Friday, July 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: July 2020



Another month of mostly staying home down! I would hope that anyone reading this doesn't need to have it said again, but please, y'all, wear masks when you're out and about in public. I'm sure we all would like to get back to something resembling normal-ish life again soon and the way we do that is wearing masks to keep this disease from continuing to explode out of control.

In Books...
  • The Borgias and Their Enemies: This was very paint-by-numbers feeling...a lot of "this happened, and then that happened.". Italian politics of the era were extremely complicated and Hibbert did not do a particularly good job of illuminating them. His portraits of the the three most prominent members of the family (Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia) did not do much to make them come alive, though I do have to say I am now very curious to learn more about Lucrezia!
  • The Residue Years: This was the book club pick for the month, and it did not grab me at first. But the further I went with it, the more I was drawn into this autobiographical novel about a Black mother and son living in Portland in the 1990s. Mitchell S. Jackson tells the story of Grace and Champ, both caught in the drug trade, with powerful, beautifully crafted prose and just incredible character-building. This is a great book, but be warned that it is a downer.
  • Tampa: Wow was this not for me. It's like a cross between Lolita and American Psycho, but with none of the sophisticated, elegant prose of the former or devastatingly sharp satire of the latter. A beautiful woman in her mid-20s becomes a middle school teacher in order to get access to the 14 year-old boys she is exclusively attracted to so she can make one her victim. It makes grasps at saying something about our cultural obsession with youth and beauty but was mostly just full of sex in a way that just felt gross because of the whole statutory rape thing. 
  • Hidden Valley Road: I was a Psychology major in college, so I'm predisposed to like books in the general subject area, so this was on my radar even before Oprah picked it for her book club! It's the true story of a family from Colorado Springs, the Galvins, who have 12 children (10 boys, two girls), six of whom develop schizophrenia, and traces their history as well as the greater history of treatment for schizophrenia in the US. It's very solid, both well-researched and well-told, but never rose to greatness and kind of loses steam at the end. 
  • Cat's Eye: I will read anything Margaret Atwood writes. This book tells the story of an artist, Elaine, who returns to Toronto, where she spent much of her childhood before moving to Canada's west coat. She finds herself immersed in memories of her youthful friendship with three other girls, most especially Cordelia, who was the ringleader of an intense campaign of cruelty against her. I've always found tales of frenemies compelling, and Atwood is just a phenomenally talented writer and I never wanted it to end.
  • Pope Joan: The Catholic Church does not allow for female priests, but for hundreds of years it was reported that there had, ever so briefly, been a female pope during the Dark Ages. Most (but not all) historians now seem to believe that Pope Joan never existed, but this book hypothesizes how such a person might have existed. It's a decent book, but never more than that...everyone feels a little one-dimensional and I never got very invested in either the plot or Cross's prose.


In Life...
  • Special session: When your state loses $1.15 billion of its budget, the only way to deal with that is to bring in the legislators to figure out where to make the least damaging possible cuts. This was my fourth special session, but the first one where the Legislative Building was effectively closed: only electeds, staff, and press were allowed inside. So at least I didn't have to commute and was at home in my jammies as discussions went on past midnight.

One Thing:

I have often seriously contemplated canceling my subscription to The New York Times, but whatever my disagreements may be with some of their editorial decisions, their reporting is usually top-notch and they also run columns like the By The Book series, interviews with prominent figures (usually but not always writers) about the way they approach books and reading.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Book 244: The Feast of Love



"You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have."

Dates read: June 22-25, 2018

Rating: 5/10

What is it, exactly, that makes up "chemistry"? I'm sure many of us have sat through a date with a perfectly nice, reasonably attractive human being who just could not possibly be less interesting in a let's-fall-in-love kind of way. On the other hand, there's the stranger we were in the elevator chatting with for five minutes that lingers in our mind for weeks afterward. You can ignore it, but if it's there, you can't force it.

