Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

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In this novel, a TV comedy writer is separated from her husband and two young girls at Christmastime so that she can work on writing a new show on a tight deadline. Georgie’s not on great terms with her husband Neil when he leaves, and she listlessly calls him from a landline phone at her mother’s house. This magic phone calls the past, and she ends up talking to her husband from 15 years earlier, before they were married. At that moment in time, Georgie and Neil had just had a serious fight that ended in a proposal. Georgie’s moral dilemma is whether she needs to make sure this proposal happens through wooing the younger version of her husband, or tell him to get out now for his own sake, to prevent his future/present unhappiness.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Some of my enjoyment came from nostalgia, from imagining myself and my husband in the place of the protagonists, juxtaposing our dating days with our current lives. It hit every nostalgia button I have through its juxtaposition of sweet, thrilling college courtship with the tired, disconnected, romance-less lives of parents. Like Georgie, I had lots of delicious long-distance phone conversations with my college sweetheart before we got married. I remember the anguish of fighting with a boyfriend over the phone, calling and going to voice mail, tense apologies and dramatic promises. Neil and Georgie are only 7 or 8 years older than me, so I was able to get most of the references. I’m old enough to remember what talking on a landline phone was like, at least.

Much of the pleasure of this book comes from anticipating a much-needed reunion. The obstacles Rowell throws up to delay this reconciliation are sometimes ridiculous, but almost always entertaining. I was surprised at the amount of tension she was able to create, given a time travel plot that seems to predetermine the ending. I raced through the last part of the book, longing for resolution almost as much as Georgie.

In some ways, I found the ending too easy. Too many questions were left unanswered. Georgie paid zero attention to the writing work she was supposed to be doing for the entire second half of the book; will she pay for saving her marriage with a lost opportunity in her career? Georgie makes a resolution to ‘do better’ with Neil, but Rowell doesn’t show us the hard choices that ‘doing better’ requires. I would have liked a ‘one year later’ epilogue or something to show what happened with some of the untied narrative strings. Was Georgie able to follow through on her resolution? How did Georgie’s reprioritizing her marriage and family affect her professional life? Was she able to have it all, or did something have to give? Did Georgie’s trying harder mean that things were better for Neil? Did he make changes in his own life once Georgie gave him the time and space to? An open ending is nice for allowing readers to answer these questions for themselves, and thus avoiding offense, but I’m really interested in what Rainbow Rowell would consider to be a happy ending with regard to all these issues.

Dangerous Creatures

Dangerous Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

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This book is a spinoff of the Beautiful Creatures trilogy focusing on two side characters, Ridley and Link. They go to New York together, where Link wants to make it big in music, and Ridley has a gambling debt to settle. (I didn’t find the gambling debt to be all that compelling as a spark for the plot or a sin for Ridley to atone for.) She owes her debt to Nox Gates, young owner of a nightclub. Nox begins as a villain, but is humanized through taking Ridley on a fancy day-long Manhattan date, and becomes third wheel of a love triangle. The real villain turns out to be the same one as always, conveniently resurrected. Much of the drama comes from Ridley’s dishonesty, even as she tries to reform and be the girlfriend Link deserves.

Perhaps partly because of the big-city setting and partly because of the protagonist’s tastes, there was a lot more annoying materialism in this volume than in the other books, which were set in a small Southern town. Ridley dresses very well, but she’s not rich and doesn’t work for her fancy things: she steals/conjures them. I found it tellingly shallow that she uses her Siren powers merely to surround herself with material excess. It’s unnecessary in terms of the narrative, and results in tantalizing readers with luxuries they can’t afford.

The ending is a kind of cheap cliffhanger. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll pick up the next book in the series. I anticipate that Lena and Ethan will make an appearance before this new series is over; I’m not sure whether or not that would salvage this story.

A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

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Most history books tell about great men, presidents and generals; this book attempts to tell the history of the US through focusing on ordinary people, the oppressed, women, slaves, Native Americans, the working class, and popular social movements organized on behalf of these people. Most of the text is lists upon lists and stories upon stories of horrors and atrocities and deceptions. Sometimes it feels like there are very few meaningful transitions between different events and ideas, which creates an effect of being pummeled with information from all sides. This bombardment of facts is presented without much interpretation or explanation, and I found myself wanting Zinn’s implicit argument to be made explicit. I am fully capable of arriving at my own conclusions, but I wanted to know what conclusions Zinn meant to use these facts to argue for, so that I could judge for myself if I thought the facts warranted them. I wanted Zinn to make it crystal clear what he was arguing for and against. Without this information, I was left to guess at his reasons for including various events and the relations they had to each other. Knowing a bit about history and understanding Zinn’s basic point of view, I thought I usually made good guesses, but I couldn’t be sure. A reader with less background knowledge and a shakier understanding of rhetoric and discourse–I always think about my students–would be totally lost. And aren’t people like that the ones who need to know their history the most? Aren’t they the ones most likely to be taken in by the dominant narrative?

