This week was kind of a reading slump for me – not that I didn’t (or couldn’t) read much. I kept up my usual feverish pace with six books. (Related: I am really digging this no more napping at lunch thing.) Nah, my slump was more of a Oh. Hunh. Really? That’s what this book is about? variety. I just didn’t find many books that made me race towards my me-time. One book. One book out of six. But that one book…just wait.
What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller. (Henry Holt & Co., 2003, 258 pages) I got this book for Christmas in 2014. I believe Santa had picked it up at a used book store, gifted it with enthusiasm, but then the book sat there on the shelf forever. An uncommon occurrence in my house where I go through books so quickly I have trouble keeping myself in stock. The first few pages just sounded flat. I’m pretty sure I know what my problem was (is?): the book feels emotionally flat after reading the sordid and truly scandalous Tampa by Alicia Nutting. Heller’s approach was different – a story told from the pitiful and lonely companion of the teacher – but as far as student/teacher affairs go, this just didn’t feel like it examined much of the crisis at hand. For all the outrage Tampa elicited after its publication, this felt more like a wet dish towel. From the plot progression to the complexities and revelations of the characters to the very language, I felt it for a book about a scandal, it was driving the speed limit the entire time. 2 of 5 stars.
The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepard. (Knopf, 2015, 260 pages) This book was already in my To Be Read pile, and then it went and led a shallow shortlist for this year’s Tournament of Books. I was lucky enough to find an ecopy available at one of my libraries and immediately dove in. This might be another of my favorite books of the year. It tells the story of Aron, an unlucky and poor Jewish boy who comes of age during the beginning of World War II. His family life is unhappy and unfortunate and so what Aron becomes is a street kid, stealing and smuggling with his misfit band of “friends”. The second half of the book finds Aron living in an orphanage with the Doktor Janusz Korczak, a historical figure who was famous for parenting advice and humanitarian efforts in the Warsaw ghettos. The good doctor refused to ever abandon his children in the orphanage, despite rescue attempts and even offers from the Germans for safe passage, and died with his wards in a concentration camp. So, yeah – the book’s going to wreck you. Completely. But you won’t be able to stop reading. Shepard’s choice to show the horrors through Aron’s eyes distances and, in some cases, adds a necessary twisted humor in places. This read for me was as humbling and gorgeously haunting as watching Schindler’s List for the first time. It’s a must read before this, too, makes its way into theaters and becomes a standard of the World War II canon. 5 of 5 stars.
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. (Knopf, 2015, 176 pages) Another book I picked up (or borrowed via library e-loan, rather) for the Tournament of Books. It reminded me rather a lot of The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, where the journey negotiated was more the bottomless loneliness one feels later in life, after your family has died or moved away. A woman, one day, approaches a neighbor she knows a fairish bit, but not well, and asks him to spend their nights sleeping next to her at her house. Because of the loneliness, seeing as they’ve both been widowed for what feels like ages. All sorts of talking and life revelations and growth occurs. It was a sweet book, if entirely predictable. It just didn’t rattle my cage or roll my socks up and down. And coming off of The Book of Aron, I needed something with a lot more power than that. 2 of 5 stars.
The New World, by Chris Adrian. (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2015, 224 pages) Amazon has the e-book for only $4.99, but I borrowed the ebook from my library for even less than that. It’s worth the $5, though. I liked it, rather unexpectedly, even though I picked it up just for the Tournament of Books. (Seeing a theme here?) It’s the story of a husband who dies suddenly, without telling his wife he contracted a cryogenics lab to preserve his soul (uh, by stealing his corpses head) and keep him alive until such technology can bring him back to life. So we watch his wife’s grief unfold at the same time we’re watching a very surreal and philosophical…awakening?…of her husband’s consciousness waaaaay in the future. The book was different in a very interesting way that made me sit up and pay attention to what was happening on the pages. If his wife’s lawsuit against the reanimation company is successful, the husband’s consciousness will wink out. Or if he decides to process, he has to forget all about his past lives, and his wife’s narrative will be dropped. So what price or worth do we put on life? What does consciousness or being awake mean? What do we want it to mean? All very interesting, when you’re not having panic attacks. (The Charlotte’s Web references helped.) 3 of 5 stars.
Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel, by Zachary Thomas Dodson. (Doubleday, 2015, 448 pages) No. Nope. No. Did not like. It’s a Western set in the futuristic Wild West. In Texas. Could we string together more things I do not like? Oh, and the story isn’t a traditional narrative – which, okay, sometimes I do like. But the pictures and memorabilia and all the interruptions felt like that – interruptions. I couldn’t get into the quirkiness or find the upsides that everyone else seemed to love. The characters were outlaws I couldn’t root for set in a landscape I abhor. I’m sure it’s a book for many other people, but it wasn’t for me. At all. 1 of 5 stars.
The Invaders, by Karolina Waclawiak. (Regan Arts, 2015, 240 pages) Another e-book I snagged for the Tournament of Books. It was…perfectly mediocre. It had a Silent Wife or Talented Mr. Ripley feel to it. Burdened, bored country club wife on the decline during a turbulent summer, stuck in her prestigious community as her facade crumbles. Uh…with edges, though. Just can’t tell you what those are. I liked Waclawiak’s voice, I felt compelled to read at times. Just not often enough. And the fact that I couldn’t care less about the characters did not help. 2 of 5 stars.
So there you have it. My disappointing week, saved by The Book of Aron. I have high hopes for next week, though. I’m reading I Am Princess X and The Royal We and I can’t put either down!
Tags: Bats of the Republic, book reviews, Chris Adrian, Haruf, Jim Shepard, Karolina Waclawiak, Our Souls at Night, reading, The Book of Aron, The Invaders, The New World, What Was She Thinking, Zachary Thomas Dodson, Zoe Heller