Book Club: No Talking

It has been too long since I did a Book Club post. I used to personally prepare discussion questions for every book club I attended or lead, and I loved doing that. I’ve dropped off it, though, because the difference between working part- and full-time is no joke. I’d love to keep doing it, but I would rather spend my limited free time reading, writing other things, hanging out with my family, walking my puppy, or watching TV. I still love writing book club discussion questions; I just don’t prioritize it anymore. But I still have a backlog of discussion prompts that I wrote back when I was in the habit of doing it regularly.

Andrew Clements was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid. I particularly loved Things Not Seen, but that was a departure from his usual. He usually writes contemporary middle-grade stories about a child encounters a very specific problem at school and who (with the help of a sympathetic adult, usually a teacher but occasionally a parent or other mentor) eventually rises above it. One such book is No Talking, which follows a class of chatterboxes who decide to a battle of the sexes during which they will decide who can stay the quietest for the longest period. (Another such book is Frindle, for which I also wrote book club questions).

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I didn’t have a particularly fruitful discussion with this book. I think it is a very interesting story, and I think that it could make for a very sophisticated, nuanced discussion is you get the right kids. I did not have the right kids in my group (or, perhaps, they were in a very immature mood that day). Young kids don’t always stay on task, and sometimes they refuse to be lead to even the most blatant themes. Still, despite that, I think that No Talking could be a very good choice for class discussion… although I personally might want to try it with sixth grade or older next time, because my fourth/fifth graders really made me feel for the poor, harried teachers at the very beginning of the novel, before their students had learned about respectful communication.

If you pick this book for your group, I wish you better luck than I had, and I hope that these prompts can help you to a lively, engaged discussion:

(Note: As always, these prompts cover the whole book, and spoilers are inevitable)

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Book Club: Better Luck Next Time (+Mini Review)

It’s always weird to read a book for the first time and then turn around to run a book club on it. You take notes, but because you have no idea where the story is going, the notes you take aren’t always focused on the right things. Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson was not the book I expected. Based on the description and the blurbs, I expected it to be cynical and darkly comedic, a reflection on gender imbalance and divorce that would make the reader laugh and cry with the same wry observations. The real thing is more hopeful. It’s about a few specific divorcees more than it is about divorce in general, and I would be quicker to label it a romance than a comedy. It doesn’t necessarily follow the necessary story blocks for a romance—it lacks the cookie-cutter happily-ever-after that romances must employ—but I certainly didn’t laugh enough to consider Better Luck Next Time primarily by its ability to amuse. It wasn’t not funny, but it wasn’t funny. If that makes sense. Like, I didn’t laugh much, but I also never thought this is trying and failing to be funny.

My overall impression of the novel is that it doesn’t really fit in any category. It’s too cynical to be a great love story, but too neat and romantic to feel like real life. It includes too many difficult subjects to be a fluff piece, but doesn’t reflect deeply enough on them to be traditionally literary. It’s too tragic to be a comedy and too lighthearted to be a tragedy. It sits right there in the middle, and the overall effect is that it is a good read but not quite a great one. I didn’t have any difficulty preparing discussion questions (scattered notes aside), but I can’t see Better Luck Next Time topping critics’ lists of best novels or individual people’s lists of personal favorites. I liked the characters. I wanted things to go well for them and I was interested to know their secrets, but I don’t think they’ll stick with me.

That said, the fact that I liked but did not love this novel makes me think that it’s a particularly good choice for a general book club. Half the point of a book club is to get people to pick up titles they’d otherwise overlook, and for that reason a good pick should appeal to lots of different kinds of readers. While I think that Better Luck Next Time should have backed off its love story to focus even more on the socioeconomic realities of the many divorcees at the ranch, there are likely readers who felt Emily and Ward’s relationship spoke more to them than the reflections on classism and feminism. Better Luck Next Time has the ability to reach a wide swath of readers, and for that reason I’d strongly recommend it to a diverse group to read together, but not necessarily to an individual looking for their next favorite.


What’s it about?

In the thirties, Ward was a cowboy at a dude ranch for divorcees; wealthy women would flock to Reno, stay at the ranch long enough to become Reno residents and obtain their divorces, and then return to their lives one husband fewer. As an old man, Ward reflects back on his experiences, specifically the events of one particular summer that brought two particular women into his life: Nina, a carefree young aviator divorcing her third husband and Emily, an heiress who lives for her daughter.     

