Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cornucopia of October Mini Reviews

It's been a helluva month — multi-day trips to four cities (Vegas, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New Orleans) in a span of 18 days. That's really good for reading, but not great for writing about reading. So here are a bunch of mini-reviews to catch you up on the half-dozen books I plowed through amidst bad airport food, better wedding food, and the best NOLA food. It's a pretty eclectic group. Enjoy!

Books I Loved
Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson — This utterly fantastic novel (one of my favorites of the year) is about a social worker named Pete Snow in the early '80s in rural Montana. When he meets a kid who seems to live in the woods with his father — an ardently anti-government roughneck — he does his best to empathize with the kid and his father amidst his own troubled family life. He's left his cheating, booze-addled wife and soon, his own teenage daughter runs away. This is a novel that will stay with you long after you've finished.

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell — I'm gearing up to tackle Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks by delving into his backlist a bit. This 2006 novel is a year in the life of a boy named Jason Taylor, as he tries to navigate hallway politics at his school, bullies, girls, fighting parents, and a stammering problem. It's an often funny coming-of-age story that includes plenty of Mitchell's flourishes of wit and profundity. There are so many highlight-able passages, but my favorite is describing February as "not so much a month as a twenty-eight-day-long Monday morning."

Books I Liked, With Minor Reservations
Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican —  This novel about a Catholic high school is absurd in both the good and bad senses of the word. The kids at the slowly failing St. Mikes have no qualms, no conscience, and no hesitation towards cruelty whatsoever. And neither does their evil pastor, Father Mercedes, who wants to close the school to cover up his own secrets. You have to suspend disbelief a bit to go along with some of the important plot points here. As well, you have to ignore a few first-novel foibles (everyone seems to have "meaty hands," e.g., and dialogue could use a bit of a spit-shine), but if you can do those, you'll be treated to a hard-to-put-down novel that will make you think back on your own crappy high school experience and thank your lucky stars you weren't at St. Mikes. 

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell — This was a cool story about a creepy (but with a heart of gold?) IT dude who "eavesdrops" on the emails of two employees at the newspaper at which they all work. He finds himself falling in love with one of the two women, just from her cool, witty, quirky style. She also crushes on him, not knowing who he is — calling him My Cute Guy — even though they never talk. Rowell has given us a nice little irony here: The man falls in love with the woman sight unseen (not how it usually works), and the woman falls in, if not love, in infatuation with the man based solely on his looks (not how it usually works). My hesitation with this novel is that the male characters are terrible — they're silly steroetypes (the IT guy plays Dungeons and Dragons, and lives with his parents, and the girl's boyfriend is a slacker rockstar who won't marry her because he loves her too much ... groan) that only vaguely resemble real people. But overall, it's a fun, quick plane read.

Books I Thought Were Good But Not Superb
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood — I'm glad I finally read this terrifying dystopian novel about what happens when women are merely objects for breeding, but it was a bit of a slog for me, frankly. I think that's partly due to the fact that I'd known a lot about it already, so it kind of felt like I was just reading to fill in the gaps, which I realize is a silly reason not to like a novel.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers — Eggers' is always a must-read author for me, and his latest is a strange all-dialogue novel about a guy who kidnaps various people and has conversations with them, with the goal of trying to make sense of his life that has gone off the rails a bit. It's all just okay. However, there's a long section about police brutality and unnecessary violence that is really interesting in light of the recent Ferguson situation. It's a one- to two-sitting read, so worth checking out if you're a die-hard Eggers fan, but it's probably a pass if you're not.


  1. I have Fourth of July Creek out from the library, but I left it at home while I'm at a conference through the weekend, and now I'm kicking myself over that decision because this sounds SO GOOD.

    Black Swan Green: I've never read Mitchell. Any advice on the best starting point, if you're combing through his backlist?

    Handmaid's Tale: Kind of surprised at this one! Although I know what you mean about just filling in the gaps. I first read it in college with no knowledge of what it was, and it was one of the most radical things I'd read at the time (I went to a small private high school; our reading list was pretty conservative), so it's stuck with me as a long-time favorite. I re-read recently (the Claire Danes audio version) and loved it just as much. But I've definitely done the read-to-fill-in-the-gaps before (Jane Eyre, looking at you), and found it's not usually my best approach for finding something I love.

    1. I think you'll love FOURTH OF JULY CREEK - just fantastic. A good place to start with Mitchell would actually be BLACK SWAN GREEN - some of his other stuff, CLOUD ATLAS, especially, is a bit...more difficult? But very, very good.

      THE HANDMAID'S TALE - I know, I've girded my loins for a fair amount of abuse. I can't even imagine what it must've been like to read it in high school not knowing what it was about - that would've been an entirely different experience with it than mine. You're right, it IS shocking, and extremely original.

  2. Totally agree with Fourth of July Creek. I read it in the middle of a big reading month and didn't take time to sit down and properly write about it, so I still haven't been able to get all of my thoughts of my favorites this year, for sure.

    I was iffy on Brutal Youth. I thought it was stronger in the first half and kind of fell apart a bit toward the end, but I definitely think that Breznican is talented, though, and will be looking forward to whatever he writes next.

    I was kind of surprised by how much I liked Your Fathers, Where Are They? I skipped The Circle (though I have it and plan to get to it at some point), so I wasn't really sure what to expect. I loved some of the conversations and ideas, but was really hoping for a little more with the end.

    1. So much to unpack in FOURTH OF JULY CREEK - just an amazing timely book, even though it takes place in the early 1980s!

      Yeah, there was a lot to like about BRUTAL YOUTH, but after Stein goes away, the whole thing was less interesting. That would an odd choice - he was BY FAR the most interesting character. And then I just couldn't believe all the kids were terrified of Hannah and her secret journal. That didn't ring true to me.

      Agree, also, re the ending of the Eggers. Really, that sentiment could apply to the whole thing - just hoped for a little more. I think I was hoping for something as good and profound as Daniel Quinn's ISHMAEL, and sadly, this doesn't quite approach that. But I did like it, and I'm glad I read it.

  3. I've been hearing a lot of really mixed things about Brutal Youth.

    Aghh I'm sad to hear The Handmaid's Tale was a slog! It's one of my favorites, but I can see how reading a book to fill in the gaps might not lead to the most favorable experience. I just kind of did the same thing with Rebecca and was pretty disappointed in it. (It turned out I knew less about it than I thought; it didn't feel, to me, like the romantic suspense everyone made it out to be, and it therefore fell pretty flat.)

  4. Quite different cities to travel to! Vegas would be appealing right about now. My husband read 4th of July Creek and thought it pretty good, pretty wacky.