THE BONE CLOCKS

puppy love

       They call it puppy love

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell. I have read most (though not all) of his books with much delight and I was very excited that The Bone Clocks was being released this fall. From what I’d heard, it promised a mix of a solid realist surface story along with shifting narrators, time periods and political backdrops plus a certain amount of fantasy. The kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought I’d like until I read Cloud Atlas (or watched LOST).

And so Supportive Husband and I trundled off to our local indie (shout out to Pegasus Books in Berkeley) where we happily procured a signed first edition, baby. And even though it kinda hurt my hand to prop up the 650-page hardback tome, I plunged in with a glee that lasted through the first half of the book. How can you not be happy when a 15-year-old female protagonist describes a boyfriend’s betrayal by stating, “My heart’s a clubbed baby seal” or when an older man going blind explains his experience as “like searching for your keys in the dirty snow.” My point is that David Mitchell can turn a phrase. And that kind of lovely writing can take a reader pretty far.

But, but, but … and I hate to have a but because I was so excited about this book … a little more than midway through this story that spans from 1984 English countryside to 2043 Irish countryside–with a lot of stops in-between–the book’s earlier, lighter flirtations with fantasy became the central plot of the story. It was at this point that my adoration started to fade. Once it crossed that (here it comes) sci-fi threshold, I found myself in a place I really didn’t want to be: an alternative universe so complex and full of lame jargon that it was all I could do to follow the silly plot devices leading up to an epic battle (described blow by blow, lord help me) in which, guess what, good guys fight bad guys. The characters and storylines preceding all this fell completely by the wayside.

It was at this most vulnerable point, when my own heart was a clubbed baby seal, that James Wood, the smooth-talking New Yorker book critic, came along and articulated my disappointment. Typically, I wouldn’t have looked at the review until I had finished the book and written about it, but I was weak, okay? Questioning my own judgment, wondering what David and I had ever had, I turned to another man.

Here’s the link to Wood’s review, where he sums it up pretty well when he says, “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites [the bad guys] and Horologists [the good guys].” Exactly. And this is coming from the gal who went on and on in her last post about how much she loves plot.

For what it’s worth, Mitchell does manage to bring us back, a bit, to a more human component of the story, though his final message is a pretty dark one. For hard-core Mitchell fans, there’s still plenty here to treasure. And despite my disenchantment this time around, I’ll still come running next time he calls.

THE NIGHT GUEST

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The Night Guest
by Fiona McFarlane

Consider this metaphor: growing old is like being the protagonist in one’s own mystery. Things start out on solid footing, but as events progress, a fog settles over your preconceptions. You start to question your memory of things but you also question the version of those around you. Perhaps you’ve misinterpreted something or are being misinterpreted. Who can you trust? Where can you turn?

The small, grainy author photo of Australian writer Fiona McFarlane had me guessing she was somewhere in her 20’s, but it turns out that Ms. McFarlane clocks in at the ripe old age of 36. That fact is notable only because this debut novel deals with the topic of aging in such wise and knowing terms, it seems hard to believe that its writer is 40 years younger than its protagonist.

So what we have here is an interesting idea—a crime story written from the perspective of its 75-year old victim—written with great empathy and understanding. But beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you. This was one of those books where I kept repeating, “I won’t know if I like it until the end.”

How do you decide whether or not you’re going to keep reading a book about which you feel ambivalent? I spent years (and years and years) following some now-bewildering code of diligence in which any book I began to read I would finish, whether or not I was actually enjoying it. I’d love to think that this vigilance was the sign of a serious mind that wanted to embrace every challenge or figure out the value in any work, but frankly, I fear I was asleep at the wheel half the time.

I really hate to admit this, but up until probably just a few years ago, I carried around this idea that if enough other people (particularly people with some credibility) liked a book, then either I should too, or, at the very least, said book deserved a complete read, because who was I with my subjective thinking to deem someone else’s work uninteresting?

I can’t identify exactly when I finally figured out that applying a Protestant work ethic to the act of reading was as joyless as a Puritan at prom, but I can pinpoint one moment that stuck with me. I happened to be looking through one of my favorite catalogs, Levenger, (fancy office supplies for reader types) and stumbled upon a quote from its founder that went something like this: “If you’re not putting down at least 20% of the books you read before you finish them, you’re not challenging yourself enough.” Now you might say, “But T, you were challenging yourself. You were reading all those books you didn’t like.” Well, here’s the cold, hard truth, friends. Those books I didn’t like? Half the time I think I’d just start zoning out and wasn’t even paying attention. I was just completing the task at hand. What a waste!

So thanks in part to the CEO of Levenger, I’ve become a lot more intentional about my reading selections. And while The Night Guest certainly passed my newly imposed 50-page test and was worth the read, know that if you choose to pick it up, much like its slightly confused protagonist, you won’t be sure how you feel until the end.

Up Next: The new Murakami!

STATE OF WONDER

IMG_0953State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett

I like Ann Patchett more with every passing interview and quote I read of hers. Check out the video post directly before this one and it won’t take long to see why I’m a big fan. (Lying on the sofa reading books? Avocado sandwiches? Hello? Can we say separated at birth?)

In the attached video, Patchett describes herself as “profoundly uninteresting,” someone who doesn’t “do” anything. And yet State of Wonder is most easily categorized as an adventure story. The novel’s protagonist, a 40-something obstetrician-turned-pharmacologist is tasked with venturing into the Amazon jungle to find a former mentor who is developing a secret new drug for their shared employer. It would be difficult to describe the very interesting and imaginative story that ensues without taking away from the fun of reading this book, which unravels as smoothly and deliberately as the coils of an anaconda. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the jungle reference) So while I can’t get into the specifics, I can promise you well-written mystery, danger and a little touch of fantasy.

But what I appreciated most about State of Wonder was that it served as my companion during my own recent adventure, in which I was forced to get up off the couch and did not have access to a single avocado, if you can imagine such a thing. No, I wasn’t traveling down the Amazon in a canoe, but as I sat in the tropics-like heat of a Yale dorm room last Thursday night sweating between two wool blankets (the only bedding available to separate me from my plastic mattress) while trucks, motorcycles and infrequent blasts of car music tumbled by outside my window, I tried to read just a few pages in a fruitless effort to fall asleep. While I attempted to strategically angle the microscopic “face fan” I’d procured earlier that day at CVS (thanks anonymous CVS shopping partner, you know who you are), it struck me that I too was taking a journey.

As a volunteer writing coach for College Summit, my journey would involve several 16-hour days working with low-income students in an intensive program that prepares them for college, all while being reintroduced to the distinct experiences of sleeping and eating in a college dorm. By the time I arrived at Yale, I’d been traveling for two weeks and I felt utterly unprepared on just about every level, be it my limited supply of remaining clean clothes, my lack of experience with this demographic of students, the unfamiliar structure I’d need to follow, not to mention the challenges an introverted person faces when told that they are expected to be “on” every waking hour of their day. It was daunting. And did I mention the unfortunate haircut I was sporting?

I’ll cut to the chase. College Summit was one of the best things I’ve ever done. There are many reasons why the experience was so positive, but I can’t underestimate the importance of having allowed myself to be uncomfortable. It’s so easy to keep our lives under tight control and feel like the world “turns on” when we charge up our computers (and thank you, by the way, for staring at yours right now as you read this). But we can’t have adventures in the familiarity of our homes. We must venture out, both physically and mentally, if we’re to grow and achieve that state of wonder.

 

THE FEVER

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More cheap gimmicks

The Fever
by Megan Abbott

You may remember the strange circumstances in Le Roy, New York a couple years ago when nearly twenty of the town’s teenage girls suddenly started to experience tics, tremors and other unexplained outbursts. Eventually doctors determined that the first few girls to experience these mysterious symptoms were suffering from conversion disorder, meaning that their bodies were reacting to stressors that their brains were having trouble processing. In one case, it was a parent’s illness. In others, the girls had experienced significant loss or abuse. But as the tics continued to occur in more girls, the phenomena evolved into mass psychogenic illness, a neurological condition in which people experience a physical reaction mirroring the behavior they observe in others.

I didn’t follow the story closely at the time, but what fascinated me about the circumstances was the way these girls had subconsciously become barometers of their community. Apparently the town of Le Roy had been in decline for decades and its subsequent poverty had gradually spiraled downward into a host of socio-economic troubles that were now causing severe stress in the town’s girls.

So when I heard that The Fever was inspired by the events in Le Roy and promised a noir-y, suspenseful examination of contemporary adolescence, I was intrigued enough to jump through a few logistical hurdles to get my hands on a copy as soon as it came out. And it didn’t hurt that it’s being touted as this year’s Gone Girl, a book I thoroughly enjoyed a couple years back.

The central driving question of The Fever is a good one: what is causing the mysterious tics and why are they only occurring in girls? No spoilers here but the answer is pleasingly unexpected and diverges from the real life circumstances. Unfortunately, the ending is the most satisfying part of this book and in order to reach it, I had to contend with a host of flat characters and a thudding plot.

Gone Girl had the opposite problem — its ending didn’t live up to the intensity of the rest of the book. But for me, I didn’t really care about GG’s ending because I had so much fun getting there. I spent the book wrapped up in the twisted psyches of its characters and trying to figure out where the author was taking me as she planted seed after seed on various levels: socioeconomic, interpersonal and psychological. It’s that experience of engagement that sticks with me.

I’ll be curious to see how The Fever fares after so much buildup. My reading of it was lukewarm.

Up Next: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.