The Great Believers

The Great Believers by [Makkai, Rebecca]

I struggle with literary fiction. I read it, but I often feel like there is a disconnect with how the rest of the world, and reviewers in particular, see these novels and how I react to them. Over and over I read a book that the reviews call “funny” or “charming” or “romantic” and come away wondering about their definition of those words, because I found it painfully sad or extremity upsetting. It certainly could be that I am very delicate, or that I have skewed my assessment by reading lots and lots of YA books and romances. It’s not that I require a happy ending and simple black-and-white story in everything I read, but if I dread reading a book because it is making me so unhappy to watch characters suffer, well, it doesn’t matter how well constructed the sentences are. I’m going to stop reading it. I want books to teach me and make me feel things and show me the truth of the human experience! But I also have to get out of bed every day and be a functioning person, and depressing books don’t always help with that. All of this is to say: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is the best book I read this year and I recommend it only with extreme caution.

The story runs in two times and two places in parallel–Chicago in the early 1980s and Paris in the recent past. In Chicago we are following Yale, a gay man trying to tackle a professional challenge and be a supportive partner and friend, all while AIDS has begun crashing through his community like a giant snowball gathering steam and size as it rolls down a hill. Decades later in Paris, Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is trying to track down her estranged daughter, lost for years in a cult. The story moves back and forth between these characters, only slowly revealing all the connections between them and how the trauma of the AIDS epidemic continues to ripple through lives.

The book is gorgeous. Yale and Fiona both leap off the page as real people–complicated, not always great decision-makers, but loving. And in the Chicago chapter especially, the sense of place is so strong that I could almost feel that horrible icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan. But I also struggled to read it sometimes, because a felt such a sense of dread about what was going to happen. I swung between not being able to put it down, and wanting to put the book in the freezer because I was so upset for these characters. And I want anyone reading it to know going in: this is not going to be a book about miraculous survival and reunion. I cried and cried. There are parts I would like to go back and reread because I know I raced through them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. But this wasn’t a story that made me think, “Well, what’s the point of anything then?” Which is sometimes my reaction at the end of a fancy literary novel.

I completely understand if, after looking at the headlines of the day, all you want to do is read something light and fluffy and warm and comforting. I have done more than my share of that lately, and I don’t want to a recommend a book that could upset someone at a time when they can least handle it. Reading isn’t your job, there is no course credit here–read the books you enjoy. But if you are in a place to be challenged and to be sad and to feel, The Great Believers is a wonderful book. For me, this is a literary fiction novel that speaks to the fact that there is a point and that we are all here together to find it.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Heartbreaking but beautiful

You might also like: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is another gorgeous book that moves about in time to tell interwoven stories, although on a big bigger scale, and The Three Junes by Julia Glass is always a favorite of mine. Then there is The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin–I read this earlier in the year and almost reviewed it here, before deciding that the book started much stronger than it ended. It’s the story of four siblings who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the exact date she says they are going to die. Whether they believe it or not, that information affects how each of them move forward, and the book follows each sibling in succession. I adored the first story–the youngest son moves to San Francisco to live as an out gay man–and liked each of the next three less and less. But other people liked this book a lot, and that first story is gorgeous.

War Witch by Layla Nash

WarWitchCoverWar Witch
by Layla Nash
2017

This was a BookBub find and it was a fun urban fantasy with witches and werewolves. It’s set fifteen years after The Breaking, when supernatural powers and creatures were revealed to the rest of humanity, and five years after The Truce was implemented at the end of an exceptionally bloody 10-year-long civil war in which everyone was fighting everyone else and a lot of people died.

Out main character, Lily, was an incredibly powerful witch at the forefront of the fighting during the civil war and is now trying to find some semblance of peace and wanting nothing to do with the current power structure, staying as unaligned as she possibly can from the many, many factions still struggling to figure out their place. Nash has done some amazing world building with the concept that there’s the truce between humans and supernatural beings, but each side is made up of groups that contain smaller groups that contain individuals and pretty much all of them have their own conflicts and alliances and motives. And five years is a very short time for peace while ten years is a very long time for a civil war. So the whole society is extremely fraught.

And into this situation some witches work illegal demon magic and Lily is the main suspect. (In part because she’s been hiding that she can and has summoned demons, but not this particular time.)

