A batch of holiday reading: We Are Water, His Dark Materials trilogy, TransAtlantic, and The Dispossessed

I recently returned from a delightful trip to Costa Rica. In between all the hiking and rafting and tubing and cocktail drinking, I was of course reading. And now I return, faced with an intimidating prospect of six book reviews. So, dear reader, I shall cheat. Behold, some short reviews of  the books I read during my 11 day vacation!

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

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One sentence plot: Told from the perspective of several characters, this is a study of families, abuse, marriage, and how to be happy – plus art, gay and race subplots.

One sentence review: This took me inexplicably long to get through, considering it was compelling, funny, interesting, distressing, intriguing, engaging, and clever – all the good stuff I’ve grown to expect from Wally Lamb, and it was indeed good.

The verdict: 4/5

His Dark Materials Trilogy – The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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One sentence plot: An epic coming of age/fight of good against evil where the boundaries blur as young Lyra moves between parallel universes in a race to save the world.

One sentence review: This is a suspenseful, complex and intelligent adventure, with compelling, multidimensional characters, and lots to say about the institution of religion, in a beautifully, imaginatively, believably drawn set of worlds, full of their own customs, joys and terrors.

The verdict: The Golden Compass gets 5/5, The Subtle Knife gets 4/5 and the Amber Spyglass gets 3/5. If this is your sort of thing, beware of finishing the first book without ensuring the next one is close at hand…

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

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One sentence plot: A series of intergenerational, interlinked stories spanning from the first TransAtlantic flight, between the US and Ireland, that depict various personal and sociopolitical elements of the US-Ireland relationship over 150 years.

One sentence review: McCann is trying to recreate the luminous Let The Great World Spin but the same device that worked so well for that book is awkward and self-conscious here, sometimes giving moments of beauty and delight, but often feeling labored and a bit irritating – though I really liked the history of the first TransAtlantic flight…

The verdict: 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

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One sentence plot: A utopia/dystopia sci fi book set between the two societies of a capitalist world and its anarchist/feminist/communist moon, through the eyes of a brilliant scientist who loves his own world, but faces disillusionment when he looks for science to rise above politics.

One sentence review: This is a rather clever and thought provoking story of two beautifully drawn societies, embodying some really interesting ideas about politics and power, while providing intricate, fascinating detail of life in each society, with an interesting, suspenseful plot and a main character who provides a good lens through which to view it all.

The verdict: 4/5 stars

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

One-sentence plot
A recounting of John Brown’s abolitionist activities, as seen over the years through the dispassionate eyes of a fictional young slave he freed.

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The review
I cannot remember a more fascinating book discussion than when I sat down to discuss The Good Lord Bird at my book club last week and found out I hadn’t understood it at all. I like book clubs because they introduce me to literature I never would have come across otherwise, and force me to persist when I’m not keen on something. I think it expands my mind as a reader. And I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen The Good Lord Bird of my own volition. But I read it. I enjoyed the story of young Henry/ Henrietta, a boy who is ‘freed’ from his slave owner by John Brown, mistaken for a girl, and absorbed into John Brown’s band of renegade abolitionists as they storm around Kansas haplessly getting into battles, and eventually attempt a grand raid. I read it. I found the story reasonably interesting. I thought the characters a little bland, the story a little slow, the writing quite good. I enjoyed it but wouldn’t have rushed to recommend it. Then I got to book club and someone’s first comment was that it was a hilarious and edgy satire. And I was completely dumbfounded.

Now according to the Americans in my book club, all the Americans reading this blog are probably very familiar with this story and its protagonists. And so, when reading it, they would find this bold, irreverent new depiction of John Brown, Frederick Douglas et al, very funny and almost scandalous. As someone without more than a basic grounding in American history (and honestly, I’d never heard of John Brown or the others), all of this side of the book went right over my head (and the heads of other non-Americans in the group). Rarely have I been so oblivious to the intention of the author. I had to entirely recast my opinion of the book, as it was clearly a lot more clever and complex than I had given it credit for. As my fellow book clubbers explained the context, and American feeling and standard depictions of these beloved historical characters and events, I started to get it. And yes, it does indeed seem to be a clever and witty, almost risqué piece of work. Even though I personally didn’t laugh once and had no idea of its controversial approach.

I wonder – can a book like this be considered generally excellent, even if its main intention only stands up in the context of readers familiar with the details of American history and its cultural depictions, and is lost on more general readers? Or is it marred by provincial conceit? I don’t know. It’s interesting that I was going to give the book 4/5 before I found out about the satire element. That says something about the book’s ability to stand alone without the history. So the 4/5 rating shall stand, with the caveat that I didn’t really get it – but even so, it was engaging and largely well written. If you don’t know your American abolitionist history though, you might want to think twice about this one…

The verdict: 4/5

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

One sentence plot
In early 19th century Charleston, Sarah Grimke is given a slave for her 11th birthday and along with her sister, becomes one of America’s first and most renowned female abolitionists.

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The review
I was inspired to read this book after hearing Sue Monk Kidd speak at an author event recently. Sometimes author events focusing on books I haven’t read can make me feel disconnected and frustrated, but Sue Monk Kidd was a fantastic speaker. I loved that she had come across the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke in a museum, looked into the story of these incendiary South Carolina-born abolitionist sisters, and got inspired to write The Invention of Wings. I love that she took a small historical detail (Sarah had apparently been punished for teaching her slave to read) and turned that slave into an imagined, fully fledged character, Hetty/Handful, who provides a second strong narrative voice. Together they depict different perspectives of both slave ownership in the South, and a woman’s place in America in the 19th century.

The book follows these two compelling and quite charming women from age 11 into adulthood, along with a lovely cast of supporting characters painting a very vivid, claustrophobic world of societal pressures, expectations and norms. The key quote that I think sums up the angle taken in this book is from the slave Hetty/Handful: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round”. That’s stayed with me ever since.

I’ve read and watched a lot of slavery-themed stories recently (The Good Lord Bird, 12 Years A Slave), and this one is very much my favorite. In some ways it has more impact because it is more subtle, more everyday, and more nuanced. I’ve also not read much previously on the links between the abolition movement and feminism: fascinating. The story skips along, and the horrors and sorrows of slavery are well depicted and very memorable, yet the book is also deft, funny and uplifting. The two voices are excellent. The message is that there are different kinds of bondage – and courage and morality and a willingness to act are needed to create and deliver hope. I loved the people in this book. I loved the narration. I loved the messages. And I love that Sarah Grimke really existed. An important read, and also a treat.

The verdict: 5/5

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

One sentence plot
The Queen happens upon a mobile library and becomes an avid reader, much to the consternation of her family, staff, and the public.

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The review
I can’t believe I have only just read this delight of a novella which has been around since 2007 and lurking unassumingly in a quiet corner of my Kindle for literally months. This book is a happy combination of so many excellent features. It is a charming fantasy tale in the tradition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It has a strong, dispassionate, chronological reporting-style narrative voice in the manner of John Wyndham. It has a sparkling female character at its centre. It offers an insight (albeit speculative) into a closed and quite fascinating world. It is a bit subversive. It is technically speculative fiction. It is clever. It is witty. And above all, it is a love letter to books, a fond embrace of libraries, a glorious celebration of the transformative power of literature.

The Uncommon Reader is a story of the present-day Queen who, in a walk around the Buckingham Palace grounds with her corgis one Wednesday afternoon, stumbles upon a mobile library in the Palace grounds and, wanting to be polite, borrows a book. In doing so, she slowly but vigorously becomes a joyful, prolific reader, preferring reading over her other activities, much to the consternation of her household and advisors who want her to return to enacting her age-old duties and do nothing more, want nothing more, think nothing more, be nothing more… But literature changes the Queen, and possibly changes history. This book pokes fun at a lot of institutions. It depicts her family and advisors in a believable way. It captures the Queen’s tone, background and motivations delightfully. It draws a life that made me feel sympathy for the Queen. And it gets subversive in all sorts of ways that a few hundred years ago would surely have left the author executed for treason.