The sparks and romantic connections between various couples in Ann Arbor are the connecting thread in Charles Baxter's A Feast of Love. Most of them are connected through Bradley, a middle-aged man who owns a coffee shop in the mall but pursues his love of painting at home. Bradley's marriages, both of which end in divorce, are brought in, as are his young employees Chloe and Oscar, who are crazy about each other. His neighbors, a long-married couple struggling with how to deal with their drug-addicted son, are also players in the drama. The story is framed by the conceit that a friend of Bradley's, a professor and writer (meant to be Baxter himself), is interviewing all of the players one-by-one over a period of time.

There's not much in the way of a plot, per se. Each little story has its own rising and falling action...Bradley's first wife, who leaves him when she falls head over heels for another woman, is a bit player, but his second wife, who marries him mostly to spite the lover who refuses to leave his wife for her, has a larger role in the narrative. Chloe and Oscar's story, which appears steadily throughout the book and sees the couple dealing with his unbalanced father and a larger, more unexpected problem, provides probably the most straightforward structure in the whole thing. Also constantly recurring is the title, first as the name of Bradley's best painting, which then inspires the author-within-the-book to title his work in progress after it.

When this book is on, it has moments of real brilliance. The story I mentioned above, in which Bradley's first wife meets, falls for, and eventually divorces Bradley in pursuit of the other woman, feels alive with poignancy. A story Bradley relates about having to kidnap his own dog from his sister sparkles with dark humor. And it's more specific to me personally, but as an Ann Arborite in exile, I love reading about the city. Allmendinger Park, post-game traffic, the mall...all of these are deeply familiar to me and make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to see on the page. The experience of seeing places that are meaningful to me depicted in print is something I didn't even know could be as powerful as I found it.

Now for the critical part. I feel like I've read several of these interconnected-vignette style books lately and perhaps I'm just tiring of that presentation, but all of them suffer from a lack of traditional plot and tension. This feels more like a piece of writing than a book, if that makes sense. It feels stylized and over-written, and part of the issue is that the character work is spotty. Bradley's clearly meant to have a particular personality but it never really feels honest or consistent, and the way Chloe is written was extremely off-putting to me. She's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before that was a thing, insisting on a quirky pronunciation of her name and using some of the most cringey language to describe sex I've ever read. Anyone who writes a girl under 20 as using the phrase "lovemaking" to describe sex unironically has never really listened to a young woman talk about it, and that is far from the worst example. In the end, I just never really got invested in it. There's some very capable storytelling here, in parts, but it's not well-realized enough throughout to get an affirmative recommendation for me unless you're determined to read about Ann Arbor.

One year ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Two years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Three years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Four years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Biographies of Women I Can't Wait To Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so we get to pick our own topics! So I've decided to highlight some biographies I am really looking forward to reading. While the biography genre tends to be dominated by books about dudes, particularly white dudes, I am going to talk about biographies of women that I'm excited to dive into!



Madame Curie: Marie Curie was a scientific genius and the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes. This book was written by her daughter, so I am very curious to read more about her life from a voice inside her own family!

Get Happy: I know the outlines of Judy Garland's life...the child stardom, the weight issues that led to the studio pushing drugs on her that she was never really able to shake, the unhappy marriages. But I know very little of who she was outside of the Hollywood story and I want to change that!

Zelda: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were both writers and creatives, but of course he's the one that gets all the plaudits. I'm looking forward to reading more about her.

Empress Dowager Cixi: She was a concubine who maneuvered herself into position to effectively rule China as the power behind first her son and then her nephew, and I am excited to read about a royal woman outside of the European sphere!

Jane Austen: She wrote only six complete novels but all are regarded as classics of the English language. I actually know quite little about her life so I am really interested in finding out more.

If This Was Happiness: Gilda is an incredible movie, and no one who has ever seen it can forget Rita Hayworth's performance in it. But despite the glamour that that movie, or her high profile marriages to Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, her life was full of struggles and I am really curious to learn more about her.

