I wish we could make George required reading for all potential parents, or at least for all teachers. I loved it.
I don’t often read middle-grade books, but I received my copy at ALA Annual 2016 when I accidently found myself in line to have Alex Gino sign it. As they signed it, I told them I wasn’t familiar with it, but it sounded intriguing. They were gracious and wrote something kind inside the cover.
The plot of George is incredibly simple, focusing on George—a 4th grader who knows she’s a girl even though everyone else thinks she’s a boy—and her desire to play the part of Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. Although George is told she can’t play Charlotte because she’s a boy, and although she undergoes some bullying related to her gender identity, the story of her coming out to those around her is one of the most inspiring and beautiful I’ve heard of. When I grew up, even gay kids didn’t have such an easy time (and I’m not *that* old, but the area where I lived was quite “socially conservative”). The idea that a young, transgender kid could get as much support as George does from her parents and teachers and peers is so hopeful and wonderful.
Not every transgender kid has it so easy, even these days. But the fact that this book can present this picture of life and make it feel real, I think, can inspire kids and the adults who love them to be fearlessly authentic. George reminds us not to question what’s “wrong” with transgender people, but to encourage them to be who they are, the same way you might encourage someone who shows an early aptitude for playing the violin or solving math problems. If every boy was a high school quarterback and every girl was a cheerleader captain, the world would be a terribly boring place. George celebrates our diversity, even the diversity within a family.
I’m not sure how I would have discovered George if I hadn’t wandered, dazzled, into that line at ALA. But I’m so glad I did, because now I can share this beautiful story with everyone.
Plum Wine starts with an interesting premise: a young American woman teaching in Japan in the 1960s loses her closest Japanese friend and inherits a collection of homemade plum wine and pages of writing in kanji, which she can’t read. Why did her friend leave her this? How did she die? What mysteries are contained in these papers? The American, Barbara, comes to realize that the papers are the first writings of the year by her friend and her friend’s mother, and there’s one for each year going back to the 1930s, skipping a few years during World War II. She also comes to understand that her friend survived Hiroshima. Interesting!
However, the story fails to deliver on this idea. The main focus of the plot is Barbara’s relationship with a Japanese man, Seiji. Seiji, who knew the dead friend, translates sections of the writing for Barbara. From the beginning, Barbara suspects that Seiji is hiding something about the writing, and she even gets some of the pages translated by other people. But she doesn’t continue to get these translations because she fears… hurting Seiji’s feelings? Many of her other acquaintances warn her to stay away from Seiji, but instead she gives him all the wine and the writing. Unsurprisingly, he betrays this trust and actually destroys a lot of the writing.
It's not clear from the text exactly why Barbara feels so drawn to Seiji and places so much trust in him. Maybe she’s lonely and looking for some connection, but she has other acquaintances that reach out to her after her friend’s death, and she either avoids them or hides large parts of herself from them without explanation. It seems likely that it’s mostly about the sex, but since this all happens off-screen, the reader isn’t really let in to that passion. We’re told that Barbara feels passionate toward Seiji, but she doesn’t seem to understand anything about him, his emotions, or his motivations. So her repeated and increased trust in him, despite many alarm bells, feels misplaced.
Barbara talks a lot about wanting to know more about her friend’s life, and we realize that she knew so little about it, it’s hard to imagine that they were actually even friends. She didn’t know about the woman’s daughter, for example, who had died only about a year before Barbara met her. She didn’t know she was a Hiroshima survivor, or that she knew Seiji’s family, or really anything else. So what was that friendship based on?
Also, I was kind of shocked that Barbara didn’t think twice about opening and drinking the wine she inherited, which her friend had saved unopened for decades. No hesitation about drinking the last of this wine that will ever exist, alone and in a bad mood or casually with Seiji. Really?
The author includes some really engaging detail about life in Japan at this time and about living in Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Barbara remains purposefully ignorant of the ongoing Vietnam War, and doesn’t seem particularly informed about World War II, aside from her America-based memories. Because of this, the most interesting character is Rie, a young Japanese woman from a low caste who survived the bomb, is politically involved, wants to tell her and her father’s story, and works at the American Air Force base rebuilding the faces of dead soldiers from Vietnam before their bodies are shipped home to the US. If the story had followed Rie more closely, I think I would have found it much more interesting.
