The Leavers left me wanting to discuss it

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

3 words: sympathetic, character study, emotional

Wow. This book packs a serious emotional punch.

I first saw it on the “Penned & Picked by Patchett” shelf at Parnassus Books in Nashville. Ann Patchett had written a shelf talker about it, and I took note.

And then she wrote about it in an article about summer reading books, so I hustled it to the top of my TBR.

And I'm here to tell you: the story is pretty darn heart-wrenching. It’s about a pregnant teenager from China who comes to America, and her life is hard. I kept wanting her to catch a break, but the hard times just kept on coming. But the book felt realistic — none of the false happy coincidences that a lesser writer would offer.

There are two storylines here: the back story of Polly, the mother, and the current-day story of Deming, her son.

When working at a nail salon, Polly was swept up in a raid and sent back to China because she had arrived without the proper documents. And her 11-year-old son never knew what had happened to her. She simply vanished.

Deming was adopted by a white couple who renamed him “Daniel,” and they tried hard to give him a good life.

Everyone is trying, but usually they’re not succeeding. There are so many dashed hopes here, yet everyone’s doing the best they can.

After reading this book, you’re going to want to discuss it. (If you can’t find someone IRL, come back here and leave a comment, and we’ll chat!)

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cross-cultural adoption, complicated and troubled lives, immigration, the Chinese-American experience, musicians

What book are you aching to discuss?

We’re All Damaged… and that’s kind of OK

(Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash)

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

3 words: wry, funny, open

This summer, our book club’s theme is Humor. And this is our lead-off book, and it was a home run.

Funny? Yes. In the things are really terrible but that makes them funnier way.

It’s set in the Midwest, so: bonus points. Living here in flyover country (don’t get me started), it always does my heart good to read a book with a solid Midwestern setting.

Andy had fled to New York after his wife left him for another man, but now his grandfather is dying, so Andy’s returned to Nebraska.

And his family’s hatched all kinds of (hilarious) new dysfunctions since he’s been gone, and he’s alienated from his best friend (aka his ex-wife’s brother), and basically his life is an unhappy mess.

Then a quirky young woman with a mysterious history pops onto the scene, and things get way more fun and way more complicated.

While his parents pursue their obsessive interests (his mom’s aiming to become a new talking head on Fox and he barely recognizes her, and his dad is preoccupied with an illegal motorcycle… and maybe something more), Andy bumbles around, trying to make things right.

Here we have a bunch of mostly good-hearted characters, all struggling in their own ways and crashing into one another and then trying to figure out the forgiveness thing.

It reminded me–in a good way–of This Is Where I Leave You. They both deal with loss and love with wry humor, and they both have the potential to make a person laugh out loud.

Give this book a whirl if you like… novels about returning home, post-divorce recovery, cringe-worthy gallows humor, quarter-life crisis, the Midwest

OK, if I’m looking for more books like this… funny about non-funny topics… Go!

Alas… that I hadn’t read it earlier

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

(Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash)

3 words: character-driven, unfolding, storytelling

Wow. I never knew I’d like this book as much as I did.

I know post-apocalyptic novels have been all the rage for a decade or more, but I kind of struggle with them. I mean, real life is hard enough, you guys! So tossing in a “this is the end of the world as we know it” scenario seems so freakin’ grim.

But I know: good drama makes a good story.

And in this book, first published in 1959, there’s some amazingly strong storytelling. It’s that good old Midcentury style, with a big story and well-drawn characters and an earnest social message.

I liked it so much.

Here’s what surprised me most: The characters really come first in this novel, even though obviously the plot’s drama is going to try to suck all the air out of the room. But the characters and their responses to a nuclear attack are believable and relatable. And while a person could dissect the story and describe each character as representing a different response to the nuclear winter, I didn’t feel like the characters were merely there to represent types. They felt too real.

So, the plot is basically this: the US and the USSR fire nuclear missiles at each other and lots of cities are destroyed, and outside the cities, people try to figure out how to survive. It’s actually pretty terrifying. If I’d read this book in middle school, back when we actually feared this crap would happen, I think I would’ve wanted to hide under the bed.

Though, ultimately this book offers some hope. There’s plenty-o-trauma, but in the end, some people actually survived.

Give this book a whirl if you like… post-apocalyptic stories, contemporary classics, Mid-Century novels, solid storytelling

So… anybody wanna talk me into tackling another post-apocalyptic book because: characters?