Femme Fatale: Mata Hari is a name that evokes danger and intrigue...she was a stripper! She was a spy! She was actually Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, no more exotic than any other Dutch girl, but she was also both of the things she was accused of being and I want to learn more about her!

Catherine the Great: Had to get at least one member of Russian royalty in here! I have not watched the popular Hulu series based on her life because it is apparently just incredibly historically inaccurate, which is a shame because her life was actually incredibly interesting.

The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green was an incredibly rich, successful business woman during the Gilded Age, a time when "success" for women was usually defined as good marriage. She was also a legendary cheapskate. I am always interested in women breaking the conventions of their time!

The Duchess: I do enjoy biographies of scandalous aristocrats, and in her time Georgiana Spencer was pretty much as fashionable and dramatic as it was possible to be.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book 243: The Completionist



"I can't remember telling her my name. I can't remember breaking her arm. But no, I didn't break her arm. I would never harm a woman, not me, not myself. Yes, I've harmed women. I've damaged their brains, their hearing, their eyes, their skin. I've killed women; I'm sure I have. But that was different. I've never broken a woman's arm. I have two sisters. I would do anything for them, but I would never break a woman's arm." 

Dates read: June 19-22, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I can't think too hard about the amount of information the internet has about me or I get freaked out. I willingly upload the photos that could make facial recognition on any internet-connected camera possible. I tag myself in certain places, opening myself up to profiling based on my patterns of behavior. I click on emails advertising sales from my favorite stores, giving them valuable information about what percentage off I need to see to engage with their content. Even on this blog, I'm constantly talking about my life, my childhood, my past and my hopes for the future. I don't think of myself as a particularly public person, but I've got precious little privacy when push comes to shove all because of my own behavior on the internet.

For many of us, our phones might as well be glued to our hands since they're seldom more than arm's length away. In Siobhan Adcock's future-set The Completionist, they've just cut out the middleman and wearable devices are implanted directly into your arm and connected with your nervous system at a young age. They monitor your health, transmit messages directly, and all you need to do to figure out where your family members are is look, because your GPS position is uploaded automatically. So when his little sister Gardner disappears from the map, recently discharged Marine Carter Quinn is worried. His older sister Fred is even more so, and insists he try to find her. Fred would do it herself, but she's pregnant, which is something of a miracle in the post-apocalyptic Chicago they inhabit, especially since it happened naturally. Ever since the wars, when the water was poisoned and the precious artificial water was developed instead, there have been fewer and fewer babies being born, and most of them are the result of years of expensive fertility treatments.

Carter is glad to have something to do. Ever since he returned to civilian life from the outlying areas where soldiers fight to defend the shipments of water that keep the city alive, he's been having a rough time. It's not just the PTSD, which he treats with growing consumption of alcohol. It's some sort of bioweapon used against the enemy that he inhaled himself, which he can't figure out how to treat at all. He throws himself into the task of looking for Gardner, who was last working as a Nurse Completionist (a sort of midwife/specialized mother-to-be nurse) at a mysterious clinic, trying to track her down before Fred's forced marriage to the one-night-stand who knocked her up. But Gard remains out of sight while Carter goes farther and farther down into an underworld he didn't even know existed.

Let's start with a positive: I absolutely loved Fred as a character. Hard-driving and irrepressibly foul-mouthed, the book is strongest when she's on the page. While Carter and his father (one of the few other significant characters) generally seem mired in their own dramas, Fred comes in and actually moves things forward. In the back half of the book, we get a long series of past conversations between Fred and Gard before the latter's disappearance, and I wanted it to go on forever because she was such an entertaining, lively presence. I basically wanted the entire book to be from her perspective.

But it wasn't, and the choice that Adcock made to have Carter as the protagonist was a significant factor in the book's failure to launch, for me. He's not honestly very interesting, and spends most of his time either drunk or fighting off symptoms of his poison exposure, which makes everything that happen seem disconnected from reality in a way that was not effective. And, not to spoil the book, but the post-apocalyptic world it's set in, in which women who do get pregnant are subjected to almost impossible demands to care for their child literally as soon as its conceived, didn't hold up to scrutiny for me. It would seem that if babies are rare and precious, there'd be more support for the mother rather than punishments. I get the parallel she was going for with our own world, with the expectations we put on mothers and very real pushback they get for failing to meet them perfectly, but I didn't think it really worked in the way she tried to scale it up to official government policy in a world experiencing a fertility crisis. While I'm generally interested in the wave of feminist dystopia that's been pretty trendy in the book world lately, this is not a strong example of a genre and everything about this book apart from Fred is forgettable. It's not egregiously bad, but I don't really recommend it either.

One year ago, I was reading: Sashenka (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Station Eleven

Four years ago, I was reading: The Fugitives

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Events/Festivals I’d Love to Go to Someday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! As someone who lives far from a major literary hub and with a limited travel budget, I have never actually gotten to go to any book events. But here are seven (I honestly couldn't come up with ten) that I'd love to be able to once we can travel again!



Book Expo America: This is basically the Rose Bowl of the book world, the largest trade show in the US. It sounds like Christmas!

PEN World Voices Literary Festival: Like most Americans, I primarily read American authors. But I enjoy the work of authors from all over the world and would love to go to this celebration of international lit!

Chicago Humanities Festival: I will always have a soft spot for Chicago after spending my honeymoon there! And this festival deals of course with books but also other forms of art/media, which I am extremely here for!

Hay Festival: First of all, I would love to visit Wales! Second this is supposed to be an incredible event.

The LA Times Festival of Books: Like the Chicago festival, this one focuses on media broadly. Also it's at least on the same side of the country I am so it's more likely I would be able to make this one happen.

National Book Festival: This one is put on by the Library of Congress and held in DC!

Edinburgh International Book Festival: I'll be honest, while this event looks amazing I really just want to have an excuse to go to Edinburgh.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Book 242: Sloppy Firsts



"I told my parents not to even dare throwing me a Sweet Sixteen party. The very thought of ice-cream cake and pink crepe paper makes me want to hurl. Not to mention the fact that I can’t even imagine who would be on the guest list since I hate all my other friends. I know my parents think I’m being ridiculous. But if the one person I want to be there can’t be there, I’d rather just stay home. And mope. Or sleep." 

Dates read: June 16-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I have to admit I'm a little jealous of today's bookish teenagers. The absolute explosion in the number of books targeted toward young adults, which seemed to start to grow in the wake of Harry Potter and then skyrocket after The Hunger Games, means that they have so many books meant to appeal to them to chose from! I remember the YA section of the library when I was growing up having a lot of Sweet Valley High, and Fear Street, and Louise Duncan (all of which I read, of course) and not a ton else, so I started reading more adult literary fiction early. As much as that's been a good thing for me, by and large, I wish I'd gotten to experience the kind of peak YA that seems to be happening now.

Since I did like to read quality YA when I got my hands on it, I'm astonished that I managed to miss Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts until now! The first in a five-book series, it focuses on New Jersey teenager Jessica Darling, deeply miserable now that her best friend Hope has moved away. Jessica's left with the rest of her honors-classes friend group, none of whom she actually likes very much and who she refers to as the Clueless Crew in her head. Her dad drives her crazy trying to home coach her through track, and her mother and older sister Bethany are too wrapped up in planning Bethany's wedding to pay Jessica too much mind (not that she wants them to anyways). She's nursing a desperate crush on a senior who probably doesn't even know she exists. How is a girl to deal with her sophomore year in high school like this?

