I probably went into Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, with all the wrong expectations — a novel set in London, shortly after WWII, written by the guy who wrote The English Patient? I was expecting something more along the lines of Everyone Brave is Forgiven of All the Light We Cannot See. And this book is nothing like those books. It not exactly experimental, but the tone and the structure makes you do a lot more work than either of those novels.

Warlight is narrated by Nathaniel from later in life, but the whole first section of the book involves him and his sister Rachel in the years shortly after WWII after their parents leave them with “the Moth” while they (allegedly) go to work in Asia. Several of the characters love nicknames, so the Moth and his friend the Darter are rarely referred to by their real names, and instead become these sort of semi-mysterious figures that care for Rachel and Nathaniel while their parents are away. The whole first section reminded me a bit of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (which I also didn’t love) — they are both sort of meandering tales of young men engaging in menial work in London.

The novel never exactly became a page turner for me, but as we shift away from teenage Nathaniel, we learn more about his mother’s mysterious past, the Moth, the Darter, and what everyone was up to during the war years. I really did appreciate the complex picture of WWII the book draws, much less the Brits holding their own honorably, defending the free world, much more, war makes everyone’s hands dirty. One woman explains the little thought of backwaters of the war:

When you threw your support behind the Partisans to crush the Germans, we were all — Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Italians– categorized by you as Fascists, and German sympathizers. Ordinary people were now criminals of war. Some of us had been your allies, now we were the enemy. A shift of wind in London, some political whisper, so everything changed. Our villages were turned into ground. There’s no evidence of them now. People were lined up in front of common graves, bound with wire so they couldn’t run. Old feuds now an excuse for murder. Other villages also erased.

That said, Warlight just wasn’t really for me. I never really regret reading books from The Tournament of Books, and I’ve read so many over the past couple years that I LOVED from their lists, and maybe it’s good that I read this one that I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up, but meh, certainly not going to re-read it.

Currently reading: Just finished Women Talking and started Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.

 

Okay, I have read six books in April, and blogged about none of them. Some of them were pretty terrible books, I can tell you, I think you can skip When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri. I stupidly thought that this book was related to a short story I read in The New Yorker (The Prairie Wife) because I mixed up Cassidy and Casey and was kind of looking for something a little lighter. This was too light. And honestly, I’m not in the LGBTQ community personally, but this book really seems to deal in stereotypes. It is basically a not-great romance novel, but happens to be about lesbians.

I’ve also been reading a lot about pregnancy, birth, and child raising, so if that’s of interest to you, you might like Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman or Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin. Edelman’s book really deals with everything from pregnancy to having teenagers, and if you’ve lost your mother, I definitely recommend at least skimming this book. I found it really helpful just to hear other stories somewhat like mine. Gaskin’s book is kind of like the bible of the drug-free “natural” childbirth movement, so I’ll just say, even if you are, like me, somewhat skeptical about a group of people who live at a place they unironically call The Farm, this book is worth some of your time if you’re having a baby. (You can skim, I read it all, and you can definitely skim). It’s a little out of date (although it was updated around 2012, things just keep changing), although some things she’s been pushing since the 70’s really now have the backing of the scientific community (for example, routine episiotomy is actually a terrible and harmful idea).

On to the main event – I also read Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, and it was well worth your time. It’s a memoir of her life, but it’s also the story of five African American men she lost, including her brother. The book works forward through her life, but the different men’s stories are interspersed in the story in reverse chronological order so the man who died last is discussed first. This works perfectly, because she works her way both forward and backward towards the loss of her brother.

Ward is from a small town, DeLisle, Mississippi, and here we gradually learn about these five men who are lost to drugs, accidents, murder, and suicide. I kind of went into this thinking their deaths would all be related to police brutality or drug overdoses, but it’s a more complicated story. As Ward weaves the narrative, she shows you how these five different lives and deaths were all connected — all five of these men died because of different disadvantages that really stemmed from their skin color (as well as poverty, the place they were from).

And the book also does a beautiful job highlighting the thankless job that many African American women have, talking about her mother, Ward writes:

This was what it meant to clean. This was what it meant to work. This was what it meant to forget whatever she had dreamed before and to stand up every day because there were things that needed to be done and she was the only one to do them.

I am not African American or southern, so some of this book was just an education for me. But, I was kind of blown away by one thing — after my Mom died, she felt just gone. I knew, in a powerful way that is hard to explain because maybe we overuse the word “know,” I just knew that I would never see my mother again. Which might sound horrible to you if you think we’ll all meet again in heaven, or obvious if you think this is all there is and then we’re worm food. But finally, what helped me start to feel a little better was the idea that if nothing in this universe is created or destroyed, then my Mom has always been here, and she always will be, just in a different way. I guess this is a more common coping strategy than I thought? Because Ward puts it so beautifully when talking about trying to find the right words for a sister at another funeral:

What I meant to say was this: You will always love him. He will always love you. Even though he is not here, he was here, and no one can change that. No one can take that away from you. If energy is neither created nor destroyed,  and if your brother was here, with his, his humor, his kindness, his hopes, doesn’t this mean that what he was still exists somewhere, even if it’s not here? Doesn’t it? Because in order to get out of bed this morning, this is what I had to believe about my brother …  But I didn’t know how to say that.

This is a beautiful and sad and powerful book, and you should read it.

Coming soon – blog posts about Warlight and The House of Broken Angels.

Currently reading: Women Talking and The Happiest Baby on the Block (yeah… I should do a post at some point of all the pregnancy/kid books that are worth your time).

I remain very behind in blogging… and well, behind on any chance of reading 100 books this year, but hey, 75 wouldn’t be bad right?

At the end of March I finally read My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which I’d been thinking about reading for a while (come on, that’s a pretty intriguing title!), but ultimately felt like, well I HAVE to read this once it became the Zombie in the Morning News Tournament of Books and went to the championship round, and (SPOILER) WON. Really, can I spoil a book tournament for you? I’m not sure. So the Tournament of Books is over for 2019 😦  But, the good news is I’ve read some books I really enjoyed as a result (Washington Black and The Golden State), and I still have some that I’m excited about on the “To Read” pile.

I wanted to love My Sister the Serial Killer, mostly because it won TOB, although sometimes the winner of TOB just means it was the book that challenged or surprised judges the most. And maybe that was a little too much pressure for such a slight book. I definitely still recommend it, if only because it’s an insanely quick read — I think it took me a day?

Essentially, as advertised, this is the story of Korede whose sister, Ayoola, has killed several boyfriends, maybe in self-defense, maybe not… And Korede has become maybe TOO good at cleaning up her sister’s messes:

I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood. Most people use bleach indiscriminately, assuming it is a catch-all product, never taking the time to read the list of ingredients on the back, never taking the time to return to the recently wiped surface to take a closer look. Bleach will disinfect, but it’s not great for cleaning residue, so I use it only after I have scrubbed the bathroom of all traces of life, and death.

It makes this SLIGHTLY less creepy when you learn that Korede is a nurse. But really, the novel very quickly asks you to accept that Korede is already DEEP into helping her sister cover up serious crimes. There are flashbacks, where we see more about how this started.

Ultimately, this was such a page turner! You just have to keep reading to find out whether Korede will be able to stop Ayoola from additional murders and what’s going to happen. Which is maybe why I didn’t love it, because the ending doesn’t completely deliver what you’re expecting.

Currently reading: Warlight (the other TOB championship round book!)

Last week also found me indulging in a novel by Meg Wolitzer – The Interestings. I didn’t like it quite as much as The Female Persuasion, but well, I’ve never disliked anything by Wolitzer. I read a fair number of books that challenge me, that make me work as a reader ( I see you Fever Dream and The Supernatural Enhancements). Wolitzer doesn’t really make you work, she just lets you get completely wrapped up in the characters. Admittedly, many of her characters are young-ish white women, who I find it pretty easy to relate to, so maybe this isn’t true for everyone.

The Interestings is the story of a group of friends who meet at a sleep-away art camp as teens and the novel follows them into their fifties. The main(ish) character is Jules, who comes from a middle class family and comes to camp for the first time right after her dad has died. She discovers she likes acting, and does try to make a go of it as a career for awhile as an adult. We also meet Ash and Goodman, wealthy twins from NYC, Ash is always praised by her parents and writes and directs plays, Goodman is always dismissed as lazy by his parents. Then there’s Jonah who is the son of a fairly famous folk singer (think Mary Chapin Carpenter maybe) and who is himself very talented at singing and playing the guitar but actively chooses not to make his living that way. And Ethan, also from a lower/middle class background, with amazing talent as an animator. Another character Cathy is technically part of The Interestings, as they christen themselves, but falls out of the friendship group after something traumatic happens. We start with their first summer together, and follow them for decades, slipping back and forth in time a bit.

The central themes of the book are really about, what does it take to ‘make it,’ why is it that some of these teens go on to be really famous for their talent, while others simply transition to other things? It isn’t just talent. But also, that magical time in your teens and twenties when you form these intense friendships. Jules’ husband argues with her on this point:

[W]hat was so great about this place wasn’t this place. … This camp is a perfectly fine place, Jules, but there are a lot of other places like it, or at least there used to be. And if you’d gone to another one, you would have met an entirely different group of people and become friends with them. That’s just the way it is. yeah, you were lucky you got to come here when you did. But what was most exciting about it when you were here was the fact that you were young. That was the best part.

Jules disagrees, but I kind of agreed. Places feel special, but ultimately what was special was the fact that you were young and everything was so new. This isn’t to say I would trade the experiences or the friends I actually have, but certainly, I think some of the power of our relationship is because we formed those relationships at this specific time in our lives.

Of course, I also really identified with Jules because she loses her dad so young, and because I have the same feeling that she described often, I don’t know what my Mom would have thought or loved, she didn’t know me as an adult:

Warren Jacobson was so rarely thought of by her as “Dad.” He was “my father” or, even more often, “my father who died when I was fifteen.” It was better to keep him at a distance, and when her mother said [Dad would have loved to be here at your wedding] in the tavern, Jules had no idea of what he would have loved. He’d never known her as a grown woman, only as a somewhat out-of-synch girl with ridiculous hair. .. It was too sad to think about him today of all days, when she was joining her life with the life of a man who was vowing to stay beside her over the years.

Ah Meg Wolitzer, you twist the heartstrings, but I love it.

Currently reading: Men We Reap

 

I’ve read a bunch of books lately, so hopefully I will get it together to write them up a  bit – first up, A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers. This is, as the title suggests, twenty-five short stories which are speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) dealing mostly with the future of the United States. I started out really liking it, read all the stories pretty quickly, but looking back only a few really stand out for me. The book as a whole is extremely motivated by Donald Trump, which I kind of get, but after I while I felt like, look The Handmaid’s Tale already exists and is great, I don’t know how many more of those type of stories I need to read. Trump is mentioned in the intro as having motivated the editor to collect the stories, mentioned by name in at least one story, and hovers over many others. And honestly, I wish some of the writers had been a little more creative.

Although, the first story, which seemed very tied to the current state of the country was one of my favorites. “The Bookstore at the End of America” is a sort of play on the library that’s in both Canada and the United States, it has an entrance in the United States and one in California which has broken away. The owner tries to use books and the store as a bridge between the two countries, but hostilities over water break out during the story and both US citizens and Californians find themselves together sheltering in the bookstore:

What were the chances that the First and Last Page would could continue to exist much longer, especially with one foot in either country? How would they know if tonight was just another skirmish or the beginning of a proper war, something that could carry on for months and reduce both countries to fine ash? … all Molly heard was the slow, sustained breathing of people inside a cocoon of books.

There were many, many stories about plotting revolution after things have gone bad, for example “Our Aim is Not to Die” was all about a non-binary person living in surveillance state where one can’t be different in any way and the state monitors us all via social media and the internet of things.  I think N.K. Jemisin was the most creative, although I don’t really see her predictions coming true, she had the government creating sort of dragons via bio engineering and then using them against minority populations.

I also really enjoyed “Now Wait for this Week” maybe because it was not exactly about America or a prediction about the future. Instead it was a sort of Groundhog Day type story (or Russian Doll if you’re into that new Netflix special). One of the characters was stuck in the same week that juts kept repeating.  And it turned out to be kind of a surprising way to talk about #MeToo.

I think if you like science fiction at all, and I do, although not as much as some people, this collection is a great roadmap to find more sci-fi/fantasy novels to try because this really is a great collection of authors.

