I seem to be very much in the minority here, but I found this book tedious in the extreme. The story is conceptually interesting - the main character...moreI seem to be very much in the minority here, but I found this book tedious in the extreme. The story is conceptually interesting - the main character is born over and over again into the same life, each time haunted by new, seemingly inexplicable ideas about consequences that might follow certain actions or decisions, so that the continued overlay of these past lives gradually begins to steer her into directions that avoid certain fates.
Unfortunately, in practice this means we spend a lot of time seeing the same scenes play out over and over again with sometimes only minor changes from one to the next. It takes almost 130 pages for Ursula to make it past the age of 8. That is a lot of pages to spend reading about all the different ways a child could die in the early 1900s. It gives the reader ample opportunity to question her decision to read 500-plus pages of death scenes.
Once Ursula starts living into her teens and twenties the book becomes a little more engaging, but there's still just so much repetition. Every once in a while the narrative diverges from the norm in some big way, and those stories always end in such spectacularly awful ways that she never repeats anything like them again; these stories stand out the most for their difference but also make it harder to keep track of what's going on in the main narrative arc since they introduce elements that do not occur again.
Ursula, in the stories that keep her alive long enough, lives through both world wars, which gives a particularly wide array of ways she gets to die. There are illnesses, accidents, domestic abuse, and bombs, bombs, bombs. It's exhausting to watch the same person die in so many ways. And while it's interesting to explore all the different life choices a person might make and to reflect on the significance of each one of our seemingly unimportant decisions, the philosophical value wasn't enough to offset the tedium of the book for me.
A final complaint: The book opens with a scene where Ursula is in a cafe, getting ready to shoot Hitler and prevent the second world war. I felt that this plot element cheapened the story; there was no real support for the idea that she retained enough memory from past lives for her to transition from senses of deja vu to seeing into the future so clearly that she might know in 1930 that she should attempt to kill Hitler. This felt like pure fantasy shoehorned in to try to give Ursula's life some kind of cosmic significance that really wasn't necessary.
(Okay, I lied, one more complaint: Life After Life really, really needed an editor to do something about all the comma splices. OH MY GOSH.)(less)
Last month was a rough month for me and I was not looking forward to reading WWII nonfiction for my book club, but I was running out of time and so af...moreLast month was a rough month for me and I was not looking forward to reading WWII nonfiction for my book club, but I was running out of time and so after a couple of days of glaring resentfully at my Kindle I started to read Unbroken.
Mercifully, the book starts well before the war with the childhood adventures of Louis Zamperini as he grows from rough-and-tumble neighborhood menace to dedicated track star. At the age of 19, he goes to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and competes in the 5,000 meter race, and although he doesn't come close to winning he knows he has a good shot at the gold in four years. His training finds him closing in on what was then seen as an impossible feat, the four-minute mile, and Olympic gold is looking ever more likely. But then the 1940 Olympics are canceled, and Pearl Harbor is bombed, and instead of setting a world record for speed, Louis joins the Air Force.
Even at this point in the book, things aren't too dark. Louis is in training, making friends, learning a new skill as bombardier in a flight crew. He sees how often equipment failures and other acts of chance injure or kill people even outside of battle, but Louis's crew is skilled and their plane is sturdy and fate seems to be on their side for quite some time.
Everything changes when Louis and a few members of his crew are sent on a rescue mission in a dilapidated plane that suffers a mechanical failure over the Pacific. The crash kills all but three crew members; Louie and his friend Phil and a third man, Mac, lash together two life rafts and spend the next 47 days adrift on the Pacific with no food or water - they catch birds, fish, and rainwater when they can, and waste away to almost nothing. Mac passes away, and Louis and Phil are near death themselves when they finally land on an island shore - whereupon they are immediately captured by the Japanese. And this is the point where the book starts getting really hard to read.
Louis is transferred from one POW camp to the next, frequently abused even above and beyond the horrors his fellow POWs seem to be subjected to. It seems that Louis's Olympic fame is both the thing that saves his life - the Japanese feel it might be useful to have a famous American available to them and want to keep him around - and also the thing that causes some prison guards and officials to seek him out with particular malice.