With snark, of course. She writes to Hope every month, filling her in on all the new drama...the girl from Manhattan who moves to town but isn't quite who she seems to be, the pressure she feels to date a guy friend that she doesn't like that way just to have a boyfriend, how torn she feels when she finds out someone's boyfriend is cheating on her but she's supposed to keep it secret. What Jessica doesn't tell Hope about is the growing connection she has with Marcus Flutie, who'd been best friends and drug buddies with Hope's brother before his death by overdose prompted Hope's family to leave town. The closer Jessica and Marcus get, the worse she feels about hiding it from Hope, and the more confused she is by what she wants out of it at all. Add in the family conflicts and it's no wonder Jessica's overwhelmed.

Jessica is the kind of character I would have loved as a teenager, and looking back someone who reminds me of myself at that age. She's smart enough to know that she should buy into "the game" if she wants to fit in more (not to mention please her mother), but too stubborn to actually do it. She wants desperately to feel understood even though she doesn't even really understand herself. She feels trapped in high school, but the taste of the more adult world she gets working at the Shore during the summer doesn't exactly thrill her. The life McCafferty gives her, and the issues she presents her with, feel pitch-perfect for a sixteen year-old in the year 2000, which, given that I was myself just a year or two younger, also took me back on a wave of nostalgia. I was worried I would be a little too old for this book at literally twice the age of the main character, but I was completely charmed.

I wonder if the cultural references, which hit home for me, will read as hopelessly dated to today's teens. They probably do, but we all have easy access to Google these days so I won't let that stop me from giving a wholehearted recommendation, for adults both young and well, not-young, and particularly of the lady variety (though don't think there's any reason a guy couldn't enjoy this, let's be real, it's written for a female audience). It's easy to read, written with wit and verve, but doesn't shy away from the heavier issues that high schoolers deal with, like sex and drugs. It neither treats these with kid gloves like Very Special Episodes nor glosses over them entirely, but presents them as just very much a part of life about which decisions need to be made. If the interior lives of teenage girls aren't compelling to you for whatever reason, this likely won't be for you. Otherwise, though, it's an enjoyable read!

One year ago, I was reading: The Man in the High Castle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Four years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Smile

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This is a challenging one for me! The prompt isn't books that made me laugh (which I would also probably struggle with to be honest), but books that make me smile, which to me means heartwarming. Books that tend to get described as "heartwarming" are books I really do not tend to respond to. But even my cold dead heart responds to some books, so here are ten that did actually make me smile.



Persuasion: If you don't break out into a big grin when the couple gets together at the end (this is not a spoiler in any Jane Austen novel), you probably don't like happiness.

The Red Tent: I really find the depictions of relationships between women in this book so realistic and touching.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Francie's life is hard in so many ways, which makes her victories that much sweeter when they do happen.

The Giver: The love Jonas grows to feel for the baby his family takes in, and the bravery he shows in taking the steps he needs to for the baby's protection, gets me in the feelings.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Seeing the wizarding world through Harry's eyes, and reading along as he makes his first friends, is honestly magical.

Ella Enchanted: The sweetness of the first love in this book is quite lovely.

The Wind in the Door: The purity of Meg's love for her little brother Charles Wallace and the measures she's willing to take for him are so moving.

About A Boy: I know, liking books about overgrown white man-children finally maturing makes me part of the problem, but this book has the kind of soft Hornby humor that makes me smile.

Eat Pray Love: It's not really the journey Elizabeth Gilbert takes after her marriage ends that gets me, its her strong, insightful prose.

My Antonia: Antonia is just such a winning character.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Book 241: Love Medicine



"You see, I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash."

Dates read: June 12-16, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: American Book Award, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I've lived in Nevada since the summer of 2012. It'll officially be eight years at the end of this month! This is where I've spent more of my adult life than any single other place, and where (assuming nothing major changes) I'll spend the rest of it. But if you ask me where "home" is, I'd still tell you it was Pinckney. My relationship with the place I grew up is complicated, and I am not upset that it's not where I've ended up, but there's just something that it has marked on me indelibly, in a way that no place else has ever really been able to replace it in my mind as my home.

