Fiction


Richard Power’s The Overstory felt like kind of a slog to me. I liked the book, but at over 500 pages, it is not a short novel. Although it took me a while to get through, I did like this book and would recommend it to all the nature lovers out there.

The novel is the intertwined story of nine strangers (well, eight strangers, two are married to each other and their story is pretty much always told together) in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Some of them end up coming together, some of them never meet or meet only briefly, but all of them are part of this larger story about deforestation and trees.

The novel opens with a section called “Roots” which fittingly, gives us a chapter on each character — (1) Nicholas Hoel a Midwesterner who grows up with a family Chestnut tree and does amazing tree-related art work, (2) Mimi Ma a second generation Chinese-American engineer who loves a specific little grove of trees, (3) Adam Appich a boy interested in science and psychology who goes on to research group think, (4) Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who are married and start planting in their yard each year on their anniversary, (5) Douglas Pavlicek a Vietnam veteran who is disguised to find out that all the time he spends planting seeds is really hurting the environment (because companies can then log more older trees – “What do I do now, for the next forth years? What work can’t the efficiency of unified mankind chop into pure fertilizer?”), (6) Neelay Mehta an India-American who loves computers and is inspired in his programing by trees/nature, (7) Patricia Westerford a scientist who discovers that trees communicate and writes several best selling books about trees (which all the other characters read), and (8) Olivia Vandergriff a girl who after not doing much has a life changing experience that causes her to devote her life to activism for trees. Man, and that’s the first like 100 pages.

Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Douglas, and Olivia all end up engaging in eco-activism together, and their stories kind of provide the plot. I still enjoyed Ray and Dorothy and Neelay, but I kind of felt like, this book didn’t really need those plot lines, I’m not totally sure what they added, other than that they are interesting characters. Although I guess having Patricia be the only one who doesn’t join everyone else would have been weird.

This novel is definitely a downer in a lot of ways, not only is it about deforestation (not uplifting, as Olivia explains, “Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”), but lots of horrific things happen to each character basically from the word go — dead parents, near-death experiences, severe on-going health issues.

Much of the book is really beautifully, if densely written, here’s Nick talking about working in a warehouse:

The aisle rises on girders into an endless chasm of books. Dozens of aisles in this Fulfillment Center alone.  And every month, new Fulfillment Centers across several continents. His employers won’t stop until everyone is fulfilled. Nick squanders a full five precious second of his time-motion gazing down at the gorge of books. The sight fills him with horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, compounding, swelling canyons of imprinted paper, encoded in the millions of tons of loblolly pine fiber, there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfillment and bring back danger, need, and death.

I love this passage, while also feeling like, Powers could have killed a couple fewer trees himself to make this particular book if he’d been more able to convey and idea in a paragraph instead of ten pages.

I will also say that, not unlike The Sixth Extinction (non-fiction by Elizabeth Kolbert), this book conveys a sense that humans are only going to win for so long. It’s not the earth that’s in danger — we are. If (when?) we make the planet uninhabitable, the planet spins on, trees will be a big part of the environment recovering from the big species die-offs that are happening now. Give it 65 million years or so, some new cool stuff might be happening on the third planet from the sun.

Currently reading – Still working on Not that Bad and now starting N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (time to get some lighter reading in).

Let me tell you, I really like this collection, Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson. I think most people mainly know Jackson for her terrifying short story The Lottery or, now that Netflix made a special, for The Haunting of Hill House. But, Jackson, despite dying young and raising four kids, wrote so many other amazing short stories and novels !!  I really enjoyed this collection because it includes short stories, very early short stories, non-fiction writing, and some of her essays or speeches on her process or on writing. It really feels like you get to get in her head a little bit — and she discusses writing both The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery in the essays in the book.

The first section of the collection is short stories which were ‘finished’ (or you know, at least completely written if not deemed finished by Jackson) but unpublished or uncollected. I enjoyed all of them — they were all so different, and I love how Jackson plays with magical realism. She just wasn’t bound to the rules of the world the way some of us are (“I don’t think I like reality very much.”). It’s sort of hard to give examples without spoiling these short stories because first, they’re short so the plots are pretty straight forward, but also some of their strength comes from the way not everything is made explicit (so as in The Lottery, it is never explained WHY this is happening).