Please feel free to use these discussion questions for your own book club discussions. Be aware that these questions are full of spoilers, so make sure you’ve finished Better Luck Next Time before diving in.

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Book Club: Leave the World Behind (+Mini Book Review)

Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind has been getting a lot of hype recently, and for good reason. It’s a fantastic book: well-written, socially aware, terrifying, and completely comfortable dwelling on the uncertainties that so many of us would rather ignore. It’s the kind of book that will stick with you, make you think about things you need to think about, and force you to confront things you’d rather not.

I say this a lot about books I was assigned to read for book club: I would not have read this if left to my own devices. Like I said when I talked about The Pull of the Stars: when things are going badly in the world, my impulse is often to retreat into escapist fiction. That book was about a pandemic. This one is about a family isolated in their house while the world collapses around them. I’ve read lots of dystopian novels; I love YA, and dystopia is a staple of YA. The difference between Leave the World Behind and those other books is that there is no Katniss Everdeen. The characters are all normal people, and when the world is ending normal people keep their heads down and try to go about their day as much as is possible.

I mean, look at us. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and everyone is all I’m bored of this let me throw a crowded party because heaven forbid I change my day-to-day activities to stop the spread of a plague. I still have to go to work. Book club has moved to Zoom and everyone acts like that’s a giant imposition because it’s not as much fun. Like, duh. I know it’s not. But you can’t just ignore a cataclysmic event just because it’s, like, kind of annoying.

I think I’m in the minority in that I’ve always known that in a crisis situation I’d be the one quietly cowering in the corner (or maybe loudly cowering, but definitely in the corner and definitely cowering). I’ve talked about books and movies with enough people to get the impression that people think of themselves as the hero in the story. Most people want to believe that, if it came down to it, they’d be the one to save the day. I wish I’d be the person to save the day, but I know I definitely wouldn’t. The best I can hope is that I wouldn’t make things actively worse. I think that’s why people are so uncomfortable with this novel.

When my book club read Leave the World Behind, almost everyone was upset by the book’s lack of clear-cut answers and savior storyline. They kept asking what happened? Why didn’t anyone do x, y, or z? Is this really going to end without the world being saved? Why did Amanda and Clay and the rest of them just stay home and make food instead of saving the day? It is definitely an uncomfortable read, because it mirrors real life more than the traditional story structures we’re so used to. And it’s absolutely brilliant for that.

It forces the reader to think about institutionalized discrimination (most specifically racism, but homophobia and sexism are very much present as well) all the while depicting a lockdown situation that’s uncomfortably familiar to most of us reading it now. It forces us to consider what we’d do if the world were ending, and because of when it came out, it forces us to reflect on what we’re doing now when the world is in such terrible shape. How many of us are out there, actively fixing things? Not that many. It’s easy to point at Clay and say, he’s weak. It’s much harder to come to grips with the fact that, in his situation, most of us would respond (and are responding) just like he does.

In short, was this a fantastic book? Yes. Was it emotionally taxing and bad for my short-term mental health? Also yes. I mean, I’m prone to stress-related nightmares, but they definitely increased while I was reading this. I do think this is a great book and people should definitely read it, but also…

As always, these questions are full of spoilers.

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Book Club: The Pull of the Stars

It’s been a little bit since I’ve had book club, because–like everything else in the world–COVID-19 threw a wrench into it. But my club is meeting for the first time since all the shutdowns (virtually, for the first time ever!) and that means that it’s time to dig into another book. This time, the book is The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. I’m planning to post a standard review of it some time in the near future; this post is for discussion prompts only.

Update: here’s that review

As always, please feel free to use these questions in your own book clubs, and be aware that they do include spoilers.

Discussion Starters for The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

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Book Club: Florence Adler Swims Forever

florence adler swims foreverIt’s been a little while since I’ve written book club discussion questions, since the shut down has successfully shut down the book club. Now, with the plan to reinstate virtual book clubs, I’m back. I’ve determined that these work the best if I try to keep the questions themselves fairly neutral and leave my personal opinions in a different post. I posted my review a while back–you can read that here–but I think it very likely that my opinions may have bled through to these questions more than usual. I tried my utmost to keep some semblance of neutrality, but I have some real problems with Florence Adler Swims Forever and I was not able to entirely edit them out. Make of that what you will!

As always, these questions are FULL of spoilers so don’t read them unless you’re okay with that.

