20 Books of Summer 2016: Wrap-up

I read 20 books this summer! If only they were all on my queue… but I’m excited to have met my summer goal even if I strayed widely from my initial summer reading list. I learned the same lessons as last year: 1) Don’t include so many dense books; 2) Develop a blogging strategy that can keep pace with the reading. Hrm. I’m already feeling optimistic about next year…

Cathy746 has a full list of challenge participants on her site, go check out the other summer queues/reviews!

Read and Reviewed
1. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
4. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
5. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read, Review Coming Soon
7. How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
8. Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
9. From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
11. Zero K by Don DeLillo
12. The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

Read… but should’t have until Sept. 6—Queue Jumpers!
13. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
14. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
15. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
16. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
17. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
18. The Green Road by Anne Enright
19. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
20. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Started, but not finished in time…
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Baudolino by Umberto Eco

Remainders on the Queue… 😦
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Double and The Gambler, The —  Fyodor Dostoevsky (329)
Four Books, The — Yan Lianke (338)
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
In the Garden of Beasts — Erik Larson (364)
You Don’t Love Me Yet — Jonathan Lethem (224)

Review: Americanah

americanah_coverAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliantly, beautifully written with a clear and incisive voice. I didn’t like the half-hearted, predictable romance between Ifemelu and Obinze, but this was a smaller part of the book than the first few chapters and dust jacket would have you believe. I’m fine with authors using characters as vehicles for social commentary, but if a story is built on two levels, it needs to function on both. Strangely, I found myself reading the commentary and skipping the romance (usually it’s the other way around).

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

When the story begins, Ifemelu has been in the U.S. for 13 years. She sends Obinze an email which kicks off some fond reminiscing. It’s clear they’re going to get together once they’ve overcome the obstacle of Obinze’s wife. I don’t immediately dismiss stories that hinge on infidelity, but I bristle when they take the romantic comedy approach. It’s hard to see it as anything other than the writer’s attempt to say, “I want to introduce a sticky plot point, but don’t want you to experience a complicated emotion or feel bad.” The approach I’m referring to is when Person A realizes they love Person B, but B is with Person X. Typically, X remains oblivious while A and B fall in love. Then X turns out to be a jerk shortly before B dumps them to make a teary proclamation to A. It’s important that X be awful, because the viewer/reader needs to see them as an impediment instead of a person while they’re cheering for Persons A and B.

In Obinze’s first chapter, the reader is introduced to his wife, Kosi, as she shouts at the newly-hired help for having condoms in her bag:

“What is this for? Eh? You came to my house to be a prostitute?”
The girl looked down at first, silent, then she looked Kosi in the face and said quietly, “In my last job, my madam’s husband was always forcing me.”
Kosi’s eyes bulged. She moved forward a moment, as though to attack the girl in some way, and then stopped.
“Please carry your bag and go now,” she said.
The girl shifted, looking a little surprised, and then she picked up her bag and turned to the door. After she left, Kosi said, “Can you believe the nonsense, darling? She came here with condoms and she actually opened her mouth to say that rubbish. Can you believe it?”
“Her former employer raped her so she decided to protect herself this time.” Obinze said.
Kosi stared at him. “You feel sorry for her. You don’t know these house girls. How can you feel sorry for her?”
He wanted to ask, How can you not? But the tentative fear in her eyes silenced him. Her insecurity, so great and so ordinary, silenced him. (41-42)

The reader is being prepped to root for Ifemelu and Obinze, but it feels hollow. Predictability is a funny thing. It doesn’t always kneecap my enjoyment of a book, but it was especially disappointing in this case because it was clear Ifemelu and Obinze would be pushed together even if they outgrew each other in their respective arcs. What a way to preemptively negate character development.

But on to the good!

Expectations can change your opinion of a book. If you’re expecting straightforward fiction with a linear plot, you might be disappointed. If you expect a discussion of race in the U.S. with a story around the edges, you’ll like it. Framed this way, the romance becomes a bonus add-on. Just as the Ifemelu/Obinze story was grating on me, it was moved to the back burner and Americanah became more about Ifemelu’s blog. Titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” her blog features posts and discussion prompts about race in the U.S.

