Category Archives: Fiction

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker

2019 has been a good reading year so far!

The Dreamers is Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel, after The Age Of Miracles (reviewed here). I loved her first book, and I loved this one too.

In a small California college town called Santa Lora, a girl in a freshman dorm falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. She goes to the local hospital and they can’t figure out what is wrong with her or why she sleeping so soundly and for so long. Soon, another girl on the same floor also falls asleep, and before long, there are several affected students in the dorm. The school quarantines the kids, eventually moving them to the school gym, but soon the sickness has spread beyond the school to other people living in Santa Lora. The condition – identified as a virus – affects young and old, and the hospital eventually becomes so crowded that the sleepers are housed in libraries and gyms and anywhere where cots and IVs can be set up.

Doctors and nurses caring for the sick catch the virus themselves, and the health facilities become desperately short-staffed. The whole city is quarantined while the worsening situation gains attention worldwide, Businesspeople in town for a conference are marooned when the whole city is walled off, and they eventually fall asleep too. A psychiatrist called in from Los Angeles is barred from leaving, separating her from her young daughter a hundred miles away. Desperate parents wait outside the perimeter for word on their students, while kids in Santa Lora are temporarily orphaned and pets run wild in the streets. Meanwhile the sleepers all share something else in common: while asleep, they dream intensely, their brains registering more signs of activity than ever before recorded.

The virus and public health element of The Dreamers was very interesting, but what I loved about this book was Walker’s treatment of the people affected by the epidemic. The two girls whose survivalist father fell asleep, leaving them to fend for themselves. The couple with a newborn. The professor whose partner was in a nursing home, felled by dementia. Like in The Age Of Miracles, Walker is adept at making the universal extremely personal. She especially treats people in transition – adolescents, new parents, etc. – with keen understanding and sympathy.

The Dreamers was a 4.5 star read, only because the ending is a bit murky. I wondered how Walker was going to end the story, and what its purpose ultimately would be. In the ARC I read, there is an interview with Walker in which her interviewer, the author Karen Russell, says, “Dreams seem to me to be the most honest communication a body can have with itself” (um, YES). As the afflicted wake up from their sleep, they talk about the intense dreams that had and mourn the loss of people who existed only in their slumber. Walker let her characters explore in sleep what was unfamiliar or unknown in their lives, and that was meaningful. But ultimately, I found the rest of the book even more compelling, as her characters had to deal with the effects of the epidemic on their own evolving lives.

DAISY JONES & THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’m not sure that the book blogosphere has ever been as excited about an upcoming novel as it is about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six (release date March 5). I was lucky to get my hands on a review copy and read it because I just couldn’t wait until March. This is the fourth TJR book I’ve read in the last year and the hype had me very intrigued.

Daisy Jones & The Six is a fictional oral history of a rock band from the 70s called The Six. The lead singer of The Six, Billy Dunne, was a brilliant singer and songwriter, but was dogged by addiction and his past failings. Daisy Jones, another brilliant but troubled singer and songwriter, found her way to the band, joining it for one iconic album that catapulted the group to stardom and thrust the relationship between the two singers into the spotlight.

The book is told in the style of a Vulture or Rolling Stone oral history, with the story related through the words of the band members and others close to The Six. You hear everyone’s perspectives on the events that happened – the tour dates, the recording sessions, the drug binges (Daisy), the temptations (Billy), the band’s inevitable breakup and the milestones experienced by the other band members. It’s not until the end of the book that you discover who was doing the interviewing, and why.

I liked Daisy Jones & The Six, but not as much as I’d hoped. The beginning felt very familiar, as it included many of the typical rock cliches that pop up on every episode of Behind The Music. Then the book got a little more surprising, as Daisy and Billy’s relationship became more complicated. The question of whether these two flawed people, who were passionately drawn to each other, would end up exploring that passion or resisting it kept me interested throughout the book. It’s easy to forget that The Six didn’t actually exist because Reid makes the book so realistic. (There are even song lyrics at the end.) Ultimately, though, I found drugs/drinking vs sobriety/commitment angle a little tiresome. So many pills, so much coke – it all kind of blurred together. And that detracted from the overall power of the story.

The oral history format worked well here and made the book flow quickly.

Daisy Jones & The Six is going to be a big hit, and Amazon has already ordered a 13-episode limited series co-produced by Reese Witherspoon. I promise that you will be hearing a lot about it. It was a decent read, and as someone who loves rock history, I enjoyed many of the backstage elements of the story. In the end, though. just didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped.

THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai

What a great way to kick off the 2019 reading year.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a dense, rich novel that toggles back and forth between Chicago in the mid-80s and Paris in 2015. The Chicago chapters follow a group of gay friends as AIDS ravages their community and upends their relationships, plans and careers. In 2015, one of the characters from the 80s chapters has come to Paris in search of her estranged daughter, and while there she reconnects with some of the people she knew in Chicago after her brother died of AIDS, one of the early deaths in the community.

I was too young in the 80s to truly grasp at the time how devastating AIDS was to the gay community, how it completely changed how these men lived their lives. The Great Believers brings it all into sharp focus, exploring how a positive diagnosis – and a negative one, for that matter – affected how they related to their partners and their friends. It’s hard to imagine a whole generation of men – many of whom had dealt with discrimination and estrangement from their own families – who were planning and looking forward to their futures, only to have them cut off in the cruelest and most painful way. Some passages I marked in the book:

“There was this tiny window where we were safer, and happier. I thought it was the beginning of something. When really it was the end.”

“If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. f you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.”

“Let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Because this isn’t Mother May I. You’re not always advancing. I know it feels that way right now, but it’s fragile. You might look back in fifty years and say, ‘That was the last great time.'”

“As he got sicker, it was more and more often that he thought of people – of Charlie, certainly, and of everyone else here or gone: not as the sum of all the disappointments, but as every beginning they’d ever represented, every promise.”

Devastating.

I got totally immersed in The Great Believers, finding myself thinking about these characters often when I wasn’t reading, worried about them and invested in how their lives would turn out. (I had to remind myself frequently that they weren’t real!) Makkai clearly did a lot of research, not just on AIDS and the gay community in the 80s, but also about art, which plays a big prominent role in the book. I also really appreciated her attention to detail, little observations that made the book so believable. She’s an incredibly talented writer.

In the end, The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.

ASYMMETRY by Lisa Halliday

I picked up Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday because I had heard really good things about it. It’s on a number of Best Books of 2018 lists, and people I know who read a lot of Books Smart People Like either want to read it or read it and loved it.

I did not like it.

Asymmetry is three novellas in one. In the first, a twentysomething editorial assistant named Alice has a relationship with a very famous and successful author in his 60s named Ezra (he’s based on Philip Roth). In the second novella, an Iraqi-American named Amar is detained at Heathrow airport en route home to Iraq to see his family. And in the third, the same author, Ezra, from the first section is interviewed about his favorite music of all time and why it is influenced him. The third section allegedly ties the first two together.

So. Asymmetry is one of those books that I. Just. Didn’t. Get. The first section was good. I liked Halliday’s depiction of relationship between the woman and the author, and all the ways he both pushed her away and drew her to him at the same time. I could have taken a whole book about these two. But then the second part came along, and it’s just so… boring. The scenes at the airport are moderately interesting (what happens to him, though? does he ever make it to Iraq?) but there is all this meandering stuff in between, about the man’s life leading up to the detention, including his childhood and his ex-girlfriend and his career and his grandmother’s house and oh my god I had to skim it. Then there’s the random Desert Island Disc section, where you learn a little more about Ezra and the different music he liked.

This book lost me pretty early on and never got me back.

So, other than some good writing and a compelling story of a basically inappropriate relationship, what was the point of Asymmetry and why do people love it so much? I am waiting for my dad to read it so he can explain it to me. If you’ve read it, please weigh in and tell me what it is that I missed.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis

When I was little, I loved the Chronicles of Narnia series. I had a box set and read them all. I didn’t remember much about them, other than that I loved their dark, mysterious stories, when I decided to pick up the first one, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, to read to my 6 year-old son. He’s a bit younger than I was when I read them (I read them to myself) but we’re in the chapter book phase now and I thought he might like them. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is about four siblings, Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmund, who are evacuated from London during WWII and sent to live with a professor in the countryside. Bored, they spend their days exploring the professor’s big house. One day, the youngest, Lucy, hides in a large wardrobe and finds herself transported to a magical, snowy land called Narnia. When she returns to the wardrobe, no time has passed in real life and her siblings do not believe her. But soon, her brother Edmund also ends up in Narnia, and before long all of them have gone through the magic wardrobe.

