So far, 2014 has been all about reading for me (that's what happens in the absence of writing and revising), and I've got a big new batch of books to tell you about since my last set of recommendations. As a bonus, if you stick around to the end of the post, you'll get a little hint about the subject of my next novel!
→ It wasn't until almost halfway through BOY, SNOW, BIRD by Helen Oyeyemi that I discovered what it's about -- except that the delayed understanding is also very much part of the story's aboutness. I was grateful that I came to this book with no prior knowledge, and if you want to do the same, avoid reading any other descriptions or reviews, including the cover copy.
I'll tell you that the novel takes place in the 1950s, in a tiny New England town where the narrator has fled to get away from her abusive father. She's a beautiful young woman, and the story is interested in the idea of appearances and how they can differ from realities. It's also a fairy tale retelling, but in an abstract sort of way that, like the rest of the story, takes time to nail down.
The book is beautifully written and fascinating. It's often indirect and sometimes veers into strangeness, and for the most part I was glad to be along for the ride. At the end of the journey, I was left a bit unsatisfied and wishing I'd had more time with all the characters. I'll definitely be seeking more of Oyeyemi's work in the future.
→ At some level, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB by Karen Joy Fowler is exactly what the title suggests: a story about a group of people who form a book club to discuss the works of Jane Austen. It's easy to make further assumptions about a book with this title and premise. I certainly did, before I became acquainted with Karen Joy Fowler and her work. Those assumptions underestimate this novel -- and perhaps also underestimate the writing of Jane Austen.
You don't need to be a Austen devotee to appreciate the book. I only recently started reading Austen myself. Fowler provides summaries of Austen's novels for those wanting an introduction or refresher, but even these are mostly unnecessary, because the real story here is about the six characters who belong to the club. The Austen discussions are used as a clever framework, with each section focusing on one club meeting and one character's life and problems. The characters are wonderful and real, funny and flawed, and I was sorry when their stories came to an end.
This is a smart book, and of course a book for book lovers. It features possibly the best blurb ever ("If I could eat this novel, I would." -- Alice Sebold) and certainly the best ever reading guide, with discussion questions attributed to each of the characters. Incidentally, the movie adaptation is reasonably entertaining, but it left out many of the darker and deeper moments and made the story more of a romantic comedy.
Fowler's most recent book, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, was one of my favorites from last year. I wasn't quite as taken by THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, but I was pleased to find the same wry humor and another unconventional narrative structure. I can't wait to read all of Fowler's other books, and it makes me happy that she's written so many different kinds of stories.
→ When Herman Koch's THE DINNER, a Dutch novel, was released in the US last year, it was the latest "read this before you get spoiled" sensation and earned comparisons to GONE GIRL. I actually had no problem avoiding spoilers, and the hype around the book died down pretty quickly, but it did leave me expecting something more than I found in the story once I got around to reading it. This is a twisty psychological tale, and the sort of read that's more disturbing than enjoyable. It's well done, but it's not amazing. I rate it neither as fascinating or masterful as GONE GIRL, but it's a safe bet that if you didn't like Gillian Flynn's thriller, you should stay away from this one.
As the story opens, a man and his wife are on their way to dinner with another couple. He wouldn't be looking forward to the evening under any circumstances, and tonight he's particularly dreading the event, because he's preoccupied by something unsettling he's just learned about his teenage son. The dinner provides the novel's structure, and the present-day story all takes place during the course of the meal, but there are numerous flashbacks to different times in the past, so the story unfolds with a disjointed chronology.
With every chapter, there's a new revelation. The situation becomes more and more complex, and what we thought was going on keeps turning out not to be the full story. I liked how that was done and how the book kept me guessing. The plot is a gruesome one, with dark characters, and I didn't mind that, but I also didn't connect with any of it as much as I might have. Perhaps that was by design, but it left me feeling not too invested in the book. I wouldn't sway anyone away from reading it (if you can handle disturbing material), but I also don't think it's a must-read.
→ I always remember THE GIVER by Lois Lowry as a book I loved when I was a child, and then I'm always surprised to re-discover that it came out in 1993, when I was 18. I must have read it at that time because I'd loved all of Lowry's books when I was younger. More recently, I learned that there are followup books set in the same world, so I've been curious to reread this and to check out the sequels. Since a film adaptation of THE GIVER is coming this summer, it seemed like it was time.
Life in Jonas's community is pleasant and safe. Every citizen is provided for, children are well cared for by the family units to which they are entrusted, and each twelve-year-old is assigned to a carefully chosen career that will lead to a satisfying adult life. But when Jonas receives his assignment during the Ceremony of Twelve, it's a bewildering one, and what he learns as he starts his training is even more confusing. He's never thought to ask questions about his life before, and now he's questioning everything.
This is a strong, if simple, story of a world that seems like a utopia to the inhabitants but isn't quite so perfect from a reader's perspective. It's written to be accessible to pre-teens, and so at times I would have preferred to have things less spelled out, but in general it's a pretty sophisticated story for the age group, relying on the reader to grasp the limits of Jonas's understanding. It stood up well to what I remembered, and I'd recommend it to both kids and adults.
→ INTUITION by Allegra Goodman takes place at a research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a group of postdoctoral researchers study cancer cells and test treatments on mice under the guidance of their two influential (and very different) lab directors. One postdoc has been chastised for wasting resources by pursuing an experimental direction that's going nowhere. When suddenly his work starts producing results that are good, even great, it's wonderful news for the lab. But suspicion surrounds his findings. Is it all too good to be true?
This is an engrossing story about a controversial and ambiguous situation. I appreciated the vivid details of life in a research lab, and I was impressed by how well Goodman handles a very large cast of characters.
I picked up this book because I came across a description of it last year and was concerned that it sounded similar to the novel I'm planning. I was relieved to find that this story is quite different from my own idea, though the setting is much the same and both explore scientific misconduct. Interestingly, as I read further into the topic of fraud in science, I learned about the real-life David Baltimore case, which seems to have provided some inspiration to Goodman in plotting this novel, as there are a number of shared elements.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ In response to The American Scholar's list of best sentences, Roy Peter Clark explains how and why these sentences work: "Great writers fear not the long sentence, and here is proof. If a short sentence speaks a gospel truth, then a long one takes us on a kind of journey. This is best done when subject and verb come at the beginning, as in this example, with the subordinate elements branching to the right." (Thanks, Louise!)