by the characters, none of whom I liked or really cared about at all. There were a few moments in the story that might have been touching or sad or even just interesting had I felt like I had any connection to the characters involved, but instead I was just left baffled by their actions.

Yet somehow I managed not to hate this book as so many in my book club did. I suppose I’ve read enough gothic novels to know to appreciate the descriptions and recurring themes, and an undergraduate English class could certainly have a field day analyzing the way the characters keep mimicking each other throughout the story. The book’s got its merits certainly, but strictly on the basis of sitting down and enjoying a good read? This is not that book.

Recommendation: For fans of the gothic and maybe book clubs (like mine) whose members like to complain about things?

Rating: 4/10

The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin (25 August)

I needed to take a break from Calamity Physics − it’s pretty long and even though I’m halfway through I’m still not entirely sure what the book is about − so I decided to take a quick romp through the 1970s. This book, at only 145 pages, didn’t take very long to read and was pretty entertaining.

I’ve seen both of the Stepford Wives movies and they’re pretty different, so I wanted to know just what the book was about. If you haven’t seen them, what we have here is a town called Stepford wherein all of the wives are subservient and domestic, convinced that their only purpose in life is to keep the house clean for their husbands. New arrivals Joanna and Walter Eberhart are part of the women’s-lib movement and, once they realize the dominance of the men’s club in town, plan to convert the husbands over to their side and open up the association to women as well. Joanna makes friends with a couple of other independent women, Bobbie and Charmaine, and they try to gather the wives of the town into a women’s club, with no luck.

Soon after Charmaine spends a weekend alone with her husband, she becomes one of the Stepford wives herself and Bobbie and Joanna worry for their safety. Their husbands reassure them that nothing’s wrong, but something very clearly is.

The book is really a lot more vague than I thought it would be − I ended up filling in a lot of blanks with scenes I remembered from the movies. It probably would have been better had I read this first and filled those blanks in on my own. The ending of the book is much more open-ended than those of the movies, but it’s still quite sinister. I like the fact that Levin leaves these things open to interpretation, but I wish I didn’t already have some interpretations in my head.

Rating: 7/10

Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse (13 August − 17 August)

It struck me that I’d seen all of the Jeeves and Wooster series, but I’d never actually cracked open one of Wodehouse’s books. Clearly, this needed to be rectified.

If you don’t know Jeeves, he’s the butler to a bit of a ditz called Bertie Wooster. Bertie thinks he’s the brains of the operation, but it’s always Jeeves who comes to the rescue when Bertie’s plans go awry. In this novel, we have relationships being weird everywhere — Bertie’s cousin breaks off an engagement over a tiff, a friend of his can’t talk to the woman he wants to marry without bringing up newts, and Bertie’s aunt loses her husband’s money at baccarat and can’t bring herself to ask for more. Bertie, in trying to help, makes it worse, but in the end it is all resolved in a properly oojah-cum-spiff way. I loved it.

Rating: 9/10