Back by popular demand, today’s post is the second installment of the What’s on My Bookshelf series. Picking up right where we left off last time with more books from our living room bookshelf. (Sorry for the long break between posts –since Jonathan and I both participate in these it takes a little more time to get them together).
The first few books on the shelf are Jonathan’s. (Anything Jonathan wrote will be in italics).
Gun, with Occasional Music (3.5 Stars) and Motherless Brooklyn (4.5 Stars)are both offbeat, inventive literary mysteries by Jonathan Lethem (though Lethem doesn’t exclusively write mysteries). Gun, his first novel, is a blend of crime noir and science fiction, following a detective around futuristic Oakland as he investigates a murder and its subsequent cover up. It’s funny and engaging, plus it features a memorable turn by an evolved kangaroo-turned-gangster. Motherless Brooklyn is set in contemporary New York and narrated by a man named Lionel Essrog, who works for low-level mobster Frank Minna. When Minna is killed, Essrog has to figure out what happened while avoiding the blowback from others vying to fill the now empty seat of power. The twist, however, is that our 1st person narrator Lionel has Tourettes, so the narrative is unusually disjointed and often very funny.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This is one of those books that’s on both of our, “Been Meaning to Read That,” lists. Set in New York City in the 1970’s it tells the story of a community through the individual stories of people on all ends of the social spectrum, from monks, to prostitutes, to wealthy, grieving mothers who have lost their sons in the Vietnam war, to struggling artists, to teenage mothers.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (4 Stars) is the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy about a world destroyed by environmental disasters and the greed of corporations. It flashes back and forth to moments before and after the apocalypse, following a character named Jimmy (known, in the future, only as Snowman) through his relationships with his genius friend Crake, and their mysterious friend and possible love-interest Oryx. This book was inventive, prescient, and remarkably frightening, especially in regards to our growing consumer culture and the belief that one should be able to buy a solution to every imaginable problem, plus the amorality of the corporations we then come to rely on. I found it very upsetting, which isn’t a ringing endorsement but does speak to how clear and affecting it is.
The Blind Assassin (4 Stars) is a classic Margaret Atwood novel and one of my favorites of hers. The novel begins with Iris Chase reflecting on the apparent suicide of her sister Laura 45 years before when she drove off a bridge just 10 days after the end of WWII. What keeps this book from being a straightforward account of an old woman’s memories about her life is the introduction of The Blind Assassin, a science fiction novel written by Laura before she died. Atwood weaves together Iris’ reflections with the text of her sister’s novel as we try to piece together what really happened.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Similar to Let the Great World Spin, this is a book we both have every intention of reading someday. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story of Henry Townsend, a former slave who is now a farmer, and his relationship with William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county. After Townsend dies unexpectedly, his wife, Caldonia, struggles to hold onto all that he has built. This book is lauded for its straightforward look at the moral ambiguities of slavery. I suppose this is one of those books that feels weighty – worth the read, but also worth being in the right frame of mind to read it – which is why I haven’t picked it up yet.
Room (4 Stars) by Emma Donoghue (which became a movie this year) is a story about a woman held captive for years by a man known only in the book as Old Nick, who keeps her locked in a shed in his backyard. It’s narrated by the woman’s five-year-old son Jack, who was born in the shed and has never left – the world, to him, is literally just their room. It’s a very moving story about the love between mother and son in horrible circumstances (plus man’s tremendous capacity for evil), though it also ends up, surprisingly, being a great deal about child development and growth. So much of the story centers on Jack’s struggles to grow and understand the world – his deeply warped perspective – given his unique and disturbing situation.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (4 Stars) is a book I’ve owned for years but only actually read recently. It’s a beautiful book, though I understand criticisms of it trying to do too much. There’s a lot going on there. Dr. Marina Singh travels to the Amazon to investigate the death of a colleague who passed away under mysterious circumstances while researching an indigenous tribe whose women have the unique ability to continue reproducing up until they die.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (4 Stars) is a book I’d like to reread someday. I remember thinking the language was beautiful and the story was inventive and I was wildly impressed by the fact that the author was receiving so much acclaim for it at the ripe old age of 26. (It was a finalist for the National Book Award). To boil it down, this is a book about how people respond to death. Natalia is a young doctor on a mission of mercy to provide immunizations to an orphanage in a remote town (in a country that’s never named but we assume is Croatia), but she has to deal with the people’s superstitions and with her own personal struggle to come to terms with the recent death of her grandfather, a renowned physician who died under mysterious circumstances. In desperation, she turns to the stories her grandfather told her as a little girl to make sense of his death. The strongest parts of this novel are the parts where she draws on folklore to recreate the stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.
Hope you enjoyed this!
A key to my rating system:
5 Stars: I loved this book, I had no problems with it, it’s one of my all-time favorite books and I recommend it.
4 Stars: I really, really liked this book. I had no major problems with it, but I’m not sure it’s one of my all-time favorites. I recommend it.
3 Stars: I enjoyed this book. There were maybe some things I didn’t like, but overall I liked it. OR it was really fun, but not something that stands out or will stick with me. I recommend it, but might have some disclaimers.
2 Stars: I didn’t like it but I feel bad giving it one star so I’m giving it two.
1 Star: I thought it was a terrible, terrible book and I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on it.
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