For all these weighty qualities, the book is light and fun, with characters that dance off the page and make their reader chuckle. It’s very well done. It is truly a little treat of a book. My best read of the year so far.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes

The Outward Urge by John Wyndham

One-Sentence plot
A speculative history of five stages of space exploration, each fifty years apart, told through the eyes of five generations of the space-going Troon family.

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The review
I have never made a secret of my love of John Wyndham. He lured me into the world of science fiction, a genre I had previously avoided with unjustified prejudice. I always love his narrative voice and measured tone, his imagination, his characters, and his compelling future-based stories. I particularly loved The Chrysalids and the Midwich Cuckoos, but to be honest I’ve enjoyed all of them. So when my lovely wife tracked down the out-of-print The Outward Urge, I leapt upon it.

To be honest, after all that excitement, I was a bit disappointed. It’s perhaps unfair to review a book I anticipated being so excellent – I feel cheated because it is only good, and hold it against The Outward Urge that it is not another Chrysalids. However, in its own right it is an interesting book. Before the first moon landing, John Wyndham was imagining not just that landing, but landings on Mars, Venus, and the Asteroid Belt. He was imagining the sociopolitical implications, the geopolitical implications, and the personal pull towards the stars – and its consequences. His ideas are ahead of their time, but it’s possible to imagine a world in which they are disturbingly, fascinatingly prophetic. There are a lot of ideas in this little book. What, in my feeling it lacks, is plot and characters. Which is a pretty damning assessment – but I’m making it sound worse than it is.

Of course there are characters – the various members of the Troon family. This book is, ostensibly, their history. But somehow, I didn’t bond with any of them. They felt a bit devoid of personality, a bit interchangeable, a bit lacking in real lives outside their space exploits, save for mentions of their children who will grow up to star in the next chapter. I wondered if it’s because each character only briefly featured in the book but no – my wife gave me Wyndham’s The Seeds of Time for Christmas. In these short stories, the characters were often quite vivid. When the punchline comes at the end of this book, I didn’t even really remember the relevant characters sufficiently to feel excited or intrigued by it.

Similarly the plot – these are five little vignettes, and were apparently published separately, with the final one added as an afterthought to pull it all together. This is quite apparent in the reading of the book. There are frustratingly insufficient links between the vignettes and the last one is therefore rendered a bit confusing – too little too late, an add on rather than a clearly planned twist. There isn’t much of a plot – it’s more a dispassionate recounting of a futuristic history. Which is not what I’d expect of this author.

That said, I love John Wyndham’s writing and imagination. I enjoyed the book. It was very interesting. It was nicely written. I just can’t forgive it for not being The Chrysalids…

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One sentence plot
Ifemelu comes of age first in Nigeria, then again in America, where she starts blogging about her experiences and observations of race in America from the perspective of the ‘Non-American Black’.

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The Review
Americanah is a fascinating book in all sorts of ways, though somehow I feel, as a white British person, not absolutely qualified to review it. Or at least, I’d love to incorporate the perspectives of people of various races living in America and Nigeria. This is a book with a lot to say about race, identity and racism, specifically the difference in experience between African Americans and ‘Non-American Blacks’, told through the eyes (and occasional blogs) of our charming protagonist, Ifemelu and to a lesser extent, her high school sweetheart, Obinze. I lack the expertise or personal experience to comment on the accuracy of how it’s presented here, but I’ve never personally seen the subject addressed so thoughtfully. This book is a wonderful combination of delightful characters with lovely narrative voices, a compelling plot, and presents a very interesting insight into some of the nuances of race, culture, and lifestyle in America and Nigeria.