This part of the book is difficult to read on a number of levels. The abuses in the POW camps are appalling, and spending so much time reading page after page of all the ways humans can be cruel to other humans is challenging. However, at this point in the book Hillenbrand is also weaving in tales about so many guards and POWs that it can be hard to keep people straight, which is a different kind of exhausting for the reader. Also, the whole book is by necessity based on people's recollections of a time more than half a century ago than most of them have probably worked hard to forget about, so there are times when the book feels a little less "nonfiction" and a little more authorial speculation about what people would have been thinking and feeling in the camps.
Overall I'm glad I read Unbroken, though I wish my reading hadn't coincided with a dark time in my own life. I'm glad to have learned about Louis Zamperini's life, and I think on the whole Hillenbrand did an excellent job telling the story.(less)
John Darnielle's band, The Mountain Goats, is one of my favorite bands, and I wanted this to be a five-star book so badly. The writing is solid, and t...moreJohn Darnielle's band, The Mountain Goats, is one of my favorite bands, and I wanted this to be a five-star book so badly. The writing is solid, and the book is structurally and conceptually interesting, but the whole thing just didn't come together for me in a particularly satisfying way.
The title Wolf in White Van is a reference to backmasking in rock records, specifically the evangelical Christian scaremongering that if you played seemingly benign records backwards you'd hear all kinds of Satanic messages. The book is structured in a way that turns that concept on its head - read front to back, the book starts in the present and moves slowly back in time toward a very grim final scene, but taken chronologically from the last chapter to the first the book grows increasingly more positive and "ends" on a note of overwhelming joy. What I'm not sure about, though, is whether we are reading the backmasked version of a "normal" novel - the strange, stuttering, dark sounds hidden behind the everyday - or whether Darnielle is asking us to take his novel and play it backwards to find the joy hidden behind the suffering. I guess it's meant to be some of both.
The story is very similar to Darnielle's novella Master of Reality in that the main character of each is a metal-loving social misfit who we know has been hospitalized for some deep psychological issues, but we largely see the positive human side of the character and only gloss over the history that landed each in his present situation. However, while this worked well in Master of Reality's shorter format, it felt shallow in Wolf in White Van, where you have the length of an entire novel to contend with a narrator who is deliberately telling you only part of the story, sketching things out just enough to give you an idea of what happened without really letting you get very far inside his head.
Sean, the narrator of Wolf in White Van, spent many years telling himself stories about an invented post-apocalyptic fantasy world, and after being released from the hospital he decides to turn this world into a role-playing game called Trace Italian which is played through the postal mail. Participants all start with the same initial story and series of choices, mail in their turn and are rewarded with a page or two of descriptions about the next chapter in their story and another set of choices about what they could do next - a sprawling, slowed-down Choose Your Own Adventure played out over months or years, specifically designed so the player will explore forever without ever reaching the end.
As the book progresses we learn about some of the people who play Trace Italian - in spite of having never met them, Sean obviously feels very close to them and thinks about them often. We know that a team of two players began taking the game far too seriously, resulting in the death of one and serious physical harm to the other, but even though Sean must have learned quite a lot about them in the ensuing legal battle one of the more frustrating parts of the book for me is that we don't get as much of Lance and Carrie's story as I would have liked. The whole idea of Trace Italian is fascinating and one of the strongest parts of the book, and I wish we could have spent more time learning about that world and the players who were drawn to it - especially to understand what was so compelling about this story that two teenagers decided to risk their lives trying to turn it into a real-world quest.
There are so many things about Wolf in White Van that are really good, and a lot of clever things going on in the book, but by the time I reached the end - the darkest scene in the book, though also not the surprise it's set up to be since you pretty well know what's going to happen from all the references to it along the way - I was mostly just glad it was over. The book covers a lot of surface, but didn't give me the depth I wanted. As a concept it's fantastic, but it wasn't the five-star book I was hoping for.(less)
I picked up this book without knowing anything about it and was surprised at how quickly I was engrossed - I read it every spare minute I could find o...moreI picked up this book without knowing anything about it and was surprised at how quickly I was engrossed - I read it every spare minute I could find over the next few days.
