Mini-reviews: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec (#20BooksofSummer 10 & 11)

So I’ve been needing to write these two reviews foreva.  What have I been doing so far tonight instead?  Watching videos of the band Cheap Trick on YouTube!  😀 It seems that my mom has hoodwinked me into going with her to see them play live in September at our area County Fair!  Before my YouTube explorations, I knew three Cheap Trick songs:  “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and “The Flame.”  So I guess I’m going to continue educating myself in preparation.  I just didn’t want her going by herself, you know?  And mercifully, it’s on a night that my husband has off, so he can care for our son.

25109947Now that I’ve had some caffeine and made myself sit down in front of my computer, let me tell you about Books 10 and 11 from my 20 Books of Summer List.  (Actually, Book 11 wasn’t on either of my lists, so shhhh!  Don’t tell anybody!)  Book 10 is Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.  It was a pick chosen by my book group last month.  I voted for it too, because it sounded promisingly weird and my fellow book group member who proposed it said that she loved it and no one else she knew had read it and she was dying to talk about it with people.  How could we refuse?

Goodreads Blurb: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.       

Verdict:  Three Stars.  (Maybe 2.75, honestly.)  I wanted to know why my book group mate liked this book so much, and oddly enough she praised the one thing that bothered me the most about this book:  character development.  I just didn’t really connect to or feel the authenticity of most of the characters in this novel.  I like weird, fantastical story lines, and I am open to supernatural and creepy plot developments, which this book has in abundance.  But I want my characters to feel real; I want to know enough about the inner workings of their minds to understand them.  And I just didn’t get that from this book.

What I did like about this book was the use of fantasy and horror to illustrate historical (and current) racial injustice in America.  For example, in one of the stories (oh yeah, this book is really a bunch of interrelated stories about a group of African Americans around Chicago in the 1950’s, not one long narrative, like I was anticipating…)  a black woman named Ruby drinks a potion that transforms her into a white woman temporarily.  As she inhabits this white body (which also happens to be beautiful) I loved reading her thoughts about the difference in how people treat her.

There was no side-eyeing, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention.  She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.

What else comes with being you?

All in all, I’m glad I read it.  It wasn’t something I was likely to seek out on my own, but I think I learned something about the sad, sometimes horrifying realities of daily life for African Americans in the 1950’s, even with all the supernatural story elements.  I think that Ruff did the subject matter justice, even as I was a bit conflicted about this not being an Own Voices book. Our book group had a very fruitful discussion about it, and I think it’s a good choice for any group.

34296946Book 11 is The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m half Persian, but I’ve never been to Iran and my father really didn’t talk very much about his (and my) heritage when I was growing up.  So naturally I’m attracted to a book like this, which combines my interest in travel memoirs, food memoirs, and Iran.  This was a quick read for me and I really enjoyed it.  I loved getting a glimpse of other areas of Iran besides Tehran, a city that, understandably, seems to dominate books set in that country.  But let me back up.  Here’s the Goodreads blurb.

In her thirties, Jennifer Klinec abandons a corporate job to launch a cooking school from her London flat. Raised in Canada to Hungarian-Croatian parents, she has already travelled to countries most people are fearful of, in search of ancient recipes. Her quest leads her to Iran where, hair discreetly covered and eyes modest, she is introduced to a local woman who will teach her the secrets of the Persian kitchen.

Vahid is suspicious of the strange foreigner who turns up in his mother’s kitchen; he is unused to seeing an independent woman. But a compelling attraction pulls them together and then pits them against harsh Iranian laws and customs. 

Getting under the skin of one of the most complex and fascinating nations on earth, The Temporary Bride is a soaring story of being loved, being fed, and the struggle to belong.

Verdict:  Four Stars.  This was a lovely book.  The food writing is lush and evocative, but the real center of the book is the unlikely romance between Klinec and the son of a woman who is teaching her how to cook Persian dishes.  It’s a fascinating glimpse of a romantic relationship trying to develop in a country with strict and overbearing rules (both cultural and legal) governing contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Every day Vahid wrote to me.  Brief e-mails, sometimes two or three in one day.  In between short sentences of concern for my well-being and expressions of tenderness, he put the craving for foods in my mouth.  He urged me to wait in the long lines outside the Mahdi ice-cream parlor, to eat their chewy ice cream made with orchid root and mastic that can stretch for several feet without breaking. He described the torshi shops in Bistodoh Bahman Square where vegetables, roots, even young pinecones are pickled, swimming in buckets of caraway seeds and vinegar.  I bought cauliflower, caper shoots and tiny turnips scooped into clear plastic bags and topped with a ladleful of sour brine.  He made it so that when I ate I heard his voice in my head, missing his presence from every meal.  I felt him beside me adding lemon juice and salt, or tapping sugar or crushing sumac between his fingers. 