In some cases, Zinn doesn’t give any context for the information, rendering it almost meaningless. An example of this is when he told how many slaves of certain ages died during a five year period at one plantation, without telling how many slaves were on that plantation in total, and without giving mortality rates or life expectancy stats for whites to compare (172). This lack of information for comparison was common throughout the book; it was as if Zinn expected the reader to already know the relevant comparable statistics, like how to adjust for inflation.

To be clear, I don’t dispute Zinn’s facts or ideas, just his presentation. His ideas weren’t all that new to me. Doesn’t everyone know that Columbus and Andrew Jackson committed genocide? Of course the Mexican-American War was just a bullshit excuse to steal land. Since it didn’t teach me much I didn’t already know, reading the book felt kind of like an exercise in self-flagellation. The nonstop barrage of facts made me feel helpless and depressed; it made me wish there were something I could do about America’s historical sins, but there’ isn’t anything to do. In fact, Zinn’s indignant tone might alienate precisely the readers who need the book the most–those who are ignorant about history and have blindly bought into America’s patriotic myths.

Sometimes the motives attributed to presidents and other leaders (especially Republicans like Reagan and Nixon) make them seem like straight up evil, moustache-twirling villains. Greed seems to be the only reason they ever do anything, except when they pollute the environment just for fun. In Zinn’s portrayal, they’re so evil it baffles me, like the “motiveless malignancy” of Shakespeare’s Iago, and that just doesn’t feel realistic to me. I wonder what Zinn would say to researchers discovering differences between liberals’ and conservatives’ brains and to the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (a book that’s been on my list for a long time).

When Zinn finally gets around to telling the reader why he wrote the book and what he hopes for the future, it felt anticlimactic when stacked next to the pile of horrors that is the other 600 pages of the book. The utopian zeal of Zinn’s final chapter felt especially naïve when juxtaposed with the flood of stories about the brutal backlash against popular movements and the way they can be absorbed into mainstream forces that merely protect the status quo. He tried to leave his readers with hope, but the vast gulf between Zinn’s desired future society and the America of the recent past that he describes left me more hopeless than ever.

The book was very similar to Lies My Teacher Told Me, telling some of the same information, but that book was more clear about demonstrating the difference between the candy-coated version of history that students are taught, and reality, and why this pretty, patriotic story is the dominant discourse. It did this through analyzing the textbooks that are supposed to teach students American History, which seems entirely appropriate. Zinn told much the same story, relaying many of the same facts, but without an explicit straw man version of history to argue against. He assumed that readers know this saccharine history already and that they can infer that he’s arguing for a different perspective on our past. Maybe I’m showing myself to be slow and ignorant by calling for Zinn to slow down and ‘show his work’, by asking him to write a Cliff’s Notes version of this book. I just feel like he makes too many assumptions about his readers, and that’s dangerous, especially with the kinds of topics he’s dealing with here. For his history to be truly comprehensive and coherent, he should address his biases and his antagonists and his central argument throughout the book, leaving nothing to the reader to infer or guess. Maybe giving this information all along, instead of only in the introduction and conclusion, would give his optimism for years to come more moral weight than his sad, realistic view of the past.

The Silkworm

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

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When a beloved author switches genre, most people are too surprised by the seeming inconsistency to see any continuity between the works. But it makes total sense to me that the author of the Harry Potter series would move on to writing mysteries for adults. The Harry Potter books were always anchored firmly in a mystery plot, and very methodically plotted to reveal information to readers only gradually. (Have you ever seen the charts JKR drew up diagramming her plots? Genius.) Also, no one who has read Harry Potter closely will be surprised to learn that JK Rowling has a sick and twisted imagination. But maybe it took a murder mystery to give her the chance to really parade display her freakiness, to let it all hang out. This novel includes the most disgusting murder scene I’ve ever encountered in any media, so over-the-top revolting that it makes me hope this book never gets adapted.