Instead, the narrative sticks close to Barbara, who’s biggest conflict is whether she should continue to allow Seiji to translate these invaluable manuscripts slowly, dishonestly, and entirely at his convenience instead of just handing them all over to literally anyone else she’s met in Japan and having them all done at once. I was never convinced by her reasoning, and so most of the plot felt like it had a huge hole. Even so, those glimpses into Japanese life at this time—balanced between traditional social structures and the recent shame of World War II—were enough to keep me reading through to the end.
I usually try to read novels as stand-alone pieces of art. I avoid reviews and critical theories about the novel’s meaning/importance/symbolism/whatever. Sometimes, I’m aware of the context, or I’ll do little research on the setting, but not much. It’s not until after I finish a work that I try to find out how others interpreted it. Certainly, there are pros and cons to this strategy, and others may disagree with it. But it usually helps me to form my own opinion first and then let that opinion be influenced later.
However, I felt like I missed a lot in One Hundred Years of Solitude by following this strategy. This feels like a book that it best read in a college course, where a professor has identified a bunch of related readings and can lead a conversation about what it all means. At minimum, maybe it should just have a lot of editor’s footnotes in it.
Because I don’t know what this all means. I understand that it’s a reflection of Latin America, but I also know that I’m missing a lot of the context here. Even down to the title—time, in the novel, is presented as cyclical and repetitive, so who/what is alone for one hundred years? The language and the metaphors are beautiful throughout, but I can’t see what they’re obscuring.
I have more research to do here, obviously. At some later point, I’ll probably read this book again and re-evaluate my reaction to it. But for now, it has left me intrigued.
The author does a great job of allowing her letter-writing protagonist to damn himself through his own words. Somehow, although we never see their responses, we imagine the eye rolling and sighing that every one of his recipients must do when one of his letters arrives. He's not the only villain in this story, but it's really interesting to see through his words into the motivations that drive him.
The novel's format somewhat limits the action that can take place, but it allows a deeper than usual dive into one character's world view. I recommend this especially for readers in academia who're looking for a funny, character-driven drama (I wouldn't say this is a comedy).
More of a poem than a novel, and a better poem than most. Virginia Woolf pulls threads of images through the fabric of individual characters’ lives in a way that exposes their innermost thoughts and feelings, impressions they may even hesitate to admit to themselves, let alone to the other characters around them. By exposing her characters down to their essences, Woolf creates a cast of distinct individuals that readers can relate to one by one through the common humanity of their anxieties and sudden waves of affection.
Although the narrative jumps frequently from one character’s mind to another, the impressions are distinct and clear enough that the reader doesn’t get lost in the translation of these cloud-like expressions to the printed page. We understand James’s seething hatred just as we understand why his father continues to tickle his leg. We understand Lily’s certainty about moving the tree toward the middle just as we understand Tansley’s insistence that women can’t paint, can’t write.
There’s not much plot to the story. In parts 1 and 3, the focus instead is on a microscopic view of a few hours of life. In part 2, the view zooms out so far that 10 years pass in an instant. These hours may not seem significant in the scheme of things—in parts 1 and 3, no one is born, no one dies—but they influence every life who experiences them. And Woolf‘s genius conveys this quiet drama beautifully.
Anansi Boys made me laugh, learn things, and cry just a bit. I loved the dynamic characters and the way they interacted with each other. In retrospect, there are quite a lot of characters who come in and out of the story throughout, but I never struggled to keep up with who was who. Each one felt well rounded and acted with motivation. And the plot moved forward at a good pace, jumping between three main locations and justifying each jump. The magic mixes seamlessly with the non-magic world in a way that the reader could believe that this maybe just could happen, does happen every day.
I listened to Anansi Boys narrated by Lenny Henry, who was spectacular. I often forgot that there was one reader doing the different voices for the characters—each one was so distinct and so suited to the character. Before many details of the character were revealed (and Neil Gaiman does a wonderful job of doling out details of the characters throughout the narrative), I felt like I knew a bit about them just from the voice that Henry gave them.
