CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

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Five Sentence Reviews: Little Fires Everywhere and The Power

I just finished reading my 11th book (!) for 20 Books of Summer but I’m behind on my posts, so I thought I’d try a couple of short reviews.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

91twTG-CQ8LIntricate story, many layers of secrets, many points of view. Set in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990’s (and Ng really nails the sense of time and place.) I was completely absorbed in this story of unknown interior lives and two mothers with diametrically opposed ways of living, thinking, and raising children. This was better than Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You. I absolutely loved it. (5 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less… Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses has become rare – a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug – and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

51PUiZ2CfqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This was a real page-turner for about the first 100-150 pages. Super compelling premise: teenage girls (and later grown women) develop a bodily adaptation (a power) to shoot electricity out of their hands, upending gender norms and relations all over the world. It was a neat idea – what kind of power would women wield? In the end, it sort of lost focus and fizzled and got incredibly dark, violent, and depressing, and there were only two characters well enough developed to care anything about. Would probably be a good book group choice, though. (3 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; yes, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. “It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to hear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

Have you read either of these, or are they on your TBR? If you’re participating in 20 Books of Summer, how is it going?

(These are books 6 and 7 that I’ve written about from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (#20BooksofSummer book 4)

Another week has passed and I’m just now writing a post.  This summer my son has been staying up a little later at night, and by the time he’s asleep I’m just TIRED, y’all.  I just want to read a bit or watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for a minute and then GO TO BED.  I know that when we get back in our routine and he’s going to sleep by 8:30 I’ll have more time to myself at night, and hopefully more energy for blogging!  Tomorrow’s his birthday!  He’s been bouncing off the walls and I’ve been consumed with party plans.

tb-cover-993x1500But I did read another book for #20BooksofSummer, and it’s also my book group’s pick for June.  (We meet to discuss in about a week.) Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of those books that I had avoided reading until now, despite near universal acclaim and one very persistent library patron telling me that I MUST READ IT.  I know, I know, I’d say – it’s on my list! Only for some reason I wasn’t all that excited to read it.  If it hadn’t been our book group pick, I probably never would have.

And that would have been a real shame!  I am quite glad that I was forced to read it.  It was strange, occasionally beautiful, sad, mind-bending, and startlingly original.  I didn’t wholeheartedly love it, but I very much enjoyed it.

It was a slow start for me, however.  The first 150 pages or so were not really landing. Here’s the Goodreads description, because it’s a super tough book to try and summarize:

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

I usually enjoy dueling narratives, flashes forward and backward in time, all of that.  I enjoyed the playfulness of the contemporary character, Ruth, being a novelist named Ruth, living in Canada with a husband named Oliver.  (All things true of Ms. Ozeki.)  But the novel didn’t take off for me until Nao goes to stay for a while with her amazing great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, at her monastery.  That’s the point where I became fully invested in the book, and remained so for the next 250 pages.  While I empathized with Ruth and was interested in her search to find out of Nao ever really existed or was still alive, it was Nao’s narration that I was more eager to return to.  Nao’s life was really hard – her struggle for identity, feeling more American than Japanese, having grown up in America; her father’s depression and suicide attempts; the insane cruelty of her classmates’ bullying.  Ozeki doesn’t shy away from dark topics, yet there are flashes of humor throughout.  Ruth and Oliver have a cat named Pesto, who they call “Pest” for short (cute.)  And there’s this line from early on in Nao’s diary:

My dad wants me to apply to an international high school.  He wants me to go to Canada.  He’s got this thing about Canada.  He says it’s like America only with health care and no guns, and you can live up to your potential there and not have to worry about what society thinks or about getting sick or getting shot. 

The book takes a turn towards the magical realism/speculative genre towards the end, and I don’t want to give away too much.  I’ll say that for a brief time I was left wondering whether or not I was a character in a book that someone was reading, and I’ve never felt that particular feeling before because of a book.  I felt a bit dizzy when I finished reading this, and I took that as a good sign.  I think it’s going to be a very good book for discussion at my book group meeting.  There’s an experimental vibe to the book that was interesting, unique, and trippy, but somehow it didn’t add up to a book that I could say that I loved.  I’m glad I read it, however, and sometimes that’s enough.

20-booksHave you read this?  What’s the determining factor for you in rating something either a 3 or a 4 on Goodreads?  Have you ever been so flummoxed that you couldn’t give a book a star rating?  I’d love to read your thoughts.

 

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.

 

R.I.P. Challenge: White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

My second pick for the R.I.P. Challenge is Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching, and I loved it.  I’m not sure I fully understood it, or even that it is a book than can be fully understood, but I’m okay with that.

6277227It’s the story of teenage twins, Miranda and Eliot, both about to graduate the British version of high school and embark on their lives as adults.  It’s also the story of a house in Dover, England, the house where the twins live with their father, Luc, who runs a bed and breakfast there.  And it is also the story of Ore, a young black woman adopted and raised by white parents, who meets Miranda at Cambridge.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, including one from the (malevolent) house itself.

