Category Archives: American literature

The Fourth Child: Pick it for your book club

Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child is (oddly) hard to put down. Odd because it’s not plot-y, but instead a family drama that follows Jane, a devout Catholic mother, and her eldest daughter, Lauren, as they live the pro-life/pro-choice division. So why was it hard to put down? I guess it’s the smooth writing (smooth writing? what is that? Just trust me. Smoooooth) and the fascination with watching as Jane tries to live in the impossible extreme of ‘no exceptions’ in the pro-life argument.

I appreciated that the book kept the reader as some distance from the intensity of decision making around abortion, and instead allowed characters to explore these options in the gaps between chapters or the switch between limited third person narrators. This distancing kept this reader from being overwhelmed by a call to personal connection that might have made empathy challenging. Instead the reader is offered a sympathetic and entirely human portrait of trying to navigate the political, personal, religious and maternal dimensions of abortion that keeps enough distance to avoid triggering the reader’s existing beliefs about abortion and to invite the observation of how these women make sense of it.

I struggled in parts with what I think was meant to be subtly and slow revelation of some climactic character development, but for this tired reader was just too nuanced for me to make sense of. There’s a section, for instance, where Jane is revealing something [avoiding spoilers] about her children and her past, and I just… didn’t get it. It’s possible I missed an earlier reference point that would have let me make sense of what she was revealing, but whatever the case the section didn’t land and I was left thinking maybe it would be resolved later, but never was. I really can’t decide whether this is a fault of the book or of my reading habits which I freely admit involve a lot of the last twenty minutes before falling asleep right now, and so are not at my… sharpest.

This book was made for discussion among a book club, and I’m SO hoping my book club can resume in the fall, perhaps with this one (hey crew? maybe?). If your book club decides to read it, do let me know the kinds of questions that get explored. I mean you could read it by yourself, too. I GUESS.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction

The Gone Dead: All it needs is a vampire

You know how some books would just be better with a vampire? Like all those remakes they did of 19th century novels they did with zombies (Pride and Prejudice AND ZOMBIES) but only from the beginning the author thought, yeah, this would be better with a vampire.

Actually I’m not totally sure Chanelle Benz’s The Gone Dead would be better with a vampire. I mean it’s really, really good to begin with, so… Right, here’s the plot: daughter, Billie, returns to childhood home after its bequeathed to her. On returning she begins to remember and question the circumstances of her father’s death (he died in the backyard when she was a child, and she was the only witness). Enter a cast of childhood friends, family, rivals and lovers. And the most adorable professor researching her father and his poetry. (Adorable for his representation of just how silly academia is when it comes to Life and Death). All trying to help or hinder her quest to remember and understand.

So I guess I only want a vampire because the book already has the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Mississippi Delta coupled with a murder mystery and the tangle of remembered/misremembered/invented stories that recall something of a fable. And that all point to something Gothic and clawing, but I’m just messing. Obviously this book doesn’t need an actual vampire. There’s enough danger without literal fangs: the Klan, the racist police, the well-intentioned by ultimately destructive white friends. And poetry.

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

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