Books Read in March

1. 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (***1/2)
2. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (DNF)
3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (audio book), by Michael Chabon, read by Peter Riegert (*****)
4. The Missing by Sarah Langan (***)
5. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (****)
6. March by Geraldine Brooks (****)
7. Kira-Kira (audiobook) by Cynthia Kadohata (****)
8. The Worm by Elise Gravel (****)
9. Scarecrow Gods by Weston Ochse (*)
10. Colaterales/Collateral by Dianapiera Di Dontao (****)

REVIEWS (behind the cut):

1. 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (***1/2)
In general I’m fine with scifi that has a certain amount of science rich gobblygook, pages and pages about the science behind the strange future world or worlds in which the main characters find themselves, provided that the central story is compelling and the character are relatable. [Solaris] comes to mind as a book that pulls this off very well. The science was so strange as to be truly fascinating and I genuinely cared about what happened to the character.

I’m not sure 2312 worked as well for me, though I can see why many people loved it. The solar system, from Mercury to Pluto to various asteroids are populated by settlers, some on worlds an some on moons, and each settlement has a different means of adaptation or terraforming to ensure the survival of the populace. Much of the details of these worlds and their cultures are filled out in a multitude of side chapters, which provide either lists of information, extracts from scientific or sociological research, or chapters focused only on describing the world. All of this certainly paints a vivid picture and it’s clear the author had a clear vision of a complex future society spread out among planets and moons.

There were really two problems in this for me. The first is that there were so many worlds and spaceships (called terrariums) with indiviu ecosystems that after a while it became information overload. I started out fascinated by the civilization of Mercury, with its giant domed city, set on tracks that span the planet like a belt in order to keep the city on the shadow side of the planet and avoid the burning sun. It also has the sun walkers (among whom is the main character Song), who are able to traverse the planet on foot, because the planet rotates just slowly enough for them to stay well ahead of the sunrise.

But by the time I got to, oh, about the fifth world or spaceship to be described in detail, I was kind of over it and was just wanting to get back to the story.

The second problem is that the story doesn’t seem to have quite a strong enough plot. Ultimately, the resolution was satisfying, but Song was all over the place in terms of personality of travel. Throughout she sets off across the solar system to accomplish a goal only to not have not much happen half the time. It began to seem that te plot had been twisted into this form and insisted on all these travels just to give the author an excuse to describe in detail all these various ships and worlds. I think I would have
more completely and get to know the characters better in relation to the local culture.

That said, I also get that all the detail of the worlds and the scientific asides are a part of the appeal for a lot of people. It just wasn’t for me.

2. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (DNF)
This should have been a great read for me. A lost manuscript with poetry that talks about atoms and evolution by natural select in the ancient Roman world, later discovered in the Renaissance by and Italian humanist who stumbles upon it in a library, only to have its discovery and reintroduction influences aspects of our modern world (plus, for nonfiction it’s fairly short).

But the entire tone is terribly dry and the flow tends to wander quite a lot. After one chapter, I put down the book, thinking “Wait, how did we get from bookworms and time’s natural destruction of book pages to religious self flagellation?” It was only after flipping back through the chapter that I could see the progression and how it actually did make sense. But it seemed like just about every chapter was like this and I couldn’t easily follow the flow of thoughts and the connections between them.

I caught myself thinking, “I don’t want to read this anymore.” So, I’m giving myself a break an instead of struggling through, in going to go read something fun.

3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (audio book), by Michael Chabon, read by Peter Riegert (*****)
Discussed elsewhere.

4. The Missing by Sarah Langan (***)
Plot Description: “When schoolteacher Lois Larkin takes her third grade class on a trip to Bedford, a town destroyed by an environmental catastrophe, one of the children unearths an ancient, contagious plague that transforms its victims into something violent, inhuman, and hungry.”

This is a mix between zombie novel and a vampire novel. The infected don’t die; instead the virus changes them, altering their physiology to meet its needs. They feed, eating every part of flesh from the bodies (zombie). They also have mind reading abilities and light sensitivity that forces them to sleep during the day (vampire). The mix works fairly well.

The story is told from the point of view of multiple characters, those who live in the small town that will become ground zero for the plague. I was fairly impressed at Langan’s ability to give each character depth and complexity in each small chapter, though a couple of them who fell into the cookie cutter range.

It was a strange thing that as the story progressed, I slowly began to like the characters less and less instead of the other way around. I eventually didn’t care much what happened to them.

Despite not loving the characters, this was a fast paced novel, an easy, lightweight read, and just what I needed at the moment.

I didn’t realize that this was the second book in a series when I picked it up. The story just kind of ends and it feels very much like it’s still in the middle of things. I enjoyed this enough that I’m curious to go read about the events that are hinted at in the first book. And I’d be interested in following, what happens next, as well.

5. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (****)
Discussed elsewhere.

6. March by Geraldine Brooks (****)
I didn’t realize this was a new spin on Little Women until I picked up the book. While I loved the 1994 Little Women movie, I didn’t actually read Louisa May Alcott’s book until I was an adult and by that point I found it far too goody-goody and moralizing. So, I don’t think I would have picked up this book, if not for the fact that I loved Geraldine Brooks’ [People of the Book] so much.

Instead of following the March girl’s lives as they wait for their father’s return from the Civil War, the story is told from the point of view of Robert March as he tries to minister to the troops and help emancipate and educate slaves. The story explores the brutality of war, the racism of the North in its approach to freeing blacks, and the impact the war has on March’s physical and mental state. In the same way that Alcott based the Little Women on her real-life sisters, Brooks based Robert March on Alcott’s father, who was a radical liberal. Mr. Alcott was firmly for Emancipation and was a vegetarian, who founded a Utopian commune that failed, because its inhabitants refused to kill the infestation of worms invading its apple crops.

Brooks is a wonderful writer. The style is clear and vivid in its portrayal of the Civil War South. And though the story is far more brutal, bloody, and graphic than the children’s book it’s based on, Brooks managed to capture the thread of that moralizing tone, which was just under the surface of every description, so that the novel felt as though it fit neatly within the fictional realm of Little Women.

One of the things that fascinated me about the novel and kept me interested was the ways in which Robert March lied in his letters home to his wife and his Little Women. It’s understandable that he would not want to worry them with the true turmoils of war and it sets up and interesting duality between his home life and the life he now lives on the battlefield.

I don’t know how to talk about this book without talking about bits from the ending, so WARNING: spoilers ahead.

Spoiler 1 — At the end of the novel, when March is on his sickbed and nearing death, the POV switches to his wife and we see how Robert misunderstood her feeling and how she misunderstood his. It’s a wonderful moment (in literature, but hard on the characters) that shows just how easy it is to mistake people and how you can love and know someone for years and not really understand them.

Spoiler 2 — Throughout the story, I was a bit annoyed by Robert March and his wife, both of whom were avidly for Emancipation to the point of being almost too noble, too good, coming across as great white heroes of the Civil War. This was especially evident in the way March feels about one slave he meets named Grace, who has been educated and who he makes into a symbol for what the “Negro” can become.

At the end of the story, when March is wracked with guilt and insists on finding someway to make himself useful to Grace, she turns him down. She tells him that she doesn’t need him, that the blacks need to be able to take care of themselves, and that the best thing he can do is to go home and preach emancipation and equality to other white people.

I can’t even tell you how relieved I was to see this scene presented and it was that moment that really brought me from liking this novel to loving it.

7. Kira-Kira (audiobook) by Cynthia Kadohata, read by Elaina Erika Davis (****)
As children, Katie follows her big sister out into the empty Iowa road and together they lay staring up at the stars, saying “kira-kira”. “Kira-kira” means “glittering” in Japanese, and there is a sense of the wonderment or the glittering in the way big sister Lynne see the world.

When the family moves out of Iowa and to a small town in Georgia (with a small community of Japanese), where the parents can work in chicken production plants, life gets difficult. The family is struggling to keep up with the bills and the parents work long hours. Things become even more difficult when Lynne becomes I’ll and Katie and her family have a hard time seeing the glittering of life.

This is a short, but beautiful tale about family, with culture as an integral part of the storytelling. Told from Katie’s point of view, the voice is well done and the portrait of the family feels full. A terribly sad, but lovely story.

8. The Worm by Elise Gravel (****)
Elise Gravel presents an adorable look at the worm, a creature generally considered to be disgusting. It presents a collection of interesting facts about worms, along with a bit of humor to make it fun. The artwork has a nice combination of bright colors and matte tones and the hand lettered fonts make the book visually appealing.

I also love that the pages are nice and thick. Most kid-book paper is surprisingly thin, just making it all that much easier for kids to tear. Not that my niece won’t be able to rip through this one, but I’m hoping she’ll have a bit more of a challenge of a while.

As soon as I showed her the book, my niece was very excited about it (though to be honest, she seems to be excited about all books these days) and she immediately began flipping through the pages. She didn’t seem to be all that interested when I read it to her. Maybe this was because there wasn’t a story, more a listing of facts. Though it may also have been because of other distractions in the room.

Elise Gravel also has two other books in the “Disgusting Critters” series, The Fly and The Slug, both of which I’m considering buying, so that my niece will have a complete collection.

9. Scarecrow Gods by Weston Ochse (*)
I am normally generous with books and it takes a lot for me to give a book a one star rating.

The beginning was rough going for me. The chapters jumped back and forth between many characters, combined with graphic brutality. I didn’t mind the violence in itself (and was horrific and cringeworthy), but I wasn’t connecting with any of the characters. I wasn’t connecting with the writing.

Just as I was about to quit, things started to turn around. The story became a less focused on tortuous violence and I became invested in the characters. By the final chapters of the book, all the threads and storylines weaves together into a cool final battle of sorts.

Then came the last chapter — scratch that — then came the last two paragraphs. I’m reading the passages leading up to the conclusion and I audibly told the author, “Don’t you effing dare.” (Much to the confusion of my roommate, sitting on the couch across from me.)

This was followed by my throwing the book down and beginning to curse. (Also to my roommate’s confusion.)

I’m sorry, but, no. No. No. No. I refuse to accept that ending, or that kind of ending. It’s bullsh!t and really killed the whole experience in a slew of rage.

10. Colaterales/Collateral by Dianapiera Di Dontao (****)
Note: This was an ARC book.

“no soy el cuervo de mi madre
mi mirada es oscura de bella terminación
y yo no soy el olor del buitre del zamuro del ruego de mi madre
I am not my mother’s raven
my gaze ends beautiful and dark
I am no longer the vulture’s fragrance or the idiot’s or my mother’s plea”

— from “No Hablo de una Vida Japonesa, te Estoy Hablando de Mi Madre / I Don’t Mean a Japanese Life, I Mean My Mother”

Di Donato explores the modern world, full of cell phones and politics and popular music (Ani Di Franco and Janis Joplin, for example), by calling on ancient saints and virgin madonnas and the figures of forgotten Romans and Moors. The Spanish is presented alongside the English translation, but it also includes phrases and translations from Arabic.

I struggled with the poems in the first half of the book. Though I enjoyed individual lines, the thoughts jumped from concept to concept so rapidly that I couldn’t grasp the overall feeling or meaning of the poem. This confusion may have been, in part, due to the fact that it is a translation and that I’m missing some of the cultural clues.

I found plenty of poems to love in the second half of the book, though, were there was a bit more of narrative flow and the structure of the poems didn’t feel so disjointed. These poems were enough for me to enjoy the overall experience and I’ll come back to this book again to see if my understanding of the first half changes with time.