The book opens with the unexpected reappearance of Nicholas Slopen, who had died several months before. He looks different, but he is most certainly alive and knows things only Nicholas would know. After setting the stage for this new Nicholas to leave behind a journal, we go back in time to learn through the journal about the events that had led to the appearance of this bedraggled and tattooed version of the staid Samuel Johnson scholar who had been killed months before.
The story is compelling and is best approached without knowing too much of the plot, so I'll keep my description short. The comparisons to Frankenstein are apt - it's a literate and philosophical exploration of reanimation and what it means to be a human being.
The earlier portions of the book are fascinating, before the reader has any idea about what is actually at play. Nicholas meets someone who appears to be possessed with the spirit of Samuel Johnson and who has written letter after letter in the same handwriting and with the same vocabulary as Dr. Johnson, but who appears otherwise unable to communicate or interact with other people - a savant. I was having a really delightful time speculating on what was going on with these apparent reincarnations, but unfortunately the author tries to take things in an overly scientific direction toward the end without having enough plausibility behind the ideas to make the later parts of the book hold up well. In spite of the ending, though, this was the most fun I'd had reading a book in ages, and I look forward to reading other things from Marcel Theroux soon.(less)
There is a compelling story here, but it sometimes gets lost among all the layers of this novel, most of which reads like David Mitchell trying very h...moreThere is a compelling story here, but it sometimes gets lost among all the layers of this novel, most of which reads like David Mitchell trying very hard to be Haruki Murakami. The novel switches between dreams, fictional short stories, diary entries, and the actual day-to-day travails of Eiji Mikaye over an eight-week period of his life as he moves from rural Japan to Tokyo to try to find the father he has never known.
You can tell that this is an early Mitchell book - a lot of the strengths of his later novels are here, but it's not as well organized or thoroughly crafted. There's a tendency toward silliness and overwrought scenes, especially the times Eiji gets mixed up with the yakuza (not to mention the bizarre parting gift his friend Suga gives him). It is deliberately hard to tell which scenes are dreams and which are reality, which gets less disorienting as the story progresses but requires a lot of patience from the reader in the opening scenes.
I enjoyed this quite a bit, but having read almost all of Mitchell's novels, this is my least favorite to date.(less)
Oof. The prose in May We Be Forgiven sucked me in, while the story itself did everything it could to make me want to throw my hands up in the air and...moreOof. The prose in May We Be Forgiven sucked me in, while the story itself did everything it could to make me want to throw my hands up in the air and walk away. It starts on an authentic enough note - an unbearable family Thanksgiving, with the narrator's brother making an ass of himself while the children refuse to look up from their phones. From here, things begin a march to the absurd, first in minor ways but soon becoming totally over-the-top.
Here are some of the things you have to look forward to in this book:
Embarrassing Chinese stereotypes!
An alternative prison where adult men are thrown together in the woods and abandoned to themselves Lord of the Flies style!
Experimental medicines at the nursing home that get formerly bedridden seniors dancing and taking swimming lessons in their diapers!
An impossibly expensive bar mitzvah trip to South Africa featuring a magical negro!
The prose is excellent and some parts of the book are truly funny in their dark weirdness, but so much of the story is just too nonsensical, and the overall motion of the book from disorder to a perfect happy ending didn't sit well with me. There's no real struggle; things go weird and then fall exactly into place without any effort on the part of the narrator. (Then again, a lot of details in the story point to the idea that the narrator is delusional and remembers situations quite differently from other people - he describes himself as if he is entirely passive and his whole life just plays out from other people acting on him, but when we hear those people's voices, they frequently say that he took the first action/made the first move. So is the entire book just one giant delusion? I don't actually think that was the author's point, but it possibly makes the story more interesting to read it that way, even if it's only replacing one kind of frustrating reading experience with a different one.)