The second section is all non-fiction pieces, including one where Jackson talks about being asked to write a children’s story:

I was given a word list, made out by a “group of educators,” and asked to confine myself to this list . . . . “Getting” and “spending” were on the list, but not “wishing”; “cost” and “buy” and “nickel” and “dime” were all on the list, but not “magic”; “post office” and “supermarket” were on the list, but not “Fairlyland.” I felt the children for whom I was supposed to write were being robbed, persuaded to accept nickels and dimes instead of magic wishes.

Considering how TERRIFYING The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House are (as well as several other Jackson stories), reading Jackson’s non-fiction is delightful. She just seems to see life in everything — she was raising four kids and doing all this housework, so her brain just started making up stories about the laundry basket, and she just kind of seems to live in that kind of world.

The third section of the collection is all very early Jackson short stories, most of which involve WWII or the end of WWII. It’s kind of fascinating to see these early hints of her later style in these stories, they don’t have quite the same light touch or twists and turns.

The fourth and fifth sections are both non-fiction, the fourth centers on her kids/housekeeping and the fifth is all essays about writing.  I found the fifth section fascinating because she does provide a little insight in how she came up with some of her stories. But, the fourth section may actually have been my favorite and made me laugh out loud — this is where you really see that unrelentingly creative brain:

My two forks are insanely jealous of each other, and I find that I must take a path of great caution with them, something I would not do for many of my friends. I try to keep out of their quarrels – who wouldn’t be afraid of an angry fork? – but I am always fumbling the delicate balance of power that is all that keeps them from each other’s throats.  …

I do not mean to say that I am under the thumb of my forks, any more than I am honestly afraid of the meat grinder’s threats, or the bullying of the coffee pot. It is simply that one cannot live a day in the middle of so many personalities without occasionally treating on some fork’s toes. . . .

Although I will admit, it made me wish I had a time machine, I would go back a hire Jackson a nanny or a maid or a cook or something so she could have had a few more hours with her typewriter. I guess she enjoyed the balance, but there is this feeling, how much more could she have written if someone else was doing the laundry?

OH, and PS – This was book 100 for me! I totally met my goal of 100 books in 2018. With pretty much all of December to go.

Currently reading: The Overstory, still working on Not That Bad.

I don’t know about you, but man for me, November is flying by. I just can’t believe it’s the 20th already?? And Thanksgiving is upon us. My reading pace has definitely slowed a bit this fall, but I’m still only four books from my goal of 100.

This past week I read Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink and Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li. In retrospect, I didn’t really like Number One Chinese Restaurant that much. To be honest, it bummed me out, and felt like a bit of a slog despite being only about 300 pages. The novel tells a sort of upstairs/downstairs story of both the family that owns a Chinese restaurant and a few of the staff members who have worked there. Essentially, a fire occurs in the restaurant, and the novel tells the story of how everyone was involved, reacts, and how their lives are changed afterwards.


I liked Alice Isn’t Dead significantly more. I’d previously read Joseph Fink’s two novels related to his Welcome to Nightvale podcast. Alice Isn’t Dead is also based on a podcast (of the same name), which you don’t need to listen to to enjoy this book. You do kind of need to be a fan of Fink’s quirky style and way of creating a world very similar to our own, but just a little bit stranger. It’s not exactly science fiction, but it certainly isn’t realism. Magical realism? 

As advertised, the novel is sort of about Alice not being dead. The main character is Alice’s wife, Keisha. Alice disappears, and eventually Keisha has to admit to herself that Alice is probably dead, and then, Keisha starts seeing Alice, alive, in the background of the news. Whenever something terrible happens, there is Alice in the background. Keisha quits her job and starts working as a trucker in order to spend her time looking for Alice. While out on the road, she discovers a terrible non-secret about monsters who walk among us. This is a full on good v. evil story, although it’s more complicated than you initially think. I found the end a bit quick, but overall the story was satisfying. 

