Ready for another edition of capsule book reviews? (I read so much faster than I write blog posts! Sigh. Blogger problems.) Anyway, I had a great run of enjoyable books in September!
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
I am decidedly NOT queasy or easily-squicked out. I’m a fan of senseless violence and the darkness in the human heart. One of my favorite books is Blood Meridian, for goodness sake! But this nonfiction novel about cadavers had me close to fainting at points. Seriously! I had to stop reading it on the subway a couple times because I was so grossed out. (To my credit, most of the dead body stuff was okay; it was when she wrote about the experiments done on living animals that I felt lightheaded.) Despite that, however, I thought this was a completely engrossing exploration of what happens to human bodies after death. Roach covers medical research, organ donation, car safety research, composting, and more, and does it in her usual chatty, witty, endnote-laden manner. She’s a master at injecting her voice and personality into a narrative without making it all about her. So in spite of my queasiness, I think Stiff is more than deserving of praise. Four out of five stars.
Mr. Toppit, by Charles Elton
Arthur, author of a little-known children’s fantasy series, dies, starting an unpredictable chain of events for his family to muddle through. Told from the point-of-view of his son–on whom the hero of the fantasy novels was based–we follow the family’s slow decline and the ascent of Laurie, an American tourist and witness to Arthur’s death. I enjoyed Mr. Toppit, but too many things were glossed over or unaddressed for me to find it an entirely satisfactory read. Characters were both unlikable and opaque; I couldn’t stand Laurie or bring myself to care about her motivations. It also stretched my disbelief too far to have Laurie become a successful television host when she so often seemed psychotic on the page. I do think it is an interesting take on the havoc novelists can end up wreaking on their children. Three out of five stars.
Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-speaking United States, by Hector Tobar
I support reading non-fiction about and by Latinos for sure, considering I am Mexican-American and biased. Tobar takes us across the United States and through Latin America in his journey to chronicle the ways in which Latino identity has adapted and evolved. Many of the scenes in the Midwest, which has a large (and sometimes invisible) Latino population, were quite interesting. I found some of it problematic, however. I would have liked more writing about Guatemalans, and less about Mexicans, considering Tobar himself is Guatemalan and thus can bring a cultural insider’s perspective. I also thought some of the parts about white men appropriating Latino identities was not regarded through a critical lens at all. Basically, my issues boil down to wanting either a purely academic text or a purely journalistic text, and Translation Nation fell somewhere in between. Perhaps it will be a helpful eye-opener to those who know absolutely nothing about Latinos in the United States, but for those of us who do, it doesn’t go deep enough. Two and a half out of five stars.
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
Phenomenal. A quiet novel about the quiet lives lived in cubicles throughout America, and the weird little self-contained culture that develops at workplaces. There were moments of genuine pathos (and genuine terror), and Ferris’s voice and writing were deft and clever. I thought the ending was perfect, and pulling it off was impressive, as it could easily have turned treacly in the hands of a lesser author. One word of caution, however: I think you need to have worked in an office for a substantial period of time to really get what makes this novel so special. Overall though, I would say that this book is as good as you’ve heard it is. Five out of five stars.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
I have a “three strikes” rule for authors. I will willingly read three of their books, but if I don’t enjoy at least one of those three, I won’t feel bad about never reading that author’s work again. (Lookin’ at you, Lionel Shriver.) This was the third Eugenides novel I read, after not really liking The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex. (I know, I know. I suck.) But lo and behold, I enjoyed The Marriage Plot! I didn’t exactly like the characters, but I could understand them, having graduated from college pretty recently myself. Their fears, their motivations, their thoughts and reactions and dreams, all seemed realistic, and their three intertwined lives made for interesting reading. I struggled a little with Madeline–and honestly, with the way Eugenides writes about women in general–but I think that, for me, this was the most authentic and successful of his novels. Four out of five stars.
Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
While I know that Fear of Flying was hugely controversial when it was first published, so much of it is still relevant and meaningful today. Ostensibly a novel about a woman leaving her husband, it turns into a journey of self-discovery and does not skim over the difficulties that entails. I thought Isadora’s wants, fears, and dreams were incredibly realistic, and accurately describe the ways in which women’s lives were (and are) limited in patriarchal society. (Though it’s worth pointing out that Isadora only represents a certain sort of Western woman–white, wealthy, slender–and thus is not representative of all women’s struggles.) Still: Every woman should read this novel, and so should every man with any women in his life. I wish I had read this one sooner. Four out of five stars.