The title of The Silkworm comes from a metaphor in the book-within-a-book, Bombyx Mori, which is another showcase for Rowling-as-Galbraith to play with weird and nasty images. The mystery Strike solves is the disappearance and murder of the book’s author. I enjoyed this book more than the previous Cormoran Strike book because it was based in the world of publishing, rather than the world of fashion.

This book also seemed to hint at mysteries that may be solved in future books. I imagine that before Galbraith/Rowling is finished with Cormoran Strike, he will have investigated his own mother’s unexplained death. Strike’s volatile ex Charlotte is also someone who could easily be murdered or accused of murder; through solving a mystery involving her, Strike could confront his feelings about her and finally get over her. Leaving the way for him to get together with Robin, of course. Those books would be great fun to read. I hope Galbraith/Rowling keeps turning these mysteries out at a nice brisk pace!

Sinner

Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater

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I’ve loved Maggie Stiefvater’s books, especially her fairy books and her Raven Cycle. Her attention to language and avoidance of clichés put her head and shoulders above most YA writers. Her werewolf books, though, are not my favorites of her novels. This latest one seems even more like typical YA subject matter than any of her other books. It’s about a rock star (who’s a recovering addict and a werewolf) making a comeback through a reality show and falling in love with a regular girl. The supernatural stuff is a much smaller part of the story here than in any of her other books, which puts extra focus on the romance. Both Cole and Isabel are very jaded and insecure and prickly; sometimes it’s hard to tell what they see in each other. Isabel doubts Cole’s recovery, and gets jealous of fangirls in a way that’s annoying, but somewhat understandable. This dynamic sets Isabel up to be kind of a shrew. It’s a fantasy about a damaged artist who saves himself through music, assiduous courtship, and being unbearably cool, and a girl who learns to open her heart when worn down with enough devotion and charm. I was vaguely uncomfortable with some of the Beauty-and-the-Beast aspects of the story, but not so much so that I couldn’t enjoy the prose. It’s not Stiefvater’s best, but it’s better than most YA.

Four

Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth

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This little book is pretty much just riding Divergent‘s wave of popularity. It’s a kind of prequel, telling the story of Four, the protagonist’s love interest. It tells how he came to join the Dauntless faction, then tells a few moments from the first book from his point of view. I didn’t feel there were any real surprises in seeing this story from another angle. It was mostly just a fleshed-out version of the backstory that was summarized in Divergent. Maybe this means that the original story was kind of flat. I know I’ve read Harry Potter fan fics that were more compelling and complex. I’m sure fans who just loved the world of Divergent will enjoy a chance to live in that world a little longer. But if you’re not hardcore, my advice would be to skip this one.

The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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This book is Amy Tan being Amy Tan, tackling her pet subject: multiple generations of women traveling between America and China, having complex relationships, being exploited by men and bureaucracy and in-laws, and occasionally fighting back. I don’t say that in a disparaging way: she writes what she knows and is good at it. This book is different from previous books of Tan’s I’ve read in that it’s sexier. The main characters are courtesans, or very high-class prostitutes, in Shanghai circa 1910-1925. In addition to the deceptions and seductions of suitors, the drama here comes from a mother and her daughter both losing children to hostile in-laws from another culture, thanks to false or missing documentation. (Now that I’m a mom, reading about a parent losing all contact with a young child is even more heartrending to me than ever.) It’s a long book, offering the perspectives of the American mother, her half-Chinese daughter, and the daughter’s attendant.

Though she relies heavily on coincidence and other slightly unrealistic plot devices, Tan also interweaves historical events like the flu epidemic of 1918 into the narrative. The characters’ relationships and opportunities are greatly influenced by the qeopolitical climate and the relations between China and the US. This is a story that could only have taken place in a particular moment in history, when China was in the process of opening to the West, but still very tradition-bound, when customs like courtesan houses coexisted with typewriters and telegraphs, after the Open Door Notes, but before the invasion by Japan and the Cultural Revolution. Most action takes place in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan place where foreigners were safe and respected. It’s interesting to learn this history from a perspective that we don’t often see as Americans.

A while ago I reviewed Rules for Virgins, not knowing that it was going to be part of  a longer novel. Though it stands up well on its own, that chapter also fits well in this book. Magic Gourd, its narrator, only narrates this one chapter of The Valley of Amazement, but she’s an important character, and a funny one.