Fink is a hilarious writer, I’m sorry to say I returned the book to the library, forgetting that I had bookmarked some quotes I wanted to include in this post 😦 You’re just going to have to go read it for yourself. 

 

Currently reading: Trying really hard to finish both American Like Me and She Has Her Mother’s Laugh so I can start new books over the long Thanksgiving weekend… 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! 

I don’t have a ton to say about either of these books — both were fine, I think both are unlikely to end up in anyone’s Christmas stocking (my Christmas shopping is basically me perusing the books I read over the year and then giving my favorites to people I think will also enjoy them).

Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce, is actually a delightful romp through WWII London with narrator Emmy a twenty-something woman who longs to be a war correspondent but ends up accidentally working at a Women’s magazine typing up advice columns written by a woman who isn’t great at giving advice and is horrified by the immorality of the problems writers are sending in. Hijinks ensue – Emmy just can’t help herself. The war certainly dampens things a bit, but basically this is a slightly cheerier, funnier version of Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Really, other than the war, the central problems of the book don’t create a lot of tension — you can smell Emmy’s happy ending coming for the entire book. But, I couldn’t help but enjoy Emmy, who has a Jolly Good Time and generally shows Hitler what’s what with her Stiff Upper Lip. There is a lot of hilarious capitalization in the book. Although I didn’t buy this one, I don’t regret reading it and I was rather happy to hear that a sequel is in the works.

From the Corner of the Oval, by Beck Dorey-Stein, is a rather different book, although it also centers on a twenty-something (later a thirty-something) woman trying to find her footing in the world.  I really wanted to like this book, I kept waiting to like it. I absolutely identified with Dorey-Stein in many ways, being you know, also a thirty-something woman trying to find my footing in the world. But I mean. YOU ARE TEN FEET FROM OBAMA AND ALL YOU CAN THINK ABOUT ARE BOYS??? Really, because Dorey-Stein was a stenographer, not say, ambassador to the UN, this is a very personal memoir and doesn’t touch as much on the substance of Obama’s policies or decisions made in the administration. I mean, she certainly makes it sound like everyone had a good time.

I just kind of didn’t care about her continued inability to not cheat on her boyfriend, or the fact that the guy she was cheating with was a jerk. And I also just can’t really feel bad for someone, no matter how confused they are, who gets to travel the world with the president. She may not know what she wants, but having White House on her resume opens so many doors. Like say, writing a successful memoir despite being like 34? I didn’t hate this book, at times I enjoyed it, I think it could have been shorter.

Currently reading: Still only about 250 pages into She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. It is a dense freaking book. But, with 94 books under my belt for the year, I have the time.

Oh man. October was a bad month for reading books. Which was due in part to the fact that I am DEDICATED to reading all of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer (it’s the book you would want to have with you in a situation where you had to defend yourself with books) which is kind of good because although it’s slow going, I’m really enjoying the book and it’s good to mix things up and read 600 page books about science sometimes.

But, reading has also been down because civic engagement has been up! Which is also good, but it’s so freaking depressing. I’ve had some good experiences knocking on door and phone banking. Some great conversations that have given me so much hope. But, ug. I’ve also had some terrible interactions. There are so many people in America who think that everything that keeps me up at night is fine (war in Yemen, global climate change, women’s bodily autonomy, families torn apart at our border). And there are so many people who just don’t seem to care at all about other people (literally, all anyone wants to talk about is property taxes). Case and point, I was walking around in a neighborhood about 10 minutes from my house today, knocking doors, being super friendly!, and carved into the sidewalk on one block, a swastika. It just really, really upset me. Because who just lets that sit there? Who doesn’t do anything about having a symbol of such powerful hatred carved into their sidewalk? I mean, Pittsburgh tragedy ringing any bells?? I’m not Jewish. I’m powerfully white. Like, I accept that I have many privileges because I’m that sweet looking white girl, and also my skin could burn your eyes in winter. Possibly also summer. But the idea that there are people out there who think it’s cool to put swastikas on things, and the idea that there are people who just don’t care that there’s a swastika on their sidewalk? Well, frankly it makes me seriously consider a long winter of solitude with book and no human interaction…

So, rant over, back to books for now. My last October read was This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us by Edgar Cantero. This is Cantero’s third book in English, and you may recall that I’ve read the other two and LOVED Meddling Kids and liked The Supernatural Enhancements, and I’m going to say I actually really really liked This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us. Yeah, it’s a very refined rating system I have going.

