CBR-V Review #16: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Why I Read It: Listened, actually–I needed an audiobook for my commute, didn’t have anything in mind, and thought this looked good. Plus Election and Little Children are great books.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: The Leftovers takes place  a year or so after what is known as the “Great Departure,” a Rapture-like event which involved thousands of normal people across the world disappearing suddenly, vanishing into thin air. The focus is on the Garvey family: Kevin, Lori, and their two children, Tom and Jill. Tom has run away to follow a pseudo-prophet named Holy Wayne; Lori has joined the Guilty Remnant, a religious movement that involves isolation from society and a vow of silence; former good-girl Jill has fallen in with a bad crowd and is failing out of school. Nora, the other main character, is a woman who lost her husband and two children, and finds her life spiralling out of control. We follow them as they grapple with the aftermath of the event, trying to center themselves in a world that no longer makes sense.

My Review: I actually liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. It’s gotten pretty mixed reviews but I really, really enjoyed it. No one out there writes about suburban dysfunction the way Perrotta does–I really think Little Children is the best example of that, but it’s the central theme in most of his books and he portrays it well.

Although this book has a supernatural/religious element to it, Perrotta pulls it off by grounding his characters and plot in the real, tangible world, the world of Youtube and Facebook, of the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, of familiar people and places and things. This isn’t some made-up world that closely resembles our own–it is our world. That makes the central premise (what would happen if the Rapture actually did happen) much more powerful and, to an extent, believable. Things like that don’t happen in our world, and that’s why it affects the characters–and the reader–so strongly.

I think Perrotta made a smart choice by using five distinct voices to frame the narrative, giving the reader insight into the far-reaching effects the Departure has on both an individual and societal level. You really get a sense of how people’s responses to tragedy vary wildly–some people choose to ignore it and move on like nothing happened, some remain in a state of emotional paralysis, some run away. There’s no one real answer or correct way of handling these things, and Perrotta handles each one beautifully, presenting each character in an honest yet compassionate light. All of the characters are flawed in recognizable and realistic ways, which is pretty typical of Perrotta, and most aren’t necessarily even that likable  Perrotta just has a great way of making you see other people’s perspectives and sympathize with them even if they do questionable things.

This is, ultimately, a novel about grief, which I think is why it succeeds. Ignoring the supernatural element for a moment, these are essentially real people dealing with very real emotions in very real ways. I liked that discussions of the how/what/why of the Departure are relegated to the background–Perrotta knows that the real story is in the characters’ responses to the event, not the event itself. While the curious part of me wants to know what exactly the Departure was, and what it meant, I recognize that that’s almost the point of the story. The reader is in the same state of confusion and uncertainty that the characters are, and it would have been a bit of a cop-out for Perrotta to have explained it in detail. His message seems to be that the world is a crazy place, and crazy things happen in it–and in the end, there’s nothing we can do about it.

I’ve read a lot of complaints about the lack of conclusion to most of the storylines, but I think it’s wrapped up beautifully. Not neatly, not clearly, but in a way that makes sense in the context of the overall theme of uncertainty. I had a sense of where the characters were going, and I almost didn’t want to know more than that. The ending mimics life, in a way–you never really know for sure what’s going to happen, you just have a sense of the path you’re on. The only storyline that I wish was a bit more fleshed out was Lori’s, as some events that occur towards the end of the book aren’t really explained and I was left feeling cheated out of an explanation.

Should You Read It? Yes. Perrotta is reliably awesome, and this book is funny, heart-breaking, and beautifully written.


CBR-V Review #15: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Why I Read It: This review.

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: Life After Life is the story–or rather, stories–of Ursula Todd. Ursula, it seems, cannot die. Her first life is over before it begins, as she dies before even taking her first breath. She is reborn moments later to the same family, in the same house, under the same circumstances. As she gets older, she dies and is reborn repeatedly, each new life taking her on a different path–some disastrous, some charmed–giving her a chance, each time, to do it over, to do it right. All that remains of her past lives, each time she is reborn, is a strong sense of déjà vu, a feeling that only grows stronger with time.

My Review: This book was magical. That’s really the only word I can use to accurately described it. It drew me in, absorbed me into Ursula’s world, and I never wanted to leave. It’s stunningly written and filled with the kind of imagery that makes me swoon–Atkinson knows how to turn a phrase like no one else. This book is funny and heartbreaking and gripping all at once, so good that it was truly difficult for me to put it down.

And the story? Well, they say that every story has already been written before. But this was one of the most unique and original stories I’ve read in a long time. Atkinson plays with time, stopping and starting and looping back unexpectedly, leaving you constantly guessing where Ursula would end up next. She explores a central theme of consequence–how the smallest actions can snowball in the largest of ways. Scenarios are replayed over and over, each time with a slight variation that sends it in a completely new direction. This messed with my head a bit–you never really know where you are and it’s hard to keep straight how exactly you got there. Atkinson weaves it together so beautifully, though, that my confusion was worth it in the end.

It left me reeling, unsure of what had actually happened, what was really real. Storylines overlapped and interplayed, characters from each bleeding over into one another, making it difficult to know which pieces fit in where. Some of these pieces of the puzzle were less interesting than others–there were sections that made me cry, and others that had less of an impact–but stepping back and looking at it as a whole, it’s an undeniably powerful (if complex) portrait of a fragmented life.

Should You Read It: Absolutely. It’s an incredible read, and is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.


CBR-V Review #14: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristofer Jansma

Why I Read It: Joanna’s rave review of it on Pajiba got me intrigued.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: This is kind of a hard book to summarize, but here goes! We first meet the narrator (who goes by several names over the course of the book) as a young boy in an airport terminal, waiting for his flight attendant mother. We then shift to him as a teenager, where he’s a poor kid in a town full of rich snobs and is hopelessly in love with of them. Next, we find him at college, where he’s a writing student, and where his friendship with Julian, a flamboyant and incredible talented rival writer, and Evelyn, the beautiful actress, begins. It’s these two relationships that are at the center of the novel, although they’re later hidden under the veil of a novel-within-a-novel (and yet another novel within this one). This is a book about writing, more than anything–the process, the act, the emotional journey. 

My Review: I really liked this book. It was incredible innovative in terms of structure and style–it’s disjointed but cohesive at the same time, almost more like a series of short stories than a novel at times. Jansma plays with the reader’s head, making you question what’s real and what’s not, keeping you constantly at arm’s length from the narrator. We never really know who the narrator actually is–we never even know his real name–and it’s almost as though he’s a totally different person in each section of the book. It’s clear that he’s obsessed with reinvention and is struggling to pinpoint a defined identity for himself, and this is one of the novel’s central themes. It’s an interesting tactic–having such an unreliable narrator can be hard to pull off–but it ultimately works well. The theme of a leopard not being able to change its spots is repeated frequently, and is maybe a bit too on-the-nose, but Jansma stops short of hitting you over the head with it.

This reminded me a bit of The Wonder Boys, actually, in that it’s the narrator’s relationship with writing that’s more important than any other physical/emotional relationship in the novel (and in the inclusion of a flamboyant, eccentric best friend). I loved the concept of books within books, which, although a bit confusing at times, ends up being successful at the end. Jansma is clearly super-talented, as this novel spans a wide range of styles and tones and still manages to feel centered and complete. It’s definitely a funny book, with a very tongue-in-cheek voice, but it also has a deep undercurrent of pain and loss. It’s a stunning book, and really unlike anything I’ve ever read. It left me feeling confused and uncertain of what I was supposed to take away from it, but I really enjoyed reading it.

Should You Read It? Yes. It’s well-written, entertaining, and fun to read. And I think Jansma is definitely the Next Big Thing in contemporary literature.

CBR-V Review #13: Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Why I Read It: Re-read, in this case. This was one of my favorite books growing up (my copy is falling apart) and Tamora Pierce is one of my favorite children’s/YA authors. I hadn’t read it in far too long, so I decided to listen it as an audiobook.

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: Alanna of Trebond is not your typical girl. Her father (a lord) expects her to become a gentle lady, and her twin brother, Thom, to become a knight. This idea is torture to both of them: Alanna dreams of becoming the greatest knight the kingdom has ever seen, and Thom wants to be a sorcerer. So they come up with a clever plan to switch places, with Alanna cutting her hair and renaming herself Alan. She enters the squire program at the palace, where she must face physical and mental challenges unlike any she’s ever experienced before, learn to control her burgeoning magical skills, and deal with new enemies–all while attempting to disguise her true identity.

My Review: This book seriously holds up. It’s not often that I can get just as much pleasure out of a book at age 23 as I did at age 10. It’s just a phenomenal story, and Alanna is such a badass. She’s easily one of the best YA heroines ever written–strong, smart, and confident without ever devolving into a cliche. I love Alanna so much, and I definitely credit her (and Tamora Pierce) in part with my early interest in feminism. Although I wasn’t really like Alanna–I was the furthest thing in the world from a tomboy–she did exactly what she wanted and didn’t let any person, or society’s expectations, stop her. She’ll always have a place in my heart for that alone.

The story is great, too. It’s set in Tortall, a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, very similar to Westeros (all of Pierce’s books are kind of Game-of-Thrones-for-kids, in a good way) and so there’s a good balance between the magical and the realistic. Pierce creates a great cast of secondary characters, namely George, the so-called “King of the Thieves,” and Jonathan, the kingdom’s prince, who are Alanna’s two best friends (and two of my biggest YA fiction crushes, although they’re not as swoon-worthy in this book).

This is the first in a 4-part series, and while to my memory the other books are stronger in terms of mythology and plot, this one was always my favorite. It’s clearly a set-up for the rest of the books, but it’s got a sweetness and simpleness that I appreciate. It’s a bit like the first Harry Potter book–definitely the weakest in the series, but it’ll always be one of my favorites simply for opening my eyes to that world.

And like I said, this really holds up! I was captivated the whole time, even though I knew most of the plot by heart. The prose is smart and not dumbed down at all, which I appreciated even more as an adult. It’s a genuinely good book, not just a good kid’s book.

Should You Read It: Yes! And give it to all the young girls (hell, all the young guys, too) that you know.

CBR-V Review #12: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Why I Read It: Because I’m sort of obsessed with old Hollywood, and I’d read a few good reviews of this (I forget where, though).

My Rating: 3 stars

Summary: Elsa Emerson is a typical little girl growing up in 1940’s Wisconsin, with dreams of becoming an actress just like the young men and women who flock to her family’s theater program each summer. An unexpected tragedy pushes her to pursue her dreams, and she moves to Hollywood as a young teenager. There, she transforms into the glamorous Laura Lamont, a woman as far removed from the all-American Elsa as possible. The novel follows Elsa/Laura through fame, heartbreak, and loss while exposing the dark underside of shiny old-school Hollywood.

My Review: If I hadn’t recently read Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, I would have liked this book a lot more. As it stands, though, this was a clearly inferior version of that story and I couldn’t help but compare the two constantly. Laura Lamont’s story felt somewhat played-out; it was easy to telegraph where the book was going. Blonde was my favorite book that I read last year, and is definitely one of my all-time favorite reads–Oates accomplished what Straub doesn’t, which is a truly gripping and absorbing account of the cost of fame.

Straub isn’t entirely unsuccessful, though. I think she covers too much time–I realize that she wanted to track the rise and fall of celebrity, but it’s consequently pretty rushed and I don’t feel like we ever really get to know Laura at any point. As a result, the emotional impact of the plot is kind of lost, because Laura is such an undefined character. Maybe that was sort of the point–there’s definitely a theme of identity running through the novel–but Laura needed to be more realistic in order to gain the reader’s empathy. Again, this is an area where Oates was incredible successful, so it was hard for me to get into it.

Straub is a good writer, though, and I loved some of her observations of the follies of Hollywood. I also liked that she could explore the aftermath of fame, which (for obvious reasons) Oates couldn’t do with Marilyn. The end of the book was definitely stronger for me, just because it felt a little fresher and less predictable.

Should You Read It? It’s definitely not a bad book, and if you’ve never read Blonde you might like it more than I did. It’s worth a read if you’re Old Hollywood-obsessed, but like I said in the review–Oates does it better.

CBR-V Review #11: Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Why I Read It: I’ve recently been really into reading books about food: different movements and dietary lifestyles, how the choices we make about what we eat impacts our bodies and the world around us, nutrition facts, etc. As I form my own views on what qualifies as “good” eating—or at least, the right way of eating for me, as I don’t believe that there’s a one-size-fits-all, universally applicable diet—I find it helpful to draw knowledge from others who have spent a lot of time considering the same things that are on my mind these days.

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: Animal Vegetable Miracle is the story of one family’s decision to eat (almost) entirely locally-grown foods for a year after moving to the Appalachians from Arizona. While they make a few exceptions for things like olive oil and coffee, almost all of the food they consume from their own county. Not only that, much of it is grown in their very own backyard. Kingsolver both explores her personal experience with self-sustainable eating habits (killing chickens, growing mountains of zucchini, making homemade cheese) and profiles people that she’s sought out and created relationships with who are doing cool and unique things in the world of locally-based food (an Amish family simply following centuries-old tradition, for example). Kingsolver’s husband and daughter also contribute, in the form of more fact-based sidebars (often highlighting a specific issue, law, or scientific concept that needs more explanation–factory farming, GMOs, etc.) and small sections on seasonal, local recipes and local eating from a younger generation’s perspective.

My Review: Overall, I adored this book. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors to begin with, mostly because of her wonderful voice and her amazing lyricism–she can describe things like no other. While I’ve read much of her fictional work, I’d never read her nonfiction before. She doesn’t disappoint though. This book is more a series of personal essays, each of them doing exactly what a personal essay is supposed to do: draw you in, make you laugh and make you cry in the span of a few pages, intrigue you, and stun you with perfectly-written images. I assume that most people who pick up this book already have at least a passing interest in responsible eating, but I think Kingsolver’s prose could convince even those that don’t care about it at all. She presents the issue logically and with humor: clearly, eating locally is best for our bodies, our communities, and our planet.

I also think she does a good job of recognizing her privilege. The family is obviously well-off, and so their ability to own acres of farmable land and to buy livestock and tractors and other agricultural necessities are not realistic for the average American. She does mention how lucky she is, and is careful to include tips for those of us who don’t have the space/resources to grow all of our own food. She also makes it clear that her project is just that: a limited-time experiment to see if it can be done. At the end, she is open about the fact that living like that is not realistic for the world we live in, and that’s okay. Her message is about conscious and responsible eating, not self-deprivation and sanctimony. She never comes across as preachy, which is an easy line to cross.

In terms of the sidebars, written by her daughter and husband, I had mixed feelings. I loved her husband’s short sections, because they really fleshed out Kingsolver’s ideas and presented some concrete evidence to ground the narrative. He did a great job of synthesizing some pretty complex concepts and making them clear and easy to read. The daughter’s pieces, though, drove me crazy. I thought she was kind of full of herself and came across as judgmental of those who don’t eat the way she does, plus she just wasn’t a very good writer. Her recipes were good, though, so just skip the lead-up and focus on those.

Should You Read It? Absolutely. If you have even a passing interest in the local foods movement, this is a must-read.