In addition to the world building, I also kind of love the romance side plot. It’s really obvious the Lily, an unaligned witch trying to lay low, and Leif, an extremely high ranked werewolf enforcer for the current power structure, are attracted to each other. However, they are also in conflict with each other because they can sympathize with but not abide by each other’s political stances. It’s just a really interesting dynamic and I enjoyed seeing how Nash worked it.

What I wasn’t so happy with was how it ended with a clear set-up for a second book. I’m increasingly developing a pet peeve against books that spend their final chapter(s) setting up the next book rather than completing the current book. Also, this book doesn’t appear to have a sequel yet anyway. But anyway, I found the end of the book annoying, but the world building was excellent and the character interactions were both fascinating and hilarious.

 

Adult Fantasy Books Not By Straight White Men

Witchmark

By CL Polk

WitchmarkWitchmark is the first of the many library holds I put on books recommended by the Tumblr’s Adult fantasy books not by straight white men! and I’m so glad that it was the first one I read!

It is a little hard to review because it is just satisfying across the board. It has a lot of the elements of a comfort read: a common-man protagonist who must rely on his hidden magic in the face of adversity, a light romance with a charming but mysterious stranger, and a truly shocking conspiracy by a shadowy society that must be revealed to the world.

Set in fictional world, it is heavily based on post-WWI London. The metropolitan has recently been wired with new fangled electricity, and a treaty has finally brought the end to a brutal war between nations. Soldiers are returning home in mass, where our protagonist Miles does his best to hide his healing magic and personal history while working at an understaffed and underfunded veterans hospital.

The book starts off as a murder mystery, with a fatally ill man being brought to Miles by his own request, and insisting to him that he has been murdered just before he dies. This probably would have been enough to hook me, but the fantasy and romance elements are woven in so deftly that it became this wonderful amalgam of genres that made me want to read the sequel immediately (unfortunately not due out for a couple of months).

Amberlough

By Lara Elena Donnelly

AmberloughAmberlough cut a bit close to our current state of affairs, honestly. Set in a fictional world inspired by 1930s Germany, Cyril DePaul is a secret agent assigned to uncover why an extremely conservative party is winning elections despite low popularity in polls. Collusion and extortion is suspected (sound familiar?), but before he can discover anything Cyril is quickly uncovered by the wealthy industrialists that make up the party leadership, and strong-armed into betraying his employer and government.

Though I was sympathetic to his plight, Cyril is cowardly and too easily compromised. His lover, Aristide, the emcee of a popular cabaret, is vicious and self-serving, using Cyril for access to state secrets that could inform his side business smuggling. The central dancer at the cabaret, Cordelia, is drawn into their schemes, and is vapid…until she isn’t.

Which is when the book shifted for me, finally becoming more about schemes and espionage than characterizations of unpleasant people. Unfortunately, this happens almost 200 pages into the book, so it was a slow start, to say the least. And then, 100 pages later, everything goes to shit, perhaps accurate of 1930s Berlin and dare I say our current news cycle, and it becomes especially unpleasant reading.

It reminded me a fair bit of Jo Walton’s Small Change series, but even grimmer and joyless. Amberlough is well thought out and extremely well written, but I hated reading just about all of it, and felt entirely depleted after finishing it.

Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World

Over the past few weeks, as I have been telling people how much I liked this historical biography of a Roman empress, I have gotten some very skeptical responses. And I get it–it doesn’t sound like the kind of book you might pick up for a casual read on a Saturday afternoon. But I promise, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon is fascinating and compelling and funny and sad. Even though I knew Agrippina was not going to get a happy ending, I was still reading along as fast as I could, desperate to know what happened to this incredible woman who lived 2000 years ago.

The basic facts: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, and spent decades at the center of the imperial family and of Roman politics–she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife, and Nero’s mother. Her life was shot through with tragedy (imperial family disputes had a tendency to get bloody) but also with glory and ambition. Historical information about her is limited, since Roman writers only occasionally even bothered to mention women, so a lot of the book is Southon explaining what sources do mention Agrippina, and what we can assume in places where the historical record is silent. Southon (who is also lots of fun on Twitter @nuclearteeth) also does a really excellent job of both making sure that we remember that Agrippina was a real person with fears and loves and emotions, while also making it clear that Agripppina lived in an entirely different culture and time. For example, when discussing Agrippina’s first marriage, Southon talks about how disturbing she finds it that the 13-year-old bride was married to a man more than twice her age, but also makes the point that we really have no way of knowing how a Roman princess would have thought about this.

Southon is also really funny, and that’s what really makes this book stand apart. Yes, it’s a very detailed, academic history book that is rigorous in the treatment of its primary sources. But it’s also like hearing a snarky friend gossip about people you know. She calls Caligula “subtle as a brick,” says that Agrippina’s first husband was “a dick,” and is entertainingly exasperated with the Roman habit of giving everyone some variation of the same four names. It makes the book so readable, and helps bring the historical figures to life.

One final note: in the UK, where this was initially published, the title was Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore which is way more fun! I guess us Americans can’t handle that level of excitement in our history.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Tragic, yet funny.

You might also like:  For some more educational history enhanced by dry humor, check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or any of Sarah Vowell’s historical books–I particularly like Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book

10percenthappierMeditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book
by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren, and Carlye Adler
read by Dan Harris and Jeffrey Warren
2017

I ran across this book a year or so ago at someone else’s house and noted that it looked interesting. The  elevator pitch that originally caught my eye: it’s written by a TV news anchor who had an on-air panic attack and got into meditation in the aftermath as he dealt with his issues. So when I was looking for a good audio book to listen to on my commute, I remembered it, requested it at my library, and gave it a shot.

As it turns out, a book on meditation is not necessarily the best thing to listen to while driving. While the authors are very specific about how you don’t have to actually stop and meditate when they do through a meditation, it’s something I might have enjoyed doing otherwise. And driving along as the speaker says, “close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing” isn’t the safest way to drive, especially if I want to do so.

Also, as I should have realized from the title, I’m not actually the audience for this book since I’m not a skeptic about the benefits of meditation. I don’t care for the spiritual and transcendental elements that sometimes come along with meditation, but I’m quite well aware of the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of meditation. Sadly, there are all sorts of things I know would be good for me that I still don’t do, which is why I wanted to try this book out. But while it was a reminder that I should try to meditate on a semi-regular basis, I found a lot of the self-deprecating bonhomie humor of Harris, the primary author, not to my taste and a reminder of one more reason why I don’t watch TV news chat shows.

But it did seem like a good book for the right audience. And as an audio book it was recorded in some ways like a podcast with Harris and Warren switching off reading their sections and occasionally interacting with each other in scripted conversations. So to sum up, a relatively good book but not really my cup’a.

Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

CertainDarkThingsCertain Dark Things
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
2016

This book was listed on the tumblr post Adult fantasy books not by straight white men and only realized afterwards that Anna was already reading a book by the same author. This book was summarized as “vampire noir in Mexico city.” It is really good!

It’s a vaguely futuristic dystopian world where there’s so much extreme poverty that the futuristic elements are minor flashes that just highlight how nothing has changed for the vast majority of people. It’s also a world where all the vampire legends from different lands are based on real beings, and there are ten confirmed types of vampires. It’s only been a few decades since vampires were revealed as real creatures but it’s now the norm, and the norm is that vampires run several of the major drug cartels. So in addition to the conflicts between government and drug cartel, there’s also conflict between government and vampires, between different vampire species, and between different drug cartels. And it all gets extremely messy and extremely bloody.

While the novel switches out point of view between several different characters, our main character is Domingo, a human guy in his late teens I think, who starts off feeling pretty good about himself and his place in the world: he’s got a steady income picking through trash and finding things he can sell and a place of his own in an abandoned metro tunnel. And then he sees a beautiful woman and tries talking to her and she actually acknowledges him! How lucky is he?

And just, he is kind of lucky because of all the vampires that he could have met she needs help that doesn’t involve him dying. Mostly.

It is also very much a noir. The bad guys are the bad guys because they are truly horrifically evil and the good guys are the good guys because at least they’re not as bad as the bad guys. But it’s a gritty world and no one is truly innocent. In the end everything works out in the best possible way but there’s just no real chance at a happy ending.

Actually, I take that back, spoiler alert: the dog lives. So that’s happy.