Cantero’s third novel is another pretty big departure, you know how some authors really have a style or write like fifty books about the same character (whether openly or not), yeah, Cantero isn’t like that, other than maybe his focus on the supernatural, although that’s less at play in this book.  First, he wrote The Supernatural Enhancements which is VERY supernaturally focused and told entirely via letters, journal entries, transcripts, etc. Then he wrote Meddling Kids which is very obviously based on the Scooby-Doo Gang, but a sort of, what if one of their cases really WAS a ghost/supernatural thing. And now, his third novel is the story of A.Z. Kimrean, private eyes. And yes, the grammar is confusing because A.Z. is actually Adrian and Zoey who both inhabit the same body. A.Z. isn’t mentally ill, rather, they are chimeric twins — so sort of like Siamese twins but they only have one of everything (but say the left leg belongs to Zoey, the right leg belongs to Adrian). Adrian is all left brain, logical, and Zoey is all right brain creative.

Honestly, this book is enjoyable because Adrian and Zoey are interesting characters and the plot isn’t much better than your average PI novel, but it does zip along pretty well. There’s also some fun genre bashing:

“Femme fatale? It’s an archetype: the devious, beautiful woman with a dark past and compromising knowledge, playing other characters like chess pawns and getting the hero into trouble. That’s who you are now. Innocent but dangerous.”

“But I don’t want to cause you trouble.”

“Oh, please – trouble is necessary. It’s what moves the plot forward. And your presence is a breath of fresh air; this case oozes testosterone. Drug cartel, undercover cops – this would be a sausage factory without you girl. Don’t worry about us, you’re doing great. You do you.”

Essentially, A.Z. is called in to try to stop a gang war — there’s a undercover cop imbedding in a gang, the police want to take out the ringleaders, but fear that a gang war will just result in lots of bloodshed and new gangs rising up, negating all the work they’ve put in. The gang leader’s son has been killed and the police want A.Z. to figure out who it was/convince the gang leader that it wasn’t the fault of the rival gang. Yeah, it’s not the best plot ever. But it’s a fun book!

And for a book written by a man with like 1.5 female characters, this book actually said some interesting things about women (and well, a lot of interesting things about gender). Primarily this is through the eleven year old girl who is smarter than everyone else in her family (her dad is the gang leader):

“I used to be everyone’s favorite; the staff, the bodyguards, everyone complimented me. . . . I’m supposed to be proud of all the new things going on in my body, but if I talk tampons, everyone’s embarrassed. I cuddle with my friends, everyone stares; I bump against my PE teacher, he jolts like I’m toxic. Everyone’s all happy I’m turning into a woman but freaked out I’m not a child anymore. Like I’m in the gray area, and anything can happen.”

It’s been a while since I was an eleven year old girl, and Cantero never was (as far as I’m aware), but this says such interesting and terrible things about how society sees girls and women. Zoey actually turns out to be pretty great with pre-teen girls telling her, “You will take the reigns. You will write your own story.”

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and From the Corner of the Oval

Just finished Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen, and before that was Circe by Madeline Miller. I enjoyed both, although particularly with Bury What We Cannot Take maybe enjoyed is the wrong word….

Circe tells the story of Circe, a rather minor character in The Odyssey if I’m recalling my junior high reading assignments correctly… I’ve heard some criticism that this book required a little too much knowledge of Greek mythology, but I’m no expert and I still found it to be a fast and compelling read. Circe is a goddess, a child of a Titan (Helios a sun god) and an Oceanid nymph, and she’s little loved or appreciated in her family because she’s not as beautiful or as beautiful sounding as they are (she has a human voice).

The novel begins with Circe’s unhappy childhood, and follows her through the centuries — about halfway through she meets Odysseus. I found her incredibly compelling, despite being a goddess, she’s sort of the post of the #metoo era, a woman who is willing to call the men in power (or not in power) who have harmed her to account. Many powerfully sad things happen to her, and there was a bit of a sense of doom for me for much of the book, but the end is pretty happy.

