This review is going to get nasty. Just warning you ahead of time. I bought Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale years ago when it was THE BOOK of 2006, and haven’t read it yet. I decided it was time to evaluate it and see if it would remain on my shelf or move on down life’s pathway. I went with an audiobook on my travels to and from a conference, which was not the best choice. This book spent a long time being very dull and then went into full-on ridiculous territory.
Margaret Lea is the world’s most milquetoast heroine. She is of indeterminate age (but I’m guessing early-to-mid 30s?), and works in her parents’ antique bookstore. She is obsessed with a secret of her own—her twin sister who died at birth. I’m really not kidding. She receives a letter from The World’s Most Acclaimed Author, Vida Winter, requesting a meeting, and Winter wants Lea to write her biography. The novel is framed around Vida Winter’s history, which is long and slow and filled with All The Secrets.
The writing is promising, and I like the book-about-books premise, but it is ultimately bogged down by a desperate desire to be loved and acclaimed. Margaret is the dullest protagonist in the world. As in, she makes Bella Swan look positively sparkling and Anastasia Steele interesting. At least Bella gets to have sparkly vampire unicorn sex, and Ana discovers her orgasm, but what does Margaret get? A dead twin sister obsession. Seriously, she is boring and cliché, down to her preference for 19th-century British novels over every.other.genre of writing. The allusions to Jane Eyre are maddeningly obvious and irritating. And in the end, a plot point that relies on identical twins for resolution is in serious trouble. I’m just saying.
My friend D, a history major at one of the Seventh-day Adventist colleges in Washington, decided for his book club pick that we’d read a new biography of one of the church founding mothers, Ellen G. White. She’s received a lot of attention from a theological perspective, but she’s barely made any indentation on 19th century American studies from a cultural or historical perspective. I was interested to see what a variety of scholars would produce. I also wanted to read this volume, since my beloved history advisor, Gary Land, was a coeditor of this volume. Sadly, Dr. Land died last year, before this book was published. So, there was a brief moment of melancholy when I began reading–especially during his chapter on biography.
There is a chapter on her life story, biographies about her, on theology, on her writing self, on her impact with the health message (including temperance), her relationship to race and slavery, and culture, among many other facets. My favorite chapter was the one on culture. The scholars explained how White’s limited education made her somewhat unaware of literature, music, and other cultural texts outside middlebrow culture. Therefore, she recommended avoiding fiction, since the fiction she was mostly exposed to was the pulp writing put forth by magazines and published cheaply in serials.
For me, as an Adventist literature scholar, I have encountered some resistance to literature by other Adventists. Some have taken White’s writings very seriously and avoid “fiction,” because “Mrs. White says…” But, as this volume has shown, we have to take these writings in context and understand what they are talking about, particularly because White herself used fiction (repackaged as parables or stories) to convey lessons to children. This collection has taught me to read for myself and not take another person’s authority on face value, unless I’ve done reading and studying for my own sake.
The rather inauspicious beginning for Jennifer Donnelly’s Waterfire Saga has blossomed into a smart, mature series about the power of female friendship and the good young women can accomplish TOGETHER. How refreshing! I greedily devoured Dark Tide in less than two days, and I’m already super impatient for Book 4, which will close off the series.
I will try to summarize in broad brush strokes, so that I don’t spoil major plot points for those who want to read the series (and you really, really should). This time around, the novel focuses on the misadventures of Ling, Astrid, and Becca. Each is seeking to hunt down the talisman that will take down an evil force long thought to be dead. At the same time, they’re racing against time—Rafe Mfeme is seeking these same talismans and Serafina’s usurping rulers are closing in on the mermaids. The novel ends on an interesting cliffhanger that makes me wonder how Donnelly will develop the plot for the fourth and final novel. There—was that vague enough?
It’s great that the series has given several of the young women a turn in each of the novels, which develops their sub-stories. I hope that the next novel gives more room to Ava (who is in North America by now) and Neela (whose story in Rogue Wave was really interesting). I’m curious to see how Ms. Donnelly will cap off the series, and I’m delighted that she’s developed a fairly simple premise into a global young adult thriller with terrific female protagonists. I think that Dark Tide is the best of the three, which holds a lot of promise for the last book, which is due in 2016. I’ll be waiting impatiently.
I make it a point to read the winner of the Man Booker Award each year. I’ve managed to accomplish this task for the last three years running, even if I have to wait a bit at the library for the book. I don’t always get to the shortlist nominees, however. And sometimes, my predictions for the winner are wrong. Of the 2015 shortlisted books, I’d only read Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen (which I thought was very good), so I’d been pulling for that one. But now after reading the actual winner, I think the Booker Committee got it right.
Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings is an expansive tome. That’s putting it lightly. At almost 700 pages, it packs a major punch. The premise follows the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, and it covers the years before and the decades after, decades in which this attempted murder will echo across Jamaica’s political landscape. The enormous cast of characters includes several gang members, their leaders, a CIA agent, a young woman, and a ghost. There are Americans and Jamaicans alike, speaking variations of English that will elate and frustrate you. In short, this novel is a kaleidoscope of experience, language, and plot.
The first third of the book sets up the other two thirds, and once you understand the dialectical forms of English, you can find the rhythm within the writing. It’s a thoroughly rewarding book with lots of interesting twists and plot points that will surprise and intrigue you at once. I’m really glad I read this book, even if it was a bit daunting at first. I am going to look for Marlon James’ other works for Cannonball Read 8.
While I’ve been reading brand-new books and others that have languished on my to-read list, I’ve been trying to read books on my shelf that I own and haven’t cracked open yet. I’ve had a years-long stack that just hasn’t gotten read, so I thought if I checked out some of the audiobooks, I could get through that list faster. Oliver Twist was one of those books on my shelf.
Charles Dickens is known for his picaresque tales of poverty, suffering, and corruption in England, and Oliver Twist is no exception. The titular character is born to a disgraced teenaged mother who dies in childbirth carrying a secret. Oliver grows up in a workhouse amid starvation and cruelty. A series of circumstances has him running away from his apprenticeship at the age of 11, and he accidentally winds up in the hands of a pick-pocketing gang run by Fagin and Bill Sikes. More twists of fate land him in good hands, then misfortune, and then other changes in fortune.
The first half reads like Black Beauty—mistreatment, happiness, mistreatment. Or, as I called it on Goodreads, “suffering porn.” The second half reads much faster than the first half. When Dickens moves away from the overbearing description and cartoonishly discomfiting depiction of Fagin (I won’t debate the anti-Semitism here, because while unsurprising for the time, it’s thoroughly distasteful to read today), he hones a sharp criticism of systematic corruption and mistreatment of the poor. This is definitely not my favorite Dickens, but I do so enjoy the murder mysteries and legal entanglements he writes over the soppier tales of suffering in other novels. I would recommend reading this at least once, but it is hard to get into at first
I don’t know a whole lot about The Arabian Nights (or 1001 Nights), but I do know the general premise, thanks to popular culture—Scheherazade spins a web for 1001 nights to save her life from the whims of a capricious ruler and so captivates him with her storytelling that he allows her to live at the very end. The stories are populated with thieves, the poor, the rich, rulers, and djinn.
It is this fabric against which Salman Rushdie sets his Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Dunia, the Lightning Queen of Peristan (Fairyland) has children descended from her love affair with Averroes, and she determines to return to earth to protect these children, who all have unusual signs that betray their heritage. There’s a gardener, a comic book writer, and a Storm Baby, among others. And all signs point to a conflict that will change the earth’s landscape forever.
If you’ve never read Rushdie before, this is not the best place to start. His writing is rich and layered but so very, very dense. I mean, you have to rea-read him often in order to make sense of what you’ve just read. There’s often symbols and myths that a casual reader will miss entirely. And even a veteran reader will miss out the first time. I really liked The Satanic Verses, but that remains one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever read. And Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is not for the faint of heart. The stories are interesting and their eventual connection is rewarding, but it is a looong and slooooow read. And when one is trying to reach a Quadruple Cannonball, slow progress is not your friend. I am glad I read this book, but I do predict a re-read will have to happen in the future. I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot of stuff that will make the book more rewarding in the end.
A few years ago, I cackled my way through Mindy Kaling’s first memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? I realize I’m in the minority here, but there’s something mesmerizing about Kelly Kapoor’s narcissism on The Office, so I was eager to get acquainted with the real-life Kaling. I rabidly watched The Mindy Project, and I was delighted to hear that a second memoir was in the works. I find Kaling to be a thoughtful person and her comedy in the Fey-and-Poehler style, so I was sure that Why Not Me? would please.
Why Not Me? tracks Mindy Kaling’s life post-fame and examines the kind of work and life she lives now. There are chapters that discuss The Mindy Project and her day-to-day process as a producer and actress on the show. There are chapters that discuss being a woman-of-color on television (which includes fashion tips and other hilarious tidbits). And then there’s a chapter about being B.J. Novak’s “soup snake.” Theirs is a complicated relationship, but they are friends and soulmates in a sense. The memoir is shot through with Kaling’s breezy yet incisive tone, making it an enjoyable and memorable book.
If you like Kaling’s brand of humor, you will LOVE this book. It’s funny and engaging and very honest. I made the mistake of reading this book on the Metra on the way to my sister’s paramedic school graduation. I burst out laughing at several points, which is a no-no on Chicago public transit. Oops. I regret nothing.