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Book Club: Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses - WikipediaThe best children’s books enchant adults without losing the ability to delight children. Kate DiCamillo is a wonderful writer. Without exception I love every one of DiCamillo’s books that I’ve read. Most people cite Because of Winn-Dixie or The Tale of Despereaux as their favorites, and while they’re great, my preferences lie elsewhere. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulene is underrated and fantastic. Flora & Ulysses is less underrated–it won a Newbery Medal–but no less beloved by me. It’s especially special to me because I attended one of DiCamillo’s readings when she was promoting it. DiCamillo was as charming in person as her books suggest, and she’s one of the biggest authors whose autograph I have. I got to run a book club on Flora & Ulysses a few years ago, and it was so much fun because it is an apparently easy read that has beautiful themes underneath. Flora & Ulysses is creative in its use of media, it’s full of lovable characters and adorable illustrations, and it is genuinely funny and heartfelt.

Please enjoy these discussion questions, and be aware that they do include spoilers.

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Book Club: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Image result for from the mixed up files of mrs basilIt’s been a little while since I posted anything, since–due to circumstance–I’ve been rereading books that I’ve already reviewed. Since I seem to get the most traffic on book club discussions anyway, I figured I’d post some questions that I’ve had lying around.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg is an incredibly fun story about two children who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and live there for some time by, among other things, collecting coins from wishing fountains and hiding from security in bathroom stalls.

Konigsburg was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid. I read Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth more times than I can count. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of her best-known books, and it’s a great one to start with if you’ve never read her work before. And if you’re stuck indoors, as most of you probably are, now is as good a time as any to grab a fun, quick read!

Spoilers from here on out.

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Book Club: American Dirt

Image result for american dirt coverFor American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, I separated my book club discussion starters from my review because it’s such a controversial book. My review is my opinion, so I didn’t shy away from talking about which side of the controversy I come down on. I try to keep my discussion starters as impartial as possible (but I’m human, so it has probably bled through some), so I tried to bring up talking points from both sides when warranted.

As always, discussion questions are full of spoilers. Enjoy!

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Book Club: Dear Edward (+Mini Book Review)

dear edwardOne of the best things about a book club is that it forces you to read books that normally you wouldn’t touch. I was immediately turned off by the description of Ann Napolitano’s novel Dear Edward. I was actually dreading reading it, because mass casualty never makes for a fun read, and as a person who is already terrified of flying, I figured a book about a plane crash was going to increase that fear.

I mean, it did. My worst nightmare (literally; I have nightmares about this all the time) is everyone around me dying, leaving me all alone. That’s the actual plot of Dear Edward, and as a result I had a lot of nightmares while reading it. I think I had one every night while I was reading it. One of the ladies at book club felt similarly and actually put off purchasing airline tickets for herself and her family because of Dear Edward.

That said, Dear Edward is an excellent book. The writing is emotional and clear. There are tons of characters, but they are balanced so well that I didn’t notice until I was done how many there actually are. Napolitano manages to depict fully-formed characters with the barest of segments: she introduces the crash’s victims, spends a few pages with them, and somehow leaves the reader with the impression that he or she knows everyone well.

My only qualm with Dear Edward is the neat way things are tied up in the last few paragraphs. It’s overly romanticized, and feels drastically less real than the rest of the novel.

Discussion Starters!

connor murphy spoilers

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Book Club: The Family Upstairs (+Mini Review)

family upstairsI try to keep an open mind when I read outside my comfort zone. I have my favorite genres, but I always hope that when I read something else I’ll love it so much that I’ll be converted. Thrillers aren’t my thing, but I have read some exceptional ones (Gone Girl comes to mind). I was willing to go into The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell expecting the best, but unfortunately I did not get the best. Despite some decent writing, The Family Upstairs is ultimately a poorly constructed mystery that falls apart the closer you look and which expresses some deeply unsettling ideas (and not the good, thriller-y kind).

What’s it about?

When Libby turns twenty-five, she inherits a house that was in a trust for her. When Libby was a baby, she was found in a house at the scene of what was apparently a ritualistic suicide, and now the house is hers. Her parents and a third, unidentified man were found dead; Libby was upstairs, perfectly happy; and the other children in the house disappeared. Finally in possession of some of the facts of her early life, Libby gets in contact Miller, a journalist who covered the story when it broke, in the hopes that together they will  find out exactly what happened in that house.

What’d I think?

Caution Angry RantDisclaimer: I did not like this book. I had major issues with it, and this is not a complimentary review. My discussion questions are neutral, though, so you can skip to them if you would like to bypass the negativity. Also, this post is not spoiler-free. I usually try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but there was no way for me to express about what I wanted to express about this book without spoiling some (but not all) major plot points. The discussion questions, as always, spoil everything.

I had to force myself to keep reading. I wanted to know the answers to all the questions, but I got bored in the actual process of reading. Also, the farther I got into the book, the more I had this uncomfortable feeling—not quite dread, but definitely something akin to it. Dread light, maybe—because there are some very gross, damaging themes in The Family Upstairs and as I read I kept thinking, “Oh, no, is she going to…? Oh, okay. Yes, she is.”

Judging purely from The Family Upstairs, I have to assume that Lisa Jewell is anti-millennial, anti-LGBTQ+, and pro-pedophilia. Obviously I don’t know Lisa Jewell personally. It’s possible she’s a lovely person. But she goes out of her way to soften the blow of forty-year-old man having sex with a fourteen-year-old girl who he keeps locked up while simultaneously and joyfully playing directly into the depraved homosexual trope. Libby eventually ends up in a romantic relationship with Miller–who, again, was an adult journalist writing about the deaths of Libby’s family when she was an infant–and goes out of her way to establish that she’s a good millennial. She doesn’t like tattoos and she definitely doesn’t eat avocado toast (so of course she was able to afford a home even before inheriting one). Seriously. Jewell feels so strongly about the avocado toast that it comes up in the novel itself and in her afterward. These undercurrents are suffocating and upsetting. I was willing to laugh at the ageist stuff, and was generally onboard at the beginning at the novel, but about halfway through it was obvious that Jewell was using Henry’s gayness to fuel the implication that he’s a psychopath. Once that started, the justification-of-old-guys-having-sex-with-very-young-girls followed and that was the end of my goodwill.  I’m pretty lukewarm on thrillers in general, but when there are gross themes in a book that go against my morals, that’s it. I can’t like it even if the rest of it is great.

The rest of The Family Upstairs is not great.

Jewell sets up what appears to be a complicated mystery, but when we actually find out what happened in the house all those years ago… it’s way too simple and only makes sense if you don’t look too closely. Apparently the police and everyone who investigated the deaths—including Miller, who was so dedicated to his investigations of the incident that he spent two years on it and ruined his marriage in the process—was staggeringly incompetent. Jewell drags things out ridiculously slowly, presumably because once the main characters are in the same spot, everything comes to light immediately. Everyone just opens up their mouths and spits out their whole stories. Seriously? Not a single person was able to track down the missing kids? Phin changed the spelling of his name slightly and Henry creepily absorbed Phin’s identity by taking on his name (with one letter changed). It should not have been that hard to find them. The only explanation is that the police were all idiots. They found three corpses and apparently were aware that there were children missing, but they didn’t even thoroughly search the premises? We’re really supposed to believe with all that media scrutiny, no one was able to find the fourth body on the roof? It’s all just… eurgh.

There are so many holes in the plot that are disguised only by awkward pacing. Combine that with the awkward writing—who pairs third person with present tense?—and off-putting biases and you’ve got what, for me at least, is a resounding dud. I read some goodreads reviews that indicated that The Family Upstairs missed the mark even for longtime Lisa Jewell fans, which suggests that her other books are better, but I am certain that I will not read them. 

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Book Club: Holes

holesBecause of NaNoWriMo, I haven’t had time to write my usual book reviews and as a result this blog has suffered. Since my most popular posts are my book club discussion questions, I figured I would post questions I wrote a few years ago for one of my all-time favorite books: Louis Sachar’s phenomenal Holes. I’ve read Holes many times over the course of my life, and loved it every time. However, as I’ve aged and gotten better at reading, my love for Holes has expanded from thinking it’s a funny book with the best protagonist’s name ever to knowing that it is a masterful, nuanced novel full of complex issues and, yes, the best protagonist’s name ever.

If you haven’t read Holes yet, you should, no matter how old you are! It’s so, so good.

As is always the case, these prompts are full of spoilers. Read on only if you have finished Holes or don’t mind being spoiled.

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Book Club: Ninth House

ninth housePlease enjoy these discussion starters for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Feel free to use them in your own book clubs or to respond to them in the comments. These questions are full of spoilers, so make sure you’ve read the book before diving in!

It’s also worth mentioning that Ninth House deals with difficult subject matter and as a result these questions reference sexual assault and rape, violence towards women, abuse, drug use, and more. So… proceed with caution.