The instinct to turn towards home, to seek refuge there in times of strife, kicks off Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. June Morrissey, drunk and struggling in Williston, North Dakota, decides to head back to the reservation when she was born and raised. The problem is that she doesn't have proper winter clothes and there's an enormous blizzard. She dies on her journey, and the book moves both forward and backward in time to tell the story of June, her quasi-adoptive parents Nestor and Marie Kashpaw, Nestor's childhood sweetheart Lulu Lamartine, June's children and cousins and nieces and nephews and a whole sprawling cast of others. It's classified as a novel, but honestly is much more a collection of short stories about a common set of characters. The placement of the stories is obviously deliberate, revealing information about the subjects bit by bit, but the book as a whole doesn't really have a defined narrative arc.

I think, for a lot of people who grew up far from reservations and didn't really know many (or any) Native Americans, it can easy to think about them as almost preserved in amber...our idea of what "an Indian" looks like and what their experiences are is rooted in black and white photos and/or stereotypes. Even though some might think it's less damaging because of its romantic (in the larger sense of the word), it's still a prejudiced and honestly racist way of thinking. Native Americans still exist. They live in the world. They talk on cell phones. But they remain mysterious to many other Americans, which is why this book isn't just good, it's also important, in that it presents a realistic portrait of Indian life on a reservation, showing it to be full of people: some better, some worse, some smart, some dumb, some kind, some harsh. It has its own challenges and experiences just like any other community, but it's made up of the same kinds of humans we find everywhere.

As might be expected for a book with the word "love" in the title, the bonds we form with others, both those rooted in blood and those created by the body and the heart, is the central through-line connecting the pieces of the story together. Though no one's story is presented in a straightforward, neatly chronological way, Erdrich creates vibrant characters who resonate with emotional truth over the course of the narrative. She gives us little snapshots of their lives at points in time, pieces that begin to cohere into a whole. That this book spawned multiple sequels doesn't surprise me at all: the people she creates clearly have long histories that bear further exploration.

This is a book that strongly favors characters over plot. While all of the individual stories have their own little dramas, there's not a lot of narrative flow over the course of the book. The real interest is in seeing the characters over the course of their lives, meeting a woman when she's a grandmother and then getting a look at the young woman she was before the rest of her life happened, figuring out how she might get from there to here, getting little glimpses along the way. Erdrich's writing is beautiful: it tends towards the lush without veering into purple prose territory. I will say, though, that effectively as she does wield her chosen episodic format, the lack of tension or drive to the book was a bit of quibble for me and it was hard to get "sucked in" because of it. Even so, this is a very good book and I would recommend it widely. It might not quite be your cup of tea in the end, but it's very much worth reading.

One year ago, I was reading: Polite Society (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Four years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I’ve Read the Most Books By

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our most-read authors. This was actually kind of challenging to put together since Goodreads took their "most read authors" feature away, but here are the authors I'm pretty sure I've read the most, in descending order.



Charlaine Harris: All of the books of the Southern Vampire Mysteries put her firmly on top of my list.

J.K. Rowling: This feels cringey right now, to be honest. Trans women are women, and her transphobia doesn't change that fact. Also unchanged is the fact that I've read all the Harry Potter books, The Casual Vacancy, and the first two Galbraith books. I do not intend to read her work any further beyond books I've already purchased, she doesn't need any more of my money.

Louise Rennison: The Georgia Nicolson series were great favorites of mine as a teenager. Such silly fun!

Philippa Gregory: I will never quit her Plantangenet/Tudor series, they are entertaining trash and I love them. 

Oliver Sacks: He's the reason I became a psychology major in college! I still have books of his I haven't read yet, and not all of his books are especially strong if I'm being honest, but I'm going to read all of them anyways. 

Nick Hornby: The more of his work I read, the more I find it hit and miss, but there's warmth and humor even in his lesser efforts that I always appreciate.

Alison Weir: I haven't responded well to her fiction efforts, but her non-fiction histories are very readable and I highly recommend them. 

Jane Austen: I've still got one more of hers to read!

