Thursday, July 9, 2015

Books Update: Quarter 2(ish)

BEHOLD, for it is time to speak of books.

The year is now half over (I will dispense with any melodramatic amazement regarding this fact, I'm sure you've had your fill already) and lo, it is time to pass judgment on the May & June selections of my 2015 Year of Classics. (January through April selections reviewed here.)

MAY: The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (1997, 340 pages). For a long time I avoided reading any books about India because I know nothing about it and was afraid none of it would make sense to me. But now, having read this one plus two Salman Rushdie books in the last 12 months, I think I'm over that. This book was depressing as hell, yes, but still a beautifully written story about the complications of families, good and bad intentions, and children making sense of a complicated world as best they can. The narration of the story is not linear but jumps back and forth in time and between points of views of different characters. It begins at the end and ends in the middle, revealing more and more details about people and events and their histories and futures each time it circles around, and still keeps you guessing almost all the way to the end. Not a light, happy, fun read, but not a long one, packed with gorgeous language, & brilliantly written all around.

JUNE (Russian Heritage Month): Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866, 545 pages). Though it was a slog at times, I'm glad I stuck this one out because the ending was actually kind of good. Also, most of the beginning was good, too! The middle 2/3, however, were just kind of rambling & difficult to follow. I was expecting this book to be at least semi-awesome because HELLO IT OPENS WITH AN AXE MURDER, but after that I kind of felt like I'd been tricked into reading a parlor book. Just way, way, WAY too many scenes of people sitting around expounding on various class issues & the like whilst throwing shade at each other. Can't bring yourself to read the whole thing? Read parts 1 & 6 & call it good. You'll get the dramatic/interesting parts without missing too much (besides some only semi-relevant subplots).


I have read a lot of stuff lately but here are the titles I most highly recommend:

Reamde, by Neal Stephenson (2011, 1044 pages). 5 stars. Like much of Stephenson's other work, Reamde is ambitious, complex, and features a veritable legion of three-dimensional characters. As with most Stephenson books, I was principally amazed by his ability to keep approximately nineteen bazillion balls in the air in terms of plot & character arc. Likewise, I'm always incredibly impressed with how well researched every single aspect of the story is. But what really made this book for me were all the kick-ass female characters. Like, more than one! With actual distinct personalities! Who, like, do badass stuff to move the plot forward and serve as more than love interests for the male characters! So yeah. Like Neal Stephenson? You will not be disappointed. Never heard of Neal Stephenson but like a really smart, complex, well-written action/thriller/international espionage story? Give it a shot.

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993, 249 pages). 5 stars. I remember loving the movie when it came out & have always wanted to read the book, and I was not disappointed. Cleverly & poetically written, dark without veering into morbid/depressing, and utterly engrossing from the first page all the way to the end. (Also, now I really want to watch the movie again.) My first Jeffrey Eugenides & now I am curious to read more by him.

The Cider House Rules, by John Irving (1985, 973 pages). 5 stars. Fantastic. To me, this is exactly what young adult literature should be, except it never will be, because the idea of teenagers reading books about other teenagers dealing with actual, real teenage issues in a way that is not soft-focus or whitewashed or pulling its punches makes a lot of adults really, really uncomfortable. I mean no, I would probably not give it to my middle schooler as there is some pretty frank discussion of sex, abortion, & rape/incest (& a fair number of f-bombs), but having taught high school for many years, I don't think it's in any way beyond what most teens in the say 15+ range can handle. In spite of the sobering topics that it treats, the book isn't really about those things. At its heart, it's an absolutely beautifully written story about love (friendship, romantic, parental), finding one's place/"belonging," rules (of all kinds--explicit, unspoken, laws, etc.), and who gets to make what kinds of decisions for who, based on what, and why. Beautiful, meaningful, and tragically sweet in a thousand different ways.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. (2015, 290 pages) 5 stars. A great read for anyone who's into the intersection of sociology and the media (particularly online social media). Jon Ronson explores the recent phenomenon of epic public shaming, wherein a person makes a joke that comes across wrong or commits some kind of deception and then essentially has their career, life, and online identity soundly annihilated by the masses. Using as case studies such pilloried figures as Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Mike Daisey, Lindsey Stone, and Hank of the Adria Richards developer conference fiasco, Ronson explores how the semi-anonymous group-think nature of the latest technology has essentially brought back a punishment that was decommissioned in the US hundreds of years ago because its effects on the guilty were deemed too horribly cruel. If you're at all interested in the how-is-tech-changing-our-society question, you'll absolutely want to give this one a read.

