Weekend Shorts: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel

The Astronaut Wives ClubI found myself facing a relatively short road trip, about 8 hours for the round trip, with only 10-hour plus audiobooks sitting around my house waiting to be listened to. So I loaded up all of the OverDrive collections I could get my hands on, searched for books I could listen to on my phone that were able to be downloaded immediately, and paged through all the results until I found something of the appropriate length and interest level. This was that book.

I have a mild interest in space and NASA and astronauts and the like, enough to spend a day at Kennedy Space Center with my rather more space-excited friends and enough to listen to and love Packing for Mars (though, really, it’s Mary Roach, I’m not not going to listen to that). But I moreso have an interest in the behind-the-scenes, stories-not-told aspect of basically everything, and this book definitely promised that. It was sold to me as a book about the wives of the first astronauts, the people who were stuck at home taking care of kids and houses while their husbands faced death in space, and I was super sold on that premise.

Unfortunately, this book fails in the execution. The biggest problem, I think, is that the book starts out as a collective biography of the wives of the Mercury Seven, which is already seven people to talk about for a whole book, and then keeps expanding to include the wives of the “New Nine” and “The Fourteen” and “The Original Nineteen” and it is so many wives, you guys. So many wives. So whereas at the beginning of the book you get actual information about Annie Glenn and Rene Carpenter and Betty Grissom and their histories as people and how they interacted with their husbands and the media and the fame in general, by a few chapters in the book is just about how “the wives” this and “the wives” that and it’s not so much about the wives any more as it is about the space program in general.

Which is the other big problem, I think — after letting us get to know those first wives and their rather interesting histories (some wives were also military or pilots or just generally career women who gave up their work for their husbands’), the book just kind of becomes a timeline of the space program and how Gus and John and Alan and whoever were off doing this launch or that launch and their wives were so worried or their wives were totally not worried or their wives were mad at them even though their very lives were in danger and it starts to become more about Dudes in Space than wives at home living their own lives.

I wanted to like this book, and I really did like this book in its focused, biography-of-some-cool-ladies beginning, but once it lost that focus I was only listening to it because I had nothing else ready to listen to. However, this will apparently be available as a TV show this summer, and I feel like that will be a much better medium for this story than the book was. I guess we’ll find out soon!

Recommendation: For those interested in the space program and the many, many people surrounding it.

Rating: 5/10

Stolen Bases, by Jennifer Ring

Stolen BasesI often say that being in a book club is great for reading books you would otherwise not have picked up or even heard of at all. But sometimes, and this is one of those times, I must also say that those books are not always good ones.

Our pick this time was ostensibly about the history of baseball and why girls don’t play it, which seems like a pretty interesting topic, actually. I’ve certainly watched the heck out of A League of Their Own, and was a rabid baseball fan back in the ’90s along with all the other Clevelanders, and even played softball for a summer before realizing I was absolutely terrible at it.

But this book was basically doomed for me from the beginning for the faults of being a) nonfiction, but moreso b) academic. If I’m going to read nonfiction, it’s going to be some Mary Roach-style, dryly funny, oddly interesting nonfiction that has me bothering Scott with “did you know?”s all day long.

Stolen Bases, to put it mildly, does not do that. I did learn some things that I did not know, like that Bob Feller was a little racist and that Albert Spalding apparently had some daddy issues, but they weren’t terribly interesting things. And the book was less dryly funny and more just painfully dry — it often read to me like someone’s research paper that they found out after finishing it was supposed to be 200 pages instead of, like, 20. There was a lot of repetition and redundancy and more than a little bit of seemingly baseless (ha!) speculation, and then some entirely different topics thrown in for good measure.

Those topics were pretty interesting, like the parts about the history of baseball as she is played and about racial discrimination in professional ball and how ladies totally play cricket all the time in those weird countries that play cricket, but they didn’t tie in terribly well with the alleged theme of the book. Even the parts about women playing baseball were presented less from the standpoint of “why aren’t women playing baseball” and more from the standpoint of “why are women systematically oppressed, even when it comes to sports”, which is not quite the same thing. I think if the book had just been called, like, How Baseball Hates Ladies and Non-WASPs and also Britain: a Study of Gender Politics, it would have been covered.

It might also have been helpful if Ring had gone out and interviewed baseball players and softball players and coaches and professional league administrators and whatnot and had gotten some current opinion on the topic, rather than collecting the opinions of dead people and calling it a day (not that you don’t need dead people, there are just a lot of dead people in this book). Or if she had picked a baseball-playing woman, like, say, her daughter, and written a biography of her… basically, I wanted this to be a very different book and I was sorely disappointed.

I thought perhaps I was just too far out of school and all that academic writing business, but those members of my book club who are in the business of writing academic things were also put off by the writing style and the lack of focus in the book, so at least it’s not just me?

Recommendation: Only read this if you’re super-duper interested in baseball and gender, and if you are that interested maybe go write me the Mary-Roach-ified version?

