Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jenny's Book 12: The Post-Birthday World


I think I've decided to read The Post-Birthday World for my last selection. I picked up this book when Entertainment Weekly called it the best book of the year. This is strong praise from my guilty pleasure magazine. I bought it immediately. 4 years later, I'm finally going to get around to reading it. Hah.

Of course, as I pick this up, the author, Lionel Shriver's been in the news because a new movie is coming out based on another one of her books. That book, We Need to Talk about Kevin, is told from the point of view of a woman who's son was the perpetrator of a school shooting. That just sounds harrowing (although it's another book that I own---maybe next year!). This novel sounds a bit like the film Sliding Doors. It follows the possible divergent paths a married woman's life takes based on a night out with a friend--what happens to her life when she kisses him, what happens if she doesn't. I've read the first 15 or so pages, and it seems highly readable.

I also read something recently by this author, and I'm going to link to it here, in case you want to read it. She basically wrote a long essay in defense of unlikeable characters. I have a higher tolerance for unlikeable characters in books than I do in movies, but a truly unlikeable character can kill a book for me, no matter how much I agree with her basic premise.

In other news, even though it's only the 11th, I've read a few good books already this month. I am definitely going to hit my goal of finishing 60 new books this year. Here's a brief round-up of other books I've finished so far in December...

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

Have you read Devil in the White City? That seems to be one of those great books of narrative non-fiction that a lot of people have read. Of course, that book is also about Chicago....probably why everyone here has read it. Either way, this is his newest book. It got great reviews and I picked it up at the school book fair last month. In the Garden of Beasts was also of interest because I teach The Diary of Anne Frank every year, and we always grapple with the question of the German citizens who supported Hitler. Why did they do that? Did they know what was happening?

This book tells about the life of William Dodd, a University of Chicago professor who is appointed as the American Ambassador to Germany in 1933. The timing of his arrival coincides almost exactly with Hitler's rise to power. In 1933, he was Chancellor, but there was still a President. The book covers a year, the time when Hitler consolidates his power and essentially makes himself dictator.

 The book is utterly disturbing. Dodd and his family find Berlin to be charming and cosmopolitan, and only as they begin to see disturbing incidents themselves to they see what is going on beneath the surface of Berlin. Dodd is a good man trapped in bad circumstances, and he doesn't even have the full support of the State Department. They consider him to be an outsider and interloper, a do-gooder who doesn't understand the art of diplomacy. The other major character is Dodd's daughter, Martha, a free-spirited divorcee who enjoys a multitude of affairs with the available men of Berlin.

I was quite interested to see how the Roosevelt administration and the State Department encouraged Dodd to appease Hitler. Why would they do that? A variety of political reasons, of course. First of all, they were too busy dealing with the depression to worry about Hitler. Everyone was convinced that he would simply get thrown out of office eventually. There was also a feeling that Hitler was Europe's problem and that Europe should deal with Hitler. But another reason also came to light, written by the assistant secretary of state, R. Walton Moore. He said,  if America or Roosevelt were to point to German's antisemitism, it could cause Germany, in turn, to ask "why the negroes of [the US] do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United not checked" (241). Ugh. That's pretty depressing, right? We didn't want to accuse Germany of racism since we (at least at that time, before the Holocaust) were really no better.

All in all, an interesting, rewarding, and fast read.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

I really like the fact that I have to read books outside of my comfort zone for my book club. Hell, I really like that I have a book club! This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and is considered to be a classic of the American West. The novel tells the story of retired professor and historian Lyman Ward. After a recent divorce, he has decided to retire to his grandparent's home and write a biography of his grandmother, Susan Ward. Susan was one of the East Coast elite when she decided to marry Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. At that time, the 1880s and 1890s, the only true mining work was in the Western territories. Susan follows Oliver through the West---California, Colorado, and Idaho---as he tries to be successful at his chose profession. The narrative jumps back and forth from Susan's story to Lyman's own as he struggles to understand his family and the unspoken tragedy that irrevocably  changed the lives of his father and his grandparents.

Kelly, I bet this would be an amazing audiobook. The language is rich and lush, and the descriptions of the West are just gorgeous. Susan writes many letters to her best friend back home, and her heartbreak and disappointment are palpable. This is a beautifully written novel and a great story, and those seem to be the key ingredients to a good audiobook.

I had only one qualm with the book, and it's because of my recent reading of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This is a story that essentially takes place at the *exact same time* as the Indian removal of the West. And, yet, there is barely a mention of Native Americans in the book. I know that it's a reflection of that time, and perhaps of that author, who himself was writing 40 years ago. But it didn't sit right with me. It's why I can't read Gone with the Wind and other novels that glorify the Confederate South. I know too much to enjoy it entirely.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Here's another award winner, this time the winner of the National Book Award. You may remember that I **hated** last year's winner, Lord of Misrule, so I was a bit wary of this one. But, boy, am I glad I read it.

This novel is set in a rural and poverty stricken town, somewhere on the Louisiana / Mississippi border. The story is told be Esch, a 15 year old girl who has just discovered she's pregnant. Katrina is bearing down on them, and the entire story covers 12 days in her life.

This book has a strong narrative voice. Poor Esch is the only girl with 3 brothers, and her father is a hapless drunk. Her Mother died giving birth to her brother, Junior, 8 years before. Esch and her brothers are basically raising themselves, and now she has to come to terms with the idea of becoming a mother. This was a difficult book to read. This family lives in miserable poverty, and the only money that really comes in is from her brother Skeetah, who fights dogs. His dog, China, has just given birth to puppies and if he can keep them alive, they might be worth as much as $200 each. Esch's sexual history is heartbreaking and sad. It's easier to say yes than to say no, and although she loves the father of her child, he is just using her. The novel reaches crisis point when Katrina roars on to land, forcing the family to face each other and try to salvage the only thing they have left to save: each other.

Here's what the author had to say as she accepted her award: "“I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.”



  1. Thanks for the reviews of In the Garden of Beasts and Salvage the Bones! I've got both sitting in my TBR pile and I'm looking forward to both of them.

  2. Okay. I clicked through and read that article and thought it was great that she mentioned the idiot from The Confederacy of Dunces because I *hated* that guy and so many people seemed to love him! But then... I kept reading and said, "Wait. Is she referring to her *own* books now? This seems weird..." (and kind of douche-y, to be honest). Then I read the comments and everyone else *also* said that! I don't know why it feels so weird, but it just does: "Here's a theory and now I will back it up with... my own work!" Wait... huh?

    Regardless of all of that, The Post-Birthday World looks good and I cannot tolerate unlikeable characters. Flaws are fine, but if I cannot like them at *all*, we're going to have problems.

    I have not read Devil in the White City -- do you recommend it?

    Thanks for the audiobook tip on Angle of Repose. I am always looking for a new audiobook, although I still have not popped the magical bubble that 11/22/63 left me with. (I've been catching up on episodes of This American Life that I had neglected while engrossed in audiobooks!) But it's probably time.

    Oh! Audible is having the 3 for 2 sale right now and Angle is one of the books on sale!

    Okay. I just bought it. I also bought Anna Karenina because I have always wanted to read it and this audiobook version gets rave reviews. And to swing in a totally different direction, I grabbed REAMDE. Sooo... I am set for the next few months. Good, cause I have a lot of packing to do and audiobooks definitely help while doing menial tasks!

    Huh. Looking at my library, I have listened to 11 audiobooks since I signed up 4 months ago. Sweet! I love the audiobook! Took me forever to find it, but now that I am here, I am IN.

    Plus the 12 books I have/will (and I will, damnit. I WILL.) read for the TBR and 24 books I have read on the Kindle (thanks, Amazon, for making it easy to browse my reading history!) I guess I've read (or will, by the end of the year) 47 books this year. Not too bad (way more than I thought, actually) (Although... most of the Kindle stuff is garbage. I'll read any .99 YA supernatural romance out there, apparently...)

    I need to start working on my 2012 TBR list! (Oh, and review October's book, finish November's, review it, and read and review December's. Easy-peasy, right? Hrm.)