Night Angel (trilogy), by Brent Weeks. (2009, 1392 pages) 4 stars. I probably only gave this 4 stars because I'm one book away from finishing is more recent series, Lightbringer, which so far is an utter masterpiece of epic fantasy. Night Angel can't help but suffer a little by comparison, but was still a fantastic read. Deft writing. Solid, three-dimensional characters that you kind of love and kind of hate. Complex and clever storytelling that artfully weaves together all kinds of political and personal and mythological history and keeps you guessing throughout who is a reliable source of information and who is not (and to what extent). Dialogue that is smart and witty and tight, and just poetic enough at the right times without getting flowery and cliche. Some of the most intriguing & well-written female characters I've ever read in a book written by a man. And once the thrills start, they're relentless to the end.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King. (2014, 436 pages) 4 stars. This book was my first non-Dark Tower Stephen King experience. It didn't strike me as the type of thing I would typically pick up on my own, but the reviews were glowing & coming off of Crime and Punishment I was really feeling the need for something sort of beach-read-y. You guys, I could not put this book down! That almost never happens to me. At every moment, I just had to know what happened next & felt truly put-upon any time I was forced to tear myself away to, like, go to work or whatever. Apparently that Stephen King knows a thing or two about book writing! Who wouldda thunk!?! I don't want to say it's "light" reading (it does open with a psycho killer in a Benz mowing down a crowd of people), but it's not depressingly dark or overly violent or graphic. There are some tense moments but probably nothing that will leave you feeling sick or give you nightmares. Yes, there are predictable moments and more than a few tropes, but it's clearly trying to be a certain type of story (think "NCSI" or "Criminal Minds"), and that, it does exceptionally well.

Where'd You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple. (2012, 330 pages) 4 stars. This book is mostly told as a collection of emails, letters, notes, reports, etc. about a high-up fancy tech man, his brilliant, formerly phenom-of-a-young-architect turned stay-at-home-mom/wife, and their precocious thirteen-year-old daughter. Hijinks, crises, and coming-of-age-type situations ensue. At first it struck me as just sort of cute but fluffy YA, but somewhere between maybe half & two thirds of the way through, The Plot Thickened, as did the characters and their personalities and situations. At that point, I had two thoughts: 1) Hm, this is maybe a little too intense in the f-bomby / mid-life-crisis-ey sense for the middle school set, which is too bad, because 2) suddenly the characters & their situations go from kind of flat & banal & boring to multi-dimensional and considerably more interesting, & some really complicated themes are introduced. I feel like a lot of YA books tend to steer clear of darker, tougher, more adult themes (because kiiiiiiiids), which is deeply lamentable in my opinion. Give teenagers a little more credit, huh? Also, hilarious if you've ever been involved with a private school.

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. (2003, 500 pages) 4 stars. The premise seems relatively straightforward at first: Claire's husband Henry occasional becomes "unstuck" in time and spontaneously disappears, materializing into the past or future for minutes/hours/days at a time. The twist, though (not a spoiler), is that Henry first met Claire when his thirty-something self materialized in a meadow near eight-year-old Claire's childhood home where she'd often go to play. Because Henry's travels seem to sometimes latch on to particular places and times, he ends up visiting her in the meadow at different ages every few months or so between the time that she is six and eighteen. At age twenty, Claire meets twenty-eight-year-old Henry for the first time in his own timeline--her with twelve years of memories of visits with Henry at various ages and the knowledge that they end up married, and him knowing nothing at all. The author has clearly done a good job of thinking through even the most minute details and weaving all the questions (and answers) about Henry's time traveling that arise into the story. Some of the relationship stuff was kind of cliche & felt a little bit like a fourteen-year-old's naive ideas about what grown-up dating/sex/marriage/etc. is like (see: the entire wedding sequence, BARF). But, by and large I enjoyed it, even if some parts of it are depressing as hell.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hakins. (2015, 336 pages) 4 stars. I can see why this book appeals to people who enjoyed Gone Girl: the disappearance of a woman under odd circumstances, multiple first-person narrators, palpable tension regarding which ones may or may not be reliable, and more and more criss-crossing secrets hinted at and/or revealed as the story goes on. It's a good mystery and I thought the author did a good job cleverly weaving the storylines, timelines, and points of view in a way that kept me guessing for a good while. Most chapters involved some kind of dropped hint that made me go, "Okay, hold up, what was THAT about?" And sometimes she'd just let it sit for a few chapters while I was all like, "YES BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ____ IN CHAPTER ___???" If you like that sort of book (murder/missing persons mystery, multiple potentially unreliable narrators, cleverly jumping around time in time and point of view to weave an intriguing story), you'll probably enjoy it.

* * *

Currently Reading: Consider Phlebas, by Ian. M. Banks

Currently Listening To: A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Up Next: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, and either The Ocean At the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami (haven't decided which yet)


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