Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld 9781400068326

publication date: 2016
pages: 488
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6832-6

In Eligible, Sittenfeld deliberately and explicitly created a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic, Pride & Prejudice. Basically, Sittenfeld took the Bennet family, along with the Lucases, the Collins, Fitzwilliam Darcy (of course!), and everyone else, and plopped them into Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2013.

If you’re not already familiar with the story, Pride & Prejudice centered around the Bennet family – including the five Bennet sisters: beautiful and sweet-tempered Jane, witty Liz, uncaring Mary, complacent Kitty, and Lydia, the baby. Living with the five sisters were their often out-of-touch parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The main plot complications of the story stemmed from Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to get all six of her girls married off, and moneyed.

Sittenfeld followed this main plot almost exactly, but she included many modern devices, like pre-marital sex and techies from Silicon Valley. Sittenfeld also did a satisfying job of carrying over the personality traits of each of her characters. However, she kept each of the characters modern and not as though they were throwbacks from an older time. For example, Jane was still sweet, but she wasn’t a pushover and she wasn’t just sitting around waiting to get married. Possibly the most effective character was Mr. Bennet. Sittenfeld aptly portrayed his dry, almost mean, humor and approach to life. Here was a perfect example:

[T]he door opened, and there appeared a male nurse in aqua-colored scrubs . . . “Fred!” The nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurses’ name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

Sittenfeld also perfectly kept intact a major theme of the original: that when we allow our pride and our prejudices to shadow our lives, we do ourselves a disservice.

Along with the modern retelling, Sittenfeld included several current issues, such as race, sexuality, the gender spectrum, and single motherhood. Sometimes Sittenfeld could get a little preachy on these subjects, but generally the book, especially the character of Liz, handled these topics well, in a Liz Lemon white-guilt sort of way.

The book also paid homage to Jane Austen in a subtler way: Sittenfeld captured something true about humanity through her characters, dialogue, and story. Here was a small example:

Liz said, “I guess I’m a Cincinnati opportunist. In New York, I play the wholesome-midwesterner card, but when I’m back here, I consider myself to be a chic outsider.” Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care. Still, when he spoke, it was more disappointing than she’d expected.

He said, “That chili we had – I liked it okay, but I keep burping up the taste of it.”

I genuinely liked this book. It was cute, fun, and compelling. For those of you who liked Pride & Prejudice, I would recommend this just for the novelty of it. For anyone else, this is a contemporary story with vital characters and plenty of wit.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton9780316074315

publication date: 2013
pages: 830
ISBN: 978-0-361-07431-5

In this long, sprawling novel, Catton investigated luck, destiny, and love in 1860s New Zealand. Rather than relying on conventional narration and character development, Catton instead presented her plot using personal letters and story-telling techniques and jumping from present to past to future. She also focused on the heavens.  As explained by Catton at the outset:

For the planets have changed places against the wheeling canvas of the stars. . . . But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no long sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past.

Catton used her tangled writing to introduce a mystery: just as a stranger has arrived in town, a man is found dead, a woman found half-dead, and a missing man not found at all. This was all presented against the backdrop of a New Zealand mining town and, for some reason, the celestial and astrological arrangement of the time.

Catton’s writing was heavily stylized. She used a wordy, convoluted style, which brought to mind a learned bore from Jane Austen times. Here was an example from very early on in the book:

For the first time – perhaps because of his growing frustration, which served to focus his attention more squarely upon the scene at hand – [Mr.] Moody felt his interest begin to stir. The strange silence of the room was hardly testament to the kind of fraternity where all was shared and made easy . . . and moreover, [Mr.] Balfour had offered very little with respect to his own character and reputation in the town, by which intelligence Moody might be made to feel more assured of him!

Catton attempted to fit so much into this book. She had about 15 fully-realized characters, along with a love story, a supernatural mystery, painstakingly accurate star charts, and a meticulous writing technique.

For me, almost all of it fell flat. The characters were well-explained but uninteresting. The love story was pointless, and a little insulting. Anything supernatural was never explained; nor was anything to do with astrology. The meticulous writing was impressive, but only made the book seem daunting and overly-indulgent. When I closed the book, I had this thought: just because someone spent a lot of time crafting something does not make it good.

Catton obviously spent a lot of time writing this book, and I sure spent a lot of time reading it. But, that’s not enough of a reason for me to recommend it to you.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Slate
Book Page

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine9781555976903

publication date: 2014
pages: 169
ISBN: 978-1-55597-690-3

Citizen was a collection of free form prose poetry and visual imagery that documented the black experience, especially when bounded by the white experience. The book was split into seven parts, which centered on loosely related topics. Generally, these topics were: personal experiences of racism, Serena Williams’s experience as a powerful black female tennis player, and violence against black people in the news.

