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I was a HUGE fan of Hilary Jordan’s Mudbound, so much so that I read it three times, savoring every word each time. It’s a beautiful novel written in electric prose and is an absolute pleasure to read. It’s delicious, and I highly recommend reading that. Jordan employs the same electric style of writing for When She Woke, BUT somewhere in the middle, the novel shorts out and becomes dreary and unbelievable.
Jordan pays much homage to The Scarlet Letter here. First of all, there’s the red. Hanna Payne is injected with a virus to pay for her crime that turns her entire being red. There you go with the scarlet. Next, she’s Hanna Payne (ref: Hester Prynne). Her lover, the man who impregnated her, is the famously reverent, Reverend Aidan Dale (get it? Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale??) Other reviewers, along with the promoters of the book, have also compared the novel to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, I guess because of the dystopian view of the future, and also there’s a whole element where after “The Scourge” of the future, many women are rendered infertile, but I found Jordan’s view of this future sketchy at best. For the most part, it seems much like we live now; only it’s a more religiously fundamental state. People still sew, eat fast food, drive electric cars, and (I personally found this kind of random) shop at Target.
There are a few threads that go nowhere, for example much is made of Hanna’s talent for sewing, and when she is put in a kind of halfway house type rehabilitation program, she is forced to make herself a doll to represent the baby she aborted. Jordan goes into the details of the doll, how lovingly rendered it is, (and btw, Hanna names the doll “Pearl”, thank you Mr. Hawthorne), but then she just leaves the doll behind as the adventure continues, and what was the point of all that detail?
There’s a kidnapping sub-plot along the sort of underground railroad to get the Chromes out of the country to safety, and though there’s generally a lot of pining for the reverend that becomes almost like Jordan’s beating the reader over the head, like she’s getting paid on Louisa May Alcott plan, there’s this crazy diversion toward the end with a lesbian sexual experience that just left me like, what?? What was the point of that except to say that fundamentalist Christians shouldn’t knock it ‘til they try it?
Then right after that, (SPOILER ALERT) even though Hanna had a lovely time, she goes looking for the reverend in a part of the book that totally went against what we know about the characters…and then at the end, it gets even more preposterous.
I can’t tell you how disappointing the novel was. And I feel awful for hating it because I loved Mudbound so much. But When She Woke just didn’t do it for me.
I have been a fan of Tom Perotta since his collection of short stories, Bad Haircut was published in the late-90’s. Many of his books are poignant and funny with characters that are well drawn and easy to relate to. The back cover of his latest, The Leftovers, goes so far as to proclaim him the “Steinbeck of Suburbia.” I wouldn’t say that, but he does do a great job of capturing suburban life, especially suburban life in New Jersey.
His latest is about a town reeling in the wake of a “Rapture-like” phenomenon where millions of people simple vanish at once. It focuses on one family and how they deal with it in different ways. I think the message of the book is basically that “things happen” and you have to move on, which we each do in our own ways, but this tale gets a bit far-fetched at times, and toward the end the plot really thins, especially when it comes to the story of the wife.
She joins a sort of post-Rapture cult called the Guilty Remnant. For all of Perotta’s ability to make things seem real, his talent for capturing what it’s really like to live in suburbia, this whole guilty remnant plot really felt convoluted and not too believable.
Another character, Nora, a woman who has lost her whole family spends most of the novel in a state of suspended animation. She can’t move on, though she desperately wants to. She’s so numb though, that it’s hard to relate to her as a reader. She strings along a lover, who’s also hard to know, and in the end, she has a sudden change of character that seems to come out of the blue, though I am sure the author intended for that change to mean something in a larger sense.
I would put Perotta in the same category as Nick Hornby or Curtis Sittenfield. Good story teller, but when wieghted down with larger themes, the stories tend to lose focus.
Book Club Selection for September
I read this one last year, and thought it was very good, though now that I am reading it a second time, I am finding it absolutely brilliant. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s a novel, but it reads like a bunch of interconnected short stories. Someone might be mentioned or referred to in one chapter, and then the next chapter will be that character’s story. There are quite a few characters, so reading it a second time I feel like I am getting to know them a bit better.
This book may contain my favorite description ever in a book. It takes place in first person perspective, when an overweight, eczematous celebrity journalist becomes annoyed with the willowy starlet he’s interviewing over lunch. Egan writes: “With a sudden pressure heralded by pricks of sweat along my drastically receding hairline, I swab the bottom of my salad plate with a vast hunk of bread and jam it into my mouth like a dentist packing a tooth.” He then proceeds to sneeze…while the food is still being masticated. The novel is hilarious and heartbreaking, one of the best I have read in a long time — and that’s saying something.
I enjoyed this one very much, found it to be a real page turner, despite the fact that the main character is an adulteress, which is just something I personally find hard to identify with or have empathy for. While the main character was well-drawn and does come to learn a few things along the way, I still found her a bit hard to understand. She felt a bit vapid to me.
Good historical novel though. It takes place in 1953, in Hong Kong, and then there’s also another story, the hidden past of the main character’s lover, that takes place in 1941-42. He’s a bit removed though, never having gotten over the events of WWII. I wanted to feel for him, but I found it hard to connect to him. Neither character had a soft side, something to root for. I didn’t really care whether they ended up together in the end.
Powerful novel about three people separated from each other and their enduring love. I found myself wanting to return to the story every day. This would make an excellent book club book, as there were many topics for discussion that I haven’t seen in other books.
Sorry, but I can’t read it. I tried. I know, I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, so take my opinion for what it is. I only read the Kindle sample, so don’t go by me, but it seemed like the narrative was all over the place and that Lowe takes himself a bit seriously. I could be wrong though. Afterall, I only read the sample. I bet the audiobook version is better, plus he’s not hard on the eyes, if you know what I mean.
Amazing and wonderful book. It had me absolutely breathless at times. The narrative was compelling, exciting and beautifully written. It was like I took my own trip to the heart of the Amazon, and I couldn’t wait to get back to it every day. You will find this on many “Best Of” lists at the end of the year.
I thought this book was great and was sorry to finish it. It kind of reminded me of Let the Great World Spin in its tone, language and rhthym. The narrative follows a family in Iowa from the 1970s to the early 21st century. Great book.
This was a quick and easy read. I am a huge fan of Tina Fey and had heard good things, so even though I don’t usually read memoirs, I read this one. There were parts that were laugh-out-loud funny, though over all, the book was uneven. I suspect the reason for that is that some of the chapters had been previously published as New Yorker articles, which kind of created a non-cohesive feel to the book. Those pieces had a bit of a “how to” feel to them, and they were funny, but not what I was looking for from the book. Also, in the how-to parts, Fey uses the word “you” a lot, which is pet-peeve of mine as a writer and writing teacher. You might not mind it, but it sets the little hairs on my arm upright. The book was best, and when I say that, I mean I stayed up until the wee hours, couldn’t put it down, when Fey told stories about her life, especially her television life, where she worked at SNL and got 30 Rock running. I wish there had been more of that kind of stuff.
Overall, just an okay book. There were parts I found exciting, and parts that angered or made me cry, but overall, it was annoyingly long. Once they got out of Africa, the book should have been only two or three chapters more, but it just went on and on. While I was interested in the characters and the history of Africa, I just felt like Kingsolver was beating me over the head about certain things by the end. Enough already! Also, I didn’t particularly care for all the palindrome action, and found more than one of the characters completely annoying. Anyway, just glad that I finished it.
Finally finished this one, though I am not sure why it took me so long. I really enjoyed the book. I have this thing about McEwan. I’m always trying to figure out where he’s going to take me, and the thing is, he never takes me where I think he will. I think that’s the thrill of him, that and the exquisite way that he takes us inside his characters’ heads.
I read this book a second time, and have to say that it really holds up. I couldn’t put it down again and read the whole thing in about four days. It’s just my favorite kind of book, I think. My full review, from Books 2009:
My first thought is that this would be an excellent book club book. I couldn’t put this book down and actually stayed up until the wee small hours to finish it. The novel is full of memorable, relatable characters, told in the richest (and still highly accessible) prose.
Jordan spins the story in several voices about a year on a Mississippi Delta cotton farm. The novel begins with a death of an old man, and the narrator alludes to the fact that he did not die of natural causes. That mystery kept me turning the pages from the first. And the tale of how the man came to his fate is one of the most compelling I have read in a long time.
The characters were wonderfully drawn. There is Laura, the city wife brought by circumstance and a landsick husband to a filthy farmhouse and a hard way of life. She has to care for two small children while dealing with her dark-hearted father-in-law. She develops feelings for Jamie, the brother-in-law who comes home from World War II to live with them. He’s broken on the inside, but a lovable character as well. The family interacts with the sharecroppers on their land, whose own son is a decorated WWII veteran struggling to return to the realities of life in post-war Mississippi while helping his family bring in their crop. All of these narratives weave a stark but realistic view of the Jim Crow South.
This book had me breathless at times. It is a tale of love, loyalty, and tragedy. I read many good books this year. Mudbound was one of the best. It was a fitting end to a wonderful year of literature.
This was my book club’s selection last year for July, but I wasn’t in the mood to read something heavy at the time. The prose in this novel is unbelievably beautiful, such as: “It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother would become, and what I’d later see among the cast-offs of New York – the whores , the hustlers, the hopeless – all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of that the world really was.”
It was an amazing novel, and the way McCann wove the story lines of these seemingly disparate characters was nothing short of brilliant. The book was haunting in the most wonderful way, and I was sorry to have finished it.
This reminded me a bit of Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, only a little more chicky. There were lots of Catholic and Latin terms that I kind of glossed over, but the story was good, and kept me turning the pages.
After watching PBS’s delicious presentation of Downton Abbey, I wanted to read something from that period, something having to do with an English great house in the early 20th Century. This was quite satisfying in that respect, though it was a little chicky and some of the conflicts were resolved either too quickly or not in a detailed enough fashion for me.
Also, I felt this would have been fine as a straight historical fiction piece. I didn’t need it to keep coming back into the present, to have it be told as the memory of someone in her 90’s ala Titanic (Manfrengensen’s analogy). I’m really comfortable with historical fiction and I feel that going back and forth kind of takes away from the actual story and adds a little more cheese than I need. This is a problem I often have, as I have noted in my thoughts about books like Sarah’s Key.
I had read really great things about this book, but felt it was a bit dry and hard to get through.
Very enjoyable. I found it hard to put down.
Good to be your friend. I really appreciate having your book list for three years. I’ve read some books and plan to put others on my to-read list. Thanks.