One evening she pattered around inside me, sipping something strong that wedged colour into her cheeks, and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches.  I cried and cried for an hour or so, unable to bear the sound of my voice, so shrill and pleading, but unable to stop the will of the wind wheeling through me, cold in my insides.  That was the first and last time I’ve heard my own voice.  I suppose I am frightening.  But Anna Good couldn’t hear me.  When she closed me up again it was only because she was too cold.  Most nights she went with the moon, and when it was round she stayed in my biggest bedroom and wouldn’t answer the thing that asked her to let it out

(let you out from where?

let me out from the small, the hot, the take me out of the fire i am ready i am hard like the stones you ate, bitter like those husks)

Miranda suffers from a condition called pica, in which people compulsively eat non-food items; apparently all the women in her mother’s lineage suffered from it as well.  her favorite thing to eat is chalk.  She suffered from it even before her mother Lily’s death, but her mental and physical health take a dramatic turn for the worse after Lily dies. She can’t sleep.  Her brother and father are aware of her condition but are powerless to stop her from harming herself.  Eliot feels the full weight of responsibility for her, since Lily is gone and Luc is pretty much going through the motions of parenting.  After defending Miranda from a serious accusation of violence, the reader sees him sag under the pressure.51ggkdnfrdl

The duty to speak when Miri couldn’t, to make sense when she didn’t.  I checked that no one was around, then put my forehead to my locker and stood against it like a plank, with all my weight in my head.  I stood like that until I stopped feeling like breaking something.  Otherwise I could snap the Biros in my pocket, go into the nearest empty classroom and slam the chairs into the bookshelves, then what?  Go home and smash Lily’s camera?  Thank you, Lily, for leaving me in charge of someone I just can’t be responsible for.  She won’t forget or recover, she is inconsolable.

As the house divulges information about the women in Miranda’s family, it also describes terrifying acts it performs on guests at the B&B.  People who work there feel the evil presence. The house does not like that Miranda has gone away to school.  It does not like that Miranda has a special relationship with Ore.  Ore comes to visit her on a school break and strange and scary things happen to her as well. Miranda knows that something is very wrong, something that she is not strong enough to escape from.  The ending is sad, unsettling, and decidedly ambiguous, with a strong sense of magical realism.

I found myself more engaged with and moved by this novel than by the only other Oyeyemi book I’ve read, Boy, Snow, Bird, which I appreciated but didn’t love.  I will be seeking out the rest of Oyeyemi’s books for sure – she is a strikingly original author.  This is the quintessential October book, equal parts sad and creepy: a mystery, a ghost story, and a haunting love story all at once.  An excellent choice for my first R.I.P.!

 

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi in my life.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really started exploring that genre.  So I don’t know if that makes me a good person to write a review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon or not.  I was drawn to this book because I’m interested in Nigeria, and this is set in Lagos.  I’d heard positive things about Ms. Okorafor’s other books like Binti and Who Fears Death.  I was also interested in the book’s premise:  shapeshifting aliens land in the waters off of Lagos – what do they want?  How are people going to react?

18753656A famous Ghanaian rapper, a female marine biologist, and a soldier are all on the beach when the massive BOOM rattles their ears and makes them drop to the ground.  Within minutes a massive wave rolls in from the sea and takes them into the water.  We never find out exactly what happens to them in the water, but they emerge with a mysterious woman.

There was something both attractive and repellent about the woman, and it addled Adaora’s senses.  Her hair was long – her many braids perfect and shiny, yet clearly her own hair.  She had piercing brown eyes that gave Adaora the same creepy feeling as when she looked at a large black spider.  Her mannerisms were too calm, fluid, and… alien.

Not surprisingly, once strange things start happening and word gets out, all hell breaks loose.  Some people want to get to this mysterious woman/creature.  Some people want to get the hell out of Lagos.  Others just want to exploit the chaos for their own gain.  What makes this novel interesting is the way in which Okorafor weaves Nigerian mythology and elements of magical realism into what could have been just another first contact story.  I admit that some of this went over my head but I still enjoyed it.  She also weaves in elements of feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights advocacy into the narrative.  She vividly depicts all different kinds of Lagosians, from the fundamentalist Christian priest who is mainly concerned with lining his pockets to the mute orphan boy who picks pockets until he witnesses the events unfolding on the beach.  There are even passages narrated by a swordfish and a spider.

9781481440875_custom-83c869fee28f9137f21e4e8c5eae3529468e813a-s300-c85I admit that the action in the first half of the book developed a little more slowly than I would have liked, and there are a TON of characters’ viewpoints, some of which aren’t explored very much and seem a little extraneous.  But these are tiny quibbles.  I liked Lagoon.  It was weird and intense and a heck of a lot of fun.  I am hungry for more from Nnedi Okorafor.

(Book 6 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)