Ifemelu’s voice is frank and sharp. She has a way of stating things without preamble or mincing language. Her bluntness is refreshing since race is a subject that often brings out stuttering or ill-used buzzwords. This snippet seems relevant as there’s a lot of talk about privilege these days:

What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White

So this guy said to Professor Hunk, “White privilege is nonsense. How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.” Right. But privilege is always relative to something else. Now imagine someone like him, as poor and as fucked up, and then make that person black. If both are caught for drug possession, say, the white guy is more likely to be sent to treatment and the black guy is more likely to be sent to jail. Everything else the same except for race. […] So Appalachian hick guy doesn’t have class privilege but he sure as hell has race privilege.

This also chips away at some of the criticism of Americanah from people who say Ifemelu has no right to complain in the U.S. because she eventually attains privilege: She attains class/money privilege, never race privilege.

Ifemelu is an interesting character because she isn’t likeable, a quality which actually strengthens the more polemic sections of the book. She’s cold and hypocritical at times in her interactions with others (men in particular), but this doesn’t change the veracity of her observations and experiences.

Overall: 4.4 Oh, the cheeseball love stuff… Though the Ifemelu/Obinze plot is trite and silly and does a disservice to their characters, it is well-written (as in phrasing, word-choice, narrative flow, etc.).

Translation: Read it.

20books2016

Previously On:

5. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
4. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
1. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Review: The Bone Clocks

the-bone-clocks_coverWow. The toughest aspect of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books isn’t the reading, it’s the blogging. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is mind-blowingly layered and fantastic. “Wow” pretty well covers my reaction, but I suspect you’d like more information…

Similar to Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks jumps around and contains six solid narratives told in first person by five narrators (one gets two sections). If you recall, my biggest complaint about Cloud Atlas was the way each story was cut in half just when it began to get interesting and not resumed until hundreds of pages later. In The Bone Clocks, each story is a complete arc. Though all arcs end as they become interesting, they end in less of a cold-shower way because they build on each other. Each answers questions from the previous sections, often in teasingly subtle ways. Many people compare The Bone Clocks‘ structure to Cloud Atlas which isn’t fair—The Bone Clocks is much better.

This is a tough one to summarize. The Bone Clocks begins with the story of 15-year-old Holly Sykes, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her much older boyfriend, Vinny. When her mother catches them together, Holly runs away to a fruit farm. When she learns that her younger brother, Jacko, has gone missing, the POV switches and time leaps forward. Each of the following sections is told from the perspective of someone close to Holly: a hook-up, an ex, an acquaintance, a horologist—together, they tell Holly’s story of overcoming her brother’s disappearance and sorting out the Radio People.

Once again, Mitchell stuns with a set of unique voices. Though the lives of the supporting cast overlap with Holly’s, she’s not always the focus of their narrative. Mitchell requires patience from his reader. He doesn’t mind setting up a character via a long detour from the central plot. Each time you feel a pinch of irritation that the narrative has shifted just when the latest voice has grown on you, keep with it. Mitchell pays off every digression and tangential detail. Even the moments that don’t directly underpin the plot form key motivations and impressions. Mitchell’s characters feel like real people and it’s possible for their trajectories to change on the basis of a single exchange.

What helped me keep patience was reading Slade House not very long ago. It shares a character and theme with The Bone Clocks. Because of this, I knew a little of what horologists are capable of and I knew how creepy all the psychic business would become. Speaking of the psychic stuff, I’m so impressed by how well the supernatural elements are handled. The psychic battles come through as rugged and tangible with genuine physicality. They’re not at all cheesy. Reading Slade House first also boosts this—it taught me Mitchell doesn’t mind bumping off main characters. In his world, no one is safe.

About all those spectacularly unique voices… Here a sampling:

The Teenager:

When Sharon’s left, Mom takes up the attack again: “All alone, were you, on your ‘walk’?”
Why this nasty feeling she’s setting me up? “Yeah.”
“How far d’you get on your ‘walk’ then, all alone?”
“What—you want miles or kilometers?”
“Well perhaps your little walk took you up Peacock Street, to a certain someone called Vincent Costello?” The kitchen sort of swirls, and through the window, on the Essex shore of the river, a tiny stick-man’s lifting his bike off the ferry. “Lost for words all of a sudden? Let me jog your memory: ten o’clock last night, closing the blinds, front window, wearing a T-shirt and not a lot else.”
Yes, I did go downstairs to get Vinny a lager. Yes, I did lower the blind in the front room. Yes, someone did walk by. Relax, I’d told myself. What’s the chances of one stranger recognizing me? Mam’s expecting me to crumble, but I don’t. (5)

Holly is 15 and Vinny is 24. Guess how excited he is when she shows up and asks to live with him after running away. Even though his reaction is predictable to the reader, Holly can’t see it coming. Mitchell wiggles into her head and voice so tightly that I felt 15 again just reading her words. Oh, the vicarious embarrassment!

The Posh Student:

She says, “Cambridge has met your expectations?”
“If you don’t use Cambridge well, you don’t deserve to be here. Erasmus, Peter the Great, and Lord Byron all lodged in my rooms. It’s a fact.” Bullshit, but I love to act. “I think of them, lying on my bed, staring up at the very same ceiling, in our respective centuries. That, for me, is Cambridge.” And that’s one tried-and-tested pick up line. “My name’s Hugo, by the way. Hugo Lamb.”
Instinct warns me off attempting a handshake.
Her lips say, “Immaculeé Constantin.”
My, oh, my. A seven-syllable hand grenade. “French?” (99)

Yes, that Hugo Lamb from Black Swan Green. Hugo meets Holly in Switzerland. So much has changed that the reader no longer feels privy to her inner life, despite having just been there. Exchanges between her and Hugo are layered with meaning as the reader teases out answers to questions from the opening: What happened to Jacko? What was all that psychic business? Who is Constantin?

The Reporter/Father:

Aoife turns, tugs the balloon string off and threatens to let it go.
“Go ahead.” I know how to handle Aoife. “But be warned, if you let go, I’ll never buy you a balloon again.”
Aoife twists her face up into a goblin’s and—to my surprise, and hurt—lets the balloon go. Off it flies, silver against blue, while Aoife dissolves into cascading sobs.  “I hate you—I hate Dora the Explorer—I wish you were back—back in Bad Dad—forever and ever! I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate your guts!
Then Aoife’s eyes shut tight and her six-year-old lungs fill up.
Half of Sussex hears her shaken, sobbing scream.
Get me out of here. Anywhere.
Anywhere’s fine.

In the third section, Holly’s ex is freshly returned from Baghdad (which their daughter pronounces ‘Bad Dad’) and struggling to participate in ordinary life.

The Has-Been:

Truly, Dear Reader, I could weep. Kingsley Amis boasted how a bad review might spoil his breakfast, but it bloody wasn’t going to spoil his lunch. Kingsley Amis lived in the pre-Twitter age, when reviewers actually read proofs and thought independently. Nowadays they just Google for a preexisting opinion and, thanks to Richard Cheeseman’s chainsaw massacre, what they’ll read about my comeback novel is: “So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Richard Cheeseman has hung a KICK ME sign around Echo Must Die‘s neck, at the very time I need a commercial renaissance. (293-4)

Crispin Hershey is trying to revive his flagging literary reputation and runs into Holly on a book tour of her own.

The Horologist:

The passenger-side window exploded into a thousand tiny hailstones, and the mirror above my head was a brittle supernova of plastic and glass. One shard of plastic shrapnel, the size and shape of a fingernail clipping, lodged itself in my cheek.
I crouched, afraid. A logical portion of my mind was arguing that if the marksman had intended to kill me I would now be staring across the Dusk. But I stayed down for several minutes longer. Atemporality neutralizes death’s poison, but it doesn’t defang death, and old habits of survival linger on, even in us. (445)

The best section, a.k.a. when all the crazy questions get answered.

The Epilogue:

It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted; the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid. (560-1)

From this point on, I skimmed to learn whether certain characters made it or not. This scenario (being old/vulnerable, living in a backward, unsafe world with wars and scuffles over the few remaining resources) really freaks me out. Even if it didn’t, all my questions were answered in the previous section. Though this section isn’t technically an epilogue or labeled as such, it still feels like one. I don’t mean that in a good way.

Overall: 4.7

Translation: Read it.

20books2016

Previously On:

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Review: My Uncle Oswald

my-cousin-oswald_coverI still read The Best of Roald Dahl and hold it up as the “best collection of short fiction (by a single author).” When I needed a gift for a friend, I gave her this collection accompanied by My Uncle Oswald. There’s an Oswald story in the collection and it’s a riot; gifting more Oswald stories without reading them seemed an easy call. Then I finally read My Uncle Oswald and texted “Ohmigosh. I just realized I gave you porn!” (Soft core.) It’s hilarious, but I only recommend it if you’re a) not shy about sex, and b) in possession of a robust sense of humor.

My Uncle Oswald follows Oswald Hendrycks Cornelius as a young man and details how he made his fortune. Using a powder from the Sudanese Blister Beetle, he creates a pill that afflicts the user with overpowering sexual desire (and capability) exactly 9.5 minutes after ingestion. He sells this pill to various elites for huge sums. Once he discovers that the pill also works on women, he doubles his market by suggesting that men and women take it together. Oswald enjoys his pill business, but craves something more challenging and lucrative. He finds Yasmin, a young woman who isn’t hesitant about rough sex, and makes the acquaintance of A.R. Woresley, a scientist. With their help, Oswald perfects a method of collecting semen from the intellectual giants of the day and freezing it to sell.

“How long do you think it will take?”
“To make our fortunes? About seven or eight years. No more. That’s not such a long stretch when it means you can laze about doing nothing for ever after.”
“No,” she said, “it isn’t. And anyway, I’m rather enjoying this.”
“I know you are.”
“What I’m enjoying,” she said, “is the thought of being ravished by all the greatest men in the world. And all the kings. It tickles my fancy.”
“Let’s go out and buy a French motor car,” I said. (164)

Oswald travels Europe with Yasmin, collecting samples for his sperm bank from a roster of famous men: Monet, Picasso, Freud, etc. Each sexual conquest is outrageous, but the first few are best because the book grows repetitive. Dahl works variety into the scenes, but a clear pattern emerges nonetheless. Right when I worried the book was ruining its premise by becoming routine, Oswald says as much himself.

I give self-aware narrators a lot of latitude (particularly when they acknowledge faults in their telling of the story). Oswald’s self-awareness adds to the humor. He loves to preen and grandstand for the reader and win them over to his cause. He explains his schemes frankly (though under a tide of self-aggrandizement, of course) and his personal philosophies force the book to be lighthearted:

I myself have always found it difficult to treat anything too seriously and I believe the world would be a better place if everyone followed my example. I am completely without ambition. […] All I want out of life is to enjoy myself. But before one can achieve this happy end one must obviously get hold of a lot of money. Money is essential to a sybarite. It is the key of the kingdom. […] I refuse to have anything to do with money-making unless the process obeys two golden rules. First, it must amuse me tremendously. Second, it must give a good deal of pleasure to those from whom I extract the loot. (171)

Sure, the premise is crude, but what makes the book funny and endearing is Dahl’s unique brand of wit. Plus Yasmin, armed with a hat pin and watched over by Oswald, is never thought to be at risk. Like Penthouse letters, which no one takes seriously these days, each of Oswald’s stories is soaked in fantasy. Despite the content, much is described via euphemism or under silly circumstances, which keeps it from being vulgar. It’s warm, tongue-in-cheek, and seems crafted to humor more than titillate.

Overall: 3.8 It’s very funny with memorable scenes, but even Oswald’s self-awareness can’t stop the conceit/joke from wearing thin. The end has a great payoff that works as well as the wondrous endings found in The Best of Roald Dahl.

Translation: Recommended. A sense of humor is required.

20books2016

Previously On:

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
1. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie