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?

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?

It’s book club month!

I love it that October is National Reading Group Month.  
It’s the month when I start to feel like settling in for some cozy evenings at home with a book. 
And sometimes, a book and some friends and some beverages and some snacks.
My current book club’s been on the go since 2007, and we continue to surprise each other with the books we select. And sometimes, we don’t surprise ourselves at all. (We each have types of books that are deal-breakers.)
Whatever our quirks, I find our full list to be a weird and wonderful thing. 
In other book club-y news, earlier this year, I rolled out the Discussability Score, which prompts me to really analyze how well a book performed under the pressure of a 5 to 45 minute discussion. (The ones that don’t do so very well? They’re the 5-minute discussion wonders.) 
And soon I’ll do another book club update, but for now, suffice it to say: we’ve recently read a children’s classic, followed by a contemporary popular work of sociology, and there’s a fantasy novel on the horizon. (It’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Had to tell you that, because I’m about to ask…)
All you good people of book clubs… What’re you reading this month?

Book club update: Summer is for kids

Shhhhh…. Quiet….

It’s book club update time again!

Last time, I introduced the Discussability Score* and yep, we’re rolling with it.

So here’s what our book club has read since then…
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Discussability Score: 5
Because: Either you are an introvert, or you know lots of them. And this book makes it cool to be introverted, and it validates many of the tendencies we true introverts possess. This one’s gonna live on in future discussions.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Discussability Score: 4
Because: While we’d all read it before, we each re-read Jane Eyre with new eyes. It’s a nuanced novel, and there was plenty to discuss, particularly about character development and plot believability.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Discussability Score: 3
Because: We discussed the charm of this story and admired its many fine attributes. One book club member wished there were zombies in the story, to add some pizzazz. (That person was not me.)

Next up:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
(We’re doing that summertime children’s book thing again this year. I like it.)
*In case you’re just yearning for a refresh, here goes…

Two factors feed into the Discussability Score:

  1. How engaging was our book club’s discussion? Did we discuss the book in depth and/or at length?
  2. How discussable do I think this book would be for other book clubs?

The Discussability Score is on a 5-point scale:

1 = Nobody has a word to say.

2 = You talk about the book for 5 minutes before someone mentions upcoming vacation plans and you never allude to the book ever again in your natural life.

3 = The book generates some discussion, but none of it is very zippy or interesting. But you’ve done your duty and now you can drink some wine and feel virtuously intellectual because you talked about a book.

4 = You all have interesting things to say about the book, and you’re all excited to be talking about it. The discussion goes on for quite a while, and it’s lively.

5 = Your group keeps talking and talking. Eventually, you talk about your vacation plans, but you keep leaping back to the book. And this thing has an afterlife… you’ll bring it up again and again at future book club meetings.

A new favorite children’s book

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
3 words: charming, old-fashioned, feel-good
UNIVERSE!!!!! Why didn’t you give me this book when I was a child?
I seriously would’ve loved it.
I mean, I’m seriously loving it as an adult, though: some of the magic that would’ve been there as a kid… let’s face it: it diminishes with age.
Still, this is one of those lovely books about childhood, that does all the usual things. Only it does it better than most books.

The language alone got me. Like this: 

“He had a cowboy hat on the back of his head, and four pistols stuck into his belt, and a plastic ray gun in his hand. ‘I heard there’s a guy here who likes to play Space,’ he announced.
Foster rose from his chair. ‘I’m who he is,’ he told the boy.”  (p. 20)

See? Charming.

Here’s what goes on, plot-wise:
First, the parents are dispelled with, because parents are a buzzkill in children’s books. So Portia, who’s spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, and her cousin Julian are allowed to wander off for All Day Long, with very little explanation of their whereabouts.
(Granted, the book was published in the 1950s, and It Was a Different Time Back Then. But still.)
And there’s the typical boy-and-girl close childhood friendship that often happens in books, but not so often in real life. (Am I wrong about that?) Though here it’s a friendship between cousins, so I found it more plausible.
And Portia and Julian, while roving in the woods, encounter a tumbledown series of houses that have been almost abandoned. Except that an older lady and her brother inhabit two of the houses.
At first, I wasn’t sure if they were real people or ghosts. (I’m not gonna tell, either.)
Anyway, they’re delightful, and they invite the children to take over one of the other houses as a clubhouse.
And dang, that was totally my childhood dream! They have a secret hideaway, people! And they decorate it!
Oh, it’s a lovely book.
And I’m still mystified over how it eluded me for so many years.
Here’s how it finally presented itself to me:
First, I was listening to the What Should I Read Next? podcast, episode 21, in which Anne suggests books to her 8-year-old daughter. And Gone-Away Lake was one of the books. (I put it on my TBR right that minute.)
Then I was looking for a children’s book for our book club, since often we read children’s books in the summer. And I looked at one of Gretchen Rubin’s posts about the children’s literature groups she belongs to. And guess what book was on her list of favorites?
And now it’s one of my favorites, too.
So, my fellow adults… What children’s book did you discover only in your dotage?