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.

 

 

The Dry by Jane Harper (#20BooksofSummer Book 9)

I heard about this Australian mystery novel by way of Fiction Fan’s terrific review back in March of this year.  When she says she can’t find anything to criticize about a book, I take notice!  I have to say that I agree with her assessment:  The Dry is a well-crafted, absorbing, thoughtfully written mystery, and I’m glad to see that there’s another book coming out featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk!

27824826Set in the drought-stricken small farming town of Kiewarra, the book opens with gruesome descriptions of blowflies not discriminating between a carcass and a corpse. Something truly horrific has happened.  Aaron Falk is reluctantly back in his hometown, a town he and his father were driven away from twenty years earlier.  He is there to attend the funeral of his high school friend Luke.  Everyone thinks that the drought and money problems made Luke snap and kill himself, his wife, and their young son.  Baby Charlotte was the only survivor, because as Falk grimly observes, “thirteen-month-old don’t make good witnesses.”  Luke’s parents, a second family to Aaron when he was younger, want him to quietly look into the investigation, despite Aaron’s protests that he works on the financial side of police work now.  Falk agrees to stay in Kiewarra for a few days and look over their accounts, partly out of a sense of guilt about something that happened when he and Luke were teenagers.

In flashbacks the reader discovers that Aaron’s and Luke’s friend Ellie Deacon supposedly drowned herself in the town’s river (a river that is now bone dry thanks tot he drought.)  Luke and Aaron gave one another alibis, but we learn that many in the town didn’t believe that the boys didn’t have something to do with her death.  Tension is thick all these years later, and Falk is the target of many unpleasant and threatening interactions upon his return to town.  So not only is the reader tracking what really happened to Luke and his family, but we are also trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Ellie all those years ago.  Harper fills the story with lots of red herrings and good characterization.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town, Raco, who, as a relative newcomer to Kiewarra, develops a nice rapport with Falk and helps him in the unofficial investigation.

When the mystery was solved I wanted to smack myself in the head for not figuring it out sooner.  It all made such perfect sense.  But Harper’s deft sleight of hand obscured the solution for me.  She skillfully portrayed a community on edge and a devastated natural landscape that would test the most emotionally stable person.  Best of all, I’ve found an interesting, even-keeled detective with a lot of potential.  There’s much room for the reader to discover more about Falk and his past.  We know a lot about what happened to Aaron right before he was forced out of town but we know almost nothing of what transpired all the years in between.  I look forward to revisiting him next year when Harper’s new book comes out.

 

 

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (#20BooksofSummer book 7)

(Note:  This book was NOT on my original list for 20 Books of Summer.  Nor was it on my REVISED list.  Ha ha!  I just really felt like reading it, so it’s going to bump off one of the books on my revised list.  I can do that, right? Sure I can!)

41tMa5BmZ2L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This is one that’s been on my TBR forever.  I am a big fan of Ann Patchett, especially Bel Canto and her memoir about her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty.  I hadn’t read that one in a long time and I’d forgotten just how good Patchett is at writing nonfiction.  She excels at it, in my opinion.  I haven’t read a whole lot of essay collections, and the ones I’ve read usually are hit or miss.  But This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage is stellar.  There were just a few instances where I shrugged after I finished. Mostly, I stared contentedly into space and said, “Wow…”

This wide-ranging collection reads like a loosely structured memoir.  The reader learns much about Patchett’s parents’s doomed marriage, her Catholic school education, her early days as a writer, and her own disastrous first marriage.  We learn about her dog, Rose, and her grandmother, Eva.  We get a glimpse of the (ridiculous) controversy over Truth and Beauty when it was assigned reading for freshman at Clemson University in South Carolina, and we discover the genesis of Parnassus Books, the successful independent bookstore she co-owns in her hometown of Nashville, TN.  Patchett comes across as fiercely dedicated to the craft of writing and fiercely loyal to those she loves.  She is frank about her own shortcomings, both professional and personal.  She is not exactly a warm presence but there is an unsparingly honest and wise quality to her writing that is appealing.