Audiobook so good it ruins you, doggone it

(photo credit: By Bea A Carson [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nix by Nathan Hill

3 words: wry, family, storytelling

So this happened…

After finishing this book, I drove around resolutely dissatisfied by three audiobooks I tried to begin. Nothing worked (I will never be satisfied) because The Nix had totally spoiled me with its splendor.

As the Dear Man’s dear nephew said, “Magnum opus. That is all.”

Except: here we’re not gonna let that be all. More words!

This book is one of those big stories you just fall into, and it carries you away. I kept feeling surprised by each new turn the narrative took, but it all worked.

The tone captured me right away. When describing the way the media responded to a middle-aged woman hurling pebbles at a politician, the wry sarcasm completely delighted me. When I’m smiling out loud during the first five minutes of an audiobook, that’s a good sign.

We start with Samuel Andresen-Andersen, then meet his pebble-throwing mother, his mother’s lawyer, his worst student, his literary agent, a gamer who lives in the video game where they both spend too much time, and people from his mother’s brief (accidental) foray into the 1968 protest movement.

And there are even characters from Iowa. What more can a person ask for?

With a nicely balanced blend of cynicism and hope, this story unfolds through flashbacks and interspersed storylines.

And just when I thought I had it figured out… it surprised me one last time.

Big, literary, entertaining, and immensely satisfying.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary novels with a modern tone and sense of humor, complex family stories, narratives that interweave the past and the present, stories of 1960s counterculture, the past coming back to bite you

 

What book was so good it ruined other books for you?

 

 

Book club update: spring 2017

Sometimes our book club reads by theme, and sometimes we’re random.

Current phase: random. Here’s what we’ve done in the past quarter…

 

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Discussability Score: 4

Because: Wow! We talked forever about this book, without taking any side roads to other places. We stayed right with the book for nearly an hour, and there was so much to analyze. First, I was the only person who liked the book. The others found it frustrating, trite, and overly wordy. And when he described a scene in great detail, some thought he was telling rather than showing. I proceeded to explain all the reasons why I thought it was otherwise. Great discussion.

 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Discussability Score: 4

Because: We talked about the characters’ motivations and decisions (believable or not?) and the structure of the book. (I really liked the way the author interspersed the character’s blog posts into the narrative.) And we talked about the way the author and her characters approach issues of race. A lively, vibrant discussion.

 

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Discussability Score: 3

Because: We none of us liked this book. But that didn’t hamper discussion. We talked about how the writing style didn’t work for us, but also about the key question: Is the narrator female or male?

 

Next up: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

(not the beginning of another dystopian spree, I’ve been promised)

 

For more things book club… head on over to Book Club Central, where I tell the whole story.

Book club update

Book club snacks!

 

Yep, we’ve been doing some reading… Here’s the report from the living rooms.

 

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe  

Discussability score: 4

Because: We kept talking about how relevant and timely this book remains, despite the fact that it’s known as a Novel of the 1980s. We also all agreed that we were glad we’d read it, because it serves as a cultural touchstone. And we had plenty to say about the structure of the novel, with its various viewpoints. Some of us liked it; some of us did not.

 

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Discussability score: 2

Because: Only one of us had the stomach to read the entire book. I bailed (with permission!) halfway through, because man this book is gritty. So: we discussed why the book didn’t work for us as readers.

 

On Writing by Stephen King

Discussability score: 5

Because: Man, what a discussion! We talked about this book for a long time, and we were all leaping into the conversation with lots to say. And this, despite the fact that we all liked the book. We looked at other books through the King Writing Rules lens, and that was some serious fun. I’m pretty sure we’re gonna keep referring back to this one… especially since 11/22/63 is our next book club pick. (Stephen King: we just can’t get enough.)

On reading On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

3 words: sharp, encouraging, spare

 

So let’s just start with this: Stephen King scares the living daylights out of me.

When my book club chose to read The Shining, I got 3 tracks into disc 1 of the audiobook, sensed looming menace and unease, and bailed.

 

But I’ve been hearing about his book On Writing for years (it keeps showing up on lists of the best books about writing), and it seemed safe enough.

 

And so it was.

 

Until that very last section, in which King writes about the car that hit him. And while it’s not horror, it’s horrifying. He’s so matter of fact about it, which makes it all the more chilling.

 

So I got to experience some King fear factor after all.

 

But let’s talk about the bulk of the book, which consists of two parts:

  • a brief autobiography of his development as a writer
  • a handbook on the art of writing

 

The thing that blew me away was the strength of King’s writing. Of course, dude is writing a handbook about how to write well, so he darn well better have some game. But I still found myself surprised at his sentences and his paragraphs: fresh and succinct and perfectly formed.

 

He discusses some of the mechanics of writing (he hates adverbs, which kinda makes me adore him), but he also addresses how to actually be a writer. Which, of course, is by writing. Throughout the book, he’s encouraging, without ever being coddling.

 

And this leads us to my next surprise: Stephen King seems like a genuinely nice person. And he’s a man who loves — and likes — his wife. The way he writes about her… it made me happy that they’d found one another.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… workplace narratives, books about books, a peek behind the curtain, and a zippy writing style

 

OK, your turn. What’s your take on Stephen King?

 

Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
3 words: cynical, absorbing, storytelling
I gotta tell you: I wasn’t all that jazzed about reading this book. 
But my book club selected it, so there we were.
My thoughts before reading it went something like this…
  • Darn long book
  • 1980s touchstone, so do we really need to care anymore?
Yes. I was exactly that cynical, even though Tom Wolfe and I have long dwelt happily together in the Magical Land of Re-Reading. (The Right Stuff makes me happy just thinking about it.)

Suffice it to say, once again, your girl Unruly got it wrong. 
This book is magnificent.
Even though I didn’t like a single character within its pages.
(That’s some seriously high praise, because I’m one of those readers who absolutely must like at least someone.)
And the thing that really knocked my socks off is how timely this book is today.
It deals with race and privilege and wealth and the media and the justice system. And nobody comes out of it looking good.
While this book has a big cast, there are a few of the central figures:
  • a wealthy bond trader who hits a young African-American man with his car (while The Other Woman is with him)
  • the struggling district attorney who argues the case against him
  • the free-loading, alcoholic journalist who breaks the story
There’s enough egotism in this book to sink a ship.  
And yet I kept reading… and wanted to.
Wolfe is such a fine writer, he carried me through these pages despite my intense dislike of the characters.
And now that I’ve read this book, I keep finding ways it connects to other novels I’ve recently read. It seriously is one of those touchstone books that’s bigger than itself.
I’m so glad I read it.
So, now I’m wondering… What book surprised you by its current relevance?

Book club update: autumn

Happy fall reading, everyone! 
Here’s what our book club read as we moved into the fall season…
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Discussability Score: 4
Because: Everyone’s seen the movie, now read the book. It’s one of those. And there’s a whole conversation about the symbolism in the book, and the strong central female character who leads a band of misfits who come together to create a powerful team. 
 
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
Discussability Score: 4
Because: This book is a delightful blend of sociology and humor. It actually offered more of a compelling look at modern dating and romance than some of us had expected. The thing we kept coming back to was the statistic about the size of the dating pool. Back only 50 years or so, people tended to marry people who lived within a very small radius (as in: on the same block). These days, the world’s our oyster. 
Plus: Aziz Ansari narrates the audiobook. If you like the guy on Parks & Rec, you’re gonna like this book.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Discussability Score: 5
Because: This book prompted so much discussion, we started talking about it literally the moment the final person arrived at my door. She still had her coat on, and we were off to the races.
The first thing we marveled out was the high level of discomfort the book gave us. The way evil invades the home… Dang, people. That’s some serious menace. Each of us had to stop our reading for a while, to recover from the initial horror of it. So: great book to read in the Halloween season. 
And we discussed Gaiman’s lyrical style, his narrative abilities (for us audiobook listeners), his nuanced writing of women characters, and his remarkable way he clearly evokes childhood.
So… I converted my entire book club into Gaiman fanatics with the reading of this book. If that alone had been the result of my selecting this book for our discussion, that would be enough.
As always here’s the obligatory link to our full list of books
Anybody read anything wildly discussable lately?

True Grit: The Re-Read

True Grit by Charles Portis 
3 words: plain-spoken, dramatic, unsentimental
The month of re-reading continues…
It’s rare that I allow myself the luxury of re-reading a book, but sometimes I’m fortunate and my assigned reading causes me to re-read something I loved.
Enter: True Grit.
And, as always, the second reading was a different, more complex experience than the first.
(I love how this happens.)
The first time I read this book, I marveled at Mattie’s clear, strong narrative voice and her toughness.
The second time, I knew to expect those things, so instead, I really felt the feels.
And man, this book is filled with them. 
It was only on the second time through, that this book made me get teary-eyed.
(Did not expect that)
It reminded me of that time I re-read The Sisters Brothers and felt it the second time. 
This re-reading can be hard on a person. 

So guys… Ever been surprised by a book you re-read?