Friday, July 25, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: July 25

I finished no books in June, due to my long, painful commitment to finishing Charles Dickens' Bleak House. But then a couple books I'd been waiting for arrived at the library for me, so I put BH aside and jumped happily into those. After that, something got unclogged in me and I began reading everything in sight—I even finished Bleak House. All told, I got through seven novels in the first three weeks of July. Don't be too impressed with me, though, because of number of them were novellas. I do love me a short-short book.

From least to most liked, here's a rundown. (Skip to the end if you just want the Coffeehouse minimum of "best book read.")

7. Unwind by Neal Shusterman. A YA dystopian thriller aimed mostly at teen boys. It's kind of nice to see a YA dystopian with a boy protagonist, and my teenage son certainly enjoyed this book. (He's also perfectly willing to read books with girl protagonists.) I like to read what my kids read, especially if they ask me to and if the book seems provocative in some way. "Unwind" is meant to be provocative, but although I did fly through the pages I never really felt that provoked. Big issues are dangled in front of the reader but not fully explored. Perhaps the rest of the series does more exploration. (There is one scene that is quite disturbing, though not at all graphic, and it is the strongest scene in the book. But ... be forewarned. It's creepy as hell.)

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I feel strange putting a Dickens book this low on the list and this close to a YA thriller, but there you have it. I have read and loved other Dickens novels, but this one was a slow, difficult read for me. It picks up at the end, but at nearly a thousand pages long, there's just too much tedious filler. You can tell he wrote this in installments. Beautiful imagery, though. I would still recommend this to any student of writing, but I'd read tiny chunks of it over a very long period of time. Savor the little word paintings, don't worry about the story. (SparkNotes is extremely helpful for keeping the convoluted plotline and dozens of incidental characters straight.)

5. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Another YA thriller, but this one is set in modern-day reality. Well, reality-ish. The narrator of this slim novel is highly unreliable, as you might expect from the title. You can't be entirely sure if the story you're being told is what really happened—and you're not sure the narrator knows, either. Lockhart combines elements of King Lear, Wuthering Heights, fairy tales, and M. Night Shyamalan to create something that feels both epic and creepy. Three wealthy teenage cousins and their outsider friend decamp to a posh island for summer vacations, along with their mothers (who are sisters) and their grandfather, the controlling patriarch. Yep, that's the King Lear part. Tension is simmering among the adults and one summer things come to a terrible climax. But the exact nature of the disaster is withheld from both the narrator and the reader till the end, turning this into a mystery/thriller of sorts. I read this before my kids, but have recommended it to them.

4. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. In the fictional town of Guerrero, Mexico, all the children born are either boys or girls masquerading as boys. If word gets out that a girl is born, the drug lords will whisk her off as soon as she hits adolescence. The mothers not only raise their daughters as sons (cutting off their hair, blackening their teeth, uglifying them in any way they can), they dig holes in their yards and stuff the girls into the ground as soon as they hear any car approaching. To be a girl in Mexico is to be an inevitable victim of human trafficking; the lesson of this novel is that even your mother can't save you. Not the most uplifting of stories, but Clement removes us from some of the suffering by taking a poetic, distant tone. It's also a very short novel, which maybe it shouldn't have been. It's similar to The Kite Runner and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in that it explores the effect of war on civilians who just want to be left alone ... except both of those novels really get into the inner world of the suffering protagonists and the outer world that created the chaos. Clement sort of skims over it; it's an impressionist painting. A pastel Monet slur of a minefield. (Note: although this novel does feature a teenage girl, it's not YA. It could be read by teenagers, but it's not written for them.)

3. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Even shorter than Clement's book, this tiny little gem is an impressionist painting of a marriage. And you know, whenever you hear, "it's about a marriage," that it's not going to be all sugar and rainbows. The poetic-impressionist thing works better here than it does in Clement's book, probably because the subject is so much more minute. A marriage is a thing you can peer into with a microscope; a country spiraling into war and chaos, less so. This novella is absolutely lovely and heartbreaking. If you are like me, you will find yourself underlining every passage. I recommend listening to Slate Magazine's audiobook club discussion of the book, hyperlinked above.