I’m also wrote a regular review for Ninth House. If you’re interested, you can read that here

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Book Club: The Testaments (+Mini Review)

the testaments
This is such a great cover! I didn’t notice the second girl for the longest time. 

As a general rule, I’m suspicious of unplanned sequels. If a writer goes into a story with the expectation that it will take more than one novel, I’m all in. If an author writes a novel they expect to be a one-and-done and then change their mind later, I’m skeptical at best. Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. That was one of the worst reading experiences of my life, because it wasn’t intended, there was an awkwardly long gap, and the end product simply doesn’t fit in with the existing series.

So when I hard that there was going to be a sequel to Margaret Atwood’s spectacular Handmaid’s Tale, my reaction was pretty much to nod knowingly at the TV show and mutter, “Cash cow.” To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn’t have read The Testaments if it hadn’t been for book club, because as good as The Handmaid’s Tale is… there’s a nearly 35-year gap between books, which leads me to believe that if there was supposed to be a sequel, Atwood would’ve written and published it years ago.

It would be wrong to say I wasn’t pleasantly surprised. Atwood is a consistantly good writer, and I found myself once again transported to her fictional and horrifying Gilead. I raced quickly through the book, and it was no problem whatsoever to finish it in the three days I gave myself before I needed to be ready for discussion. I never once worried about finishing on time or had to push myself to keep reading past when I was bored.

That being said, it would also be wrong to say that I wasn’t disappointed by The Testaments. Atwood builds Gilead masterfully in The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead is a deeply disturbing dystopian world that feels terrifyingly possible. The rise of the regime is described in terrifying detail, and Atwood hammers out the details with just enough specificity that the world is fully realized and frighteningly powerful. If The Handmaid’s Tale is about the rise of Gilead, The Testaments is about its fall, and the fall is nowhere as stunning. After its horrifying preciseness in the original novel, Gilead feels downright sloppy in the sequel. The protagonists are given powerful opportunities despite their obvious rebelliousness. Leaving Gilead is suddenly not only possible but, for some, a matter of routine. The architect of Gilead’s fall presents herself as brilliant and ten steps ahead of everyone else, but she avoids detection only by dumb luck; her plan has a lot of unnecessary steps and depends on occurrences that I can’t imagine happening in the Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Everything is too easy in The Testaments. I’m glad to see Gilead fall, naturally, but when the horrors of Gilead feel real, I want the joy of its collapse to feel real as well. I don’t want my response to a grand triumph to be a surprised and halfhearted, “Oh, wow. I guess that worked.” If anything, Gilead’s fall concerns me, because Gilead had to change so much and its leaders had to make so many careless oversights for it to crumble. The Handmaid’s Tale is the landmark piece of fiction it is because it is so skillfully written and feels so petrifyingly plausible. The Testaments, while also skillfully written, lacks the tightness and plausibility, so while I enjoyed reading it, I think on the whole The Handmaid’s Tale is better as a stand-alone novel.

Discussion Questions!

Feel free to use these at your own book clubs or wherever else they might be helpful. Be aware that there are major spoilers from here on out.

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Book Club: Inland (+Review)

inlandI read Téa Obreht’s sophomore novel Inland for book club. Going in, I was tentatively optimistic. Though I’ve never read The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht’s first novel, I’ve heard good things about it and Obreht, and the synopsis of Inland intrigued me. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but others dragged and overall I’d say my reading experience was mostly neutral but overall more negative than positive. I’ve been in a reading slump, and while Inland isn’t the worst book I’ve read this month, it certainly didn’t pull me out of the slump.

What’s it about?

Inland tells two nebulously connected stories that take place in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Nora is a frontierswoman whose husband and eldest two sons are missing. Lurie is an outlaw who joined the camel corps and is traveling across the desert with supplies. The novel straddles a number of genres: it is part western, part historical fiction, part magical realism, and part mystery.

What’d I think?

I suspect that Inland is a divisive book. Much of what I disliked comes down to preference: Obreht is bold with her writing, and while I’m not a big fan of many of her choices, that doesn’t make them bad.

The narration style is interesting, to say the least. Nora’s sections, which are thankfully longer than Lurie’s, are comprised largely of flashbacks. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel before that is set so near the end of its story, and I’ve definitely never read one that spends so much time is such a static period. Nora is waiting. She waits for her husband Emmett to return with water. She waits for her sons, who disappeared without word or warning. She waits to discover the long-term effects of her youngest son’s brain injury. But before the novel’s beginning, she was more active. In the many flashbacks, the reader experiences the highs and the lows of Nora’s life. Everything comes to a head when Nora’s waiting comes to an end, yes, but the circular, meandering way that Obreht chose to tell Nora’s story is peculiar. I’m used to flashbacks setting up the story, and I kept expecting them to end so that the real story could begin. I was more than halfway through Inland before I realized, no, the flashbacks are the story. The flashbacks don’t end until the novel does. It takes either a very good or a very bad writer to structure a novel like this. I think that Obreht is probably the former, even though it didn’t work for me. I did find Nora’s chapters generally interesting, though, which is more than can be said for Lurie’s.

Lurie’s sections drag the novel down. I’ve read the whole darn thing and I couldn’t tell you what the point of Lurie is. He adds very, very little to the plot (the connection between the stories, at least in my opinion, is profoundly underwhelming) and is deeply uninteresting. Also, his narration is in first person and addressed directly to his camel, Burke. Lurie is weirdly obsessed with Burke, and I see no reason why his story is in first person rather than third, like Nora’s. Nora is a much more interesting character and she has a lot more going on in her head. Lurie is kind of a blank slate minus his camel obsession and supposedly ghost-inspired kleptomania.

klaus where are you going with this umbrella academy
My response to all Lurie’s chapters

The novel’s magical realism is also quite weird. Many characters profess to see ghosts, but it’s never confirmed whether the ghosts are actual paranormal apparitions or if they exist only in the minds of those seeing them. Personally, I read them more as psychosomatic manifestations of guilt and regret more than anything magical. There’s something to be said for ambiguity, but sometimes ambiguity feels like pretentiousness. Maybe I was just in a weird mood when I read Inland, but it seemed to have a self-impressed undercurrent, like every sentence was written not to tell a strong story or to create characters, but to prove Obreht’s cleverness and technical writing prowess.

What’s the verdict?

Inland is simply not my kind of book. I’ve never liked westerns or survival stories, so a western survival story was never going to be my jam. Still, I did enjoy half the story; when the novel focuses on Nora, I kept reading and wanted to know more. Any time Lurie and his camel took center stage, though, I had to fight against myself to keep from setting the book aside because no matter how much I tried, I could not care about them. It didn’t help that I found the resolution of the novel, when the two storylines finally come together, singularly disappointing. I read 367 pages expecting that, eventually, Lurie’s presence in Inland would be warranted; in my opinion, it never was, and Obreht could have saved her time and mine by scrapping his half entirely.


Discussion Starters:

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Book Club: The Nickel Boys (+Mini Book Review)

nickel boysI usually love to read, but occasionally I’ll come across a book that, for me, doesn’t work on any level and it takes me a whole week to read 200 pages. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is one such book. I’m stringently opposed to DNFing, but if this weren’t for a book club, I would have been sorely tempted to toss it and not look back. Historical fiction isn’t my go-to genre, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Whitehead and I very much expected to be impressed by his writing.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time connecting to the characters. The Nickel Boys doesn’t seem to know if it’s the story of one particular Nickel boy or all of them collectively. As a result, the narrative seems to lose track of itself. There are full chapters that focus on characters who are window dressing at best.

Any novel that takes place in the aftermath of the Jim Crow laws is going to deal with intense racism and other unpleasant subject matter, but fiction has an obligation to be more than a depiction of historically accurate suffering. That suffering has to be connected to something. A sense of hope. A call to action. Compelling characters. Empathy and understanding for the suffering. Anything. The Nickel Boys left me with a sense of despair and hopelessness.

It’s somewhat difficult to follow. It jumps forward and backwards in time and skips around to different characters, some of whom have not been introduced before and who never appear again. As far as a I can tell, there’s no reason for the time jumps or framing device except to set up a twist that feels pretty emotionally manipulative.

I’m glad to be done with The Nickel Boys. That being said, having discussed it at book club, I now have a much better understanding and appreciation for it. The best thing you can do if you disliked a book is to discuss it, because often that’ll open you up to different patterns of thinking. It’s not even always that someone else says something that you find yourself agreeing with. Sometimes it will just be people mentioning things you’d forgotten that allow you to reshape your thoughts in a different context. I still can’t say that I liked The Nickel Boys, but once I was released from the emotionally exhaustive work of reading it, I realized there’s more to it than I first realized.

Note: this review has been updated (10/29/19)

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