Forgiveness.  The ability to forgive oneself.  Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

My favorite essay was “The Wall,” which was about Patchett’s father, who was a police officer with the LAPD for over 30 years.  Patchett got an idea to write a nonfiction book about the LAPD during the horrible time of the Rodney King riots.  She wanted to show a different view of the LAPD, the one that she was privy to as the daughter of a cop.  She decided to train for and take the test to be admitted to the Police Academy.  She details her self-styled training regimen (she was 30 at the time,) complete with clearing a six-foot wall, one of the biggest hurdles for women trying to enter the Academy especially.  Her account of the physical, written, and oral exam process is fascinating. The whole time she’s doing all of this, her father doesn’t exactly believe her when she says she’s only doing it for the book.  Part of him hopes she’ll actually go through with it and become a cop.  As I read this I was reminded of my favorite contemporary detective series, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, which are set in the LAPD.  Part of me marveled at Patchett’s dedication to her craft and part of me wondered, “Why are you wasting all these peoples’ time?”

This was a collection in which I wanted to read multiple essays at one sitting; when I had to put it down, I was eager to get the chance to pick it up again. There is a lot of hard-earned wisdom here, a life in which mistakes have led to a deeper understanding and a greater sense of compassion, both for herself and for others.  If you’re a writer or enjoy reading about the craft of writing, I say pick this one up.  (“The Getaway Car,” another of my favorites, is a fantastic glimpse at the writing process.)  If you’ve ever deeply loved a pet or a relative, you’ll find gems here.  (Warning: I did cry a couple of times, as one might expect when reading an essay about a beloved pet or relative dying.) This was a terrific read, and even if you’re generally not into reading essays, I say give this a try.

Have you read this?  Are there essay collections you’re particularly fond of? I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

Thoughts on The Waste Lands (Dark Tower Book 3) by Stephen King

I continue to be entertained and ensnared by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  A somewhat slow start snowballed into a tension-filled, exciting conclusion with a heck of a cliffhanger.  (Sidenote:  I have absolutely NO idea how one would adapt this series into a movie.  It will be very interesting to see what the filmmakers do with this.)  In the third installment, our three gunslingers from The Drawing of the Three, Roland, Eddie, and Susannah, are joined by a familiar face and a billy-bumbler, an adorable dog-like raccoonish creature named Oy, who is smart and sweet and loyal AND IF OY DIES IN LATER INSTALLMENTS I WILL LOSE IT.  (But don’t tell me, please, if you’ve read this series.)

34084Man, this series is hard to write about without revealing major plot points.  The Waste Lands opens with the three slowly making their way in the direction of The Dark Tower. Roland is not feeling so hot, and Eddie and Susannah (who’ve fallen in love) are worried about his mental state.  Enter a giant sentient bear (!) named Mir who is going insane and suffering from some sort of gross disease.  He rampages through their camp and (mild spoiler, but not really because it happens pretty early on) unsuccessfully tries to kill one of the three.  When Mir is killed they find out that he’s got some kind of machine attached to his head, and it’s gone haywire.  Roland tells Eddie and Susannah about the legends of the Twelve Guardians who stand guard at twelve different portals in and out of the world. At the center is the Dark Tower.  Mir was apparently one of the guardians. So they just have to find the door it was guarding, and they’ll be that much closer to the Dark Tower. This all happens in the first 70 pages or so, and my edition was 590 pages, so there’s a lot of stuff I’m not writing about!  There’s some shifting back-and-forth in the narrative between Mid-World and our world (late 1970’s era.)  The gunslingers (plus the familiar face and the billy-bumbler) eventually end up in a seriously scary dystopian nightmare of a city for the thrilling conclusion of the book.

What I like about this series so far, aside from the inventiveness of Mid-World and the compelling overarching mythology, is the camaraderie of our gang.  Eddie and Susannah’s relationship is sweet and feels natural.  Roland is assessing his companions in a new light given their growth since being pulled into Mid-World.  They are now fully capable and on equal footing; Roland has learned to trust them.  I am becoming attached to these characters, which I have a feeling is a dangerous thing to do and I quite possibly will be shedding some tears in future installments.  I am really intrigued as to how King will resolve this series, so I definitely plan to keep reading.