George RR Martin: I would like The Winds of Winter now please and thank you!

Phillip Pullman: I extremely loved the three books of His Dark Materials, was only so-so on the first of the Book of Dust series and am hesitant to start the next because of the bad reviews!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book 240: The Girl With All The Gifts



"In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a quetion that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation."

Dates read: June 8-12, 2018

Rating: 8/10

My husband plays a lot of video games. When I tell people this, they often make a vaguely sympathetic face, but as far as I'm concerned, he's an adult and he can get entertainment however he'd like. I like books and movies. He likes sports and video games. Neither one has more inherent merit than the other. Anyways, the point here is that since I'm around when he's playing games, I often watch and while not all of it particularly interests me, some of the games tell really interesting, multilayered stories, like Mass Effect or The Last of Us. The latter, in particular, is a really engrossing experience centered in the bond that develops between a young woman and a parental figure during a post-zombie apocalypse scenario. It's honestly a great piece of media and I see frequent requests on book recommendation sites looking for a book like it.

Zombie apocalypse stories are, at their heart, about the fear of social breakdown. A zombie doesn't have the internal struggle to contain their own demons that a vampire or werewolf does. At least not traditionally. But M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts isn't a usual zombie story. I guess it's technically a spoiler to say it's about zombies at all, but it's been out for long enough that most people are already familiar with the idea. It introduces us to Melanie, a girl undergoing a strange sort of schooling. Some of it is familiar: there's a class, a rotating group of teachers (Ms. Justineau is Melanie's particular favorite), lessons. But the children, when not in school, are locked in cells and collected for class by armed guards (like the harsh Sgt. Parks) who move them into special wheelchairs that restrict their movements at gunpoint. And the members of the class are sometimes wheeled into a medical lab, run by the ruthlessly efficient Dr. Caldwell, never to return.

That Melanie and her classmates are zombies (or "hungries", as they're called in the world of the book) is obvious fairly early on. But they aren't the typical kind: more like the vampire or werewolf, they're conscious, self-aware, capable of learning and some level of restraint. Obviously this isn't normal zombie behavior, not even in this world, and the lives of the students are being studied in the desperate hope that finding what makes them different could help lead to a vaccine for the fungal infection underlying the transformation into brainless and violent automatons. All of that is interrupted when the base is attacked by the regular kind of zombies, along with renegade humans that roam the wilderness because they refused to quarantine themselves in cities like most people. Melanie, Justineau, Parks, Caldwell, and a young soldier escape the chaos and set off for the city, but the world outside has dangers they might not be fully prepared for.

The heart of the story is the bond that forms between Melanie and Helen Justineau over the course of the book. Justineau is fond of Melanie from her time in the classroom, and Melanie all but worships the only person she's ever met who treats her with the slightest bit of kindness. As they're forced into closer quarters and more dire circumstances, that connection deepens and they become fiercely protective of each other in their own ways. The ways that Caldwell and Parks change (or don't, significantly) in their feelings about her in their turn reveals their true characters as well. There's an interesting, compelling adventure story with some quality world-building, but the book is really based in the relationships between people, how they view others, how they cope with the tremendous strain of living in a world so completely decimated by the unexpected.

My criticisms are mostly fairly minor: I think the book is a bit too long, some of the exposition is a bit too clunky, I wanted more of the past life of the characters to fill them out even further. I did appreciate that while the suspense level gets pretty tense, the gore level is relatively minimal for a zombie book (I'm not a fan of gore but found that what was there felt un-gratuitous). That being said, I don't know that I think this is a book that would be a match for everyone...if you're not into post-apocalyptic narratives, really can't deal with any gore at all, or want a super thriller, this probably won't be your preferred reading experience. But if you're willing to experiment a little with a book that might be outside your usual comfort zone and think a smart, character-driven take on zombies could be interesting, I'd definitely encourage you to read it. I liked it much more than I thought I would!

One year ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Disgrace (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Four years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII