Fall Book Reviews

This was totally unintentional, but the apparent theme of my fall reading list? Depressing ‘R’ Us. Not that any of these books were bad, per se — we just had a whole onslaught of “whomp, whomp” themes. Manipulative friendships, religious cynicism, multiple suicides… it was a whole big bucket of WHEEEEEE!

So let’s get started on this parade, shall we?

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cats_Eye

I’ll start out by saying that since this is an Atwood book, it is, of course, wonderfully written. But Cat’s Eye is wildly uncomfortable. This is the story of Elaine, who returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her painting career. While there, she recalls her entire childhood and young adult life — and it’s in the remembering of that childhood that shit gets WEIRD.

If I had to pinpoint one theme of the book, it’d be this: children are horrible and cruel and do terrible things to one another. Enter Cordelia. Cordelia, Elaine’s supposed best friend, is the ringleader of a group of girls who do awful things to Elaine. Just awful. And this is what makes Cat’s Eye such an uncomfortable read — all the terrible things these children do? They all read true. Children can be absolutely cruel and manipulative — but often aren’t seen as such, because come on, they’re children!

About halfway through the book, Atwood pulls a masterful switch on us. I don’t want to tell details, but at a high level — Atwood slowly transforms Cordelia from the antagonist into… well, not the protagonist, for sure. But sympathetic, yes. And that’s why I think Cat’s Eye is worth the read — to watch a master author at work. Sometimes being uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley

Oh man. Here comes confession time. I’d never read Travels with Charley, but enjoy a lot of Steinbeck’s other work. So after our California road trip adventure, I decided it was high time to pick up this book. I know a lot of people who love it, and I mean come on, it’s a classic! Man road trips across the country with beloved dog. What could be better than that?

The whole time I was reading it, all I could think of was…

The Simpsons - Old Man Yells at Cloud

I’m sorry, you guys, but most of the time Steinbeck just came off as a cranky old man who was frustrated by the direction his country was headed. Everybody was doing everything wrong! Kids these days! IT USED TO BE BETTER WHAT IS HAPPENING TO AMERICA!

Did anyone else get this impression while reading this book? Was it just me?

Now, it must be said — since this is Steinbeck, there are moments of beautiful lyricism and insight. The last third of the book seemed to hit its stride (once he reaches the West coast — Steinbeck just can’t hide his love for the Best coast). But the rest was a bit of a slog, and if I hadn’t been committed to finishing this one, I may have set it down early. AND THAT IS MY AWFUL CONFESSION.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

This is the one book that breaks the depressing mold… which is odd, considering that it has a murder-mystery-suicide at its core.

I’ll admit it — I never would have picked up this book (let alone found it) if J.K. Rowling hadn’t been revealed as the author. Even still, I didn’t have super high expectations. I thought it’d be a fun read, but I knew it wasn’t going to be Harry Potter.

And then I couldn’t put it down. The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t the best written book I’ve ever read, nor the most original — but it’s fun. It’s just plain fun. The characters are interesting, the plot intriguing. You turn each page thinking, “What happens next?” Which is a quality I remember the Harry Potter books having — sitting at the kitchen table, unable to set the book down, NEEDING to know what happened next. Ms. Rowling, bless you for that — we need books like this, books that get people interested in reading.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

THIS. This was the surprise read of the season. Several friends recommended it, but I knew nothing about the plot. When I started reading it, all I felt was a big fat “meh.” White middle-class 20-something explains family drama. Yup, I thought, I’ve read this before. I almost set the book down, but for whatever reason decided to continue on just a liittttle bit further.

And then — the twist. The thing that makes this book NOT your regular family drama. There had been hints dropped along the way, but I’m not always so quick on the uptake. And in case YOU, dear reader, are not so quick on the uptake… I’m not going to say what The Twist is. I’m not even going to hint at it. Which makes the book pretty damn difficult to review. So I’ll just say this: I ended up LOVING this book. It’s going to be on the 2014 Favorites list, for sure. It made me think, it had me emotionally invested, it had my mind-grapes muddled for days. I read the end on an airplane, which was a TERRIBLE IDEA. I had to stop reading several times because it got me too worked up. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not THE best-written book I’ve ever read, but the plot — and the questions and moral ambiguities the plot raises — more than make up for it. Seriously, go read this one.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cats_Cradle

Last winter (OMG almost a full year ago??) I read Slaughterhouse-Five and LOVED it — and to my immense shame, I admitted that I’d never read any Vonnegut before. So I thought, “Ok, let’s try another.” And Cat’s Cradle… man, this was one cynical book. Cat’s Cradle seems to be Vonnegut’s anti-religion creed, anti-society creed — the prose equivalent of giving up on all mankind. And that’s really saying something, because Slaughterhouse-Five ain’t exactly unicorns and sunshine. But I mean, look at this:

And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it: “Nothing.”

Fantastic prose — DEPRESSING AS HELL. I’m definitely going to be reading more Vonnegut, but this one wasn’t top-of-the-list for me. I consider myself a realistic; I don’t necessarily consider myself a cynic.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood

This is a case of “Not for me.”

Last fall (HOW, HOW HAS IT BEEN A YEAR), I read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wasn’t crazy about it, but enjoyed it enough that I wanted to check out Murakami’s fiction.

Norwegian Wood is objectively a good book. It’s a quiet book about important things (suicide and depression, mostly — I KNOW HOW TO PICK ‘EM, AMIRIGHT?). Just like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the writing quality is high — even beautiful in spots. There is no doubt that Murakami is an excellent writer. But about halfway through… I got bored. I thought maybe things would pick up, so I pushed on. And then I got to a point where I was far enough along that I couldn’t NOT finish, but dammit I just wanted the book to end. So, yes, I finished this book. Mostly out of spite. Good work, me.

But I can’t call this a “bad” book. Because it’s not a bad book — even as I was desperately trying to finish it, I could tell that. It just wasn’t for me. I think these days I need more plot — less introspection, more action. My college self probably would have loved this book — heck, I would have wanted to write this book — but we change, and as we do, our tastes change. Others would enjoy this book. Just not me, not now.

That wraps up the Fall Reading Fun Times. Dear LORD I need to chose some more uplifting books. Any recommendations? Have you read any of these?

Fall Book Recap

Here it is, your seasonal recap — the books I read this past fall. I wish I was more excited about this list, you guys. But for the most part, my fall reading list consisted of books I was REALLY excited about… but made me feel like this:

The exception to that is, of course, MaddAddam, which I reviewed early early this fall. But the rest… well, you’ll see. NONE of them are bad books. But none of them really did it for me.

1. Fireside Magazine

Cover of Fireside Magazine

Well see, here we are, starting out with another exception. I read Issues 4 and 5 of Fireside Magazine, and both were actually really enjoyable. Each issue consists of a couple pieces of flash fiction, a few short stories, and then a section of a serial novella from Chuck Wendig. Not gonna lie — I originally signed up for Fireside because of that Wendig series, but there have been some other really good pieces in there, too. I’ve never really been one for flash fiction, but there are some in there which show me that genre’s potential (“The Filigreed Cage” by Krystal Claxton stands out). Each issue only takes about 20 minutes to read, so I’d definitely recommend it for fellow bus commuters.

2. Wool

Cover of Wool by Hugh Howey

I’d heard SO MUCH GOOD about Hugh Howey’s Wool. Plus, he’s a self-publishing success story! So, you know, that’s cool. But Wool failed to grab me. It’s a post-apocalyptic romp, which I’m normally down for… but for whatever reason, the premise of this one (humans living in an underground silo, unable to go outside) didn’t do it for me. Or maybe it was the characters? I realized after I finished that I didn’t really care about any of them. Which made it hard for me to want to read more.

