Sunday Salon: a handful of mini-reviews

Here’s a peek at what I’ve been reading lately:

We the Animals by Justin Torres – I loved this book up until the last 15-20 pages, and then I did not.  I was so certain I’d be recommending this book to everyone I know.  The first 125 pages or so (it’s only 144 pages total) are written in first person plural (“we”) and are touching and beautiful and heartbreaking.  I wanted it to go on and on.  It’s about 3 young brothers (the animals of the title) with a Puerto Rican father and white mother who scrabble through their childhoods doing the best they can in horribly dysfunctional circumstances in upstate New York.  Their fierce love and simultaneous disgust for their parents and each other is so human and so real.  Then, at the tail end, the youngest boy writes as an adult.  No more “we.”  It seems tacked on and out of place and self indulgent and just wrong.  I hated it.  But the rest of the book is genius.  This is a debut novel and I’ll definitely pick up whatever Justin Torres decides to write next.

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira – This was a book club selection and probably not something I’d ever pick up on my own.  Set during the Civil War, it’s about a midwife who really wants to be a surgeon in a time when that was unthinkable for a woman.  In a time when the best medicine could offer soldiers was some whiskey and an amputation.  When medics didn’t realize that washing your hands or cleaning your instruments between patients could stop the spread of disease, during a war being fought by untrained, patriotic young men with very little guidance.  This book was interesting but also cringe worthy.  There was a masturbation scene that I could have done without that seemed completely out of place- it nearly ruined the book for me.  And I didn’t love the main character.  I love me a strong heroine but she was really unlikeable and I never fully got a sense of what motivated her and made her who she was.  There was a love triangle that went nowhere and was much less interesting than the medical and historical details.  I was unable to attend my book club discussion for Mary Sutter so I’m not sure how others felt on this one.  For me it was historically interesting, but ultimately just ok.

Digging to America by Anne Tyler – Another book club pick.  Two couples meet in an airport where they are both waiting for their adopted infant daughters to arrive from Korea.  The couples (and their girls) could not be more different.  One couple, the Donaldson’s, are super white-bread American with hippie-ish tendencies.  They raise their Korean-born daughter with a Korean name and a strong sense of her cultural identity, and they celebrate their daughter’s arrival day year after year (even when the daughter herself is tired of it).  The other couple, the Yazdans, are themselves Iranian Americans.  They raise their Korean-born daughter to fit in, as American as apple pie.  The couples become friends and their differences highlight what each thinks it means to be American.  Great story by a great storyteller and much fodder for discussion!  I’d highly recommend this one for a book club.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua – Want to watch as the members of your book club get defensive about their parenting styles and angry at the choices other people make for their children?  If so, make this book your next selection, but be warned- emotions will run high.  Without going into it here, I just want to say that I think Amy Chua is more right than wrong.  Left to their own devices, my kids would never do their homework or eat a vegetable, they’d never practice their french horn or write a thank you note and would quite possible forgo all dental hygiene.  And really, is it a bad thing to want your children to strive to be the best?  When did mediocre become acceptable?  Chua’s methods are questionable, absolutely, but I found so much humor and truth in this book.  It’s satire, people!!  She’s poking fun at herself!  She’s not the devil, I swear!!  Loved it- but I was definitely in the minority at book club.  Most of the members wanted to bash and demonize her.  I wanted to be just a little more like her.

17 Responses

  1. Tiger Mother scared me so badly I no longer want to have children! I haven’t read the others, looking forward to your indepth review of them 🙂

    • There probably will not be an indepth review of any of them, ha ha. Please don’t let Tiger Mother scare you off from becoming a parent. You will parent in your own (flawed, imperfect, wonderful) way. Everyone does.

  2. I was kind of the opposite on We the Animals – I wondered what the point was until the end. I understand it’s somewhat autobiographical.

    • Really? I don’t know, I guess I didn’t think there needed to be a point. It just felt like a bittersweet snapshot of a rough and tumble childhood, and then the tone abruptly changed. I found it jarring.

  3. I actually enjoyed Tiger Mother, but I think each parent needs to realize that that sort of style of parenting doesn’t work with every child; some thrive under that sort of parenting and some become alienated with that type of parenting. I suppose then comes the balance of figuring out what works for each child.

    • I completely agree with that! You have to parent each kid individually and not assume that what works for one will work for another. I have two very different kids so I know this to be true.

  4. I listened to Digging to America recently on audio -read by the amazing Blair Brown – and really loved it. I love the way she writes her characters!

    • I do too! I’ve never gotten into audio books but it’s so easy to visualize her characters from reading about them. We have family members (two different cousins) who adopted their daughters from China, so this book really got me thinking about how they’re being raised and the various choices about cultural identity that their families are making.

  5. Other than Digging to America the others are new to me. I was not very impressed with the Tyler book but her other books were very good.

    • I think you bring your own experiences to each book you read, and because I had some personal reasons for reading the book and personal experiences with adoption and cross-culture adoption it was all very interesting to me. I read another Tyler book that I didn’t like as well, but the name escapes me at the moment.

  6. I felt the same way about We the Animals,. but then I listened to an interview with the author and he said it was auto-biographical. Hearing that made me feel different about the ending.

    • I knew that about the book going in, but I still would have preferred to stay in his childhood, ha ha. I really thought it was so good but that ending through me for a loop.

  7. Very cool mini-reviews! I have a few of these on the tbr pile, and want to get to them soon. The only one I have read is My Name is Mary Sutter, and I think I might have enjoyed it just a touch more than you did. It was horrifically gross at points though, and it was the first book that gave me a little nausea while I was reading. So, so glad to see your post today. I’ve missed seeing you around!

  8. All of those titles are on my TBR! After not loving Tyler’s newest novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, but liking her writing, I’m eager to read another of her titles, and Digging to American sounds delightful.

  9. We The Animals – argh, I hate when a book I love falls flat at the end. It’s almost worse than never liking the book at all! Hmm, my book club has a couple of open spots left for this year. I’m going to have to let someone else choose one of them but I’m really thinking either Digging To America or Battle Hymn would make great choices for my club.

  10. I haven’t read Tiger Mother yet, but I really want to because I live in Asia and her style of parenting (as I’m lead to understand via reviews, interviews and such) is the norm on this side of the world. I think her book would be received with a collective shrug in Asia.

  11. Out of this list I’ve only read the Digging to America book. It did not impress me much. I’d like to read the Mary Sutter book.

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