The only thing that saves this book for me is how compellingly written it is; it has moments that are really engaging, but every time I'd start to get pulled in, the author would do something so over-the-top that I'd just want to yell at the book again. I'd read something else from A.M. Homes because there's potential here, but this book was really not for me.(less)
I read this book in a frenzy after realizing at the airport that I was flying into Philadelphia one day before my old book club was meeting to discuss...moreI read this book in a frenzy after realizing at the airport that I was flying into Philadelphia one day before my old book club was meeting to discuss this book, and I thought it was short enough that I might have a shot at reading the whole thing in time to join them. This was probably not the ideal pace for reading Hemingway, but it worked out well enough.
I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea and maybe also some Hemingway short stories in school, but that's about the extent of my experience with his writings. I found myself really enjoying his writing style in The Sun Also Rises, but my pleasure in the narration was tempered by the things he was saying. There's some awful anti-Semitism in this book, and none of the characters are really likable at all. I found myself most sucked into the scenes where there was the least going on, like the fishing section, because I didn't have to think about how awful all the people in the book are.
I'd definitely be willing to give Hemingway another go (and A Moveable Feast has been on my to-read list forever) but I don't think I'd be in any rush to re-read this one.(less)
In retrospect, this was a fun book to read, but my experience of reading it was negatively affected by (of all things) the percent completed feature o...moreIn retrospect, this was a fun book to read, but my experience of reading it was negatively affected by (of all things) the percent completed feature of the Kindle edition. I would read and read and read, and the percent completed would hardly go up at all. I started resenting Ken Jennings and his publishing house for not trimming the book down more.
It turns out, though, that the Kindle version is so bloated with notes, index, and a reader's guide at the end that you hit "book complete" at 74% into the text. In a paper book I probably would have flipped ahead at some point to realize that the actual text ended so far before the end of the book. In my Kindle edition, though, I just soldiered on, getting increasingly grumpy about this book that apparently would never end.
Maphead is actually full of a lot of funny, smart glimpses at different people who are highly invested in maps, whether they're children competing in a geography bee, people who collect rare maps, people who participate in map-based games (whether on paper or out in the world), people who like maps in their fantasy novels, etc. It doesn't go too in-depth into any particular thing, but just spends a handful of pages with each of these different types of enthusiasts.
I don't really feel like I learned a lot from reading Maphead, but it's a fun diversion, and it did make me pull out my atlas again and start spending time just poring over different pages. Just ignore the percent completed counter if you decide to read this on your Kindle.(less)
I supported the Boss Fight Books Kickstarter and have received each of the books they've published to date, but ZZT is the one I was most looking forw...moreI supported the Boss Fight Books Kickstarter and have received each of the books they've published to date, but ZZT is the one I was most looking forward to and the first one I read. I never played around with ZZT to the extent that the author or any of the people featured in the book did, but I do remember having a few ZZT games and wasting reams of paper printing out instructions on how to build my own games in the editor.
The book is solidly written and well researched, but it focuses more on the culture around ZZT and specifically the author's own experiences as a trans individual in the ZZT community. It shouldn't have surprised me that the book went in such a personal direction (the 33 1/3 series, which seems to be the model for Boss Fight Books, also allows authors a lot of freedom in their approach to the subject matter), and I found the personal stories really interesting, but I think I expected just a little bit more ZZT - which in retrospect is silly as there's really only so much to say about an ASCII text adventure game while there's a whole lot to say about the people who invested so much of their adolescent time in building worlds there.
Overall I found this enjoyable enough to read, but didn't feel it was strongly written enough that I'd recommend it to anyone who didn't specifically have an interest in any of the topics covered in the book.(less)
The Shining Girls imagines what would happen if a serial killer had sole access to a method of time travel. Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that a...moreThe Shining Girls imagines what would happen if a serial killer had sole access to a method of time travel. Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that allows him to move to any time of his choosing between 1929 and 1993 just by entering and exiting its front door; already a violent man, Harper takes for granted that the strange artifacts in the master bedroom are a map telling him about young women he needs to kill.
I enjoyed that the book was set in Chicago across the twentieth century, and the writing is tight and compelling, but this is most definitely a book about a serial killer, and we meet woman after woman only to see her brutally murdered. The story slowly introduces us to Kirby Mazrachi, the one woman to survive an attempted murder from Harper, and much of the book then alternates between chapters about Harper and chapters about Kirby. Kirby tenaciously begins investigating violent crimes similar to the one she suffered, but she questions her own sanity as she begins to suspect that much, much older murders tie into her own assault.