I don’t read a lot of “women’s fiction,” and this book reminded me why. It’s like the Lifetime Network in book form. Thoughtless characters in ridiculous situations who explain every bit of their inner dialogues without addressing the gaping plot holes or even what anything looks like.
The Summer of France is about a woman. She has a husband who is an uptight, well-muscled accountant. That makes him among the best-described characters in the book. They have two teen-aged twins, a girl who swims a lot and a boy who… I don’t remember what he does. Due to an implausible series of events, the woman finds herself managing a bed and breakfast in southern France, on her own, without experience or the ability to speak French. Her family is there, but they all choose not to help their obviously struggling wife/mother and instead go have sex with French people elsewhere. And she’s like, yeah, that’s cool, nothing I can do about it.
Then, though another implausible series of events, she ends up on the back of a motorcycle in a borrowed full-leather outfit, holding on to a very sexy (but maybe not trustworthy?) Frenchman, in an effort to smuggle a stolen painting into the Krakow museum in Poland. Does it matter how this came about? Only enough to say that she discovered the painting in her B&B and never addressed why she couldn’t smuggle it into a French museum, closer to home. She definitely had to drive to Poland and stay in sexy, fancy hotels because it possibly came from there originally. Possibly.
Despite how asinine I found these characters and the plot, I did finish it (on the beach), so at least it kept me that much engaged.
A trustworthy friend in college recommended Jesus’ Son to me. About 13 years later, I got around to reading it. After wading through the first half or so, I put it aside without a favorable impression. I thought maybe my moment for these stories had passed. Like Bukowski, maybe they seemed more interesting to undergrads. Stories of the gritty side of life that none of us had experienced. As I got older, I got a few glimpses of that grittier world, and I went running in the other direction.
A (different) friend noticed that I left two stars on GoodReads without comment and reached out. Amanda and I met one evening for dinner and talked about the book. What she made me realize is that I tend to want to place myself wholly in the shoes of the main character. Especially with a first-person narrator, I want to live and breathe this personality. I want to feel his choices and the effects of those choices. But that’s maybe not the best way to take Jesus’ Son.
I felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable reading this, which manifested in getting defensive against it. But Amanda helped me realize that this was a very safe way to view this world. I’m not actually there. I’m not actually too stoned to deal with a dangerous situation. I’m not driving a dead body around in my car without brakes. I’m not lost in the woods in a pick-up with some dying bunnies. I’m safe in my room/on the beach/at the coffee shop, just hearing a story about someone else’s life.
Once I could disconnect from the narrator in that way, I enjoyed these stories much more. I finished the book, and I could finally see the poetry in the language, in the images, and in the plot structures. I still don’t wish I knew this narrator in real life. But I appreciate that these stories gave me a glimpse into a world that’s safer viewed from the outside. And I’m grateful that Jesus’ Son and Amanda helped me learn how to read in a new way.
I found this one though an online algorithm and was not disappointed. Sebastian is a relatable-enough character (even without reading the first installment of this series), and I liked that the mystery was neither obvious nor difficult due to omission.
The story is pretty intriguing. There’s an eccentric nobleman who may have been driven mad in the Amazon, a spate of abused and murdered girls, English suffragettes, a freak show, a local terrorism event, metal health disorders, early electric technical glitches, and lots of other stuff. Without having lived through the era myself, it felt well researched and coherent, even though it gathered a lot of different aspects of the times.
And even with all that, I think it was the characters who really drove this story. Sebastian works too much, but is empathetic, and the decisions he make all make sense in the context of the story. He’s surrounded by an autistic son, a working wife (as a hospital administrator), and an old maid sister-in-law, who all have distinct personalities. One event near the end of the novel--too spoiler-y to mention in detail--actually brought me to tears.
Overall, a good, easy read that kept me engaged throughout.
I used to think Jenny Slate was referring to a compilation of EM Forster novels. Then I read The Portrait of a Lady. And yeah, that's definitely what she's talking about. I even tried to appreciate the feminist message here, but the truth is that I don't relate to that goddamn story! Once I figured out that Isabel and Henrietta weren't having a secret lesbian relationship, it got especially boring.
Just read a Dilbert and go to sleep.
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