2. The Other Language by Francesca Marciano. A short-story collection featuring mostly Italian protagonists (Marciano lives in Rome) who are strangers in various strange lands. Although each story is about someone dealing with some sort of trouble—stories don't exist without conflict—I felt as if I was on an exciting globe-trotting vacation the entire time I read it. The book was so deliciously written I wanted to eat it when I was done. I rarely read things again but I was so transported by these sumptuous stories I will almost certainly be revisiting them.

1. Redeployment by Phil Klay. Another short-story collection, this one dedicated to men, mostly soldiers, who've been chewed up and spit out by our horrific decade of war. Klay himself is a veteran, a former Marine who served in Iraq. I thought he captured the speech and mindset of the soldier extremely well; it's not always flattering and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. But it's genuine, or as genuine as this civilian can imagine it to be. (Reviewers who served in the military agree that it's very accurate.) This book was published only a few months ago and has been received well ... I expect to see it on most Best of 2014 lists, and no doubt it's going to to earn a number of literary awards. Not only is the writing excellent, but it's something every American can benefit from reading ... no matter how you feel about the wars we've been fighting.


Please visit the other Coffeehouse reviews, starting with our tentacly host here!

18 comments:

  1. Redeployment sounds awfully good.

    Congrats on finishing Bleak House. My wife tackled Pickwick Papers last year. I've never even made it through an entire Dickens work. I took a good stab at Oliver Twist once upon a time but didn't finish.

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    1. Really really recommend Redeployment. Re: Dickens, I'd suggest (if you ever feel like trying again) Hard Times. It's not only short for Dickens, it's just plain short. I got the audiobook and listened to it in a few days, and Dickens is so much better in audiobook form. The narrators really help make the meaning of some of those obscure 19th-century phrases clear.

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    2. Thanks for the recommendation. Audiobooks are a good idea, too. I've been curious about Great Expectations.

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    3. I tried reading Great Expectations a couple years ago and only got as far as the end of Part One. It kinda think it all goes down from there....
      My son, who recently read it for school gives it two thumbs up for Most Depressing School Book. So. I'm in o hurry to delve back in.

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    4. For whatever reason, I don't find Dickens that depressing. He's got a great sense of humor and even though most of his characters meet sticky ends, I just don't get bummed about it. He doesn't really get you seriously invested in his characters, for one thing. A lot of his writing is more directed at getting the reader excited about social justice. He reminds me a little of the Daily Show of the 19th century: a combination of humor and outrage.

      Bleak House follows a few major characters, and at least one of them gets a happy ending. So there's that. :)

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    5. "Daily Show of the 19th century"... what an excellent description!

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    6. Do Dickens novels end with a moment of Zen?

      I'd love to institute an annual family reading of A Christmas Carol but I don't think my wife would stand for it.

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  2. Wow! Thanks for all the recommendations! I think I'll try to pick up Redeployment. It sounds like one I'd enjoy for it's truth. I'm a pacifist, and really wish me weren't so militaristic--getting a soldiers POV would be informative, I'm sure.
    Veronica

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    1. It won't make you any less of a pacifist, that's for sure! If you believe war is folly (which seems a reasonable enough belief) there's plenty of evidence for that in these pages.

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  3. I have never read Bleak House. Shame on me. All the books sound interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. I'm not sure I'd really recommend Bleak House to anyone who isn't already a die-hard Dickens fan, or at least really into 19th-century British fiction. But Nabokov sure loved it: it was maybe his favorite Dickens novel.

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  4. It's amazing what finally finishing a book will allow you to get on with!

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  5. A couple of us reviewed foodie books this month, but YOU provided us with a smorgasbord of books! What a spread. The last one sounds the most interesting to me. I'll definitely have to eat... I mean read... that one.

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    1. It's probably the least delicious (there's some actively yucky stuff in there, it being war and all) but wow, was I impressed.

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  6. Great books! In a normal month, I'm lucky to get through two or three books! Maybe that should be my goal for the next challenge--have multiple books!

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    1. I used to do one long review at a time, which is more in the spirit of the Coffeehouse, but I always felt I was cheating the runners-up. :)

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  7. Great reviews, and I like the short and sweet versions! I'm putting Prayers for the Stolen on my list - very interesting plot, based on your description.

    Thanks!
    Cherdo
    www.cherdoontheflipside.com

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