I’ve read that the fourth book in the series, Wizard and Glass, goes back and fills in more of Roland’s backstory, and doesn’t pick up immediately where this one ends.  If I’d been reading this as they were being published I would have been like What the heck, Stephen King?  Six years later and you didn’t even tell me what happened to our gang?!? But I have the privilege of being late to the party on this one.  So I’m not in a super hurry to read the next one. I’m taking a little break, at least until #20BooksofSummer is over in September.  I’m kind of surprised by how much I like this series.  As I’ve mentioned before, fantasy is not a genre I’ve read a lot in, and I had previously pegged Stephen King as a writer of “scary stuff” that I was too much of a wimp to read.  But I guess it’s just another example of how, in life, we are only limited by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  I like being surprised by reading.

(This is book #6 of my 20 Books of Summer.  I’m wavering on sticking to the rest of my list.  In fact, I’m fairly confident that I’ll be substituting a whole lot of my original list with picks based on my mood for the rest of the summer.)

So what was the last “pleasant surprise” read for you, or a book or series outside of your reading comfort zone that you ended up really enjoying?

BRL Quarterly Report # 8

@thiskitschHere we are, into the third quarter of the year already!  How did that happen?  My son starts school again in about two weeks!  This year is flying by.  Time to write about the reading I’ve done the past three months.

Books Read: 20

Fiction: 19

Nonfiction: 1 (Lauren Graham’s memoir Talking As Fast As I Can)

Audio: 4 (LG’s memoir, Sense and Sensibility (read by Juliet Stevenson!  So good!,) Wonder by R.J. Palacio, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Juvenile/Middle Grade:  2  (Wonder and Watsons)

YA/Teen:  3 (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now by Ryan North and Erica Henderson.)

Graphic Novels:  1 (Squirrel Girl)

Authors of Color:  6 (Exit West, John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, Watsons, A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki)

Published in 2017:  3 (Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, and Into the Water by Paula Hawkins)

Favorites This Quarter:  How It All Began by Penelope Lively, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.   I’ve not reviewed the two audio books, because I don’t usually review those on my blog.  I listen to them in the car pretty much exclusively; therefore I don’t have an opportunity to take notes as I do on my print reading.  So I don’t feel like I would have more than a paragraph or two to write about them.  Hmmm… maybe I’ll do a semi-regular audio book round-up in the future?  That’s an idea worth pondering.

Reading Goals:  So I’m happy to say that I’ve completed two of my reading goals for the year!  I have now read 6 juvenile/middle grade titles and have read at least 6 Random Picks (books that weren’t on my TBR at the start of the year.)  It figures that a goal that I completed already would the the random reading, ha ha!  If you’ve been a visitor here for a while you know what a mood reader I am.

In fact, as of late I’ve been considering having NO reading goals at all for 2018. I have been in the mood to just read whatever the heck I want to, with no regard for lists or challenges of any kind.  I just don’t do well with planned reading.  It’s like diets – when someone tells me not to have the cake or cookies, the thing I want most on this Earth is a piece of cake or a cookie!  So when I make a list of books I want to read in a certain time span (Hi #20BooksofSummer!), all I want to read is all the *other* books on my shelves and my Goodreads list!  Mind you, they’re ALL BOOKS THAT I WANT TO READ SO I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH ME, but there it is.

So how was your last reading quarter?  How are you progressing on your reading goals?  Did you make goals?  Are you chafing under them?  Why or why not?

 

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (#20BooksofSummer book 5)

408478My aunt is the one who started me on Agatha Christie.  She gave me an anthology with five Hercule Poirot novels in one (Death on the Nile, Murder On the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table, and Thirteen at Dinner) when I was about 12 or 13.  I read The ABC Murders first and I was hooked.  I fell in love with the way Christie constructed her puzzles and the way Poirot assembled all the clues to solve the murders.  I loved Poirot’s rather healthy self-esteem and his friend Hasting’s amusement at him.  Even back then I wasn’t one to binge-read an author, though, so I didn’t make it a point to read every Christie.  I’d read one here and there throughout the years, which is why it’s taken me until now, some 28 years later, to read the very first Poirot mystery published, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. After enjoying this one so much, I think it’s high time I filled in the gaps in my Christie reading!

Set in the midst of World War One, the book is narrated by Captain Hastings, on leave from the war and at loose ends.  He meets an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who invites him to stay for a while with his family at Styles, their estate in Essex.  The reader knows from the beginning that something shocking has happened by Hasting’s opening narration:

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.  Nevertheless, in view of the worldwide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story.    

140290Cavendish explains to Hastings that his stepmother, Mrs. Cavendish, who raised him and his brother Lawrence from the time they were young, has recently remarried.  Hastings is taken aback – a quick mental calculation tallies her age at about seventy (gasp!) John explains that everyone in the family, and even Mrs. Cavendish’s stalwart “factotum, companion, Jack of all trades” Evie Howard, disdains the marriage and the new husband, and thinks it’s nothing but a money grab. We are also told that both Cavendish brothers are hard up for money, even though their stepmother has always been generous to them through the years.  So immediately the reader is alerted that there is much tension in the house at Styles, and we are invited to dislike Mr. Inglethorp, “the rotten little bounder,” even before we meet him.  Christie ends the first chapter with a delicious bit of foreboding spookiness:

A vague suspicion of every one and everything filled my mind.  Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.

Soon we are introduced the the inimitable Monsieur Poirot, who is staying in the village with some of his fellow countrymen – Belgians – who are refugees from the war.  Mrs. Cavendish’s generosity has allowed them a place of refuge.  We get a marvelous physical description of Poirot’s appearance and fastidiousness (“I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound”) but all too soon he is gone and we are back at Styles with Hastings.  The very next night Mrs. Cavendish awakens everyone in the household with her strangled cries of distress, but the doors are all locked from the inside.  When the men break down the door they find her convulsing, apparently dying from some sort of poisoning.  With so many suspects and so much tension in the air, it is up to the famous Belgian detective Poirot to start assembling the facts.  When Hastings tells him of the events of the previous night, Poirot  humorously tells him, “You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully.  Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing – truly, it is deplorable!  But I make allowances – you are upset.”  I enjoyed a good chuckle at that one.

This was a smart, delightful beginning to Hercule Poirot’s mysteries, and I can’t believe it took me all this time to read it.  I have to say that I was once again bested by Christie’s brilliance and had no clue who was behind the murder.  Hastings and Poirot have a playful, light and easy rapport, with Hastings standing in for the clueless reader as Poirot sheds light on the case.  Poirot gently needles him throughout and Hastings exhibits a generous spirit while an easy target.  There was one glaring instance of casual racism that took this twenty-first century reader out of the narrative for a moment.  It involves the discovery of a chest of dress-up clothes and disguises that the Cavendish family use from time to time during a “dress-up night.”  Apparently it was great fun to put on wigs and costumes to impersonate people of other ethnicities.  I know that this was published in 1920, so I make allowances for that sort of thing, but it still jarred me for a moment.

Yet it was a minor detraction from an otherwise superb mystery, and a grand introduction to a classic detective and his straight man.  A glance at the Goodreads list of Poirot mysteries tells me that I’ve many more books yet to enjoy, and I’m thrilled at the prospect.  Just don’t expect me to read them all anytime soon!

So this was my fifth book for #20BooksofSummer.  I am starting to doubt that I’ll be able to complete all 20 by the beginning of September, and I’m certain that if I do, I won’t have reviewed them all by then.  My blogging pace this summer has been glacial.  (I’ve made my peace with that – I think.)  If you’re participating in Cathy’s annual tradition, how is it going for you?  Are you on pace to complete all 20 in time?

 

 

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.