The biggest weakness in this book for me is how little explanation we get about why Harper needs to seek out these particular women. They "shine" to him in a way that others don't, but the book doesn't even attempt to explain what "shining" means, nor does it attempt to give any explanation for the existence of the house or the weird way all times seem to exist at once when Harper is inside it. There's a lot that the reader has to take on faith in reading this book, and the murder scenes can be pretty difficult to read, but Kirby is a strong, engaging character, and I enjoyed getting to see her unravel a particularly unlikely mystery.(less)
I really enjoyed reading The Newlyweds, though it definitely has some major flaws, mostly arising from the fact that the author is a white American wr...moreI really enjoyed reading The Newlyweds, though it definitely has some major flaws, mostly arising from the fact that the author is a white American writing in the voice of a Bangladeshi woman who moves to America to marry a man she meets on a dating website. The transition is a little too quick from young, naive Amina from a rural Bangladeshi village to jaded, modernized Amina from Rochester, and the book glosses over any moral struggles Amina might have had as a Muslim woman raised in a somewhat traditional religious home moving to a much more secular environment.
The writing is lovely, though, and in spite of the narrative being split between America and Bangladesh, the central conflict in the story - Amina realizing that her new husband George has kept a significant secret from her - doesn't really have anything to do with the two characters being from such different backgrounds. The central elements of the story could have played out just as easily between two characters from the same culture and upbringing.
Nell Freudenberger is a strong writer, and the book held my interest the whole way through even while a voice in the back of my head kept questioning how realistic some parts of the book were. Overall it feels more like a fluffy read about a couple who married too fast and without being entirely honest about their pasts than any kind of reliable portrayal of the experience of married life between people of two people from very different backgrounds and cultures.(less)
This novel by an Iraq war veteran about post-traumatic stress disorder is well written but ultimately left me feeling empty. It jumps back and forth b...moreThis novel by an Iraq war veteran about post-traumatic stress disorder is well written but ultimately left me feeling empty. It jumps back and forth between scenes during the war and after the narrator has gone back home, and while it's evident that something happened to shatter the narrator to the point that he can no longer function, the book is too coy for too long about the source of the stress that caused him to become so unhinged. While the reader gets a good sense of the futility and meaningless of being at war, we're kept too distant from the narrator's thoughts and emotions to build up the sympathy necessary for a book like this to have a real punch.
The whole time I was reading this book, I felt like I ought to be feeling something, but I just couldn't find anything to connect with.(less)
The Secret History tells the story of a loner transfer student at a college in Vermont who penetrates the elite world of the school's tiny Greek depar...moreThe Secret History tells the story of a loner transfer student at a college in Vermont who penetrates the elite world of the school's tiny Greek department and finds himself in totally over his head when his charismatic new friends involve him in a murder. The book is a delight to read - beautifully written and compelling - though the elitism of the characters and setting can feel a little off-putting (or maybe that's just because I read this book after a whole series of books written by nonwhite authors and set in much less cushy environments).
While it's easy to understand why Richard, the narrator, is drawn into the orbit of the eccentric, tight-knit group of students he gradually befriends, I felt that the book could have done a better job of explaining just why these friends felt it was necessary to murder a member of their own group. Sure, Bunny was irritating and difficult in any number of ways, but nothing he did to the rest of them felt compelling enough for me to be able to understand why they became convinced that they had to kill him. This was the biggest weakness of the book for me - the book opens with the murder and the whole plot hangs on it, but the book should have made me be able to relate to their decision to kill, no matter how off-putting I might have found it. Instead, I felt that Tartt was stretching my suspension of disbelief in asking me to assume that Bunny needed to be killed and just roll with the storyline.
