September 30, 2014

Summer Reading Bingo Recap

Now that I've caught up on posting about all my summer reads, it's time to see how I did on the summer reading bingo challenge. For this fun project, created by the hosts of the podcast Books on the Nightstand, I generated a bingo card with a random set of book categories, and then I organized most of my summer reading around filling in as many squares as possible.

I ended up covering 17 out of 25 squares, representing 16 books and a film (the free square). Some of these were books I would have read this summer anyway. But many of the bingo squares inspired me to pick up books that I theoretically wanted to read someday but kept not getting around to. I enjoy undertaking periodic reading challenges because they provide that push to expand and mix up my reading, and I'm pleased with how this one worked out for me.

Here's a look at my finished card, followed by a list of all the completed categories and books, with links to my reviews.

September 24, 2014

Forays Into Fantasy

In this thematic installment of reviews, I look at two fantasy novels. They're very different kinds of fantasies, and I had very different reactions:

→ I'm not usually drawn to works of high fantasy, in which characters undertake epic adventures in magical worlds that tend to resemble medieval Europe. But since one of the squares on my summer reading bingo card was Fantasy, I thought I'd push myself into trying something in this particular subgenre. I chose a book I'd heard good things about, THE KILLING MOON by N.K. Jemisin, which is notable for a setting based not on Europe but on ancient Africa.

THE KILLING MOON takes place in a city where life is focused on devotion to the goddess of dreams. Priests provide all the important functions of society: educating children, healing the sick, establishing laws, and sending the faithful to dwell permanently in the land of dreams at the end of their lives. When something goes wrong as the priest Ehiru tries to gather a man's final dream tithe, he's devastated, but the unfortunate incident also raises questions. Soon Ehiru, his apprentice, and a foreign diplomat are all working to find answers and get to the bottom of a terrible corruption that threatens the city.

While Jemisin drew inspiration from the culture and geography of ancient Egypt, she's created a richly developed original world. I was frequently impressed by the intricate worldbuilding as details of the religion, magic, and daily life were revealed -- and I appreciated that these explanations never bogged down the story, which has its own complexities. The plot that unfolds is one of political intrigue, and I enjoyed following the characters on their quest to get the bottom of it.

I recommend this book to fantasy readers, or to anyone who might read more fantasy if it didn't all look so similar. THE KILLING MOON is a refreshing change.

This book is the first in a duology, though it stands on its own. I'll definitely be reading the second book, THE SHADOWED SUN.

→ I expected to like Lev Grossman's THE MAGICIANS because I've heard so many good things about the book and the trilogy as a whole. The premise has great potential, and it plays around with the tropes of popular children's fantasy series such as Narnia and Harry Potter, which sounds like a lot of fun. Grossman knows how to craft a sentence and has a sense of humor that appeals to me, and he's a book critic, which suggests a familiarity with what makes stories succeed or fall short. Alas, I found this story tedious and poorly assembled, and it was a big disappointment.

As I said, the premise is promising: Quentin likes magic tricks, and he loves the Fillory fantasy books that everyone reads as a kid. Neither of these are cool interests for a high school senior, and Quentin doesn't feel he fits in, not just at school, but in the world itself. When he's mysteriously transported to a strange college and told that magic is real, it seems like his dreams have come true, and he's finally in the place where he belongs.

Quentin's new life continues from there, mostly in long expositional passages that describe events in summary rather than letting scenes come to life. The scenes that do play out often seem random, serving no clear purpose in advancing the plot or developing the characters. I kept holding out for the possibility that it would all tie together brilliantly at the end, but instead I had the sense that the characters and the author weren't even keeping track of earlier events. For example, in one important section, Quentin uses all his magical abilities to survive in a lethally cold environment. Later, the characters spend a while in a place cold enough that they're eventually forced to leave, and there's no discussion of whether Quentin might be able to use his previous experience to solve the problem. It all frustratingly fails to add up to anything.

Late in the book, one character yells at another, "This isn't a story! It's just one fucking thing after another!", and I felt like Grossman was messing with me. Maybe the whole book is meant as a commentary on fiction and I'm failing to grasp the genius of it? I know many of my friends enjoyed this book. What am I missing? I've had the experience of appreciating a book more in retrospect once someone else explained what they loved about it, so I'm hoping that can happen in this case.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Roxane Gay pays tribute to The Books That Made Me Who I Am: "I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books."

September 18, 2014

Mysterious Reads

My summer reading included a few books with mysteries at their core. This type of book is always tricky to describe, but I've been careful not to give anything away in these reviews:

→ Several of my friends have raved about THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters. I can now add my voice to the praise for this pre-apocalyptic detective story. This is a fantastic book. It's part of a trilogy that has all been released by now, and I can't decide whether to gobble up the other two books immediately or ration them out slowly.

Detective Henry Palace suspects he's identified a murder in what superficially looks like the latest in a string of suicides. The reason for the sharp uptick in suicides is that an asteroid is headed toward the planet and will strike in six months. The unavoidable collision will destroy life as we know it, so the world is already in chaos. Some people are killing themselves, some are leaving their jobs and homes to accomplish everything on their bucket lists, and others are seeking solace in conspiracy or religion. Nobody cares much about investigating a possible murder except for Detective Palace. Solving crimes is all he's ever wanted to do, and he's not going to let a looming apocalypse stop him from finding the killer.

Everything about this story is great. The writing is smart, the narrator is engaging, and humor is used effectively to lighten the dark, terrifying premise. The details of how society is reacting to the asteroid are well-considered and plausible. There's a host of memorable supporting characters, including a complicated sibling relationship, which is something I always enjoy. The book is even set in New Hampshire, where I've spent a lot of time. Have I mentioned how much I liked this book? Are you reading it yet?

DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn: When Libby was seven years old, her older brother brutally murdered all the other members of their family. As the tragic survivor of this massacre, Libby received a flood of donations that supported her through her sad childhood and into her thirties. But now the money has run out, and Libby has done nothing with her life except milk the role of the victim. Needing money, she connects with a group obsessed with high profile murder cases who will pay her to appear at their meeting. Libby learns that the group members believe her brother is innocent and was imprisoned because of her own flawed testimony. She's always avoided examining this opinion, but this time she starts investigating and discovers the past is far more complicated than she realized.

Like Flynn's breakout novel GONE GIRL, this earlier book features some very clever plotting and a constant twisting of reader expectations. I didn't like it to the extent I loved GONE GIRL, but that's a very high bar -- this is still an impressive mystery. Flynn excels not only at plot but at crafting fascinating, deeply flawed characters, and I always appreciate her perfectly worded observations and sharp insights into human nature. Recommended as long as you haven't just finished GONE GIRL and as long as you're up for a very disturbing tale.

A movie version of DARK PLACES is in production, though it has been delayed from its originally announced release date. (In the meantime, you can go see the adaptation of GONE GIRL, in theaters next month!)

→ In WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart, the Sinclair family spends their summers on a private island. The narrator, teenage Cadence Sinclair, says of her family, "Perhaps that is all you need to know." Summers on the private island are wonderful months for Cadence and her cousins. Then she has an accident, and afterwards, she doesn't quite remember what happened. The novel takes the form of a mystery in which Cadence tries to reconstruct her lost memories.

This is a book that's very hard to stop reading. Fairly early on, I figured out one of the story's secrets, so I didn't have the same mind-blown experience of many readers, but I still eagerly continued turning the pages. I didn't love the book, but I would recommend it as a fast, exciting read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Writing for The Awl, Ben Dolnick documents A Week of Watching People Read in the Subway and speculates on his findings: "Assumptions: Astra still needs to finish her summer reading (her English teacher at Friends Seminary has given everyone an extra week) but she’s been straight-up skimming for the past hundred pages."

September 15, 2014

A Collection of Collections

It happens that in the past few weeks, I read three collections of short pieces, one nonfiction and two fiction:

→ Earlier this year, Roxane Gay published her astounding first novel, and just a few months later, she released a book of essays, BAD FEMINIST. I'm not usually interested in essay collections, but I've been following Gay's online writing, both fiction and nonfiction, so I was eager to read this book. BAD FEMINIST is an excellent, thought-provoking set of essays that combine personal, political, and pop cultural topics.

Gay writes with authority and nuance about issues of gender, race, and sexual violence, and she analyzes the roles these play in the world, in entertainment, and in her own life. She acknowledges the complicated nature of these subjects and the conflicted feelings that lead to her calling herself a bad feminist. Her casual style makes these essays approachable, though some of the subject matter makes me want to shy away. There are essays in here about injustices that left me angry at the world or wanting to cry. Other pieces take a smart look at recent pop culture phenomena. Sometimes these topics are combined in the same essay. (Links are to online versions of essays that appear in the book, often in somewhat different forms.)

Gay's talent is in examining a piece of entertainment or news and using it to discuss a broader issue. In the course of the collection, she looks at television, movies, and comedy, but I especially appreciated her focus on literature. She covers the debate over unlikable characters and the categorization of women's fiction. She considers the absurd and disturbing aspects of the Fifty Shades series and reveals her obsession with Sweet Valley High. And one book review is a powerful, wrenching essay on body image that starts "I went to fat camp once."

While you can find much of the book online as separate pieces, if you like what you see in these linked essays, I recommend reading the collection as a whole. Though there's a bit of repetition, the selection and arrangement of essays works well as a book, and reading it in the entirety offers insight into Gay as a person and not simply a cultural critic. Plus, there's a great essay about her participation in the world of competitive Scrabble that you don't want to miss.