The most effective parts for me were Rankine’s depictions of the subtle and relentless racism encountered by black Americans in everyday life. The pieces were written in second person and were usually vivid and intimate. Here was an example:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Here was another very short passage:

And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.

The descriptions of the violence against black people were also effective, although they were more confusing and less striking than the more intimate verses. However, the pieces about Serena Williams really fell flat for me; maybe because they weren’t written from Serena’s perspective but instead from a spectator’s perspective.

The book also contained images of artworks. Some of these were more potent or useful than others. The cover image was probably the most powerful: it was a stark black sweatshirt hood.

The book captured aspects of life that many Americans don’t have cause to confront with very often. Although it was uneven, when it worked it really worked.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New Yorker
The Guardian
Slate

Gliese 581

Gliese 581: The Departure by Christine Shuck51r-xcqauvl-_sy346_

publication date: 2016
pages: 183

This SF novel was set in a world 100 years in the future: a world where interstellar space travel was possible and humans colonized the Moon and Mars to deal with crowding on Earth. The book focused on three main plots: a grotesque and devastating plague on Earth, a one-way manned space mission to star system Gliese 581 for the purpose of colonization, and a mysterious, violent incident on board the Gliese 581 spaceship that threatened the entire crew.

One of the best parts of the book was the characters. Shuck introduced varied and multifaceted characters, from a bitter grandmother, to a gay Chinese man with a conservative family, to a medical examiner with a penchant for pedophilia.

The book also created good mystery and suspense. Shuck used flashbacks to weave the three story lines together, which was especially effective when the frantic and tense pace of one story line was interrupted by a more leisurely, but informative, plot point. Shuck also developed a good mystery surrounding the violence on the Gliese 581 spaceship. I found myself searching for clues about the identity and motive of the perpetrator.

Also effective was Shuck’s descriptions of the plague on Earth. She did not shy from graphically depicting what was happening to the human body and mind as the virus made its way through the victim. The passages certainly set me off my lunch.

However, there were a lot of problems with the book. It was unpolished, with a lot of small errors. There were, for example, missing pronouns, rough tense changes, and haphazard comma usage. This all made for garbled or confusing writing, at times. There were also some inconsistencies. Like sometimes people would use paper all the time and other times characters were made fun of for even having paper and not a computer. Or like one character who was described as being a manipulative philanderer, but whenever we witnessed him with a woman he was nothing but kind and unpresumptuous.

Shuck’s writing could also be very preachy. The entire plot seemed crafted to get us to eat less. She also had an obvious opinion about the current agricultural economy:

EcoNu’s test pigs were showing shockingly low reproductive rates. This didn’t sit well with Edith. Nor did the smug speculation that this was a winning strategy. It smacked too much of Monsanto’s death grip on the corn economy early in the century.

Or there was this rant, which came out of nowhere:

Shortly before The Collapse, there had been strong militarization of police in and around major cities. This was done primarily under the guise of the War on Drugs, something that had been abandoned when the country collapsed into civil war, and later not taken up again due to its deeply unpopular legacy. The War on Drugs was now akin to human rights violations in American cultural memory.

These rants and garbled writing hindered an imaginative SF book with complex characters and a serviceable plot:

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Poets of the Dead Society
Amazon
goodreads

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness9780062415639

publication date: 2015
pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0-06-240316-2

After reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series a few years ago, I’ve been casually following him as an author. When I saw his newish book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, I was excited to pick it up. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations I had after Chaos Walking.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here followed Mikey, a normal guy who just wanted to graduate high school with his friends and the love of his life. The book explicitly contrasted Mikey and his group with the “indie kids” – you know the ones: they’re always too cool for prom or trendy clothes and they always find trouble. Usually the trouble came in the form of vampires, but sometimes also zombies or spirits or the like. This time the trouble came in the form of “the Immortals.” Every chapter of the book started with a description of what was happening with the indie kids as Mikey was living his unremarkable life. For example:

Chapter the Third, in which indie kid Finn’s body is discovered; Satchel – who once dated Finn – asks Dylan and a second indie kid also called Finn to skip school and help her talk to her alcoholic uncle, who is the lead police officer investigating the death; meanwhile, the Messenger, inside a new Vessel, is already among them, preparing the way for the arrival of the Immortals.

I thought this was a fun plot device. As the Bella Swans and the Harry Potters of the world go around fighting evil and their demons, we shouldn’t forget the ordinary people. As the title of the book made clear: the rest of us just live here. However, the book did not follow its own conceit. Instead of following a group of kids who were only tangentially or passively related to the indie kids’ action, Ness created characters that consistently were in the thick of things. It’s almost as though they were “indie kids” themselves.

Everything about this book was OK. The plot was fine, the characters were fine, the writing was fine, and the ending was fine. I laughed a few times but I also rolled my eyes a lot, in frustration or derision. The characters were supposed to be average, but in actuality one was part-god, one had a state senator as a parent, and most were involved in a love quadrangle. All of them were these “indie kids” that Ness had tried to ignore.

I kept comparing it to Rainbow Rowell, and especially Carry On. Carry On and The Rest of Us Just Live Here were published around the same time but, unfortunately, Rowell did a better job. She crafted a better anti-Chosen One story, with better characters and a better message. She even had better parenthetical asides!

If you liked Chaos Walking, you won’t necessarily like this book – it was very different. However, if you like contemporary YA you’ll probably like this just fine.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

The Guardian
Teen Librarian Tool Box
New York Times

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

Jackaby

Jackaby by William Ritter9781616203535

publication date: 2014
pages: 209
ISBN: 978-1-61620-353-5

William Ritter took several successful formulas – a Sherlock-esque antisocial detective, a supernatural mystery, a steam punky female narrator – and spliced them together to form Jackaby.

The book followed Abigail Rook as she arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. Abigail stumbled upon Jackaby, an eccentric detective of the occult, and began work for him as his assistant. The two quickly (unnervingly quickly) encountered a murder that needed solving. Abigail and Jackaby worked together, along with a police officer, a banshee, and a ghost, to solve the case.

In general, I found the whole book to be quite tedious. Jackaby was almost a straight rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, except he argued for the metaphysical and not against it. As an example, here was Jackaby convincing a police officer to take them further into a crime scene, which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen in every Sherlock ever:

“Wait,” said Charlie, following. “I told the inspector [Marlowe] I would take you out of the building.”

“And so you shall,” Jackaby called over his shoulder. “Expertly, I imagine, and to the letter of the instruction. However, I don’t recall Marlowe giving any specific directions about time, nor about the route we take, so let’s have a quick chat with someone odd, first, shall we? I do love odd. Ah, here we are!”

I also solved the case 1/3 through the book and figured out the red herring about 2/3 of the way through. That’s not me bragging, because I’m not the type to “figure out” books while I read them. That’s me showing how transparent the plot was.

The writing was also tiresome. Ritter attempted to falsely insert drama and interest. Here was a small example, as both Abigail and Jackaby were walking from Jackaby’s office to the post office to work on the case:

My stomach was growling audibly as Jackaby paid the vendor for two steamy meat pies. . . .

“So, what we know thus far,” Jackaby said suddenly, as if the ongoing conversation in his head had bubbled over and simply poured out his mouth, “is our culprit left poor Mr. Bragg with a wicked chest wound and a grieving girlfriend, and he made off with a good deal of the fellow’s blood. . . .”

Ritter was obviously trying to create tension by having what Jackaby did be “sudden,” but I honestly do not know how Jackaby could have started that conversation any less suddenly. Was he supposed to say: “Alright, I’m going to talk about the case now, it’s coming up, just about to talk about it. Are you ready? Here we go. . .”

The unoriginal characters, thin plot, and simplistic writing meant that I had almost no emotional investment in the book.

The book wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Ritter did have some imaginative beasties and fantastical creatures. And there was one part of the book that I actively liked, when Abigail and Jackaby were questioning a woman:

[Hatun said,] “Oh no. been keeping to myself, kept my shawl on all tight all night, didn’t want anyone finding me after what I saw.”

“You were hiding in your shawl?” I asked.

Hatun gave the pale blue knit shawl around her shoulders an affectionate tug. “Only street folk can see me in this, beggars and homeless, like. Never had much cause to watch out for them – they’re good souls, the most of ‘em. For everyone else – well, it doesn’t make me invisible or nothing, just impossible to notice.” She smiled proudly.

Jackaby and I exchanged glances.

“Erm, I found you,” said my colleague.

Hatun gave him a knowing wink. “You don’t exactly follow the rules when it comes to finding things, though, now do you, Detective?”

I thought that passage was an effective commentary on how we can overlook the homeless and downtrodden.

If someone was intensely interested in this genre, I would recommend this book, because it followed the mold closely. For the rest of us, I thought the book had:

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book:

Nerdist
teenreads
Cuddle Buggery