Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Calypso by David Sedaris

Book club book #5

This is the first Sedaris book I've read, although they're a favorite to listen to on car trips. That being said, this is probably the first Sedaris book to have my undivided attention.

As a person, I love Sedaris' quirkiness and the ability he has to tell a really emotional story between the lines of his overly-comfortable-with-each-other family. He capitalizes on the sentiment of the old journalism lesson: Nobody wants to read a story about a dog biting the mailman, but if the mailman bites the dog, that's news!

Sedaris takes emotions we all feel -- loss, fear of aging, family strife, mental illness, obsession -- and wraps it up in a package of unconventional elements and silly sibling banter for truly entertaining tales.

Almost all of the stories in Calypso happen in, or include a visit to, Sedaris' vacation home. Aptly named the Sea Section, it's located on the Emerald Isle in North Carolina. It serves as a meeting place for his family since they've all spread out across the globe. Sedaris' homebase is in England. All of the stories illicit a smile or two, but my favorites revolve around the obsession contrived by the desire to please your FitBit and the idea that you could feed a benign tumor to a snapping turtle. 

The most touching element to the stories in this book is Sedaris' kindness. You can see it throughout his stories as he picks up trash in his hometown, buys a second home large enough for his entire family, interacts with fans while on tour, and cares for a wild fox, even though he's been told not to by his partner, Hugh. While the kindness isn't all-encompassing, Sedaris is vulnerable enough to show you where he might have slipped up, where he took the easier route of being cruel when maybe he didn't need to be, but more so there is his kind heart.

I don't really laugh when I read Sedaris. Classified as humor, his stories make me smile. They make me happy as I find the common thread that connects his experiences to my life, and that someone could tell that commonality in such an entertaining way. I don't think he's for everyone, but I do think he's worth a read if only to realize we all go through it, it's always awkward, and you're not the only one not totally comfortable in your life.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Time's Convert by Deborah Harkness

This is the fourth book, connected to an amazing series -- The All Souls Trilogy.

They've even turned it into a TV series, named, I think, after the first book. I'd be watching it if it wasn't on yet another, separate, streaming service. Anyway, start with A Discovery of Witches and go through the original trilogy. They're each better than Time's Convert. You also won't know who anyone is in this book without getting to know the characters within the other novels.

That being said, when you finish the trilogy, don't feel compelled to move on to this volume. It's disappointing because absolutely nothing happens. All the dire action and tense moments you have come to expect are absent. Instead, Time's Convert gives you a heavily-detailed account of one vampire transformation coupled with a robust history lesson in revolution. It's interesting. I liked the history. I liked learning the backstory of Marcus, a vampire with a central role in the first three books. There's also a little added insight into the lives of the main characters we previously followed -- a powerful witch and a really old vampire, but we're up in everyone's heads too much. And, nothing is happening! All the rash behavior, desperation, and fearful worry about the future is heavily muted by quick, benign defiance that's honestly a little boring.

As Marcus waits for his future vampire-mate Phoebe to move through the infancy stage of converting to a vampire, he shares his history. It's not something vampires often tell, opting to keep the details of their living lives to themselves. Marcus' warmblooded life began amid the American Revolution where his natural calling in medicine served a great many soldiers. His history also has dark moments though. Beginning with a horrible, but necessary act while alive, his story as a young vampire moves through moments of great passion, to youthful rashness, to sadness. Throughout the telling of his tale, Marcus struggles with being separated from his mate, who's having her own trouble adjusting to her new life. You'd never think of all the complications the conversion can create for a person.

Watching over both Marcus and Phoebe are members of the De Clermont family, which include Matthew and his witchy wife Diana, busy with their twin children. Experiencing their own growing pains of sorts, Diana and Matthew struggle with the best way to raise their children, who are exhibiting special gifts of their own, some not so easy to control.

I highly enjoy this world as a whole and really love the deep historical dives Harkness takes in her books. You can feel her settings as if you're there, no matter what era or country the characters are in, but that doesn't replace action. I just needed a little more.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Second Book Club, Book #2

This book made it into the rotation because it was on a list of "humorous" titles. I think that's a misnomer. It's not a funny book. You don't laugh. It's over-the-top, absurd, and silly enough to make you wonder what's going to happen next. It is not, however, what I'd call humorous.

Eventually, Bernadette, acclaimed architect/artist, denying her creative talent while Seattle suburbia seems to be swallowing her whole, disappears. Before that though, we meet a complicated woman, wife, and mom. Her husband is something of a tech genius. Her daughter is a well-adjusted teenager with a heart condition. They also have a dog, and a house that's literally returning to the earth with every invading raindrop and blueberry bramble. This is ironic, since Bernadette is well-known for an amazing home she once created that only used materials within a twenty-mile radius of the construction site. However, she's left that all behind to posture as a bit of a crazy lady.

Of course, she would look crazy compared to the parents of the private school her daughter, Bee, attends. They exemplify the stereotypical, social-climbing, gossip-hounds who must give off the impression of perfection to a point that's painful to me. At one point, Bee slaps one of them, and I cheered!

Now, I've only just set the scene, but craziness ensues with an improbability factor bouncing off the charts. This tiny bit of Seattle goes a little off the deep end and Bernadette runs out on what is supposed to be an intervention for her mental health. With a level of determination only a child can have, and plenty of resources, Bee plots the trip she just knows will lead her back to her mother, her best friend. Will it work? How much absurdity will have to take place first? That's what makes this book a fun read.

Maybe you laugh after you read it...because of how outrageous it all is...

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Book club book #4

Although a little contrived in parts, Where the Crawdads Sing focuses on the life of an extremely complex character and the misconceptions people, in general, have about a person based on their environment. 

Flashing primarily through a single decade (the 1950's,) a pretty typical small town, along the edge of a North Carolina marshland, exists as you'd expect it. The handsomest boy also happens to be the football star, the diner is the best place for gossip, and tales of a wild girl, living alone in the marsh, populates local lore. She's real, The Marsh Girl, but I wouldn't call her wild.

Living out on the marsh, Kya is slowly abandoned by her whole family. Ignorant in many ways due to lack of schooling and human contact, she's smarter than you think. Right until the end of the book, the extent of her intelligence surprises. 

Owens takes you through Kya's entire life. Focusing mainly on her transition to adulthood, you watch as she becomes more and more self-sufficient. You meet the people Kya deems worthy to allow into her world. There aren't many, but as with anybody, some are genuine and good, some make mistakes and repent, and others are devious. Unfortunately, almost everyone lets her down, moving on while she stays still.

Adapting to life out in nature, Kya thrives, but being separated from the town creates a stigma about her which feeds into suspicion when the town golden boy is found dead in the marsh. Did Kya kill him? They were lovers at one point. He jilted her to marry a more "civilized" girl. Her alibi in question, Kya's arrest puts her in the most miserable place she can imagine, locked away from the natural world she needs to survive. 

Waiting trial, we follow along as evidence builds, until the big day arrives. Prejudice walks alongside everyone into the courtroom. There's no reasonable doubt among the observers. The judge even has to chastise a witness to call Kya by her name instead of The Marsh Girl. She has no personal identity. The trial is intense, and all Kya wants is to go home.

The personal journey Kya takes in this book is really interesting. How she goes from simply surviving to creating a life for herself that's sustainable and allows her to improve herself was fun to read. Of course, it's helpful she seems to have a Fairy Godfather who shows up in time to propel the story forward (the contrived part,) giving her opportunities that allow her character to grow in a worthwhile way.

I can see why this is a popular book club selection. There's definitely a lot of talk about. I would suggest reading it with others, so you can have your own conversations.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Darwin's Watch: The Science of Discworld III by Terry Pratchett

Although a little more scattered in content that the previous two volumes, the third installation of The Science of Discworld doesn't disappoint. Focusing on Charles Darwin and his contribution to our understanding of evolution, the book tosses in a little extra, covering things like time travel and analyzing the Victorian Era's contribution to thinking. Among the facts, as always, there's the entertaining tangent into Discworld where external interference makes Darwin write the wrong book and everything goes haywire.

We join the faculty of Unseen University once again who, with the help of their amazing machine, Hex, untangle the web of events that lead to Darwin mistakenly writing Theology of the Species instead of Origin of the Species. This alternative book is all about divine design, and veers just far enough off the proper path of time to have far-reaching effects. This "wrong" book delays scientific advancement, which ultimately leads to the end of the human race. Through carefully calculated interventions in time, and one eye-opening oops, the wizards attempt to get Darwin back on the right track.

Between the chapters on the progress of this all-important mission, detailed commentary covers topics related to physics, time travel, evolution, and more. Can altering one tiny event make a significant impact on history for real? Will time travel ever be more than a theory? It's all very interesting, but I found the science in this volume harder to get through than in the previous two books. The topics were all fascinating, but the technical depth, at times, was just too deep. I felt a little lost, probably due to the hypothetical nature of a lot of the science covered. I struggled to visualize concepts when theories got too technical.

I did learn a lot though, alongside the silly adventure of Darwin and the meddlesome wizards at Unseen U. It was nice that at least this time, they didn't have a choice but to meddle. 

The truth and humor mixed in this series is perfectly done and allows you to learn and laugh all at once. 

Read these first:
The Science of Discworld (Volume I)
The Globe: The Science of Discworld (Volume II)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

So I apparently have book club fever and am now a member of two book clubs. This one, I'm running, so it's a bit of a different experience.

Second Book Club, Book #1

Powerful. This is the most powerful book I've read in a long time. To call this book good isn't doing it proper justice, but I'd put it on my 'Must Read' list without question. 

The tragic and disturbing stories of four siblings, given a terrible gift that ultimately leads to serious consequences for each, are so well-told, so intense, you don't even pause to search for a nugget of positivity to pull you out of some dark places. You live their lives beside them, and they feel real and severe in all the ways you want fictional characters to be.

We meet the four Gold siblings on the cusp of the 1970's, while still in their youth. A typical, lower-middle class, northeastern, Jewish family until word of the arrival of a mystical woman who can tell you the day you'll die draws the children in, forever changing their lives. The knowledge they're each given individually clearly affects life choices, often to their detriment, but they all go on and live as long as they can. 

Among the nagging finality of knowing your death day, the author frames out other important elements. Somehow drawn out by the crux of the novel, gaining this information nobody should ever have, each sibling experiences some form of mental illness. With these character developments comes a subtle commentary on the topic, branching out into the necessity of human connection, the importance of experiencing love, and the horror of obsession.

Again, powerful comes to mind in how all these elements made me feel, how they combined to drive the story forward.

Prepare yourself for an intense read, but don't ignore this book. It has the goods.