After you read this collection, you might enjoy listening to the Slate Audio Book Club discussion, particularly if you want to hear Hanna Rosin react to the essay in which Gay criticizes Rosin's book.

→ For years, my mom has been encouraging me to read the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, particularly the collection INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. I finally listened to my mother, and of course she was right. These stories are outstanding.

In the space of twenty or thirty pages, characters come alive, plots unfold and resolve, and the reader is admitted into fascinating micro-worlds. And this isn't true of just a few stories in the collection -- every one is absorbing and complete. I'm not sure what makes these stories so successful, but I'm going to be studying them carefully to try and understand what Lahiri has accomplished and figure out how to develop some of this skill in my own writing.

A number of the stories involve characters encountering cultural differences. In the title story, a tour guide in India drives around an Indian-American family, and the mutual reactions flow from distaste to fascination and back as they learn more about each other. The narrator of "The Third and Final Continent", a young man from Calcutta, adjusts to life in the U.S., and then to the arrival of the wife he barely knows. In "Mrs. Sen's", an eleven-year-old boy is looked after by a woman who is new to America and not adjusting well. All of these situations are conveyed with observant and touching detail.

September 3, 2014

Three Books With Buzz

These three novels I read recently are unlike each other, but they're all books I heard a lot about before picking up:

CALIFORNIA by Edan Lepucki was probably the buzziest novel of the summer. The debut received a huge publicity boost after Sherman Alexie recommended it on the Colbert Report (this New York Times article explains the details), and as a result, it made the NYT bestseller list the week of its release. When watching the Colbert episode, I may have squealed a little upon hearing Lepucki's name, because I've long followed her essays at The Millions and had been anticipating the book for months.

In CALIFORNIA, civilization is breaking down, and Frida and Cal have fled into the wilderness. Though life is difficult and isolated, and they are insufficiently prepared to live off the land, this seems like their best chance for survival. Two years in, they're doing pretty well. But now Frida suspects she's pregnant, and they're faced with new fears, uncertain whether they can or should bring a child into their world. They decide to seek help from the nearest community, though the settlement has a menacing reputation. Once they take this step, the story turns into a mystery as Frida and Cal discover unsettling facts about the community's past and its relationship to the world beyond the forest.

The story is a gripping one. I could rarely predict what was coming, and I was always eager to read on. Frida, Cal, and the other characters are well-developed, complicated, and flawed, and the relationships are difficult in realistic ways. For the most part, I liked the pace at which information was revealed, and I was generally impressed by the resolutions of the mysteries. There were a few elements I didn't find as effective, including the ending, but overall, this book earned my recommendation.

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out last year, and I heard about it at the time, initially from this short but memorable NPR interview. Since then, I've encountered rave reviews of the book all over, and it seems to be read and discussed with increasing frequently as time goes on. A movie version is now in the works, so I imagine the buzz will only continue its slow build.

The novel follows Ifemelu from her childhood in Nigeria and teenage romance with Obinze to her immigration to the United States and eventual decision to return to Nigeria. Her time in the US is difficult at first and very eye-opening: Ifemelu never gave much thought to her race while living in Nigeria, but she learns that in America, being black is a significant and complicated part of one's identity. Ifemelu starts a blog about her observations as a non-American black, and as it grows in popularity, she turns blogging and speaking on this topic into a career. She has a couple of important relationships but never really stops thinking about her first love. A smaller portion of the story concerns Obinze's briefer, failed stint in England and the success he finds back in Nigeria. At the core, this is a love story about the long history of a couple, both together and apart.

There's more to the plot, but that's the bulk of it. This is primarily a novel of characters and ideas, and there's a fair amount of focus on everyday life, which is interesting to readers like myself because it's far removed from our own everyday lives. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, learning about life in Nigeria, and seeing several different immigrant trajectories. I loved Ifemelu's thoughts and blog posts about race and was glad to have my own eyes opened by her experiences. However, I would have preferred either more plot or a shorter book, because some portions of the story moved too slowly, and my interest sometimes waned.

The story doesn't proceed entirely in chronological order but jumps around in time, which is something I'm fine with in general but found not entirely effective here. It took me a while to really get into the story, and the timeline shifts were one reason. But after listening to this Guardian Book Club podcast in which Adichie spoke about her reasons for the book's structure, I can better appreciate what she was doing. This whole podcast discussion is a great extra for those who have read the book -- which I encourage, because despite some criticisms, I found this a worthwhile read.

→ When THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta was published a few years ago, I heard about it repeatedly and kept planning to read it. I finally got around to it this summer because HBO was airing a television series based on the novel, and I wanted to read before watching.