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.
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