Narnia is under the spell of a wicked witch, who has imposed permanent winter across the land. The spell can only be unbroken when four humans come to Narnia and sit on thrones in the castle. When the kids end up in Narnia together, Edmund is captured by the witch, while the others try to liberate Narnia with the help of a noble lion-king, Aslan.

I enjoyed revisiting Narnia and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It feels just a bit dated, from the British slang to some of the comments about girls, but the book sparked my dormant sense of wonder at fantasy stories about faraway lands. (I don’t read much of that anymore.) I also recognized the Christian imagery, for which C.S. Lewis is famous, much more this time around. It was pretty much lost on me as a child.

Here’s what my six year-old had to say: “It was interesting. I liked what happened in the end. It wasn’t boring. I was worried about what was going to happen to the characters.”

I found some of the book a little scary for a six year-old (one of the characters is captured and treated as a prisoner; Aslan is killed; there is a lot of description of battles and casualties) but it didn’t seem to bother my son.

There are good themes for kids here: loyalty to your family; triumph of good over bad. 

We’re going to start the next book in the series soon.

Best Books of 2018

In past years, I’ve done a Reading Year In Review as my last post of the year, including my standout reads from the last 12 months. This year, I’m adding a Best Books of 2018 post, because everyone else is doing one. (It’s always important to do what everyone else is doing, right?) 

Ok, here goes: my favorite 8 books of 2018 and why I liked them. These weren’t necessarily my favorites as I was reading them, but with time to reflect, they are the ones that I found the most moving and beautifully written, and which have stayed with me over the months. I’ve linked to my original reviews for each title.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is my #1 read of the year. Poignant, with spare writing and insights about being a woman, family and parenting, this book was a recent read and well worth it.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ll read anything she writes, but every page of this collection of stories was enjoyable. Memorable characters, believable situations. I want to re-read this one. 

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. If the purpose of a memoir is to let the world know who you really are, then this one succeeded in spades. It’s long and sometimes meandering but hey, it’s Bruce, so it’s ok.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. The first 3/4 of this book was very slow, but the final quarter made up for it. Heartbreaking, deeply moving and a story that has stayed with me for months.

Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman. Don’t let the subject matter – a severely wounded soldier lying in a coma while his conflicted wife waits for his condition to change – drive you away. This short novel raises a number of ethical questions and is a good reminder of the constant danger our soldiers face.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Theres’s a reason this book is all over everyone else’s top 2018 reads. It’s a small story about a love triangle that says big things about the state of race in America. So well written and beautifully constructed.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman. This one was a sleeper. I liked it fine when I read it, but the main character has really stayed with me and in retrospect I think this was a pretty good book. It’s sad and lonely and atmospheric, and at the same time it’s totally believable.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I re-read my favorite book from 2017 and loved it just as much. I’ll shut up now.

WAITING FOR EDEN by Elliot Ackerman

The title character in Elliot Ackerman’s novel Waiting For Eden is a U.S. soldier who has been gravely wounded in Iraq. When the book opens, he is being airlifted to a burn center in San Antonio, the most wounded U.S. soldier in history. For the next few years, he lies unconscious in the hospital. visited by family for the first year or so, and then only by his wife, Mary.

There are three main characters in the book: Eden, Mary and Eden’s comrade, who is unnamed and who was killed by the same bomb that hurt Eden. Eden’s friend knew Mary and Eden before they deployed to Iraq, and his unspooling of their shared history parallels the process of Eden’s regaining consciousness in the hospital when Mary leaves his side to spend Christmas with their daughter and her mother.

For a short book, Waiting for Eden packs an emotional punch. Eden is trapped in his own head, unable to communicate but desperately willing those around him to understand what he’s experiencing and – painfully – how badly he wants it to end. Mary carries her own guilt about Eden and their relationship, yet she is fiercely loyal to what remains of her husband. By the end, the two are locked in a battle of wills – his desire to put an end to his suffering and her inner conflict fueled by her resentment of his voluntary deployment. Meanwhile Mary and the narrator both 

All three of these sad characters remain in equipoise as the narrator waits for his friend on the other side, Mary waits for clarity and Eden waits to die.

Waiting for Eden is a very powerful and memorable book. This review doesn’t do it justice – it’s a must-read. Ackerman’s writing is spare but devastating, and while the book is concise, the story is rich and dimensional. Don’t let the grim subject deter you.