In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

In the Unlikely EventConfession time: This is the first Judy Blume book I have ever read. I know that her other books exist, and that some are controversial, but until a fellow book-clubber gave me a summary of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I could not have told you anything about it.

When this book came out, I was intrigued by the premise but not in any hurry to read it… until I needed some ideas for my book club and a friend in my other book club (so many book clubs, guys) recommended it. I put it on the list, picked up a copy early so I’d be able to finish it in time, and then promptly read it in three days with almost two weeks left before talking about it. Timing, I am bad at you.

But that’s really because this book was SO GOOD. I knew going in that there were going to be some plane crashes, so when I didn’t get a plane crash right at the beginning I was kind of impatiently waiting for one to show up, but I was interested enough in the characters (especially the main character, Miri) that when that first plane crash does happen I had almost forgotten to be on the lookout. This Judy Blume lady, she can write a book!

So yeah, there are plane crashes, and they’re actually real plane crashes that actually happened in the town Blume grew up in when she was growing up in it, and they must have left an indelible impression on that town, because I’m spooked out sixty years later just reading about them. And it seems I was tricked into reading historical fiction again, as the early-’50s setting is practically a character in the novel, dictating the way everyone interacts with each other and how they react to the planes and just how everyone exists. I learned so much about the history of air travel because of this book — not necessarily from the words on the page but from my curious Googling of “non-sked” flights and airlines. Those 1950s people, they were daredevils!

The novel uses these events as a way to look at life in the ’50s from a ton of different perspectives. The main character is Miri, a teenager just trying to get through high school and these plane crashes are not helping, and most of the other perspectives are tangential to her — her mother, her grandmother, her uncle, her friends and their families, and so on. We also get a few interludes from Miri’s uncle’s newspaper articles and from people who end up on the doomed flights, the latter of which are the saddest ever. Through these characters we get impressions of Issues like sexism and racism and wealth inequality and issues like growing up and loving people and finding out things you never wanted to know.

I think I may have liked this book more than everyone else in my book club, so maybe don’t take just my word on how wonderful this book is, but that’s definitely better than the other way around. I will just be over here, happy in my bubble of lovely sentences and characters and looking forward to more books that hit this particular chord in my heart.

Recommendation: For those who have finished the most recent Literally Big Literary Novel and need something a little smaller to think about.

Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, by Cecilia Rodriguez Milanés

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell YouBefore we start, I have to admit that I read this book almost entirely because it fits in with my personal diverse books challenge. Usually short story collections “chronicling the lives” of anyone are well outside my wheelhouse, so it’s a double whammy of diversity when you add in the Cuban-American element. So I am probably about to say some stupid things about slice-of-life and immigrant fiction, is what I’m saying.

The collection started off poorly for me because of what I hope is some terrible formatting in my advance copy that led to me being absolutely baffled about whether or not I was continuing one story or starting a new one (verdict: a little of both). A few pages later I was back on track, but then the story turned out to be about a bunch of girls who die under terrible circumstances, and I was like, is the whole book going to be this depressing?

It is not. Thank goodness. The collection covers a lot of different stories across different age groups across different states and countries (mainly Florida, “Nueva Yersi”, and Cuba, with a jaunt to China once), and the stories vary in length from about half a page to tens of pages, so for the most part if a story isn’t great there’ll be a completely different one soon! That’s always a plus in any short story collection.

I really liked the second story in this book, which is about a girl who brings home her black Haitian boyfriend for the first time, at Thanksgiving, without specifying to her family that she is bringing home her black Haitian boyfriend. This interaction goes about as swimmingly as you are currently imagining. Around this, there’s bits about the ingrained racism of the girl’s family and how she feels mistreated by them but also loves them, because family. Also, there’s lots and lots of Spanish thrown around and I was happy to be reading on my Kindle with its translation feature, although I am pretty sure it does not know all the slang these characters do.

Other great stories include the one where a mother breaks her own rule about never visiting other people’s houses and an unexpectedly hilarious one in which a girl gets stuck with a dog she really doesn’t want, both of which could have been in any non-Cuban-American collection of slice-of-life stories in almost the same form. Turns out diversity isn’t that hard after all!

Some of the shorter stories I had trouble with because they’re that kind of story that picks up in the middle of nothing and ends in the middle of nothing, and kind of nothing happens in the middle, and some of them ended on these weird sentences that seemed like they should have great meaning because they ended the story but just… didn’t? I don’t know.

But overall it’s a solid collection of stories and has definitely piqued my interest in Cuba and its emigrants for future reading adventures. Any suggestions?

Recommendation: For people who actually like literary short stories and those interested in Cuban Americans.

Rating: 7/10

The Lost Boys Symphony, by Mark Andrew Ferguson

The Lost Boys SymphonyIt’s apparently the time of year for me to read weird books. Sex strikes, cocaine as a narrator, odd people hanging out in hotels…. But where those books were weird in a “What the heck is going on?” way, this book is weird in a “My brain is broken and I don’t have enough duct tape to fix it right now” sort of way, largely because time travel.

And it’s the most brain-breaking-est kind of time travel, too, where people change history and then remember new memories but also old memories and are still hanging out wherever they were when they changed history regardless of the fact that they CHANGED HISTORY and shouldn’t be there anymore! It’s not Looper levels of ridiculous with severed limbs or anything, but it comes pretty close.

Okay, so, the story. There’s this dude, Henry (the best time traveller name?), and he’s a super percussionist, awesome boyfriend to Val, and best of best friends to Gabe. However, he’s got some mental issues, and at the beginning of the story he is escaping his mother’s house and the imaginary cacophony that surrounds him there to hike across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan and get back together with Val, who recently left him for a new life. Halfway across the bridge, he is overcome by the bridge’s music (again, imaginary) and collapses, waking up some time later in a strange place with two strange but eerily familiar people watching over him.

Turns out those dudes are the Henrys 80 and 41 (as they call themselves), and they have figured out how to use the crazy bridge music to time travel (as you do) and they have come to talk to 19 and see if he can’t fix their lives that have not gone quite the way they want them to. Henry 19 is really unclear about how and why they’ve come to him and what he can do to help, and as the story goes along he comes to find that maybe 80 and 41 aren’t any more clear than he is on that score.

When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be a more or less straightforward (for a time travel book, anyway) guy-gets-girl book, with Henry chasing the elusive Val across time and space so that they can be together forever in all timelines or whatever. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Staying true to the time-bending conceit, the chapters go back and forth between times and characters, chronicling the three friends mostly in the time of 19 but also going back to high school and forward to 41’s time. We find out how the time travel got started and we see how it is way less useful than anyone ever thinks it is as things go wrong and are corrected and then go wrong again. And then meanwhile to the whole Henrys thing, we see Gabe and Val taking in 19’s disappearance and changing their relationship in a way that threatens to be pretty disastrous to all Henrys involved.

I love the way that Ferguson played with time and narrative, doling out important bits slowly across all timelines until they finally made sense. I also love that Val, who could easily have gone Manic Pixie Dream Girl, got to be a real live human with thoughts and problems of her own. The ending of the book left a little bit to be desired, resolution-wise, which if I’m saying that means it’s seriously a thing, and the very end is just too simple for my tastes, but on the plus side I’ll be thinking about what happened (and what might have happened) for days. This is an amazing first book and I will definitely be looking for more from Ferguson.

Recommendation: For people whose brains are extra-strong and those who love a good time travel yarn.

Rating: 9/10

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

The UncouplingYou guys, I was so excited when a fellow book clubber announced this book as her pick. I had heard nothing but great things about The Uncoupling and about Wolitzer’s work in general, but had just never gotten around to reading any of it.

And I think I may have to just pretend that that’s still true in case I ever want to read another Wolitzer, because this book… uggggh.

I was not alone in this — I don’t think anyone in my book club actually liked this book. It was a quick and easy read, and the words themselves were perfectly nice, but the way they came together into a story absolutely did not work for our group of late-twenty-something females. Clearly we were not the target audience.

What happens in this novel is that a high school drama teacher picks Lysistrata for the school play and over the next couple of months leading up to the performance, a literal cold wind sweeps through town and causes the ladies to stop wanting their men. No sex, no cuddles, no intimacy if there’s a penis involved. The novel looks at all the different relationships in the town, from rock-solid marriages to rocky marriages to benefits-only relationships to high school romances, and shows us what happens when the women stop wanting the men.

And that’s a solid premise, which is part of why my friends and I were so upset at how the premise played out. Note: It’s pretty much complaints from here on out.

One big problem that I had was, simply, why. At the end you find out that this spell has been cast more or less purposely and for the purpose of strengthening relationships, but more than one relationships seems to be worse to me after the spell. And, okay, so, that’s on the spell caster and her weird priorities and maybe Wolitzer’s not saying that withholding sex is a winning relationship strategy, but she’s not not saying that either.

Another problem I had was, like, the core concept. In Lysistrata the women withhold sex for a reason, but in The Uncoupling it is withheld from them just as much as from the men. The men go a bit silly without their sex, and it seems like we’re meant to think that men can’t survive without sex or whatever, but it’s notable that none of them (that we see, anyway) leave their wives or girlfriends of their own volition. They’re all trying to fix their relationships, which from their perspective (I assume; we don’t actually get a male perspective) have been suddenly and irrevocably changed for no apparent reason. That would make me a little crazy, too.

It would be great if that were part of a nuanced story, but there’s an official publisher discussion question that reads, “Dory and Robby seem to be the perfect couple at the start of the book. How does the author signal that there might be problems beneath the surface?” She signals it by creating a giant problem beneath the surface! Come on!

So I just can’t even with the plot, is what I’m saying, and outside of main couple I didn’t particularly care about what happened to any of the characters. The sentences that made up the story were well written, and there was enough good in that to keep me reading and the book in one piece, but the ending was so completely unsatisfying that making it to the end wasn’t even consolation!

But the woman who picked this book assured us that at least Wolitzer’s The Interestings was completely different than this book, so there’s hope that Wolitzer and I can be reconciled and that I can figure out what all the hullabaloo is about. Just not anytime soon.

Recommendation: For… fans of Lysistrata? Women who are considering sex strikes? Other… people…?

Rating: 4/10

Weekend Shorts: Ms. Marvel

The shorts this week are more like one long, in that I read the first volume of a comic series and I always have way more to say about the first volume than the ones that come after. So, here are some thoughts about six issues of a so-far-pretty-awesome comic!

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1I almost couldn’t not read this first volume of the new Ms. Marvel, because it has been everywhere on my internets for ages. Excitement when it first came out, more excitement with the release of the first collected volume, and not terribly much less excitement in between. I had bought the first issue when I saw it in my comic shop and never bothered to read it, but with so many people telling me how awesome it was, and with an urge to throw my dollars at a project that sounded so fantastic, I went ahead and ordered the trade and threw myself into it.

First, for those not inhabiting my particular corner of the internets, a quick summary: Kamala Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani teen living in Jersey City who becomes the superhero Ms. Marvel but still has to, like, be a Muslim, Pakistani teen living in Jersey City. Lady superhero? Sold. Non-white superhero? Tell me more. Jersey City? Eh, that’s okay.

But really, I was lured in by promises of fanfic writing and Wolverine crushing (as in having a crush on, not, like, smushing), but I guess none of that happens in the first six issues. Super disappointing. I suppose that means I have things to look forward to, though…

What actually happens in these first issues is a lot of backstory. We meet Kamala and her friends and establish that Kamala’s family is pretty conservative and incredibly protective of her as the only daughter. Kamala’s friends are a little protective, too, especially around some falsely nice classmates who clearly do not understand how to interact with a person unlike themselves. And, to be fair, Kamala doesn’t really know how to interact with anyone — she is torn between frustration with her family’s rules and her need to defend them to her classmates, she makes trouble at Saturday School over sexist rules and teachings, and she has a boy totally crushing on her and she doesn’t even know.

The big theme of this volume, titled No Normal, is that Kamala really really really wants to be just like everyone else because it would be so much easier. When she first gets her Ms. Marvel powers via creepy mist, she finds herself involuntarily turning into the tall, leggy, blonde, skimpily clad Carol Danvers (the erstwhile Ms. Marvel turned Captain Marvel) in addition to growing and shrinking and stretching slightly less involuntarily. But as the story progresses, Kamala realizes that a) that outfit is hella uncomfortable and b) being herself requires way less effort all around. I think my favorite part of all this is that Ms. Marvel’s new outfit is a burkini, which, holy cow, why isn’t every superhero wearing one?

As almost an afterthought to all this coming of age and discussion of religion and ethnicity, there is also — you’ll never guess — villainy! Kamala finds herself rescuing (well, trying and then later succeeding) that aforementioned boy’s brother from a shadowy group serving a shadowy leader called The Inventor and possibly also the Birdman, which probably means something to someone but definitely not to me, so I am intrigued to see where that plotline goes. I hope that with the big exposition out of the way, we can move on to adorable fangirling and also asskicking posthaste!

Recommendation: Read it. Do it now.

Rating: 9/10

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