Category Archives: Book Club

The Overstory: Beautiful, but…

Having married a person who works with trees, I regularly find myself in proximity when tree-related questions are tossed his way. Sort of what I imagine those working in medical fields must encounter: any social gathering is an opportunity to solicit advice (though with fewer on the spot requests to examine moles or rashes, I suspect). S. also suffers the ‘owl’ conundrum so brilliantly outlined by David Sedaris in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: should you ever express a passing interest in something, say owls, you will find yourself on the receiving end of owl-related gifts, gadgets and whimsy for the Rest of Your Life. So it is with those who work with trees. No shortage of tree themed tea towels, stationary, wall-art or coffee table books. Which is to say, we have many Tree things. (Which is partly owed, I think, to the relative resistance of S. to inquires about his desires when it comes to gifts and the what-else-can-we-do-throw-up-the-hands-lets get-him-another-Tree thing result).

So it was that Richard Powers’ The Overstory was recommend to me because it is all about trees and so I’d likely enjoy it because… S. (Of course the book has also been suggested to S., but given his Terrible Flaw in that he doesn’t like fiction (*gasp*) hardly a chance he’d be inspired to read it). Maybe also recommended to me because I/we spent a lot of time in the forest?

Whether or not I had any involvement with S. it should have been recommended to me for the beautiful writing. Powers has a delightful tone in the book – something that bridges poetry and prose, coupled with a sort of achronology where the characters and setting all feel somewhat out of time, or beyond time, (like a tree!) even while they are clearly situated in time and space (also like a tree!).

The first half of the book reads as a series of short stories. A character introduced each chapter who has some passing or central connection to a tree. Having not read much about the book before, I wasn’t sure whether these characters ever come together, or whether there was some wider plot we were working toward. But! In another instance of form marrying content, we do see these seemingly separate characters come together into one narrative arc (form-content in the sense that one point of the book is to illustrate that there are no singular trees, rather all trees are intimately connected) as some of them try to save the giant Redwood trees and others sort of glom on to the scene in efforts to understand, capitalize or undermine these efforts.

But. And I’m sorry there’s a but. I want to offer a full-throated endorsement of this book because the writing really is beautiful and the message of the Value (far beyond monetary) of trees and the forest ecosystem is essential. But it’s… pretty dull.

Like there are only so many pages you want to read about the connections of roots and moss and leaves. Even while you’re like this is beautiful writing! And isn’t nature incredible! And aren’t these trees Truly Miraculous.

It’s a strange feeling. To be so bored by something so magnificent. Maybe there’s a special prize out there we could offer Powers for achieving this rare balance of banality and brilliance?

Anyway. I’m at something of a loss in suggesting whether you should read it. If anything, I’d say read the first long part that has the chapters on each character. As a series of short stories they are excellent and well worth your time. After that… well, I won’t think less of you if you put aside the poetry and homage to nature and… read a Louise Penny mystery. Just as I did.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half has a LONG waitlist at the library, and so when I found it on the ‘Seven Day Quick Reads’ shelf I scooped it up (knowing, as I did, that I would be accruing serious fines as the likelihood of me finishing it in seven days was… poor. Given I was still reading A Little Life. Alas. The library deserves my money. ANYWAY.). Long waitlist, no doubt, because the book tops many of the top recommendations for 2020 novels and hits the right notes for a bestseller: family saga, race and identity in America, rich people, good writing. And I fault no one for recommending it, and no one for seeking it out and reading it.

You can feel the ‘but’ coming, can’t you?

But. The novel takes it’s ‘point’ and makes it just too didactic for this reader’s enjoyment. Like if you took a Bernenstain Bear’s picture book that has a literal moral on the front page and made it into well written literary fiction. Just as preschoolers can smell the moral a mile away and find the badgering about sharing or politeness or bullying (or more recently, environmentalism) to be off-putting, the way this novel continues to circle, draw arrows, reinforce in bold its message that identity is created and identity is performative and well, it gets to be a bit distracting.

So right – the plot: twins are born in Mallard, an African-American town premised on its preference for light skin. In their teenage years they run away and separate: one twin, Stella, goes on to live her life ‘passing’ as a white woman, the other, Desiree, returns to Mallard to raise her darkest-dark skinned daughter, Jude. Jude meets Stella’s daughter, Kennedy. The history and present of the family collapses, collides, secrets and ‘truths’ threaten and reveal. [Oh and Jude falls in love with a trans man, Reese, whose addition to the story reads as entirely about driving home for the reader the gaps and tensions between who we are, how we are ‘read’ by the world, how we perform and the meaning our bodies create and signify – and of course the material consequences of how others read us.] And the book does make that clear. That as much as Stella has the option of passing, Jude would not, that the idea that all identity is performative runs up against the way the world reads us, not ever simply or only how we wish to be seen or valued.

So yes. I do think there’s enough of interest her to make this a book well worth reading, and certainly an excellent selection for a book club. Just not a book you’ll read without feeling (at a few points) like maybe it was written to be taught in high school or undergraduate classes. Or a book club!

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Fiction

American Dirt: When You’re Not Sewing a Face Mask

So I’m interrupting my afternoon project of sewing some face masks – because that is where we are at, friends – to bring you this report on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Believe it or not, at one point this novel occupied something of a spotlight in news and culture circles (this in the time before all of our thoughts were cannibalized by The Plague), as readers, reviewers and cultural critics wrung hands about cultural appropriation (and to a lesser extent, good writing).

The basics of the hoopla are covered here, with parts of it owing to the selection of the book by Oprah and Reese for their bookclubs and the rhapsody of their reviews pointing to how the book ‘opened their eyes’ to the plight of Mexican and Central American migrants/refugees and the extreme journey required to make it to the safety of America (which, sidebar, not to judge, but to judge, is a little surprising that it took this novel to raise to awareness this catastrophe of violence). When proper readers got ahold of the book there were questions about the authority of Cummins to write the story – could she take on the voice of a Mexican migrant without being one herself? Other reviewers simply wondered at the quality of the writing – why such praise for a book that was, at best, mediocre in its writing? A final pocket of complaint focused on the way the novel drains history and politics from the plot: we witness mother and son flee a murderous drug cartel for the safety of the U.S. with all but the flimsiest consideration of the roots of violence both within Mexico, the incredibly fraught space of the border and then America itself.

It was this last piece – the missing American plot – that bothered me the most. Sure I was irritated by the one-dimensional characters, the insubstantial emotional depth offered to any of them (like surely I should have some empathy mustered for an eight-year old who has his entire family of 16 murdered in front of him, and yet the book sort of declares this as Traumatic, but doesn’t do any of the literary work to bring the reader into this space, and so we are left forever having to accept on the surface the event as traumatic, without seeing or witnessing or being inside the character’s experience of this loss and rupture), and the plot points that read as clumsily assembled scripted markers from a paint-by-number novel planner. But my biggest irritation was that, for some reason, I expected that the novel would include the arrival in America, and the realization that the vision of safety, security and opportunity that they held up as beacons throughout their journey was… complicated. Sure there is some mention of ICE, and a very shrouded reference to changing experiences at the border with changing politics, but for the duration of the novel America stands as an absolute haven. And I am in no position to question the relative safety of America, or to cast doubt on the difference in fear between fear for your life and fear of deportation, I just found it a frustrating absence – or perhaps rewriting – to see nothing of their lives in America and instead to have the US once against stand in as saviour.

So yes. If you’re about to order a book for curbside/delivery from your local bookstore, please do not choose American Dirt. Wait until your library reopens and order it there, and then you probably should read it so that you can disagree with me, or join a book club and talk about it, or write a pointed letter to Oprah, whatever.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Reader Request

The Farm: Pregnancy Dystopia on International Women’s Day

Joanne Ramos joins a growing genre of novels imagining a near future where reproduction is fraught and bodies-with-uteruses are (more than ever) subject to surveillance and control for their reproductive possibilities. Too bad this was such a poor comparison with the truly excellent Red Clocks and not as speculative or feisty as The Power and such an obvious spin on The Handmaids Tale as to be irritating. And that the whole thing seemed to be written as though it already anticipated its movie adaptation: lots of plot, lots of surface, lots of descriptions of sleek cars and finger nails, and a disappointing lack of character development, interiority or good writing.

The hook this novel tries to make is to wed conversations about control of reproduction with class and race: the story follows a Filipino woman, Jane, as she spends nine months gestating the baby of an ultra billionaire at ‘the Farm’ a pregnancy center/spa/prison for surrogates. We are meant, I suppose, to read all the female characters as sympathetic – even the ultra rich – as they struggle to have it all, or to have some of it, or to just get by. We’re meant to appreciate the knowing nods to the Sisterhood and how women are made to compete against one another rather than to unite against Patriarchy. It’s just all so very Obvious and looking for nuance in this book is an exercise quickly abandoned in lieu of finishing it in time for book club.

So please on this International Women’s Day continue to read excellent books about the challenge and cost of pregnancy and parenting for women (the gendered wage gap is just the beginning). Just don’t read this one.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction