Book Reviews: What I Read in August

Hey! It’s September already, which means it’s time for a few book reviews from the month of August. Let’s start with a book I didn’t like and work our way up to one I absolutely loved.

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

I guess if “These Things Hidden” has one thing going for it, it’s that it was a quick read. Other than that, ugh, where to begin.

Set in Linden Falls, a small town in Iowa, the novel alternates point of view among four characters, Allison, Brynn, Charm and Claire, in each chapter. Sometimes the chapters are written in first person. Sometimes in third person. I don’t know why the author made that choice. But that’s how it goes.

Allison has recently gotten out of prison for doing something terrible as a teenager and has returned to Linden Falls to live in a halfway house and start her life over. Her sister, Brynn, has fled their small town and now lives a few hours away with their grandmother. Their parents have pretty much cut the two sisters out of their lives because of what Allison did.

Meanwhile, Claire owns a bookstore in Linden Falls. She’s adopted a son, Joshua, who was left at a fire station as a baby. Charm’s a nursing student who drops into the bookstore sometimes and feels a connection to Joshua.

The novel has a lot of twists and turns, each one more implausible than the next. It doesn’t really develop its characters beyond flat stereotypes. Charm’s mom is the trashy slut. Allison’s and Brynn’s parents have too high expectations. Their grandma seems nice, but that’s all we get. There’s never really a sense of the why behind each character’s action, except for maybe Claire, who seems driven by her need/desire to be a mom. Snoozefest.

SPOILER

So, OK, let’s just do a spoiler here. You’ve been warned. Allison went to prison for throwing her baby in a river. Turns out that not only did she not know she was pregnant or was somehow able to conceal her pregnancy for the entire time, she was pregnant with twins.

You’re putting two and two together. Yeah, Joshua was the other baby. And! Plot twist! Allison gets a job working at the bookstore, where she instantly recognizes Joshua and decides she must tell her sister about him. Oh, and by the way, Brynn’s very  mentally ill. This is depicted by her saying random words out loud sometimes and by her trying to drown Joshua.

From it’s unbelievability to its handling of characters with mental illness, there’s not much to recommend about These Things Hidden.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

I’ll be honest and admit that I picked up Jojo Moyes’ One Plus One off of the library shelf because I really liked the cover. The story inside was enjoyable, too, but it was really the cover that drew me in. So, “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t have much weight here.

The formula for One Plus One is pretty similar to Moyes’ Me Before You. A down-on-her-luck single mom, Jess, ends up with a wealthy, but seriously flawed, tech entrepreneur, Ed Collins.  Although the two initially don’t get along, their romance has a chance to bloom over the course of a days-long road trip from their home town on the coast of England to Scotland, where Jess’ daughter, Tanzie, a math whiz, has the chance to win a math contest. The prize money from the contest would be enough to cover the cost of her going to a posh private school.

Of course, there are a lot of literal and figurative bumps in the road on the way to the contest. Turns out Tanzie can’t ride in cars going more than 40 mph, which is why the trip takes so long. Jess doesn’t want to pay for hotel rooms and won’t eat in restaurants, because of concerns about cost. The whole reason they’re riding with Ed is because their rickety Rolls Royce broke down on the side of the road. Ed himself is running from his own demons (and possible jail time for insider trading) at home.

The novel alternates point of view and narration between chapters, giving Jess, Ed, Tanzie, and Nicky, Jess’ stepson, a chance to tell their stories. The change in narrator actually does give you a multi-faceted view of the situation and helps create a deep and engaging story.

Although One Plus One does have a happier ending than Me Before You, it’s not all smooth sailing on the path to love or whatever. Ed doesn’t simply swoop in and save Jess from her financial troubles. Jess doesn’t just jump in and make Ed a better man instantly.

That’s what I love about Moyes’ books. They’re sappy romances, sure, but they aren’t all hearts and love and mush. Her books feel hopeful, but still depict the day to day challenges all people face.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

I read about Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes in Tom Wolf’s take down of Noam Chomsky in Harper’s in July and decided I really wanted to read it. Chomsky has this theory that language and grammar are innate, that every person has the ability to learn grammar and that all language share things in common, even if those languages are very different. This is an over-simplification, but I’m not reviewing Chomsky here.

Anyway, along comes Everett, who’s spent 30 years of his life living among the Pirahã tribe along the Maici river in Brazil. Everett’s also a linguist and has dedicated himself to studying the Pirahã language. What he’s found is a grammar like no other, with thoughts pretty much exclusively in the present tense and each sentence containing only one thought.

His book, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” is part memoir of his time with the tribe and part linguistic discussion and analysis. It caused a stir in the linguistic community when published, because it did bring Chomsky’s theories into question.

But even if you’re not interested in the intricacies of language and how a culture shapes the language it creates, it’s worth a read. One for the evolution of its narrator, who originally traveled to down the Maici River as a missionary, intent on converting the Pirahã to Christianity, and two, because it’s important to learn about other cultures, particularly about those that are on the brink of being lost.

As Everett argues, every time a language dies, the world loses something. Knowledge about how cultures can think differently, for one thing. A different way of looking at daily existence, for another.

 

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Underground Airlines is a controversial book. Written by a white guy (this is part of the controversy. The other part is the mostly tone deaf NY Times review), it imagines a world where the US civil war never happened and where slavery is still legal in four states, even in the present day. Not only is slavery still legal, but the Fugitive Slave Act is still in effect, meaning if a slave escapes to another state, he or she can be brought back to the plantation (or factory or slaughterhouse) and re-enslaved.

It’s an interesting story, of a former slave who’s been forced to be a bounty hunter for the US Marshals (the government arm in charge of chasing down and recapturing escaped slaves). There are twists and turns, including a particularly chilling revelation at the end.

Although it was set in an alternative world, it was a world with a lot of similarities to our own. Michael Jackson still existed, for example, and was a famous pop star. LBJ became president (although Lincoln was assassinated before he was president, preventing the war). There’s an Internet, there are cars, and so on.

I guess the similarities are important for making the book feel relevant and timely to us. We can’t just be like, ‘oh this isn’t happening, it’s completely fiction,” because there are a lot of parallels between the novel and with how black people are treated in our actual society. The chilling revelation at the book’s end might never be real in our world, but the similarities between how free black people are treated in the book and how they are treated in our society (I’m talking about the shootings, the suspicions and the disregard) are chillingly real.

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

About a year ago, I was with a group of theater people who were discussing a project that commissioned contemporary playwrights adapt or rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. It seems Hogarth has done a similar thing, but in novel form. The Gap of Time is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

A quick recap, in case you’ve never read The Winter’s Tale (there’s a more fully fleshed out version in the novel itself): A king, Leontes, becomes convinced that his best friend, Polixenes, is having an affair with his wife, Hermoine. Leontes is absolutely sure that the fetus Hermoine is carrying is actually Polixenes’. Sadness and death follow, as the baby, Perdita, is left and Hermoine is killed.

In Winterson’s version, Leontes is Leo, a jealous hedge fund manager and Polixenes is Xeno, a video game designer. Hermoine is MiMi, a singer, and Perdita, is, well, Perdita, a baby found and raised by Shep and his son Clo in New Bohemia (think of it as a fictional form of New Orleans).

I really loved this book, more so than I thought I would. The Winter’s Tale is one of those  Shakespearean plays people don’t know what to do with, since it’s neither purely a tragedy (although there is death and stuff) and it’s not fully a comedy (there’s happiness and marriage at the end, though). The novel tries to figure out what to do with the subject and plot of the challenging play.

Winterson’s version is fully modernized. Leo and Xeno are former lovers (they went to boarding school together). Although Leo is now married to a woman, Xeno identifies as gay. MiMi isn’t just a woman who’s stuck with her husband. She’s a singer, she has her own money, she can make her own decisions. That makes Leo’s treatment of her all the more terrifying.

If anything, Winterson’s version fills in the gaps created by the play and helps solve some of the confusion. One of the big issues with the Winter’s Tale is that Leo’s sudden jealousy isn’t really understood. Winterson has him install cameras in his wife’s bedroom and spies on her and Xeno together. Their interaction is innocent, but Leo twists and perverts it in his mind, setting the events of the book into motion.

It’s worth noting that The Gap of Time isn’t strictly an adaptation. I don’t know how clear the story would be without the introduction that recaps the plot of the Winter’s Tale. Winterson also jumps into the novel at the end, to share her reason for rewriting or covering it. That was a  little jarring, but I guess makes sense if you’re going to look at the book as a cover version, and not just an adaptation of the story.

*I received a free copy of The Gap of Time from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*