If you’re a fan of food memoirs or an armchair traveler like me, you’ll probably enjoy this compelling story.  My only slight criticism is that the events happen in such a compressed time frame (just a few months total, I think) that I wanted a bit more on exactly why Klinec fell so hard for Vahid, when everything in her logical mind and in the Iranian society was telling her that they shouldn’t be a couple.  I also wanted more at the end of the book – it felt a bit rushed.  Minor quibbles, though.

So, have you read any H.P. Lovecraft?  Have you read any good books about Iran?  Are you a fan of Cheap Trick?  Let me know in the comments.

 

 

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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.

 

 

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I freely admit to not being the most plugged in person on the planet, so before my book group chose Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman as our choice last month, I hadn’t heard of her.  I am grateful that a fellow member brought this book to our attention, and I now consider myself a Lindy West fan.  Our group certainly had a lot to talk about.

You may have heard of West from her appearances on NPR’s This American Life.  She’s done two episodes in the last two years.  In one she gets an unexpected and heartfelt apology from the internet troll who impersonated her recently deceased father (episode 545.)  In the other (episode 589) West talks about how she started embracing her identity as a fat woman.41L6cVdMOFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Shrill is a book of essays and also a memoir, although our group couldn’t quite decide if it felt more like one than the other.  West writes about the lack of positive, sexy, young fat women role models in entertainment, her period, her abortion, growing into acceptance of her body, internet trolls, not fitting into a seat on an airplane, misogyny in stand-up comedy, and her father’s death.  Some of her writing is funny and brave, some of it is heartbreaking and raw.  All of it is infused with a passionately feminist, body-positive perspective.  I marked many passages as I read.  I’d like to share a few.

On vicious internet harassment (in the brilliantly titled chapter “Why Fat Lady So Mean to Baby Men?”):  “Why is invasive, relentless abuse – that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field – something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs?  Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered.”

On the pressure to be a thin and beautiful woman in our society: “Women matter.  Women are half of us.  When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time – that moves the rudder of the world.  It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.”

On rape jokes in comedy: “Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard.  Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it.”

I feel like Lindy West is such a necessary writer and a strong and relatable feminist voice.  I found her to be funny and insightful and fierce.  I marvel at her hard-won confidence.  I’m angry that she has to endure such hateful vitriol online for speaking her mind and loving who she is.  Shrill is a great choice for a book club – it provides so many avenues of conversation.  This was a very good collection of essays – powerful and brave in a way that women in our society definitely need.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books Every Book Club Should Read

Today’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish, is Top Ten Books Every Reader of X Should Read.  I immediately thought, why not make a list of sure-fire hits for a book club?  And by “hits” I don’t necessarily mean everyone will like them.  I mean they’ll be sure to draw out a good discussion. Sometimes it’s the two-or-three-star books that elicit the strongest critical responses.  That’s what we want for our book club meetings, right?  I mean, besides good snacks and maybe a mimosa?

So here are ten books that have produced great discussions in my own book group, and their corresponding Goodreads blurb.


The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  334176My one word review:  HARROWING. “In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.”

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.   Lots of fun pop culture references in this, plus serious subject matter on race and gender roles.  “In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  IMG_2076Whether or not you’re in a book club, you need to read this.  “In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.   It’s just magical.  And kinda scary.  ” A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.”

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adele Waldman. 16045140 A book I mightily resisted reading, turned out to be one of our best discussions ever.   “Novelist Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a flawed, sometimes infuriating modern man–one who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety, who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down in ways that may just make him an emblem of our times. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a tale of one young man’s search for happiness–and an inside look at how he really thinks about women, sex and love.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.  Yeah, I hated this book.  I couldn’t get past the first 120 pages or so.  But we had a really lively discussion about it, so there ya go. I feel like the full Goodreads blurb gives away too much, so here’s a selection.  “Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.”

Tenth of December by George Saunders.  One of my favorite short story collections ever.  I like short story collections for book group because even the laziest and/or busiest member can read at least one story and talk about it.  “The title story is a moving account of the intersection, at a frozen lake in the woods, of a young misfit and a middle-aged cancer patient who goes there to commit suicide, only to end up saving the boy’s life.

13641208“Home” is the often funny, often poignant account of a soldier returning from the war.

“Victory Lap” is a taut, inventive story about the attempted abduction of a teenage girl.”

The Dinner by Hermann Koch.  My book group discussion made me likes this a wee tiny bit more than I did on my own. This one is guaranteed to elicit strong opinions.   “A summer’s evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness – the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened…”

The Secret History by Donna Tartt.  Unlikeable college kids do awful things!  Freaking great book and great discussion.  “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.”

Billy Lynn’s Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain.  13325079At times the satire was a bit too broad for my taste, but this exploration of an Iraq war vet’s engagement with people at home while on leave offers much to discuss.   “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk is a razor-sharp satire set in Texas during America’s war in Iraq. It explores the gaping national disconnect between the war at home and the war abroad.”

Have you been or are you currently a member of a book group that enjoyed a lively discussion of a certain title?  Even if the answer is no, please give me some suggestions for books (fiction AND nonfiction) that you think my book group should consider.

 

 

 

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

I am sad and I am angry.  I’ve been struggling with questions in my mind these past few days, since the horrible hate crime occurred in Charleston, SC.  Nine innocent people murdered – by all accounts, good people, kind people, who welcomed a stranger into their sanctuary for bible study.  I’m a mom and I want the world that my child inherits to be better than this.  I want us to be better than this.  Yes, this is the action of one evil-hearted, selfish person, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum.  Our society so enamored with violence and a culture still so steeped in racism, both overt and subtle, was the soup in which his hatred and ignorance brewed.

When I finished Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, it was just days after the murders.  I struggled with how to review this book of prose poems and essays and images.  It’s so slim, but so potent, powerful, searing.  One can read it quickly.  But it contains so many incidents of racism that it becomes overwhelming at times.  On planes, in line at Starbucks, in an office conference room – story after story of white people saying and doing ridiculously offensive things, so crazy you can’t believe educated people would say those things.  But they do.  And they have.  And it just makes me sad, and embarrassed for us, for everyone.

IMG_1844

After a list of four black men killed by policemen, this powerful passage:

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

That word, police, as a verb.  Devastating.

Another striking passage, after one more “What did he say?” incident:

Come on, get back in the car. Your partner wants to face off with a mouth and who knows what handheld objects the other vehicle carries.

Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour.  You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.

Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.

I think everyone should read this book, plain and simple.  It would be an excellent book group choice.  There is so much here to unpack and absorb.  White people like myself have the luxury of experiencing this book as words on a page.  Black people have to live this daily.  Uncomfortable conversations must take place, and people – white people –  have to be brave and speak up when confronted with both subtle and overt racism.  Silence about race feels easier sometimes, when you’re so scared of offending someone.  I can’t be silent anymore.  Silence feels like complicity.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

I belong to an amazing book group.  I feel so privileged to be able to meet once a month and eat and drink and talk and laugh with this group of funny, intelligent, lively women.  We began in 2006 (I think – I’ve slept since then) and have lost and added members over the years, but we’re still going strong!  One person chooses three or four titles for the rest of us to vote on as next month’s read.  We rotate as hostess and book presenter.  If someone doesn’t read the book for that particular month, it doesn’t matter all that much.  She agrees to listen politely while those of us who have read it talk about it – and we don’t hold back on spoilers. (We figure that if she’d really wanted to read it, she would have done so.)

While we always have interesting discussions, every once in a while we have a discussion that particularly blows up – in a good way.  Our latest Book Group Bomb is The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. I resisted reading this book.  I didn’t vote for it, and I was irritated that it got the most votes (despite the fact that a friend who I very much respect had presented it as a choice a few months earlier.)  I didn’t want to read about a self-absorbed, shallow, privileged young white man and his love affairs, dammit!  Why would I want to spend my valuable reading time with this loser?  Don’t we read about/live with these types of guys enough?!?  I dragged my heels, reading it only in the last few days before our meeting.  And now I feel like a total idiot, because it’s simply a very good read.

Waldman is a master of dialogue, both inner and outer.  To say that she inhabits the mind of this dude (one of my book group mates called him “bro-tastic”) is an understatement.  I spent most of the book in a state of irritation and exasperation with Nate – he’s not a total monster, but he’s enough of an idiot with women to make you cringe in recognition of the losers you may have dated.  Yet Waldman humanizes him enough to make him interesting.  You probably don’t want to date Nate, but you still want to read about him as he and his friends navigate the sort of insular world of young writers in Brooklyn.  (His best female friend is an opinionated woman named Aurit, and she gets her own story in another work by Waldman, a novella only available online.)

One of my friends called Nate “emotionally lazy.”  The word “cowardly” was bandied about, as was “immature.”  We also speculated about Nate’s prowess, or lack thereof, in bed, and whether or not his relationship with his mother contributed to his problems relating to women.  (We don’t get a whole lot of his mother, but what we do get isn’t terribly promising.)  There are many ways in which this book can relate to the lives of Gen X and younger women,  so many times one can sigh in relief that one is not dating anymore.  (Thank God, this married reader thinks!) Still, there’s a scene when Nate and Hannah, the woman he spends most of the novel dating, are just getting together, and he leans in to kiss her for the first time against a brick wall, and the electricity and spark in the writing might make one nostalgic for the fraught excitement of being single and finding someone who’s “into” you.

Such a punch for such a slim novel!  It’s a Jane Austen novel with a jerk at its center, set in modern-day Brooklyn instead of eighteenth century Bath.  It’s an examination of modern-day relationships among a certain privileged set of young people.  It’s one of those “nothing happens but everything happens” kind of books. I have a weakness for those.  If you don’t have to love your characters to be entertained by them, and you like novels where people talk (and think) a lot, you should pick this one up.