Bury What We Cannot Take also has a somewhat happy ending, although the book itself looking back, is basically about the worst few weeks in a family’s life. I thought this novel would be more about, the years and decades of a family after escaping communist China, but it was really about that very initial period of their escape. The main characters of the story are nine-year-old San San and her older brother Ah Liam. As the story opens, they are well-to-do children with a father who is stuck abroad working in Hong Kong because the borders of China have been closed.  The two are both young enough to be completely taken in by the communist party’s message and in fact the wheels of the plot are set in motion by Ah Liam turning their grandmother in as a counter-revolutionary after witnessing her smash a picture of Chairman Mao.

I don’t know that the Chinese government would like this book, and it doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the communist party — several minor characters are killed by the party for trying to leave China. At the beginning of the book, after Ah Liam has turned his grandmother in, grandmother and mother are able to get exit visas for three members of the family — but not all four. As a result, most of the book switches back and forth between Ah Liam and their mother in Hong Kong and San San, still stuck in China. San San’s resourcefulness, her sheer capability was what made me enjoy this book. It’s terrible, because you see her realize that her family lied to her about why they were leaving and you see her decide that the only person she can trust and rely on is herself. But, she’s pretty good at taking care of herself it turns out, and I found her adventures much more interesting than Ah Liam’s struggles with his communist education and the beliefs of the rest of his family.

Bury What We Cannot Take is another book from the amazing list 46 Books By Women of Color To Read in 2018 – if you’re looking for what to read next, start here.

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and still working through So You Want to Talk About Race

 

Okay, apologies for my rather long absence, I just took an amazing vacation to the Pacific Northwest and spent a week hiking the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake, and the Redwoods. Highly recommend it. I did read while I was gone, of course, but I let myself continue on the path of reading let’s say… less stressful books.

First up, because I think it was my favorite of the bunch, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart. This is actually the first book in a series, so I’m looking forward to maybe reading the next few over the holidays. This novel is based on the true story of Constance Kopp, a thirty-something unmarried woman living out in the county in New Jersey with her two also unmarried sisters. Her quiet country life is interrupted when a local thug drives his automobile into the buggy she and her sisters are ridding in. Kopp tries to exact payment to repair the buggy, which incites the thug into a rage that propels the rest of the story as he terrorizes the family and Kopp suddenly finds herself learning to shoot a gun and taking part in sting operations with the local sheriff (“I got a revolver to protect us, and I soon had use for it.”). This book is a great time, and I BOUGHT IT AT POWELL’S! Yep, before I took off into the wilderness, I stopped at THE Powell’s and bought a few books. It was amazing, every book lover must go. I actually found a bunch of great independent book stores on my travels — Dudley’s Bookshop Café in Bend, OR was great and made great chai.

I also read Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. Both were kind of, I know this book is going to be escapist-y, and I’m fine with it. I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians a lot, and reading the book definitely made me want to see the movie. It is a silly book, but the characters are well-drawn and the book is pretty hard to put down.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays is about 28 year old Miranda who inherits a bookstore when her uncle dies. Somehow, this does not fill her with joy. Although, in her defense, the bookstore isn’t doing that well. But um, if anyone wants to leave me a bookstore, I will have NO angst about leaving my current job to go and run a bookstore. Much of the book involves Miranda figuring out a scavenger hunt left to her by her uncle, which turns out to be leading her towards understanding family secrets. Many of the clues are quotes from books (books which are in the bookstore and then have the next clue), I particularly liked the one from Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (so now I’m sort of debating reading that):

Whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew above all, that I’d go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn’t easy and it was always painful. But there wasn’t any other choice except death.

I’ve felt many things similar to this in the past year, so I’m pretty such the context is different in Fear of Flying, but I related. The good days are when I feel like I can survive anything. Anyway, this is not an amazing book, but it is a fun book if you like books and bookstores.

Currently reading: Circe and still working on a lot of other things…

 

 

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