The book jumps around in chronology, but essentially Ifemelu and Obinze grow up happily in Nigeria, with a fascination for America and the UK. With political unrest and university faculty strikes impeding their lives, Ifemelu moves to the US to complete her education, Obinze to the UK afterwards. The book is mostly about the cultural differences they experience, and how they relate to white Americans, African Americans, African expats (including their own family members) and African people who lived abroad and returned to the countries of their birth. And how these are tied up with class and personal identity. This is a complex subject and the author does a beautiful job of weaving it into a charming narrative that isn’t preachy or lecture-y but it still interesting and very informative. I loved both Ifmelu and Obinze as characters. They are perceptive, witty, likable, multi-dimensional and speak their minds. I also really enjoyed the supporting cast of stereotypes and those who contravene them. And I found both the race/social commentary and the descriptions of life in these different places to be fascinating. I know I’m going on about all the worthy issues, but they don’t overwhelm the plot, which skips along and had me hooked. I didn’t really want to go out while reading this book.

So why am I not giving Americanah a perfect 5 rating? Because it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Somehow about three quarters of the way through (just about where Ifemelu moves back to Nigeria), the author seems to get distracted with all the social/race commentary and forgets that this isn’t Ifemelu’s observational blog – it’s a novel, a format that comes with certain plot expectations. So what I had grown to trust as a brilliant story sort of lost its momentum and trickled to the end in a dull-ish anticlimax. It left me feeling dissatisfied and disappointed that the author had diminished her sparkling protagonist into a pedestrian love interest. I like a good love story but it felt like Ifemelu somehow was more than just that, that she deserved more from her author.

But despite the ending, this is a book that feels important, and I loved reading it.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

One sentence plot
A man’s experiences and observations of an invasion from Mars bent on the destruction of humans in Victorian England.

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The review
The first book in my classic sci fi challenge, I quite enjoyed The War of the Worlds. Having somehow not read it or seen any of the adaptations (including the radio play version which reputedly had Americans believing the invasion was really happening and causing national panic…), I didn’t know how it would end, which made for a suspenseful read as these Martians land, construct machinery, and kill everything in their paths.

The story is narrated by a dispassionate, slightly pompous, ‘ordinary’ Englishman observer, akin in style to the narrator in The Hopkins Manuscript, or plenty of the John Wyndhams. This book must be one of the originators of this particular tone of narrator, which seems to permeate much of the sci fi I’ve encountered. However, I must admit I enjoyed the Hopkins Manuscript and the Wyndham narrative voices more. There was something a bit irritating about this man. And like all the other characters in this book, he seemed a bit two dimensional, just playing out his purpose in the plot without evoking personal sympathy or even much interest.

As the book progresses, it feels a bit unusual compared to some of the adventure style sci fi stories encountered today. I wonder whether calling it ‘war of the worlds’ is in fact ironic – as the narrator notes, it’s no more war than the act of humans crushing an anthill. The point of this book is a treatise on Darwinian philosophy – humans may currently be at the top of the food chain, and hold the power in the world – but it only takes a more sophisticated species to emerge for humans to lose all that power we currently have, and be crushed, reduced to a pet, or food supply… If survival of the fittest is true, we shouldn’t assume that humans will always be the fittest. Also, should we think more carefully about how we treat other living things? Intriguing, progressive,and thought provoking ideas. This book was first published in 1898.

Its other unusual point is that there is not some great climactical battle. It doesn’t play out like that at all. Granted this made for a read that was occasionally a bit dull. (This book was not a page turner for me – it took oddly long for me to get through it.) But on the other hand, I really liked this thoughtful, measured approach to the destruction of civilization: rather than dramatics, humans simply have to lie down and concede they are already defeated, and the survivors to consider their few options. All with an occasional wry tone which I enjoyed. I’d have liked to have heard more about what was happening abroad. But in general the conclusion felt quite satisfying. I don’t think this will be my favorite sci fi book of the year, but it’s a classic of great influence on the development of the genre that I’m glad to have read.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes