Monday, July 29, 2019

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Second Book Club, Book #4

This book was beautifully written. Whether or not you like novels within the military genre (I usually don't,) this is a must-read for the way the author weaves language together to create the perfect flow. 

Poignant words and powerful stories create a snapshot of the Vietnam War. Life over there, loss over there, survival over there. The emotional overload of war for any one person. A complete journey into war, from this most unique perspective. The realities of Vietnam aren't necessarily within the stories shared here, but the real feelings and fears, ups and downs are conveyed. You see into the puzzling experience war was for a young man, forced into a situation where the art of survival vastly changes.

As a collection of stories, The Things They Carried isn't about what actually happens to this one troop of soldiers, but rather what feelings evoked in you as the reader through your experience. O'Brien even goes so far to question the truthfulness of his own stories while he's telling them. What's true is of so little importance when compared with what was felt, what feelings never go away.

I think the point of this book is the same point that all war stories should have -- there's no moral. There's nothing to learn here about history or the human experience within war. We already know wars are horrible, and that Vietnam was a particular kind of harsh. We know soldiers came back traumatized and damaged in ways that an entire lifetime may not repair. What we're given here is what's often missing during war -- the connection between those really experiencing it and those continuing to live at home. Reaching out through the emotional baggage they're forced to carry into war and then bring home, we're given unique insight into this experience. It almost puts the residual effect of war, from a soldier's perspective, on a level, emotional playing field.

O'Brien's beautiful language and expertly composed stories didn't help me understand war, instead it opened the tiniest window into what it felt like to be there. That level of access, even through fiction, made such an impression and brought together an amazing read.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia

Book club book #6

I wish I was fluent in Spanish so I could have read this in its original language. As a beautiful story in English, I bet it really shines in its native tongue. As is, Murmur of Bees is an intense and emotional tale of an agricultural family in Mexico at the early part of the 20th Century. Part of the wealthier sect as land owners, the trajectory of their lives is forever altered by the discovery of a newborn boy, left by the side of the road, covered in bees.

Adopted into the network of workers, servants, and the boss' family, Simonopio and his bees settle into their own little space. He's a special boy who see things, feels things, understands his life is leading up to a very specific moment.

While we wait for that moment, time passes and huge things happen. The Spanish influenza ravages Mexico and takes a massive swipe at the population. Farming in this particular region transforms with the introduction of orange trees. Land ownership becomes a high-risk occupation as government agencies seize what they want, no questions asked. So many forces push against a successful and healthy life, but with Simonopio's help, his family thrives.

All along, Simonopio continues to grow and wait for his moment, which comes alongside a great sadness. He does what he must, sacrificing much in his continued devotion to the family that cares for him. Without his intervention, the family would have had a history full of suffering instead of just moments of intense strife.

This was a beautifully told story by an unlikely narrator, who isn't even born until halfway through the book. His deep insight into his family allows you to really understand the emotional toll life takes during this time in Mexico's history, along with understanding what some felt they had to do -- good and bad -- just to get through it all.

The author draws on the real history of Monterrey, Mexico and the small, surrounding towns, as the backdrop for a little magic, much love, and a level of familial devotion that creates a great read. The suspense, slowly woven in and built up, makes it a page-turner as well. The payoff is perfect too. You really do have to wait until the end for complete closure of this powerful tale. 

A little slow at the start, the book quickly picks up. You'll have a hard time putting it down before you know it as you get to know each member of the Morales family, whether bound by blood or by the land. It's an exciting read and one I highly recommend.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

Second Book Club, Book #3

It takes a commitment to get all the way through this book. Five hundred pages isn't necessarily long, but this book is the definition of dense. This is one of the most detailed accounts of a single life I've seen. The sheer volume of life, Peekay, the main character, lives before reaching adulthood is overwhelming.

It's more than just what happens to Peekay throughout his childhood that got me, it's what he accomplishes. Born in South Africa as WWII settles in on the world, as a white, English person, he struggles with his place. He's hated by the Boer or Afrikaner whites, yet held as a superior to the black community, often referred to as The People. Each sect speaks their own variety of languages, honors their own superstitions, and manifests their own hate and prejudice. Peekay learns quickly that language helps bridge the gap and uses it to reach into the lives of others in a way that ultimately proves productive. He uses it to spearhead prison reform in his own town and help educate men in poor communities. It's also what makes him different, exposing him to pain, suffering, and abuse compounded by his heritage.

Starting out ignorant to the world, thrust into a community of young, aggressive boys, survival is hard for Peekay. Pain taints his early years at boarding school as he questions the best strategy for survival, but he makes it. With the help of some very intelligent, supportive, insightful, and kind individuals, Peekay learns how to not only get through the complicated life in South Africa, but how to thrive and inspire others. Education, compassion, and boxing end up serving as his tools, along with a willingness to challenge the system. As he gets older, Peekay becomes a symbol of a life where the lines between races blur and people help one another.

Through great sadness and great success, and a little luck, Peekay finds the power of one, the courage to be different and think for himself. It puts him into position to face down his biggest challenge and overcome his deepest pain. While the route he takes may be a little questionable in the end, this way of thinking sustains him through his childhood in a way that opens doors for his future.

This is a powerful book, exploring race in South Africa within the life of a single individual. A little disjointed in parts, with an ending I'm still on the fence about, if you've the time to put into this book, it's worth a read. I'd suggest getting a friend to read it with you though. I feel as if it's the kind of book you'll want to talk about as you go.

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.