Bookclub Review: “The Joy Luck Club”

7763._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989

Where Did We Get This Book: Borrowed it from family; the library!

Book Description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts. 

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Joy Luck Club” right after college, when I found it on my sister’s book shelf and decided to give it a go. It was around this time that I really started to devote my life to reading again, and I remember really enjoying the book in my early twenties. So when it was chosen for book club, I was interested to see if my thoughts and feelings would have changed as time passed. I found my Mom’s old school copy in their basement, and dove right back in.

Time and reading experience has definitely changed my perceptions, but not in a bad way, necessarily. I still liked how Tan portrayed the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, sometimes because of the complex relationship between parents and children, and other times because of a culture clash between immigrants who grew up in one place and culture, and their children who grew up in a different place and different culture. We see their lives and personalities through various vignettes and experiences, and see how the hardships that the mothers had made them approach how they raised their daughters, and in turn how the daughters may or may not understand those approaches. Sometimes the relationships were touching and loving, and other times there would be conflicts that were hard to read. For me, the most effective vignettes mostly involved Suyuan Woo (the founder of the Joy Luck Club) and her daughter Jing Mei. Suyuan was living in China during the Japanese Invasion and the lead up to World War Two, and endured the tragedy of not only losing her husband, but having to abandon her twin daughters on the side of the road because she was too sick to carry them. Jing Mei always felt like she wasn’t good enough in her mother’s eyes, and when she finds out that the rest of the Joy Luck Club found out that her half sisters are alive, she has to decide if she’s going to pursue them. Her complicated relationship with her mother is filled with a lot of painful subtext and context, and while through my Western experience I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how Suyuan (and many of the other mothers) treated their daughters I did think that the stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei had the most emotional oomph, and definitely made me tear up multiple times. Tan does a good job of not necessarily excusing some of the manipulative or cruel behaviors of her characters, but showing why they may be acting that way. Her writing is also gorgeous, as it flows well and brings out a lot of imagery in vibrant ways.

I can see how there are criticisms from some Chinese American authors and scholars when it comes to “The Joy Luck Club”, as for so long this seemed like the go-to book for Westerners when it comes to what Asian American stories are consumed. Hell, I am pretty sure that when I picked it up a decade or so ago it was one of the first books I’d read written by an Asian-American author about Asian and Asian-American characters. As time has gone on it’s important that more Asian and Asian-American authors have been able to tell stories of all kinds, and to show all kinds of experiences that don’t necessary reflect stereotypes that “The Joy Luck Club” may have contributed to, inadvertently or otherwise. But on the other side, this story definitely seems to be a very personal one for Tan, and therefore it’s hard to completely write it off or to say that it should be left behind completely. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to where “The Joy Luck Club” should be in the literary canon.

Reading “The Joy Luck Club” a second time was an interesting experience, and with older and wiser eyes I think that I got more from it. I’m glad that book club gave me the chance to read it again.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was a book that I only knew through vague familiarity with the title and the fact that it had been made into a movie in the early 90s that I may have caught bits and pieces of, here and there. So other than knowing that this type of literary fiction is typically my jam, I didn’t have many preconceived notions of the book going in.

Overall, I was right in my initial assessment that this wouldn’t be my type of book, but there were things that I did appreciate about it. I don’t know a lot of about China during the Japanese invasion and many of mother’s tales were an interesting (if tragic!) look into that time period and how these women came emigrate to America. I do wish there had been a bit more variation between the tales. While they were each distinctive enough, towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the next mother’s tale to be the starkly contrasting tale to balance out the others. Instead, most of them were fairly similar at their heart, which leads to one of my main criticism.

I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and how each was related to the one who did what. Part of this comes down to the similarity between some of the stories. But there was also similarity between characters. Many of the daughters ended up married to varying levels of scumbag husbands who all also tended to blend together in my mind. The story was also broken up into chapters for the mothers and chapters for the daughters, but they are all scattered throughout the book in a way that forced me to always flip back to the chart in the front of the book and to previous chapters to try to figure out just who we were talking about how and how their story related to others’.

I think the way the book was laid out in this way had a detrimental effect even on one of the main messages the author was trying to get across, about how the mother’s lives effected how they interacted and raised their daughters, and vice versa. Every once in a while I’d be able to form a clear connection from one of the mother’s stories to how she interacted with her daughter. But I think there was also a lot I missed simply because I couldn’t keep track of who’s story was who’s. The book was originally written as a collection of short stories, and I almost think it would have been more successful had it been left as that. The attempt to draw it together as a novel is just enough to technically earn that description, but left me, the reader, more confused than I would have been had I just read the short stories seperately.

We had a really good book club discussion about identity, mother/daughter relationships, and whether or not immigration and 1st, 2nd, generation immigrants may have different experiences now, coming out of differing political climates in their home countries and into a different USA, too. So there’s still clearly a lot of good stuff to be found in this book. As a point of discussion, I really liked it. But as a read, it wasn’t really my thing.

Kate’s Rating 7: An emotional book with complex themes and issues, “The Joy Luck Club” was interesting to revisit, and for the most part still held up for me.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting point of entrance into a larger discussion about immigration, family, and culture, but still a bit hard to read for me.

Book Club Questions

  1. The story is broken into several different stories about the mothers and the daughters. Is there one that stands out to you and why?
  2. The story is focused largely on the challenging relationship between the mothers and daughters. What makes this relationship so challenging but also fulfilling? What about these depictions strikes you?
  3. Immigration is challenging issue right now. How does this book fit into the current narrative about immigrants and their experiences leaving their homes and coming to live in a new country?
  4. When Jing-Mei is talking with the other women of the Joy Luck Club about her mother, she says that she doesn’t feel like she knew who her mother was or anything about her. How much do you think we know about our own mothers? Do you think that Jing-Mei’s perceived lack of knowledge (And Suyuan’s privacy) could be generational? Cultural?
  5. The book is broken into several stories and jumps around from one to another. How did this structure affect your read?
  6. There are rumors of a sequel to this book (in film form). If there was to be a sequel to this story set in the modern day, what do you think it would cover? What relationships, what countries, what cultures?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Joy Luck Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Jezebel’s Books All Women Should Read”.

Find “The Joy Luck Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant.

 

Bookclub Review: “Northanger Abbey”

50398We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Publishing Info: John Murray, 1818

Where Did We Get This Book: eAudiobook from the library,

Book Description: Jane Austen’s first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen’s fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

Kate’s Thoughts

Unlike Serena, I am not as well versed in Jane Austen stories. I’ve read “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility”, and I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which admittedly probably doesn’t count. So when book club picked “Northanger Abbey”, I was both a bit excited but also a little apprehensive. I’m always looking to expand my ‘classics’ experience, as that’s admittedly a huge gap in my reading, but one of my biggest hangups with Austen is her writing style. But I got the audiobook from the library, and jumped in.

While I did have problems with the writing, overall I enjoyed “Northanger Abbey”! Given that I quite like Gothic novels (“Jane Eyre”, anyone?), it was kind of fun seeing a gentle satire/ribbing of the genre with Catherine Morland’s imagination running away with her. Given that Gothic novels are incredibly melodramatic it was quite amusing seeing Catherine look for the melodrama in her life, even when there really wasn’t much to be had, at least not in the ways she expected. Catherine herself is a pretty enjoyable protagonist, as she is sometimes flighty and naive, but always has a good heart in place and ultimately is good to other people. I can’t say that I was super invested in her relationship with Henry Tilney, but I did like their witty banter. I was far more invested in Catherine’s friendship with his sister Eleanor, and her frenemy relationship with the vapid and self centered Isabella (side note: Isabella and her dumbshit brother John are fun to hate as villains, and because of that I GREATLY enjoyed them and their nasty scheming). Catherine’s maneuvering through romantic and platonic relationships composed the true heart of this story, and I was definitely rooting for her.

I was also really tickled to see so much of this story took place in Bath, if only because I really enjoyed Bath when I went there. It was also neat to see that some of the tourist-y things to be done in Bath today, like visiting the pump room, were part of the tourist appeal back when this book was written! It’s funny to see how things can endure over time, whether it be a tourist attraction or the appeal of a novel.

But like I mentioned above, I did have a hard time with the writing style. I usually try to read ‘classics’ by listening to them on audiobook, as for some reason listening to the writing is easier for me to process that way. With “Northanger Abbey” this mostly worked, but I still found my mind wandering as I listened. Given that I’ve had success with this when reading other ‘classics’, I do think that had the plot been more to my liking, I may not have had as large of a problem keeping interested. This, however, is probably more a comment on my own personal hangups than the book itself.

“Northanger Abbey” hasn’t necessarily made me want to run out and read all the rest that Jane Austen has to offer, but as I slowly chip away at her work I can see why she has endured.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve read all of Jane Auten’s works, most of them twice. “Northnager Abbey,” however, is one of the few I’ve only read the one time, so I was also super excited when this was selected as a bookclub pick. Most of Austen’s other titles serve as comfort reads of some sort or another, depending on the mood I’m in and the type of romantic hero I’m craving. But for some reason I haven’t had this one in my rotation, though I do re-watch the BBC movie of it fairly regularly.

In many ways, this book is very different from Austen’s other works. It is one of her earliest writings (though it was published later, after her death), and you can see the building blocks in development with this work. Her villains are a bit more obviously “villain-y”: the Colonel with his strict meal times, Isabella with her contradictions and manipulations. The comedic characters play almost only for that, like Mrs. Allen’s obsession with clothes. And Tilney & Eleanore are simply good people all around. They all play their parts perfectly, but when compared to Austen’s other characters of the same type, one can see that these first attempts are a bit more bland and one-note. In “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, Mrs. Bennett is both a comedic character but also one that is pitiable for the situation she finds herself in, one that she is completely unable to handle (a questionable future and five daughters whose options are limited).  So, too, Mr. Darcy is both a romantic hero but also flawed man.

Catherine, as the heroine, is given the most fully fleshed out character. One of the lasting appeals of Austen’s work, I believe, is the way she captured the core of people, traits that carry on throughout the ages, regardless of many cultural or societal changes. Catherine, for instance, reads as a very believable seventeen year old girl. She’s a good person, but is prone to flights of dramatics, wishing to make her life more like the ones she reads about, seeing intrigue and mystery where there is none. She is also easily attracted to those she perceives as having more confidence than herself, like Isabella. And while never lead completely astray from the solid foundation of principles that make up her person, we see her fall under the sway of a “popular girl” who is going about life in a very different way than Catherine even understands.

As Kate mentioned, the most unique aspect of this book is the fact that it is a straight satire of the popular Gothic novels of the time. Every character choice and plot point holds in direct contrast to the dramatic events taking place in those books. Tilney is simply a good person (a very good person, given how gently he handles Catherine after she lets her imagination take her a bit too far at one point), with not flights of brooding or penchant to unnecessary dueling. Northanger Abbey itself is simply a home, most notable for being cozy and done up to the latest styles. Catherine’s family are all alive, most notably her mother, a character that even in Austen’s time was often killed off early in the story (Disney and many other YA stories still lean heavily on this trope). There are also several lines where Austen directly references other books and statements from authors that, for the curious reader, are fun rabbit holes to go down on one’s own time.

I very much enjoyed re-reading this book. The piercing take-downs of the tropes often found in Gothic fiction are on point, the story itself is sweet, and Tilney and Catherine are heroes you can’t help but root for. While the story and character portrayals are a bit more simplistic than what we see in Austen’s later work, you can clearly see the foundation that is being built in this first work.

Kate’s Rating 7: I liked the protagonist and the fun satire of Gothic novels, but the writing of the time period has never been my cup of tea.

Serena’s Rating 8: The most straight-forward of Austen’s books, this is a fun read though not as fully engaging as her other novels.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book pokes fun at common themes found in Gothic novels. Have you read any Gothic novels yourself and which of these satirical jabs did you appreciate the most?
  2. This is Austen’s first novel. If you have read her other stories, in what ways do you see her writing and characterization change between this story and her others?
  3. There is a careful balance struck between poking fun at Gothic novels but also defending novel-reading as a whole. How well do you think this balance was portrayed and what do you think Austen was ultimately trying to say?
  4. The romance between Henry and Catherine is very different from the ones in Gothic novels and even Austen’s own other works, especially with the admission later in the book that Henry’s initial interest was largely struck purely based on Catherine’s own obvious admiration. What do you think of the romance between these two? How does Henry compare to Austen’s other heroes?
  5. There is a large cast of characters who fall within the “villains” and “fools” categories. Which of them stood out to you and were they believable characters in and of themselves? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“Northanger Abbey” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books For Girls Who Belong to Another Era”, and “Fictional Crushes”.

Find “Northanger Abbey” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery”.

Kate’s Double Review: “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust”

Books: “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized The World” by Sarah Weinman; “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood

Publishing Info: Ecco, September 2018; St. Martin’s Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: The library; I was sent an ARC from the publisher

Book Descriptions: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.


When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says. 

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of “Rust & Stardust”.

For someone who reads a whole lot for her profession and her pleasure, I have a pretty gaping hole in my literary experience when it comes to ‘the classics’. Between taking not so typical literature classes in high school and majoring in psychology, my exposure to classic books was limited, and while I’ve tried to pick up the pieces here and there I still have many left on the ‘theoretically to read’ list. So no, I have not read “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, though the notoriety of the story means that I am pretty familiar with it as a whole. I’m in no rush to read it, not for any other reason than there are so many other books out there that interest me more. But when I got an ARC of the book “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood, the fact that it was based on the very real story of Sally Horner, the girl who served as inspiration to Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s book, caught my attention. And then I heard that a nonfiction book about Sally Horner, called “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman, was also soon to be available. So I decided to bide my time, and to read the two as a pair so that I could compare and contrast the two, which each tell the same story in very different ways.

And perhaps it’s implied, but just in case, I need to give some serious content warnings for both of these books. They do, after all, involve the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of a little girl.

“The Real Lolita” is a non fiction work that juxtaposes Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle with Vladimir Nabokov trying to write “Lolita”. Weinman surmises that Nabokov, who had been having stumbling block after literary stumbling block as he tried to write what would become his most famous work, heard the sensationalized news stories surrounding the case and used it in his work. Nabokov denied this again and again, but Weinman lays out the similarities between the two cases, and the timeline that he was working within and how it wa well within the highest media furor surrounding the case. It isn’t really a criticism of Nabokov’s decision to use this story as inspiration so much as it’s an indictment of him lifting a girl’s very real pain to profit from it without giving her any credit. I appreciated that she wasn’t going after the inspiration piece, because it isn’t uncommon for creatives to take inspiration from real life horrors and to make them into a fictional work. The issue is that Nabokov was too proud to admit that he in all probability did find inspiration in this trauma victim, which is deeply problematic in and of itself, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her pain and how successful of a novel it was. Her evidence is well researched and carefully laid out, and the details that she found regarding the Horner case and what her life was like before, during, and after the ordeal gives voice to a girl whose trauma was appropriated for a novel with the subject of her inspiration twisted and misinterpreted  into a nymph-like seductress (even if that wasn’t Nabokov’s intention). It’s a book that I had a hard time reading because of the awful manipulations and abuses La Salle did to Horner, though I appreciated how frank and ‘just the facts’ Weinman was because of the horrors of the case. I also liked that she wasn’t particularly fiery in her critiques of Nabokov, but that she simply presented the evidence as it was and let it speak for itself. Weinman’s book gives this girl a voice, a voice that wasn’t afforded to her in the moment, and that has been drowned out because of time and a novel that overshadowed it.

“Rust & Stardust” is also the Sally Horner story, but it has been adapted into a work of fiction. T. Greenwood  makes it very clear in a long author’s note that she approached this story through the eyes of a fiction author, but tried to keep a good number of the details, especially in regards to Sally’s experience, realistic and plausible. The prose flows neatly and succinctly, and while it is a longer book than “The Real Lolita” I found that it felt like a quicker read just because Greenwood paced it so well. The story is pretty much what you’d expect; Sally Horner is caught by Frank LaSalle as she’s stealing a notebook from the store, and what follows is the story of Sally’s kidnapping, captivity, and return, as well as the perspectives of those in her life during her absence. While it was definitely hard to read at times, Greenwood never made it feel lurid or exploitative. The emotions were there, but were able to remain untangled from bad taste. Greenwood also gave herself some creative plot leeway (though not in regards to Sally, which was good) so that she could highlight the problematic attitudes of the post-War American culture, specifically when it comes to abuse towards girls and women. Whenever someone would raise doubts about Sally’s relationship to Frank, almost every time they were told to be quiet because the very notion of bad intentions was disgusting and inappropriate. Frank is able to get away with his predation because the people around him and Sally don’t want to face that it’s happening. Which brings me back to the criticisms of “Lolita”, in that some people, be it Nabokov’s intent or not, have romanticized the story of Humbert Humbert and the ‘nymph’ he fixates on. Greenwood doesn’t give any leeway for that because the story is Sally’s, and those who care about her.

Reading “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” has given me a larger picture of a tale I thought I knew, and in their own ways they tell the side that has been lost to time and literary critique and accolades. If you like “Lolita”, and even if you don’t like it, these books will give it more context, a context that it has probably always needed.

Ratings 8: Though the backstory to “Lolita” has been glossed over and outright ignored by some (and denied by others), “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” strive to give Sally Horner the ability to tell her story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Real Lolita” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women’s Lives”, and “Best Crime Books of 2018”.

“Rust & Stardust” is included on the Goodreads lists “#MeToo”.

Find “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Book Club Review: “Challenger Deep”

18075234We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

A-Side Book: “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman

Book Description: A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today’s most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep “a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.”

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “Challenger Deep” a couple of years ago when it was getting a lot of press and hype for its themes of mental illness. Given that I went through some nasty battles with depression in high school and college, I was very interested to see what Neal Shusterman was going to do with it, especially since I knew that his own son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teen (and therein inspired this book). Reading it the first time was a very rewarding and somewhat personal experience, but reading it a second time gave me the chance to read it knowing what was coming and how all the symbolism was going to come together.

One of the most striking things about “Challenger Deep” is how Shusterman frames it, in that it’s a very disorienting read for the reader, giving him or her a sense of what constant disorientation may feel like for those who are struggling with mental illness. Shusterman is careful to not put any kind of mental disorder into a box, and does take care to mention that this one experience that Caden is having is not necessarily universal to all people who suffer from schizophrenia. The story is all from Caden’s perspective, but you do kind of get insight into what those who are around him may be feeling based on their reactions and the decisions that they make. The parallels between what is going on in Caden’s ‘reality’ and what is going on on ‘the ship’ was very interesting to see, and it was powerful to be able to see the glimpses of reality within the hallucinations (the captain, the figurehead, etc).

I also liked that Shusterman never felt condescending or cloying in his storytelling, and never got preachy about what Caden should or shouldn’t do, or should or shouldn’t feel. He presents a situation and lets the reader decide for themselves what conclusions to draw. He also doesn’t  wrap everything up in a neat little bow; you get the sense that things aren’t over for Caden and that he will always have these struggles. As hard as that is to accept, it’s also very realistic, as mental illness is for many people something they are going to have their entire lives, degrees of seriousness changing all the time. It’s a realistic take, but it doesn’t feel bleak or nihilistic. Given that this book is so personal for Shusterman and his family, I’m not surprised that he didn’t approach it with easy answers or cut and dry solutions. I think that it’s very important that teens can see this kind of story, so that they can either see themselves in a book, or they can gain some insight into something that those close to them may be dealing with.

“Challenger Deep” is a poignant and powerful novel, and I’m pleased that we kicked off our B-Sides Book Club Theme with it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I had never read anything by Shusterman until I picked up “Scythe” last summer. So all I knew was that I liked him as a dystopian, YA author. Tackling a tough subject like mental illness is another thing all together! But I should have had faith, as Shusterman once again blew me away with his sensitive, unflinching yet compassionate, tale.

As Kate already touched on, one of the strongest aspects of this story is the subtle manner in which Shusterman depicts the slow, almost unnoticeable, descent into confusion and paranoia that Caden slips into. The reader, too, is unsure of what is happening, not only with the events on the ship, but the timeline between one section and another. It isn’t until halfway through the story that I was able to begin to piece together these two disparate storylines. This perfectly aligns with the point at which Caden, too, begins to gain a bit of clarity, though he is by no means out of the woods.

The ship itself, obviously, is an extensive metaphorical look into the world that Caden has projected around himself. However, for readers looking to gain more insight into what loved ones experiencing mental health challenges are going through, the author also sprinkles in some shockingly simple but apt comparisons that I found incredibly insightful and helpful. In this way, the book speaks not only to an “own experience” reader looking to see themselves and their challenges on the page, but also as a perfect portal for friends and family to understand a bit better what could be going on. As Kate said, Shusterman is careful to never imply that this is by any means a road map for all mental health experiences and that even any given diagnosis is not the same for every individual experiencing it.

It is clear that Shusterman was writing from a very real place, having been the parent of a teenage boy who struggled with mental health. His son not only provided insights to help direct the creation of this story, but there are also images sprinkled throughout the story that Shusterman’s son drew in the midst of his own crisis. Every time a new image appeared, I found myself taking quite a bit of time looking at it. Most were unclear, scribble-like creations that, while not clearly depicting a scene or object, spoke quite strongly to the swirl of emotions that its creator felt. Caden’s own art and his use of it to not only express himself but what he sees in others was also a great lens through which to read his experiences. His family and friends first begin to note changes in him by the changes in his art, and Caden uses his artistic ability to get at deep truths of the other teens he meets who have their own struggles.

I absolutely adored this story, and it was a great start to our new season of bookclub!

Kate’s Rating 8: A thoughtful and personal book that sensitively and carefully addresses mental illness, “Challenger Deep” is a poignant and important read for all ages.

Serena’s Rating 8: Shusterman masterfully tackles a complex and sensitive subject, creating a masterwork that will strike chords with not only those who have experienced mental illness, but by anyone who has been touched by it in their lives.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the two narratives in this book, Caden’s reality and his time on Challenger Deep? Did you enjoy both of them, or prefer one over the other?
  2. What does “Challenger Deep” mean in this story? What parts of that narrative could you see in Caden’s ‘reality’, and in what ways did they manifest?
  3. What did you think about the drawings throughout the book? Do you think that they added to the story? Why or why not?
  4. Would you recommend this book to teens who are struggling with mental health issues? Why or why not? If not, who would you recommend this book to?
  5. By the time the story is wrapping up, it becomes clear that Caden isn’t going to have the same friends in his life coming out of his experience as he did coming in? What did you think of this? Do you think it’s realistic?

Reader’s Advisory

“Challenger Deep” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Including Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”, and “YA “Brain” Novels”.

Find “Challenger Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Kate’s Review: “The Followers”

Layout 1Book: “The Followers” by Rebecca Wait

Publishing Info: Europa Editions, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: On the windswept moors of northern England, a small religious cult has cut itself off from society, believing they have found meaning in a purposeless world. Led by their prophet, Nathaniel, they eagerly await the end times. But when the prophet brings in Stephanie and her rebellious daughter Judith, the group’s delicate dynamic is disturbed. Judith is determined to escape, but her feelings are complicated by a growing friendship with another of the children, the naive and trusting Moses, who has never experienced the outside world. 

Meanwhile, someone else is having doubts, unleashing a horrifying chain of events that will destroy the followers’ lives.

In the aftermath, the survivors struggle to adjust to the real world, haunted by the same questions: if you’ve been persuaded to surrender your individual will, are you still responsible for your actions? And is there any way back?

Review: I’ve been deeply interested in cults since I was in California during the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. I remember seeing footage of the crime scene on the television, and being completely horrified and yet taken with the idea that this group believed that a spaceship was on the tail of Hale-Bopp comet. Ever since then, I’ve had a twisted interest in books about cults, be they true stories or not, and the way that people can fall into them. So when I stumbled upon a New York Times article about “The Followers” by Rebecca Wait, I requested it, thinking that it was going to be a thrilling yarn about a scary cult wreaking havoc. While I sat on the couch reading it (making a lot of scandalized noises that my husband kept enquiring about, until the fifth time and he just stopped asking), I was totally engrossed. This was everything I wanted it to be, but it was a bit more than I bargained for as well. After all, at the heart of this is the story of a woman who takes her daughter and whisks them both away at the whims of a religious fanatic who has completely cast her under his spell. So, you know. Fun times.

The thing that stuck me most was that it shifted between various levels of believer/non believer. First we have Stephanie, the single mother who falls in love with “The Prophet” Nathanial. She feels so doted on and loved by Nathanial when they first start dating, and she feels so trapped in her life as a single working mother, that his affection is enough to make her pick up her entire life and follow him anywhere. As I read it was clear that Nathanial was big trouble, but I could also completely understand why Stephanie wanted to go with him, even if I was cursing her and the terrible decisions she was making. Then there is the perspective of Stephanie’s daughter Judith, whose adolescent rebellion is only kicked up a few notches when they move to the commune. She’s a strong willed girl who may have treaded towards unbelievable in her mental strength, but she felt so real and so well realized that I didn’t even care. Then you have Moses, the only friend that Judith makes at the commune, who was born into it and fully believes that not only is Nathanial the Prophet and the ourside world the road to hell, but that his birthmark on his face is a mark of the devil. At first I was very worried about him and his intentions towards Judith, but he really is just the epitome of naive wonderment, raised in a warped society that is all he’s known. And finally you have Thomas, a long time member of Nathanial’s thrall, but who has started questioning it. With these different characters on different parts of the belief scale, Rachel Wait has done a great job of showing the full gamut of emotions for the members.

I loved the description of the commune, which is located in the Moors of England. The isolation was palpable, both physically (with the description of few buildings and many bogs, forests, and other barriers) and emotionally. The members are told that if they leave they can never come back, and will be doomed to stay in “Gehenna” and probably rot with all the nonbelievers when the end of days comes. The manipulation that Nathanial administered to his disciples was also incredibly creepy, through kind syrupy promises and yet no physical action of his own to place his controls upon them. I think that Wait hit the nail on the head with Nathanial, and he was the perfect villain, just as Stephanie, Moses, and the other members were perfect victims. And yet this was told in such a way that it always felt a couple steps up from your run of the mill thriller. We also got to see beyond the cult moments, and where Judith and Stephanie ended up after all was said and done. Spoiler alert, it’s pretty bleak. But along with the overarching bleakness, there was also a fair amount of purity and hope, specifically through the friendship between Judith and Moses. They are both outcasts in their own ways in the commune, and while he’s a true believer and she’s a non believer, they forge a bond that was absolutely sweet and powerful. They really do bring out the best in each other, and their types of belief and non belief feel more constructive than those of Stephanie and Thomas. Every time they were together, my heart would grow ten sizes bigger.

And yes, the slow build up of terror as the cult starts to fall apart was absolutely riveting. I love a good slow burn build up, and “The Followers” really nails the ‘frog in a pot of boiling water’ pace.

All in all, “The Followers” was an entertaining and insightful story that exceeded my expectations. If a good and twisty cult story is your idea of a good time, definitely pick this one up. You’ll get a bit more than you bargained for in the best way possible.

Rating 9: A sad and suspenseful tale about fanaticism, family, and the way that tenuous bonds can be broken if a monster figures out how to exploit them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Followers” is not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.

Find “The Followers” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

32920226Book: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Review: Every once in awhile, a book comes along that just blows me the hell away. One that feels like an elevated experience just reading it, pouring over it, immersing oneself in it. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward did that for me, and I am still staggered by how fantastic it was. I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jesmyn Ward, one of the best writers out there today, bar none. I’ve read two of her other books, both of which are transcendent and incredibly emotional. The first is the novel “Salvage the Bones”, a story about a rural and poor African American family living in Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina lurches and looms towards them. The other is “Men We Reaped”, a memoir about the numerous black men in Ward’s life who all died far too young, brutal casualties of overt and systemic racism that is all too present in the U.S. When I heard she had a new book coming out, I requested it, and then steeled myself for it as I picked it up.

The first thing that I must mention is the characters and characterization in this novel. We follow a couple main perspectives. The first is Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who has been raised mostly by his grandparents (Mam and Pop), as his mother is addicted to drugs and his father is in prison. He has also taken on the caregiver role to his little sister Kayla, wanting to keep her safe from the ills of the world. Mam is very ill with cancer, and Pop tells Jojo stories from the past in hopes that Jojo can learn from them. The second is Leonie, Jojo and Kayla’s mother. Her boyfriend Michael is getting out of prison soon, and her all encompassing love for him blinds her to most other things. Her drug addiction is fueled in part by the fact that she sees visions of her dead brother Given while she’s high. The final perspective is from Richie, the ghost of a thirteen year old boy who died at Parchman, the prison Michael is at. Richie knew Pop when he was alive, and he has unfinished business with him. Jojo starts seeing Richie on their travels, as Richie knows that there’s a connection there. All of these characters are well rounded and explored, and I got a feel for every one of them (as well as a number of the other characters like Mam and Pop). I understood the motivations of each of them. I was especially moved by Leonie, as while she makes terrible and selfish decisions when it comes to her children, I completely understood why she made those choices, and how factors both within her control and outside of it have made her into the person that she is.

The themes of this book also blew me away. For one, I’m a huge sucker for a ghost story, and this one has the feel of a Southern Gothic novel with the isolation and wide open spaces that still feel claustrophobic. But Ward brings in other ghosts that haunt this country and our culture, as the setting and characters are still plagued by the racism that has so infected this country. From the remnants of Jim Crow laws to the consequences of the War on Drugs to police brutality and violence, the journey that this family takes, physical and emotional, always has the specter of racism hanging over it. Ward doesn’t offer any solutions or answers or happy endings of conclusions to this, and all you can hope for is that this family will continue to survive in face of explicit (Michael’s family) and implicit racism that surrounds them. It’s really the perfect use of a ghost story, as the all too true horrors of our racist culture and society still haunt us, as much as we may hate to acknowledge it.

And the writing is just beautiful. Ward has a serious talent for creating a story and an imagery that leaps and flows in the pages of this book. I felt like I could see everything that was happening in my mind’s eye, and I was so engrossed I devoured this book in a day’s time. Ward is an author who is being called a ‘modern Faulkner’ by a number of people, and while I understand the sentiment (examinations of the American South are a commonality between the two), I think that she easily stands in a league of her own. This book is exactly why, and I urge everyone to give it a try and see why, because nothing I write here will be able to do it justice.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, no question. Please please please go read it and see for yourselves.

Rating 10: I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. A heart rendering story about literal and metaphorical ghosts, family, the South, and Americana.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2017”, and “Anticipated/Best 2017 Literary Fiction”.

Find “Sing, Unburied, Sing” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Girls on Fire”

26074200Book: “Girls on Fire” by Robin Wasserman

Publishing Info: Harper, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Girls on Fire tells the story of Hannah and Lacey and their obsessive teenage female friendship so passionately violent it bloodies the very sunset its protagonists insist on riding into, together, at any cost. Opening with a suicide whose aftermath brings good girl Hannah together with the town’s bad girl, Lacey, the two bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable.

But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it’s a secret that will change everything…

Review: Who here has seen or heard of the movie “Heavenly Creatures”? It’s kind of a noteworthy gem for a number of reasons. The first is that it was one of the break out roles that Kate Winslet had before “Titanic”. It was also one of the movies Peter Jackson made before he took on the “Lord of the Rings” movies. But the third reason is the kicker: it’s also a true story, in which two girls in New Zealand, bolstered forth by their obsessive friendship, kill one of their moms because she didn’t approve of their closeness. And then one of them grew up to be Anne Perry the crime author. I think that “Heavenly Creatures” kind of sets a standard for the ‘dangerous obsessive female friendship’ trope, even if it was a real life occurrence. When I read about “Girls on Fire” I was pretty intrigued. I was hoping that I would find a new rumination on a story that’s been told many times over, from “Heavenly Creatures” to last year’s smash hit “The Girls”. But sadly I found more of the same old, same old.

I think that it’s definitely important to note that “Girls on Fire” does tackle a lot of important questions about what it means to be a teenage girl in American society, and what expectations are thrust upon this group in terms of how to behave and interact with others. Both Lacey and Hannah (or “Dex” as Lacey renames her early in their friendship) are perceived in certain ways by not only their peers and their community, they are perceived in certain ways by their families, the people who are supposed to know them best. This, too, can be said for the bane of their existence, Nikki Drummond, the most popular girl in school who mistreats Hannah and anyone she sees as beneath her. Nikki has facades that she puts on for different people, and while Hannah thinks she knows one side, Lacey knows another one. The perspectives in this book are mainly those of Hannah and Lacey, alternating in sections called ‘Us’. But every once in awhile we’ll get an outside perspective from one of those close to them, under the sections called ‘Them’. I loved how this was set up, as it really reinforced the ‘us vs the world’ mentality that these two obsessed friends shared. I also liked how the structure served to explain just what happened with the popular boy who committed suicide, as it’s pretty clear from the get go that it’s not as cut and dry as it all seems.

But now we get to the crux of the issue, and that is this isn’t a book that I enjoyed much beyond that. “Girls on Fire” didn’t really do anything new in terms of characterization and plotting. Both Hannah and Lacey were pretty two dimensional, even with their perspectives being laid out in the open. Lacey is the bad girl who has the terrible upbringing and just wants to be loved and turns to drugs, alcohol, and Kurt Cobain (as well as dabbling in the most milquetoast of stereotypical Satanism). Hannah is the quiet one who is so mousy that everyone is shocked when she starts to turn darker, and has darker deeper demons than anyone could have imagined. These are character tropes that we’ve seen before, and neither of them went beyond these tried and true depictions. Even the parents were stereotypes of what we imagine parents with kids like these to be. Hannah’s Mom is banal and unassuming and resents that her daughter is branching out into a more interesting realm. Her father is a former wild child who misses his days of being free, and therefore longs for Lacey both sexually and philosophically. And Lacey’s mother is an alcoholic who has married an abusive man. The only character who intrigued me and surpassed my expectations was Nikki, and even then she still ultimately lived up to our basal expectations of what a mean girl is and why a mean girl might be mean. It’s a real shame, because there was some serious potential in all of these girls to examine how our perceptions of them might be undue. But then they really didn’t have much more to say beyond what their main stereotypes were. And the central mystery isn’t really that much of a mystery, in all honesty. You can guess it pretty early on in the unspooling of that particular thread.

I had higher hopes for “Girls on Fire” than the book was able to deliver. If you are interested in a story examining the perils of dangerous girl friendships, just get your hands on “Heavenly Creatures”.

Rating 5: Though the themes are interesting and the perspectives creatively structured, this book wasn’t reinventing the wheel in any way, and it didn’t really bring a new take to a story we’ve heard before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Girls on Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Female Friendship”, and “Best Quietly Creepy Novels”.

Find “Girls on Fire” at your library using WorldCat!