In spite of this, The Secret History is a delight to read, and I'm glad I finally took everyone's recommendations and read it. I look forward to reading Tartt's other books soon.(less)
This book started off so strong, but lost steam for me partway through. In the beginning, we are focused on Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moved to the...moreThis book started off so strong, but lost steam for me partway through. In the beginning, we are focused on Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moved to the United States for college and has established herself as a successful blogger writing about race issues as seen from a non-American black perspective. We get flashbacks to her childhood in Nigeria and the events that led up to her relocation to the states. The fact that many chapters end with excerpts from her blog sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, but overall the whole thing was working quite well for me - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a strong writer and I was really enjoying the character of Ifemelu.
Midway through, though, the book briefly switches focus from Ifemelu to her childhood love interest Obinze, spending a couple of chapters telling us about his life as an undocumented immigrant in London before returning to Ifemelu as the primary focus of the rest of the book. This brief shift felt awkward, and the story never seemed to get its footing back after shifting its narrative focus in this way.
Americanah has a lot of interesting things to say about race in America and about the complicated experiences of immigrating to a new country and later returning to your homeland.There's a lot to enjoy here, but the second half just couldn't hold my interest as well as the first half did. I definitely look forward to reading more Adichie soon, though.(less)
I had mixed feelings about this graphic novel, which alternately tells stories about two different Jimmy Corrigans (grandfather and grandson). I loved...moreI had mixed feelings about this graphic novel, which alternately tells stories about two different Jimmy Corrigans (grandfather and grandson). I loved the stories about the grandfather, set during his childhood against a backdrop of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - but the grandson Jimmy, who has the most pages devoted to him, is a sad sack of a man whose sections are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes just cringe-inducing. The stories were originally published as individual strips in a Chicago newspaper over the course of several years, meaning that the story doesn't always flow smoothly since it wasn't originally designed as a book.
An overarching theme here has to do with history repeating itself; both Jimmys are abandoned by their fathers as children, and the two even look so much alike that it can be hard to tell which Jimmy we're reading about when the stories change. Both also have active fantasy lives, and it can be hard to tell how much of their stories are truth. Both have many reasons to inspire sympathy in the reader, but they each also have some repulsive traits (the grandfather's offhand racist remarks; the grandson's overly sexual thoughts about women).
Overall I'm glad to have read this, but I expected to like it more than I did. The art is wonderful, particularly for the scenes set at the World's Fair, and the story is compelling and definitely generates a response in the reader, but I just couldn't find enough interest in the grandson Jimmy to want to spend as many pages with him as I did.(less)
Such mixed feelings about this book, which documents the mass exodus of black people from the American South in the first half of the twentieth centur...moreSuch mixed feelings about this book, which documents the mass exodus of black people from the American South in the first half of the twentieth century, as narrated by three people who made the decision to leave their families and start new lives in other parts of the country. While the author does provide anecdotes and statistics about other people, the book really is primarily an oral history of three people that uses the Great Migration as backdrop for their stories.
Each person's story is quite different - there's George, who despite his college education found himself a manual laborer in the citrus groves of Florida until his attempts at unionization put his life in danger and he fled to New York City; Ida Mae, who left Mississippi for Chicago with her husband after they both grew quietly fed up with the gross racial inequality inherent in the sharecropping system; and Robert, a physician who left Louisiana for Los Angeles because he wanted better opportunities and higher income than the South would allow (and became quite wealthy and the doctor and friend of Ray Charles). Each story is interesting in its own way; the author did a good job of choosing people from three very different backgrounds whose lives took very different paths while still sharing certain common elements.
Unfortunately, the author isn't much of a writer, and her poor phrasings, repetition, and other narrative shortcomings frequently took me out of the story. As much as I was enjoying the histories she was telling, I kept taking long breaks from the book just because the prose wasn't doing anything for me.
Also, the author's choice to follow each of her three subjects' stories well past the era of the Great Migration and into the present underscores that this book is really an oral history of three people and not quite what it purports to be in its subtitle. At some point, the book leaves all pretense of telling us about the Great Migration and just finishes out the three stories it began to tell, which is a little trying for the reader - not that the stories aren't still interesting, but just that the book has started sprawling into something it didn't intend to be.
I'm glad I read this book, but I can't really recommend it; the experience of reading it is frustrating, even though the subject matter is fascinating.(less)