Currently reading: The House of Broken Angels

Last week I read There, There, by Tommy Orange, and listen to the marriage, by John Jay Osborn. And I can’t say that I loved either of them although both are well-written books that I would still recommend depending on what you’re looking for in a book.

I wanted to love There, There, and really it is a phenomenal book, it’s just also a very sad and unsatisfying book. I rarely think I should have read a book faster, but I had some trouble keeping track of all the characters and their relationships with each other and maybe you should just read this in like 1-2 sittings (as noted on the book jacket, this novel is “relentlessly paced” so I think you could pretty easily get through it in a day if you happen to have the leisure time). Essentially, this is the story of twelve Native Americans each attending the Big Oakland Powwow for various reasons (some are there to commit crimes, some to seek redemption, some to connect with their culture). We get lots of back story on most of the characters, which was really fascinating. I found the stories of Jacquie Redfeather and her half-sister Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield particularly fascinating — their story opens with them taking part as children in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, which I knew pretty much nothing about. I found the ending of the novel unsatisfying, and I think anyone who likes things wrapped up in bows at the end of a book will as well — several characters are very much left hanging.

I also couldn’t help thinking about The Book Thief while reading the Prologue, which painful sets out the genocide committed by white settlers against Native Americans, another sort of holocaust.

listen to the marriage is a very different novel — whereas There, There ranges through decades and around the lives of twelve people, listen to the marriage is a sort of bottle novel. Almost everything in the entire novel happens via conversation inside the marriage counselor’s office. This is the story of Gretchen, Steve, and their marriage counselor Sandy, and how the three of them attempt to rebuild Gretchen and Steve’s marriage. This is another book that can’t be put down: there’s almost a sense that you’re trapped in the room with the three of them for the duration of the novel. Osborn (who wrote The Paper Chase!) kind of bashes you over the head with this concept, which I didn’t think was totally necessary:

“You and me, our story?” Gretchen said. “It’s what is going on right now, in this room. This is where it happens. This is what counts. If you’re not here, in the room, you don’t count.”

But at the same time, I did enjoy this book and thought it was a really interesting picture of marriage and counseling.

Currently reading: Still The Interestings, Men We Reap, and A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers (didn’t get much reading done this weekend sadly).

I think I’m kind of late to the party on this one since it’s already been made into a movie and apparently the movie came out like…six years ago?? Can one spoil a book that came out 13 years ago and has been around as a movie for more than 5?

Anyway, the book thief is a YA novel set before/during WWII in Hitler’s Germany, outside Munich. The characters are pretty much all German, which is interesting — I feel like maybe it’s the books I’ve read, but there seem to be SO MANY books about the brave and faultless British during WWII, but not so many about average Germans. Not that WWII is like, hurting for books written about it. But, it was interesting to see the story from the point of view of two tweens/teens in Germany who are sort of old enough to understand a bit of what’s going on, but young enough to not have much say.

The main character, Liesel, is the book thief and the novel opens with her being taken to live with foster parents because her parents are communists and although it is never stated, it is clear that the German state has decided her parents don’t get to have their kids any more because of their views. Liesel’s father has already been gone a long time. Tragedy strikes on the train ride to her foster home, which seems only right in any novel about the Holocaust – death was simply everywhere during that period.

Speaking of death, the novel is in fact narrated by Death, which is an interesting choice that sort of let’s the novel be both first and third person — we know what’s going on in everyone’s head, but we also get the angst from Death first hand. Yeah, Death is pretty angsty in this novel.

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot of the novel, honestly I read it in about a day a half, so you can definitely get through it pretty quickly. It’s really just a coming of age story about Liesel learning to deal with all the loss in her life. I felt like, maybe because it’s a YA novel, it sort bashes you over the head with the central idea — the power of words. Liesel learns to read over the course of the novel, and as one might expect she steals a number of books, and words change her life, but words are also how Hitler changed the world.

I didn’t LOVE this book, although maybe because it came highly recommended to me, my expectations were too high? It certainly is a fast read, not exactly a fun one (set during WWII in Hitler’s Germany will do that…) although not exactly not a fun one?

I’ve also finished Listen to the Marriage and There, There, so those posts are coming.

Currently reading: The Interestings, Men We Reap, and A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers