The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Review (Amazon): Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: Interesting but challenging

This was actually my book for book club this year. I chose historical fiction as my category, and while I wouldn’t really consider this to be hard historical fiction, it is in the past and is referencing a culture which is unfamiliar to me. So I think it counts.

I’ve been procrastinating on writing this review for over a month because I’ve been busy partly, but also, I don’t really know how to write a review for this book. It’s short stories of 4 Chinese women (one is written about her as she has just passed) who immigrated to America during a not-great period of relationships between China and America and their 4 Chinese American daughters. It’s sort of an auto-biographical account from what I can tell as Amy was born in 1952 to Chinese parents who were living in America.

The story shows in many different facets the dichotomy between the Chinese (mothers) and the Americans (daughters) and the rift that fluxes depending on the situations. All of the daughters had the option to be more free and more American than their mothers, but in differing ways, they realize their connections to the old country and cultures.

Most of the daughters (like most daughters in general) know very little about their mothers. The big reveal in the book is that Suyuan (the mother who has died) has two daughters who she had to leave behind in China that her daughter Jing-Mei didn’t know about. During the day of the Japanese invasion, Suyuan left her house with thousands of others, with nothing but a few staples and her 2 daughters. She eventually decides that because she is going to die (and that finding children with a dead mother would be a bad omen for someone who might take them), she leaves them with all the valuables she has and a note. However, she doesn’t die and is rescued and eventually goes on to move to America and have a new family.

A lot of the things that are weird and interesting to me in the book are the superstitions and customs. The horoscopes (whether you are born in the year of the Horse and are strong-willed), the fear of ghosts coming back to haunt people, general karma of behaviors, the jade stones that none of the younger people understand…

And I think that’s really what the book’s point comes to. The younger people are more like me (or just generally a person who doesn’t have a lot of family heritage and/or culture) and the mothers assume that they have inherited this. But the gap is that the mothers learned it because everyone around them when they were growing up believed the same culture and superstitions. So now the mothers are at a loss for why their daughters don’t believe what they believe, and the daughters are old enough to try to connect with their mothers but find that they don’t have the background to fully understand them.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Good book, and thought provoking. Really challenging to follow at times due to the way that it was written (broken up into little sections). At book club, we had to pull up the wikipedia article to be able to fully go back and place daughter with mother because it just is too disjointed to really remember who goes with whom.

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The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

Review (Amazon):

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother. He is angry and alone, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness, and as he takes refuge in his imagination, he finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a land that is a strange reflection of his own world, populated by heroes and monsters, and ruled over by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book… The Book of Lost Things.

An imaginative tale about navigating the journey into adulthood, while doing your best to hang on to your childhood.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Mediocre

I really wanted to like this book, but I just could not get into it. It felt overdone and slow, and I really started to dislike how all the good people were men and all the evil people were women, which is really odd for a boy who is missing his mother.

We are introduced in the most cliche “Once upon a time” way to the main character, David, who had lost his mother. She had been slowly dying for a while, and David thought that his OCD activities could keep her alive. When she died, he took it as a personal failure, and in his bad dreams, the Crooked Man started appearing to him in his dreams.

Five months, three weeks and four days after his mother died, a new woman named Rose started joining David and his dad for things. Once David put 2 and 2 together, he started having panic attacks and was sent to a psychiatrist. Things get even worse when he finds out that Rose is pregnant. She has the baby, a boy, and the combined family moves out to the country (it’s WW2 time in England). The house is a family home of Rose’s and while he hates the whole situation, he loves the old fairy tale books in his room.

He eventually finds out that they were the books of Jonathan Tulvey, who was Rose’s uncle. He disappeared at age 14 with another little girl Anna, who Rose’s grandparents had taken in when her parents had died in an unfortunate fire. They were never found.

The tension between David and Rose continues to grow, and there’s a big fight at dinner which David takes that it’s his fault. He storms off, and walks out of his house. When he looks back at the house from the edge of the yard, he sees a figure in his room–the Crooked Man. He races back inside, gets his father, and they investigate–to find a magpie in there instead. That night, he dreams of his mother’s voice calling him from the sunken garden in the back of the yard.

The next day, David and Rose have a huge fight which causes David’s father to be very upset with David too. Because of this, he goes back to the sunken garden and enters a different world. When he gets inside, he encounters the Woodsman. The Woodsman helps David tie a string to the tree which he came in from so he can find it again. The Woodsman tells David that the king has a book of lost things so they must find the king so that he can help David return home. But to do so, they must escape the wolves and the Loups (wolves who have evolved into more human-like form) who are very hungry. They make it to the Woodsman’s house where David wonders why his mother is luring him here with the voices that he’s hearing in his dreams, and what the role of the Crooked Man (who the Woodsman tells him is a very bad man who steals children) is.

The Woodsman tries to help David with his OCD. He explains that he has rules too. Every day he cleans his ax. He checks the house is secure, etc. etc. David begins to think this over as the Woodsman tells him that they must go back and try to get the hole in the tree to reappear because he fears he can’t keep David safe. When they return, every tree has a string on it. So the Woodsman decides to continue the original thought of taking David to the king. When they get to the bridge, with the wolves and Loups hot on their trail, there are trolls guarding the bridges. One of the bridges is fake, but they have to determine which by solving the riddle. He solves it correctly, but the wolves are right there. They chase after David, some falling on the fake bridge, but the Woodsman stays to fight them off so that David can get away.

Next David meets the dwarves who then introduce him to Snow White, who they tried to poison with an apple because she’s so unbearable. She’s morbidly obese and bosses the dwarves around making them cook and clean for her. They lead him on his way.

As he’s walking, he sees an unusual sight–a centaur of sorts. Half human girl, and half deer. She’s panicking and he realizes why. She’s being hunted, and is killed in front of him. The hunter threatens him and then hog ties him and takes him back with her. She’s a maniac who uses a special magic salve to reattach and reanimate animals together, including human children. Then she releases them and hunts them for sport. Obviously she’s saving David for an experiment, but he manages to outsmart her by convincing her to become a centaur and then killing her and then managing to get out of there.

Next he meets the soldier Roland, who is nice to him like the Woodsman. Roland keeps him company and helps him get along more quickly on horseback. They come upon a terrible scene where many have died. David meets the Crooked Man there who shows him an image of his dad, Rose, and Georgie happy and not missing him one bit. David is furious and Roland calms him, teaching him strength and how to defend himself. Roland is on a mission to find out what happened to his “friend” (it’s the 40s) Raphael. In the process, he saves a village from a Beast, but then the Crooked Man catches up to David. He shows David the snout of the wolf that had been sent to track him. He tells David more in detail what he is doing. He will make David a deal that his father will love him alone. David suspects there is more to the story. The Crooked Man wants to know what David’s brother’s name is, but David won’t tell him. The Crooked Man is furious and David goes back to Roland and they continue their quest.

Roland and David eventually find the Enchantress who has lured so many men, including Raphael, to their deaths. Roland goes in ahead, and he, like the others does not make it out alive. The Crooked Man tries to keep David from going in after him using his mom’s voice, but David persists. He doesn’t get lured by the temptations, and when he sees Roland impaled, he becomes enraged and lures out the Enchantress and impales her.

David continues alone to find the King, and when he gets there, he finds the King is expecting him. He has a luxurious room, and eats well and goes to sleep. He awakes suddenly for no reason, and finds that the guards have left his room. He sneaks out and overhears the Crooked Man speaking to the King. The King is dying. The Crooked Man says that the book of lost things has no value, but the King says that it has value to him. David opens it and realizes that it’s all from “his” world and is a book of mementos and diary entries. The king as a younger boy had a young girl arrive in his life, and he was enraged. David can relate to the story, and then at the end realizes that the King is Jonathan Tulvey.

David finds a secret passageway to where the Crooked Man goes, and finds all sorts of horrors. In one of the last rooms, he finds a large hourglass nearing its end as well as a little girl in a jar. Her name is Anna. David realizes that Jonathan brought Anna there as part of the bargain. In return, Jonathan became king and the old Queen was allowed to die. Anna was killed and the Crooked Man ate her heart. She’s been trapped in the jar since. The Crooked Man grows weaker by the day, and David realizes that the hourglass is the Crooked Man’s life. He’s waiting for David to make the deal with him for Georgie so that he can continue to live.

This is where the book should have ended. It doesn’t. It goes on for another quarter to a third of the book with a wolf/Loup attack on the castle. The main Loup kills the King. The Crooked Man dies as he runs out of time, and the King’s death causes the disappearance of the Loups as they were created by the King’s nightmares. And then, just for good measure, the Woodsman, who wasn’t dead, reappears to take David home. -_-

David returns home. It turns out he’s in the Wizard of Oz and this whole thing was a dream while he was in a coma after being hit with some debris from the downed German bomber which crashed near him just as he entered the woods. When he awakes, he goes on to be a model citizen, but nothing ever fully goes right for him. His eventual wife and son die, so he becomes a writer. He writes beloved children stories until he’s old and gray, and eventually he goes back to where he first entered the forest and the Woodsman is waiting for him.

Verdict: 3 stars

Too cliché for my tastes. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a young adult book, but it felt like one for very young adults if anything. As someone who solidly counts as an adult these days (sigh), I found it too overdone, too dramatic (I have a new brother, woe is me), and just not fun or enchanting in any way.

 

 

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The Girl with All the Gifts – M.R. Carey

Review (Amazon): 

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: slow to get going but worth it in the end

We get introduced to ten-year-old Melanie on page 1. She is in a classroom, different than we are used to, but we only slowly get introduced to what exactly is different. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, although they do have other teachers from time to time. They live in a compound to keep away from the hungries (aka zombies). The children live in cells and get wheeled into the classroom Hannibal Lector style each day, all strapped in and ready to learn. Occasionally the students leave by the hand of Doctor Caldwell and never come back, and they haven’t gotten any new students in a while.

One day the Sergeant comes in and has an issue with Miss Justineau getting “too attached” to the children, and he suggests that they aren’t even children. To demonstrate, he spits on his arm and holds it near one of the children who starts chomping and biting at him (still restrained) and so do the children near him. Melanie is very confused about what is happening.

We cut to Dr. Caldwell for a bit to determine that the children are not actually children (after she has dissected her latest two). They have a fungal parasite of some sort that Dr. Caldwell is crudely investigating. After the Breakdown, most high tech equipment is incredibly difficult to come by.

Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are have very different ideas on how to interact with the children. Miss Justineau treats the children like normal children (at least as much as she can) whereas Dr. Caldwell and the Sergeant treat them worse than animals. But they all ended up in the compound under the same circumstances. They are trying to determine why some of the children that they have been finding are not mindless zombies like the other hungries, but instead can learn and reason and generally go beyond the mindless behaviors of the others. Miss Justineau and the other teachers are there to teach and observe. Dr. Caldwell is there to help create scientific revelations about the parasite to hopefully protect the other humans, and the Sergeant is there to protect all the humans in the compound both from the children, but also from the packs of hungries as well as the Junkers (bands of humans who sort of “Mad Max” about in the outside) who could attack at any time.

Dr. Caldwell requests that Miss Justineau provide a list of 1/2 the class to be dissected, and Miss Justineau is understandably having a hard time with it. Not just because she has become close to the students but she also understands how losing half the class will affect the dynamics. So she holds off on providing the list. In response, Dr. Caldwell decides to start with Melanie. Sergeant Parks gets her, and takes her in to Dr. Selkirk and Dr. Caldwell.

When Melanie doesn’t come to class, Miss Justineau realizes that something is up. She confronts Sergeant Parks who tells her where Melanie has been taken. Luckily Miss Justineau arrives just in time. She confronts Dr. Caldwell and the two break into an argument followed by a physical fight. In the midst of it, the evacuation siren goes off, and hungries break into the window. Dr. Caldwell and Miss Justineau make it out, but Dr. Selkirk does not. No one knows in the chaos what happened to Melanie so Miss Justineau goes out to find her. Instead she runs into a pack of Junkers. Luckily Melanie reappears and attacks them with full force.

Melanie, Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell find Sergeant Parks and one of his soldiers, Kieran Gallagher. They get into a Hummer and leave Beacon. Melanie is faced with existential challenges after killing the Junker. Justineau and Caldwell are at complete odds except that they both want Melanie to live (for different reasons) so they are able to keep Parks from killing her. Off they go to an unknown location. They stave off a few groups of hungries, and then they eventually find the Rosalind Franklin. It’s a huge armored mobile laboratory that Dr Caldwell is very familiar with. As we learn, she was fully trained on the unit, but didn’t end up making the final cut for the mission (and she’s been holding a grudge for the last twenty years). There are no humans or food inside, but all the scientific equipment is intact.

Melanie asks to speak to Parks alone, and when they reconvene after assessing what Rosalind Franklin does and doesn’t have, Melanie is gone. The generator needs to be fixed, so Parks starts on that while Justineau and Gallagher look for food. Before they leave, Justineau asks Parks where Melanie went. She was going crazy inside in close quarters with all the humans. All their e-blocker had worn off, so Parks let her go outside. He figures she can take care of herself. Justineau and Gallagher take off. They only see a few hungries. Most of them have died and have sprouted seeds for the fungus. Eventually they find a storage unit beside a convenience store that hasn’t been looted, and they take all they can back to the RF.

While everyone else is out, we learn that Dr. Caldwell has blood poisoning from the injuries she sustained during the original hungry attack. She’s trying to do what she can in terms of research before she dies. She tells Parks that it doesn’t really matter anyway. When the fungus took over the planet, it was in a juvenile form. Now it’s sprouting into an adult form and pollinating. And when it does, she doesn’t think there will be anything left.

When Justineau and Gallagher return, it’s late but Melanie hasn’t returned. So despite Parks’ arguments, Justineau decides to set off a flare. Melanie knows where the RF is; she just hasn’t wanted to return. She has spent the day looping around bigger and bigger circles until she finds something interesting–some others like her. When she returns to RF, she tells the adults that there are others out there–junkers, she says. Parks doesn’t believe her story. He believes she saw something which scared her, but it wasn’t Junkers. Justineau talks to Melanie who finally gives up the true story. She didn’t want to tell everyone because she was worried that Caldwell and Parks would round all the children up and dissect them. When everyone reconvenes, they realize that Gallagher is missing.

Unfortunately by the time Melanie, Justineau and Parks find Gallagher, the hungry children have already gotten to him, and tricked him to his death. Melanie insists that he should be honored, and as they are lighting his funeral pyre, they hear the engines of RF in the distance. Caldwell has left without them. She doesn’t get far before the hungry children encircle her. She’s trying to figure out how to capture one to dissect it before she dies. She opens the door locks and manages to close the door quickly enough to squash one. She doesn’t hurt his head though, but she needs to get the airlock fully shut because she is being shot at through the gap by the other children. She manages to get as far away as she can until she is stopped by a 40 ft high tower of the fungus for as long as she can see. She decides to dissect the head, and when Parks, Justineau, and Melanie finally find her, she won’t let them in. She’s too close to a breakthrough.

Parks sends Melanie on an exhibition to determine whether there’s a way around the fungus. There’s not. The 2 humans find a place to stay for the night. Dr. Caldwell is able to dissect the brain in peace and finds the answer she’s looking for. Once she’s done, she sees someone outside–a search party, she thinks. She goes out of RF and when she returns, Melanie is inside and wants to know the truth. The original hungries are because the fungus completely took over the bodies and then utilized them to hatch seed pods. Melanie and others like her are second generation hungries where the fungus doesn’t attack and feed on the brains.

Parks and Justineau are attacked where they are sleeping. Melanie hears shots fired on the walkie talkies and arrives to help as much as she can. Unfortunately Parks is bitten by the hungries, but she and Miss Justineau make it out unscathed. The 3 return to RF where Melanie decides to blast the fungus wall with the flame throwers. She’s outside with Parks as little bits of ash begin floating to the ground. Parks asks Melanie to shoot him before he becomes a hungry, and she agrees. But first she explains to him that it’s not ash, it’s fungus seeds. The flame thrower has opened all of the seed pods. She now knows that the original people will become hungries, but the second generation will be like her. They can end the war between the humans, the hungries, and the junkers, and create a new species. When Melanie returns to Miss Justineau, she explains again what has happened, and the book ends with Melanie introducing the hungry kids to their new teacher!

Verdict: 4 Stars

I thought the book was really creative. I am not typically super interested in zombie stories, and I’ve found that a lot of the post-apocalyptic ones are a bit overplayed at this point. So this was a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a bit slow at points, but it pays off in the end.

 

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And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Review (Amazon): 

“Ten . . .”
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious “U. N. Owen.”

“Nine . . .”
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.

“Eight . . .”
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . as one by one . . . they begin to die.

“Seven . . .”
Which among them is the killer and will any of them survive?

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: creative

Whoa. It’s been almost 2 months since I posted a review. O_O Part of that is because I tried reading One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for book club and failed dramatically. I tried multiple times, but just couldn’t get into it. So I skipped that and moved onto this one which I read in a weekend!

I’m not sure why, but the book made me think of the board game Clue. I guess because there were so many people who were all suspects.

An island recently changed ownership and there was lots of gossip and speculation of who bought it. Was it a Mr. Owen or a Hollywood film star? It has previously been owned by an American millionaire who had the most lavish parties. So naturally when people get invites to Soldier Island, no matter how obscure the invite is, they go! Specifically Justice Wargrave from his acquaintance Constance Culmington, who he hadn’t seen in 7 or 8 years. Or Vera Claythorne who was offered a holiday secretarial post, or Phillip Lombard who was offered 100 guineas to keep an eye on things on the island. Or Emily Brent, who was offered a stay at a formal guest house (not one of those modern places with gramophones). She couldn’t even determine who the letter had come from, but it was so appealing, she went anyway. General Macarthur was invited to have a chat with some buddies from old times. Dr. Armstrong was invited by Mr. Owen who worried about his wife’s health and offered a large check to ensure the best. Tony Marston was invited out for a party. Mr. Blore…

They arrive to the island and find that Mr. and Mrs. Owen are nowhere to be found, but Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the servants, have already arrived in advance for preparations. The house is very nice, and each room has a framed copy of “Ten Little Soldiers” (much more racist in previous versions of the book) as well as a series of ten figurines on the dining room table.

After dinner, a record is put on by Mrs. Rogers, as instructed by the owners, and it goes around to accuse each and every guest, including the Rogerses of murder. Everyone is shocked and aghast (some are in denial). They compare stories and realize that none of them know who the Owenses are. In fact, the name itself suggests from various letters to be U. N. Owen or Unkown. After the reading, Tony Marsten finishes his drink and collapses on the floor dead. One of the ten figurines is broken.

It then follows quickly that the next morning Mrs. Rogers does not awake due to an overdose, and later that day, General MacArthur is found dead from a blow to the head. The deaths follow the nursery rhyme, and each time someone dies, a figurine is broken from the table. It is decided that some of the men should go out on a search party to find the killer, but they come back empty handed. There’s no one on the island but themselves.

The following morning, Mr. Rogers is found dead out where he was chopping wood to start the fire for breakfast. Later that afternoon, Mrs. Brent is dead from a hypodermic needle (to resemble a bee sting) to the neck. The men then decide that they ought to round up all weaponry and lock it up so to do so, they search everyone’s rooms as well. Later when Vera goes up to take a bath, she finds that someone has hung seaweed from the ceiling in her room. She screams and then men run up to see the commotion. When they return downstairs, they find that Judge Wargrave has been dressed like a judge and shot, presumably using Lombard’s revolver. Again, like with the other deaths, Dr. Armstrong confirms death.

When they go to bed that evening, Lombard is surprised to see his gun back in his nightstand. Blore awakes that evening to hear steps outside. He sneaks out to see a retreating figure, and when Blore and Lombard find that Armstrong is not in his room, they and Vera assume that he is the killer (particularly because that part of the rhyme says that the soldier was eaten by a red herring). The remaining three stay together the next day, even trying to send out an SOS to the mainland, until Blore separates from the other two to go back into the house for some food, and he is killed by a large clock being pushed out of the window from Vera’s room (but Vera is outside with Lombard. Vera and Lombard assume that the missing Armstrong is who killed Blore until they find Armstrong well decomposed washed up on the beach.

At this point, they both assume that each other is the killer. Vera manages to get Lombard’s gun from him and shoots him. Then in a state of shock, she returns to her room and in a delusion, her former love entices her to hang herself with the seaweed on her ceiling.

The epilogue follows that Scotland Yard is investigating the homicides, and they are going through the records of each person. The Rogerses were thought to have let a previous employer die from neglect. Justice Wargrave convicted a likable man who most thought was innocent although after the hanging, information came out to prove that he had been guilty. Vera was the governess for a family whose child had drowned. She had swam out to save him but it was too late. Dr Armstrong had had a patient die in his care due to clumsiness. Miss Brent had a servant who had gotten pregnant. Because of the stigma, Miss Brent fired her and the girl drowned herself. And Marston hit and killed two children due to reckless driving, but they were poor and he was let off with just a fine. Lombard, MacArthur, and Blore, they weren’t too sure about. The order of deaths is recorded in the diaries and notes of various people on the island. It is confusing though that when the police found the murder scene, the chair under Vera’s body had been placed back upright. They have no idea who was the killer.

The book ends with a note in a bottle which was sent to Scotland Yard from the island from Justice Wargrave admitting his guilt. His time on the bench made him hunger for justice, and even murder. He himself being sick allowed him to create an elaborate murder and then kill himself in the process. Through talks with various people, he found 9 people who were guilty of crimes that the result was too difficult to prove. And then he killed them one by one, rigging an elaborate system to shoot himself in the end.

Verdict: 3 stars

I liked the idea of this book, but I found the ending to be a bit weird. It seems odd that the Justice sent a message in a bottle instead of just leaving a note, and also if one is going to fake a murder, I’d think killing by poison rather than an elaborate use of rigging up a way to fire a gun at yourself makes a lot more sense. It also didn’t make sense that Armstrong had agreed to tell the remaining others that Justice Wargrave had died when he hadn’t. I didn’t understand that at all. I also found the death of Vera to be very unrealistic and bizarre. I have read one other Agatha Christie book which I liked much better. My mom has read every one of Christie’s books which are still available, and she mentioned that she thought this one was kind of mediocre in comparison.

 

 

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The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Review (Amazon): 

EVERY DAY THE SAME
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

UNTIL TODAY
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: pathetic and boring

I have NO IDEA what the hype was all about regarding this book. It is similar to Gone Girl, in that there’s not a single likable character in this book. But Gone Girl was actually interesting, not about a pathetic alcoholic creepily watching people while riding on a train. If I hadn’t been reading it on vacation, I’d have put it in my charity donation box unread.

Rachel, the main character, divorced from her husband 2 years prior after he was caught having an affair with Anne. Rachel moved in with a friend, started drinking heavily, and her train ride into work drives her past her old neighborhood where she had lived with her ex-husband Tom. The train always stopped so that she could look out the window and see one of the houses that was a few doors down from her old house. The couple who lived there had moved in after Rachel moved out, so she didn’t actually know them, but she concocted a story about their happy life.