Now, admittedly, I only read Wool Part #1, which was Howey’s original short story before he continued the series and compiled it into one book. But if Part 1 didn’t grab me… why should I go onto Part 2? Am I missing out? Anyone read the rest of these? I’d be curious to hear opinions.

3. In the Garden of Beasts

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Ugh, this one… this one had been on my reading list for a long time. I was pretty damn excited to read it. I loved Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and In the Garden of Beasts sounded like a total winner. It follows the story of William E. Dodd — the American ambassador to pre-war Nazi Germany — and his family as they navigate the political waters of 1933 Berlin. Sounds fascinating, right? RIGHT?

Well. This book was boring. The Dodds are duds. The narrative perspective switches between Dodd and his adult daughter, Martha. I didn’t find either one particular likable or interesting, and questioned why Larson chose them as the pivot for his book. Plus, Larson had this annoying habit of Foreshadowing. With a capital F. All throughout the book, he hinted at some MAJOR event to come. At the characters who would die horrific deaths, at the horrible turning point that would be a defining moment of Germany history. He hints at the climax SO MUCH that by the time you get there, you think… that’s it? THAT’s what you were going on and on about? And I mean, the climax of the book IS a Big Deal historical event… so the fact that it’s a letdown? That tells you something about this book.

4. A Fraction of the Whole

FractionoftheWhole

This is the one I almost abandoned. It came HIGHLY recommended from a friend, a friend who’s reading taste I very much trust… but again, it didn’t do it for me (are you catching a theme with these books?). A Fraction of the Whole is written by Steve Toltz (and I just realized…how can I not think of this?), and it follows the story of a father and son in Australia. Both of them are certifiably nuts — and for me, not in a good way. They’re over-the-top introspective, they ramble, they fancy themselves philosophers. The book’s plot itself was somewhat intriguing — but I just couldn’t get behind these characters. I found them eccentric at best, infuriating at worst.

After I finished the book, I looked at some Goodreads reviews, and a lot of people mentioned how funny the book was. Like, “laugh out loud” funny. Which… I didn’t get. At all. So I’m wondering what I’m missing? Is it just ME? Again, if you’ve read this one, I’d be curious to hear…

5. The Paris Wife

Cover of The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife was a confounding read. For the first half of the book, I couldn’t figure out if I liked it or not — and yet I kept turning pages. I didn’t dislike it. But there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something that rubbed me the wrong way. And then it clicked: I didn’t really like the narrator, Hadley Richardson Hemingway. I found her annoying. Passive. She watched the action around her, rather than being the protagonist of her own novel. Which I’m not sure is a valid criticism of the book — after all, it’s possible that Hadley was submissive and passive in real life. But every time she said, “I felt it was my duty to support Hem, no matter what” or “As a mother, I finally felt fulfilled,” I wanted to smack her.

It was also an odd read because my sympathies alternated between the two main characters, Hadley and Ernest. Now, obviously, Ernest Hemingway did a lot of shitty things to this woman, numero uno definitely being cheating on her and then marrying his mistress. But there were times early in their marriage when I found myself sympathizing with him rather than her. When he needs to go off and write, she pouts. When he needs to travel to Istanbul to report on the conflict there, she throws a temper tantrum. As a writer, this behavior would drive me up a wallBut perhaps if you’re not a creative type, it’s easier to understand where Hadley was coming from.

6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Cover of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Ok, this one! This one I was SO EXCITED TO READ. It’s about running! It’s about writing! It’s about the intersection between running and writing! All things I find super interesting. But after I’d read the first 50 pages or so… meh, I dunno. I felt like it could have been shorter. Edited down a bit. And here’s the thing — it’s not a long book! Only 180 pages. But it just felt to me that Murakami was somewhat stretching the material. He’s obviously an excellent writer, and I’d be interested to read more of his books, but this one didn’t reach me quite the way I expected it to.

Still, there were some really good nuggets in there. Such as this:

No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.

And this:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well.

What did you read this fall? What are you reading now? I’m currently on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — and man, am I excited to talk about that one in the next recap…