My last post was at the end of August. Yipes. I can make a lot of excuses (my daughter turned one, and I threw a huge shindig; holidays and houseguests; lots of baby time, not as much me time), but the truth of the matter is this: I just haven’t felt like wasting my time writing reviews of mediocre books.
So, I’ve made an executive decision. I will not write reviews of mediocre books. I have a massive stack of to-be-reviewed books, and I have pared it down to four: two books that you should read and two books that you might think you should read but you absolutely should not read. The rest? They are going straight to Little Free Libraries around town without being reviewed. Done and done.
To celebrate the new year, I’m giving myself a clean desk. And I’m giving you these four reviews!
First, the good:
Published June 7, 2016
320 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: This book got a ton of hype. The reviews were over-the-top (and now it has made its way to lots of the year’s top-ten lists). It was an Indie Next List pick and a LibraryReads List selection for June 2016. So, it was on my radar. And then my brother called and told me that I had to read it. Immediately. And that was that. When you are committing weeks to a single book like I am now, the foreknowledge that your reading time won’t be wasted on drivel is a dream come true.
What it’s about: This book is only about 300 pages, so it should be pretty easy to summarize in a quick paragraph, right? Umm, no. The book spans hundreds of years, eight generations, and multiple continents. “Epic” is a word that is used almost exclusively hyperbolically these days, but it is appropriate in the context of this novel. Literally.
Here is a gross oversimplification: this book is about two separate branches of a family tree. Both branches originate in Ghana. One branch remains there for many, many years, while the other is forcibly relocated to America. As you might guess, this book touches on a lot of heavy subject matter, including the slave trade and race relations/racism. But it’s also about love and family. Needless to say, there’s a lot packed into this little novel.
Y’all, let me tell you something: I NEEDED this book in my life. It is easily the best book I read in 2016.
Each chapter revolves around a character. Recall that the story is about two branches of a family tree—we’ll call them A branch and B branch. The first chapter is about a man in the A branch; the next is about a man in the B branch. Each subsequent two chapters are about characters in the next generation of the family tree, alternating between the A branch and B branch. You meet approximately one billion characters (with names like Nana Yaa Yeboah), so the family tree at the beginning of the book is extremely helpful in keeping things straight.
This all sounds ridiculously convoluted, but the amazing thing about the book is that it’s not at all. The story is complex, yes, but it is artfully and skillfully presented. Each chapter is like its own little short story, tying the themes of the book together but rarely referring directly to the chapters that came before it. There are never any “get on with it” moments; in fact, there are many chapters that leave you wishing you could have an entire book about that character.
And the writing. OOOOOOO-eeeee. The writing! Here are the book’s first two (gorgeous, glorious) paragraphs:
The night Effia Otcher was born in to the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There it disappeared, becoming one with the night.
Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobb had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”
As you probably know, I am not usually one for flowery, overly descriptive writing, but I can get behind a simile like this one: “Abeeku Badu was next in line to be the village chief. He was tall, with skin like the pit of an avocado and large hands with long, slender fingers that he waved around like lighting bolts every time he spoke.” This is a book written by someone with serious talent.
So, why didn’t it get a 5? Because the ending is a little disappointing. I expected something as breath-taking as the rest of the novel, and it just didn’t quite deliver. Nevertheless, I’m adding this to my Books You Should Read list. Read this book immediately. It is incredible.
September 13, 2016
336 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: I mean, who doesn’t love Ann Patchett? Bel Canto is a lovely book. And this, her latest, was the #1 Indie Next List pick and a LibraryReads List selection for September 2016.
What it’s about: This is one where the book blurb does its job with aplomb. So I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Here is how the book is billed:
One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.
When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.
These days, most people have some measure of Brady-Bunch blending in their families. For me, it’s like this: my parents divorced when I was about ten and both subsequently remarried. My mother’s husband had three kids, who became my step-siblings when I was fourteen. Eighteen years later, my mom and stepdad divorced . . . leaving my step-siblings and me completely and utterly unrelated.
This is the kind of relationship that is the foundation of Commonwealth. It is about the shared history of people long since separated by divorce and by moves across thousands of miles. It is about acknowledging that no amount of uncoupling and no physical distance can change the fact that you were (and are) family. The past, with all of its joys and tragedies, cannot be erased.
This sounds a little cheesy (and even, perhaps, trite). But remember that Ann Patchett is a gifted writer. The book is beautifully written, the characters’ stories are intricately interwoven, the book is quick and easy to read, and (best of all) it’s smart. Plus, there are the added bonuses of lawyer stuff and Virginia stuff, both of which I can get behind.
This is a book about family and relationships and trust and forgiveness (or lack thereof). It is sad and funny and complex and very much a story of our times.