Eventually Rachel’s drinking gets her fired, but she doesn’t want to tell her roommate, so she just keeps taking the train to and from the area where she worked, and mostly just drank all day. One day instead of seeing the couple outside their house, she sees the woman with another man, kissing.

When that woman goes missing, Rachel feels compelled to help the investigation. She doesn’t feel like the investigators are taking her seriously (she is an alcoholic and because she happened to be in that neighborhood at the same time as Megan went missing but was too drunk to recall anything) so she decides to reach out to the husband herself. It starts as just to try to figure out what had happened the night that she could not remember, and also to tell the husband about the mystery man, who turns out to be the shrink that Megan was seeing. Pathetic Rachel can’t let it go though because it’s really the only thing in her sad life so she keeps going over to visit the husband, but Anne keeps seeing her around the neighborhood and reaches out to the police about it. Tom was “supposed to take care of it” but he obviously hasn’t done so. She keeps calling him at all hours and now she’s hanging around. And to add to Rachel being a pathetic weirdo, she decides that she should also start going to the same shrink that Megan went to so that she can make her own assessment of whether or not he’s a killer.

As Rachel starts regaining some memories of the evening that Megan went missing, she realizes that she saw Tom near the train station, and she sees a woman get into the car. She thinks that it’s Anne, but eventually she realizes that it can’t be Anne because Anne has a baby, and she didn’t have the baby with her, and she wouldn’t have left the baby at home. So she realizes that it wasn’t Anne getting into the car, it was Megan.

She goes over to Anne’s to tell Anne that she and the baby need to leave! Anne doesn’t really believe her, but then Tom shows up. He tells Anne and the baby to go upstairs which they do, and he tells Anne how sorry that he is and that he was only sleeping with Megan when Anne was tied up with the baby. Anne realizes that Tom is just a shady person and has been using all the women he’s been with and telling them lies of his family, his military service, among other things. So once she puts the baby up, she goes back downstairs to find Rachel stab Tom in the neck with a corkscrew. Anne helps to push it in, and when the investigators come by, they have a perfect self-defense story.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

This book was so boring. It felt like a terrible reality TV show. All of the characters were pathetic and dull, and the story itself wasn’t any better. When I was at the beach, a woman asked me whether I’d recommend the book (because she like probably everyone else has heard of it), and I said definitely no. Another woman who was nearby gushed about how much she liked it, but she said that the movie was not worth seeing. Not that I was planning on it, but good to know. Even for a beach read, this book was mediocre.

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Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

Review (Amazon): From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

My Review:

Executive Summary: Interesting

This story is an interesting glimpse into a section of America that not many people know about and even fewer understand. I include myself in that, and I grew up in nearby (to Ohio) Pennsylvania, 7 miles from the closest town whose population was around 1000 people. So you’d think I’d be familiar, but not really. In fact, a guy I work with was born and spent his early years near where I grew up, but he moved to Middletown (where most of the book is set) and spent the rest of his childhood there. He said there was (he’s in his 60s) a huge difference between the folks who emigrated from Kentucky, like the author’s family, and those who didn’t. He mentioned too that they didn’t call them hillbillies; they called them briar hoppers.

J.D.’s family was a bunch of rabble rousers from Jackson, Kentucky. It seems like most people from there were the same rough crowd, although endearing in their own way. Everyone knows everyone and has for a long time so people are friendly and nice to each other, but cross one of them, and they legitimately might kill you. So you can see how moving to Ohio (where not everyone has the “take God into your own hands” attitude) in search of better opportunities can prove challenging.

J.D. made it work though, seemingly partly by accident or luck, but he had some moments where his family made it work. His most constant family were his grandparents, although when they were parents, they were pretty terrible. Due to their alcoholism and fighting, J.D.’s mom was not set up for success. The other two children seemed to be fine enough, but J.D.’s mother never really got it together. Despite being smart enough to get a nursing certificate and at moments of lucidity, to stress to J.D. and his sister how important school was, a series of shitty boyfriends, fights, addictions, and job losses did not put her into a position to be a remotely decent mother.

Between his sister and his recovered grandparents, J.D. manages to graduate high school, and enrolls at Ohio State. However, he can’t bring himself to go. He’s nervous about all of the costs, and leaving his family, and just everything about it. So he decides to do the Marine Corps (still has to leave his family). Mamaw doesn’t think he’s making the right choice, but he does his 4 years in the Marines and comes back to go to Ohio State. (Reading the book, the author does mention advantages of going to the military but when he goes to Ohio State, he’s still doing stupid things like taking out payday loans or showing up for interviews wearing army fatigues). He packs his schedule full of classes and graduates in record time and then starts applying for law school.

He doesn’t initially apply to any top tier schools, but after realizing that law degrees from those sort of schools give you jobs as waitresses, he reconsiders and applies to Yale. He is accepted and even pays less than he would have at a less esteemed school. But it’s a huge culture shock that is entertaining but a little sad to read. Luckily classes there are small and he has fellow students and teachers (specifically one in particular) who helps him find his way. At the end of the day, he graduates, and he and his wife take jobs in Cincinnati. He still has a challenging relationship with his mother, but a good one with those who had continually supported him–his sister and some of his aunts and uncles. Hopefully we see more to come from him in the future.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Overall I thought the story was interesting. It was fairly cohesive and provides a glimpse into a life that most of us (thankfully including myself) never experience. I did feel like the story dragged a bit once J.D. goes to the marines and then back to Ohio State, but all in all, the stories of his upbringing and challenges go a long way to explanations. However, I felt like the conclusion was a little weak. Not that I expected the author to “solve the problem”, but I left wanting more of a conclusion. It could have been  “here are ways to help” or more social activism from him (a website which has political candidates to follow or laws/bills to support), but instead, it ended on a little bit of a neutral. Overall though, definitely would recommend.

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The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

Review (Amazon): New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

My Review (Not many spoilers on this since it’s historical fiction):

Executive Summary: Interesting

This was our book club pick for Thriller/Suspense. Why? I don’t really know, as it was definitely a historical fiction in my mind. Ah well, it was still a good read. Not really fast paced, but not slow either.

Have you heard of George Westinghouse? Thomas Edison? J.P. Morgan? Nikola Tesla? Yes? OK, How about Paul Cravath? No, well, he’s the unknown, but central character to this book.

Paul is a young lawyer who has been hired (just him, not his firm) to represent George Westinghouse who is suing Thomas Edison. But Thomas Edison is also suing George Westinghouse. Three hundred and twelve lawsuits to be exact. He’s on his way to meet Thomas Edison for the lawsuits when he sees a electrical line worker get electrocuted. Electricity is just becoming common place and this is not good publicity.

Paul is a recent grad from Columbia. He’s never tried a case. So why did Westinghouse hire him? Probably because he will fight as hard as he can to win, and the fight is the story. Paul is also the tool for the non-electrical engineering (I’m mechanical 🙂 ) reader to have all the technical stuff explained to them in layman terms.

It’s actually quite the epic battle. It’s not just a meager lawsuit over who owns the lightbulb. It’s AC vs. DC currents, and how to get the currents to travel far enough distances that it is a sustainable product for an entire town, let alone city, to subsist on it. They all have their strategies, even going so far as to bringing up the idea of the electric chair, bringing Alexander Graham Bell into the fray, or buying out each other’s company.

In the end, it turns out to be a pretty good feel good story. Paul ends up with the famous singer who has been helping him out with his case. Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison, despite being basically at war, are all scientists underneath, and they realize each other’s values. The way the book leaves off, they have coffee once a month and talk about science.

Verdict: 4 stars

It’s definitely a very specific book, but I think it’s a good read and a great peek into an interesting point in American history. It’s tough to summarize because it’s very detailed, but it does move at a steady pace and has a lot of fairly surprising twists. I suppose that’s why it was touted as a thriller/suspense, but to me, it’s just an interesting historical fiction

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