Rating: 4/10

The Goddess Chronicle, by Natsuo Kirino

The Goddess ChronicleMany moons ago I read Kirino’s Out, a bonkers mystery/thriller story which I remember much more fondly than I gave it credit for back in the day. So when this book came up in my ordering, I was like, yes, I will put a hold on you right now.

The Goddess Chronicle is almost nothing like Out, although it is bonkers and it does have a sort of murder mystery to it. This novel deals with a girl called Namima who, we find out in the first paragraph, has died and now lives among the dead. Before that whole death thing, she was born on an island with some interesting religious practices that led to her sister becoming the island’s Oracle and being universally loved and praised while Namima, the yin to her sister’s yang, became the hidden, untouchable priestess of the dead. Not pleased with her lot in life, Namima broke a few rules, ran away, and eventually ended up dying with some unfinished business, leading her to the realm of the dead in which we meet her.

There she meets Izanami, the goddess who helped create the world but died in childbirth and ended up ruling the dead and choosing who will die every day. She has some issues with her husband, Izanaki, and we spend a few not-terribly-exciting chapters learning all about those, and then we get back to the good stuff, including Namima getting a chance to find out what happened to her family and then several chapters about that no-good husband, Izanaki, and his lady-loving adventures on the high seas.

I, to my shame and embarrassment, had no idea there even was a Japanese mythology to speak of before reading this novel — my mythological life was shaped primarily by the Greeks and Romans and then later those Norsemen, and of course being an American I worship different cultural gods. Luckily, the novel is apparently part of a series of novels retelling myths, many of which are making their way onto my TBR list as we speak so that I can stop being quite so ignorant.

Anyway, the point is that I found the story of Izanami and Izanaki quite fascinating; it is strongly based on cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity and gender roles that play out in Kirino’s frame story as well. If this book isn’t already on the syllabus for dozens of sociology classes, those hypothetical professors are doing it wrong.

I also loved Kirino’s writing, from the way she constructed a perfect myth-telling sentence (okay, those accolades might go to her translator, Rebecca Copeland) to the way she employs foreshadowing in my absolute favorite way — telling us what’s going to happen (like Namima’s death) and then letting her story be the interesting part of the novel rather than the filler between exciting plot events.

The Goddess Chronicle was almost entirely not what I was hoping for, but it was delightful in its own right and a book very worth reading.

Recommendation: For those in the mood for a slow, lyrical story, and especially those who fail at knowing Japanese mythology.

Rating: 7/10

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityThis is one of those books that I haven’t heard much about (well, relatively speaking), but everything I’ve heard has been along the lines of, “OMG CODE NAME VERITY OMG OMG.” I was, obviously, intrigued, and so I had it checked out of the library shortly after my library obtained a copy of it, but then it had to go back due to massive holds list and I forgot about it in favor of many other books. When I saw it somewhere on the internet again recently, though, I knew it was time to embrace the awesome.

So when I started reading the book and it was kind of boring and confusing, I was quite disappointed. The book starts with the sentence, “I AM A COWARD,” (yes, in all caps) and our narrator goes on to talk about how she got captured by the Nazis for looking the wrong way down the street in France (seeing as she’s British), and how she has exchanged some useful information for some clothing and this convenient supply of ink and paper on which she is to write down all the other useful information she can think of. Yay?

Then she gets distracted from writing about planes and airfields and writes instead about her BFF Maddie and how said BFF met her, Queenie, and how Maddie worked her way into flying planes and being a part of the war effort and really being kind of a badass pilot and friend. Oh, and also how Maddie did not survive dropping Queenie off in France and how Queenie feels incredibly guilty about this fact. And I was like, okay, this is pretty interesting, I like that this story is about ladies doing awesome things and feeling feelings that have naught to do with boys and so clearly that is why everyone loves this book.

But then the story started coming to a close right there in the middle of all those pages, and I was like, well, what’s going to happen next, then?

And SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS ahead if you’re the type who wants to be surprised by a story, and I have to admit that I adored being surprised by this story.

What happens next is that Queenie’s story ends with her being dragged away from her paper and ink and Maddie’s story begins with the fact that she is totally not dead in France and continues to poke very interesting holes in Queenie’s story. It also starts basically right where Queenie’s does, so it becomes a sort of race against time — will Maddie rescue Queenie from the Germans in time or will she herself be captured or what the heck is going to happen why won’t these pages turn faster!

Ahem. And whatever you guess is going to happen to our two narrators, you are going to be wrong, because this book is tricksy and conniving and also just absolutely mean and left me unexpectedly crying into my limeade in the café area of Publix. You should probably read the last part of this book in the privacy of your own home, with some tissues available, is what I am saying.

In summation: omg, Code Name Verity. omg, omg.

Recommendation: For fans of badass ladies and those who are more prepared than I was for a good cry.

Rating: 10/10

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