And now for the bad:
September 13, 2016
Why I read it: This was chosen as the December selection for my book club. We’re all moms with kids between twelve and eighteen months. It’s a good selection for parents (especially new parents or soon-to-be parents) for reasons that will soon be obvious.
What it’s about: A very pregnant woman has split with her husband . . . and taken up with her brother-in-law. Scandalous, right? Oh, that’s not even the half of it. Now, she and her brother-in-law are plotting to kill their husband/brother.
But wait! The book isn’t told from the perspective of the pregnant lady or her estranged husband or even his dirtbag brother. Oh, no. The entire book is told in first person by . . . the zygote.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: Ian McEwan may be the most overrated author of our time. There’s a blurb on the back of this book that begins: “The first thing to do about Ian McEwan is stipulate his mastery.” No, sir, I will do no such thing.
Am I being too harsh? You be the judge. The book opens with a monologue by the zygote. If this sounds incredibly gimmicky, contrived, and annoying, that’s because it is. McEwan, of course, compounds that annoyance with his signature pretentious, self-congratulatory style. Care for an example? I would LOVE to give you one:
When I hear the friendly drone of passing cars and a slight breeze stirs what I believe are horse chestnut leaves, when a portable radio below me tinnily rasps and a penumbral coral glow, a prolonged tropical dusk, dully illuminates my inland sea and its trillion drifting fragments, then I know that my mother is sunbathing on the balcony outside my father’s library.
I mean, come on. This embryo has enough wine knowledge to be a sommelier (having imbibed plenty through the umbilical cord). He is well-versed in poetry, having heard his father’s recitations. And he is up-to-speed on all the news of the world (from podcasts, duh). And the things he has no way of knowing? Well, naturally, this fetus that has never seen anything beyond the amniotic sac imagines things in painstaking detail.
So, yes, the book is far-fetched. But I wouldn’t care too much about that. I mean, whatever, it’s different and, at least conceptually, has the potential to be interesting. The problem is McEwan’s writing. One of my notes reads: “Pedantic, proud of himself, obnoxious, thinks he is more clever than he actually is. I hate everything about this book.” So, there’s that.
This book’s only saving grace was its length. Thank God it wasn’t any longer.
Today Will Be Different
October 4, 2016
Why I read it: I am a huge fan of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and have recommended it to approximately one billion people. It is the perfect vacation read—quick, funny, smart, and creative. This is her follow up and was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next pick, and a LibraryReads List selection for October.
What it’s about: The book is a day in the life of Eleanor Flood. She begins the day by vowing that it will be different (“Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance . . . . Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local.”). SPOILER ALERT: today is no different.
The start of the book was promising. Early on, there are lots of signature-Semple lines that made me chuckle out loud, like this hits-too-close-to-home paragraph:
You know how your brain turns to mush? How it starts when you’re pregnant? You laugh, full of wonder and conspiracy, and you chide yourself, Me and my pregnancy brain! Then you give birth and your brain doesn’t return? But you’re breast-feeding, so you laugh, as if you’re a member of an exclusive club? Me and my nursing brain! But then you stop nursing and the terrible truth descends: Your good brain is never coming back. You’ve traded vocabulary, lucidity, and memory for motherhood. You know how you’re in the middle of a sentence and you realize at the end you’re going to need to call up a certain word and you’re worried you won’t be able to, but you’re already committed so you hurtle along and then pause because you’ve arrived at the end but the word hasn’t? And it’s not even a ten-dollar word you’re after, like polemic or shibboleth, but a two-dollar word, like distinctive, you just end up saying amazing?
Which is how you join the gang of nitwits who describe everything as amazing.
Like Bernadette, protagonist Eleanor is an eccentric, imperfect Galer Street mom with more than a few issues. Like Bee, Eleanor’s son, Timby, is a precocious (and oddly-named) Galer Street student (who says awesome things like, “Smell the soup, cool the soup,” when his mom is freaking out and needs to take some deep breaths). Unfortunately, despite these similarities, Today Will Be Different lacks the charm and pacing of Bernadette. And, perhaps because there are so many striking similarities to Bernadette, it’s very obvious that this book falls well short. Sad.
About a third of the way through the book, the writing starts to unravel and the story becomes a bit of a mess. It goes from being genuinely funny/edgy to being wannabe-funny/edgy (an example: “People hadn’t stopped to watch, but they were certainly slowing down to judge.”). There’s a weird, tangential storyline about Eleanor’s sister that doesn’t end up going anywhere. There’s a weird, tangential storyline about Eleanor’s husband that doesn’t get resolved.
The book lacks focus. And it seems like Semple is trying to rely on her quirk and humor alone. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to carry the book. Yes, there are a few funny lines, but, all in all, it’s a messy jumble.