DadReaction: Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad

Our November challenge book. I had to leave Dad in the lurch on this one, I just had too much school work in November (with finals in the beginning of December) to undertake this one.

Dad: It was harder to get into than I expected / I remembered really liking Conrad. It was one of those sort of prescient things that could be so easily adapted: a South American country gets sucked into the capitalism of the West, because of its resources. Of course, this starts warping the society there; you’re watching it happen.

It’s an interestingly written book: always taking some weird perspective, lots of flashbacks, leaving things behind. You know ahead of time who makes it and who doesn’t, because he tells you throughout the text. Odd hero as well: he won’t marry the right chick / her dad kills him. Very odd ending for a book about something else.

Worth it but I did have to flog through it.

Fiction: Undiscovered Country, by Lin Enger

Our challenge book for December. Dad skipped out on this one (after I skipped out on November). 🙂

I liked it but didn’t entirely love it.

Liked the MN winter setting. Liked the kid and his inner thoughts. Found some of the mom / kid stuff handled a bit weird. Liked the little brother stuff. Hated the girlfriend’s dad storyline and found it a bit distracting. Some unexpected twists. I liked it better at the beginning than the end.

I would be interested in reading what Enger does next.

Now all I can think about is how long it’s been since I’ve been out on a frozen lake visiting the ice fisherman. You would NOT even believe how much stuff some of them put in their icehouses. I mean we’re talking electric generator-powered heaters and TVs and all kinds of crazy stuff. NO JOKE!

YA/Fiction: The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean

Our challenge book for October. I can’t remember what led us to pick this book; I know we (or I) read about it somewhere.

We both LOVED it. It doesn’t hurt that we’re both South Pole/Antarctic junkies and have already read lots of books on the topic/subject/area (including great books by Sara Wheeler! “Terra Incognita” and “Cherry”).

Sym is so smart and fantastically imaginative. It’s one of those books that, rather than having an unreliable narrator, it’s a narrator who doesn’t know everything but as she figures it out, the revelations start coming out fast and crazy and the whole world changes before your eyes. Her obsession with Captain Titus Oates is both humorous and touching.

There’s some really sad stuff and some really amazing stuff and you are just ROOTING for certain things to happen…


Fiction: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

Our challenge book for August.

I liked it more than Dad did (he reports having to flog himself through it) but overall, as time has passed, it didn’t leave that much of an impression. It felt like there was an awful lot of that male midlife meandering (the way Philip Roth and David Hodges novels are getting to be)… The modern stuff was a lot sharper, the drooling down memory lane stuff (moonings over mama and cricket) bored us both. Dude’s wife was a totally infuriating character; that relationship was nearly inexplicable. We both liked Chuck but his role is weirdly peripheral and pivotal at the same time.

It was a decent enough book but we have no idea why it got the hype it did. I guess the 9/11 references were probably what brought it to people’s attention. Eh.

This is what I’ve learned on the subject of women: never delay. The more quickly you act, the greater the chance of success.

Fiction: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Our challenge book for July and what a behemoth it was. As DadReaction described it: “Some gremlin keeps adding chapters to this sucker, so no matter how much I read there’s still more to go. and more, and more, and more…”

It’s weird how what we all remember / socially think / this book to be about is Becky Sharp yet in fact she disappears for chapters at a time, as sometimes do Dobbin and Amelia as well. (You could easily abridge about several hundred pages out of this thing and lose nothing of the main plot lines.) There are passages about which members of society are at a party that read as thrillingly as the genealogical sections of the bible.

GirlReaction: The problem with most of the older (in terms of when they were published!) books we’ve read this year is insipid heroines. I just get bored by the helpless female (Amelia) and the crafty female (Becky) is just as one-dimensional in her own way (although a bit more entertaining). I sometimes feel that as you read “old classics” you can pick out a bit of WHY they were so renowned in their time (or shortly afterward) but it seems very old hat now (i.e., the things that were original about them don’t seem original if you happen to have read their (many, and later) imitators first).

DadReaction: Reminded of what Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost: everyone can see its value, but no one ever wished it longer. Amen. Becky, the one live wire, keeps vanishing–didn’t you think it would be more about her? And the old men–Sedley and Osborne–are just monsters!! It’s like suddenly you’re in a Eugene O’Neil play. Very much an 18th century feel to the book, though. More like Tom Jones than, say, Great Expectations. Names too are tres 18th siecle: e.g., Castlemouldy. Dobbin’s a complete idiot.

Fiction: Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

Our June challenge book.

We both just TOTALLY loved this book. So much fantastic word play. Great plot, nice details on the L.I.C./BQE area of NYC. A completely original take on this type of book, just takes it to another level.

As DadReaction put it: you know, I usually don’t enjoy bizarre narrators but I really–EAT ME, MINNAWEED–like Lionel–and the unlocking of the Tourette’s experience is just dazzling (like when he talks about the environments that calm him). Balmslim. Slamkill. Allmiss. Really good.

Also (GR here again) reminded me of the character Adah from Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (a great book and to my mind by far the best Kingsolver book).

Fiction: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dad’s and my challenge book for May and a re-read for me from grad school (the first time around!).
It was really interesting to go back and re-read this now, when vampires are such a hot topic: between Twilight and True Blood, they’re all over the place. But this? This is back when vampires weren’t sexy, or intriguing, or sparkly, or helpful to humans, or any of the other modern twists. (You know how every new vampire series needs to put its own twist on the old legends. Which I find it a bit of an authorial conceit.)
They were scary and murderous and preyed on you and sometimes, if you were really unlucky, turned you to evil. There is menace and malice creeping out the seams of this book. It did get annoying (to both of us) how the men just fawn over the poor innocent women…it’s definitely a novel “of its time” as they say.
Kept running into notes I had scrawled in the margins in whatever class I read this for (while getting a Literature MA): “This symbolizes the marriage ceremony” or “refers to King Lear”. Heh. Funny to come across those although most of it is stuff that you could easily still enjoy the book without knowing.
Dad and I also talked about how similar it felt to Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde which you may remember us reading earlier this year. As Dad mentioned, the multiple points of view, groping for the story, etc.
Some additional comments from DadReaction: Didn’t being AND becoming a vampire seem a LOT more complicated than the movies let on? To wit, Drac seems to be able to be out in daylight, he just has less power–and WAY less at sunrise and sunset. Then it seems like there are all sorts of transition stages to become one if you’re a victim–but you DON’T want to predecease Drac! No way!! That’s like a ‘get out of jail free’ card in monopoly, no? You skip the steps, even if the death is from natural causes–or, what?
Interesting, though, that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to read without filling in the blanks from all the movies you’ve seen. I keep wanting to tell the characters: ‘It’s a vampire, you morons!!!” And how weird, that van Helsing talks like Yoda.
I did get tired–o Lord, weary, weary–of all the FAWNING over Mina, those long adulatory passages from Herr Yoda.

Fiction: Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

Our challenge book for April.
GirlReaction: We both came to really like it in the end, Dad perhaps a bit more than me, but it was a bit of a struggle to get into. There were times when I felt he played a little fast and loose with the third-person narrative: i.e., if “we over here” don’t like “those people over there” they should be “they”s not also another set of “we”s. And I wonder if this book will have a lasting legacy; it’s VERY much a book of its time: of a world with “Office Space” and “The Office” and layoffs and recession/depression (and bonus for me: set in Chicago!).
DadReaction, first: Weirdest response: read one paragraph and thought ‘going to like this’. read two paragraphs and thought ‘can’t go on’–happens everytime I pick it up!! There seems to be an underlying suicidal depression about it–maybe it takes me back to when I was desperately job hunting when you guys were tiny. Tres traumatic.
GirlReaction: That may have been part of my struggle with the book as well: my current-day frustrations with the bureaucratic office environment and at the point we were reading this, I had not yet given notice and it did seem each day like I might just be there forever, until I eventually died there and why am I reading a book about people just as unhappy as me…. Arggghhhhhh. However, at some point I did find my way to enjoying the characters and all their many tics and nuances, and I thought it really picked up after a bit. Really enjoyed the Lynn-centric section and the way that really evolved the action.
DadReaction, second: Finished the book of the month. Okay: officially declaring this the best book I’ve read this year. Amazing effects, some wallops. So weird that it was so hard to get into. But it did take off, as you PROMISED. More than that, though: really mesmerizing use of the ‘we’–it gave the narration a real spaciousness, as though this stuff was always happening, the way you really do feel at work, when it seems like you’ve been telling the same jokes forever. Great comic moments, but a real dive into seriousness–esp. with the Lynn episode, but also when you really believe Tom Mota COULD be blowing people away.
Some very teasing character developments, with Joe Pope and Jim and Amber and Larry, who all seem kind of throw away when they first come round but then he keeps circling them and they all kind of come alive. Oh, and then it was cool that he would mention other people you never heard of, just the way you do when you’re telling work tales.
What else? I’m starting to think we should declare a moratorium–wait, no, an outright, absolute BAN on all references to September 11, 2001–because, folks, there really have been worse disasters in history and it’s only the infantile Americans who don’t seem to realize that. Or realize that we have killed more people in its wake than we want to admit.
But that said, I loved the leap at the end with Hank’s novel and the VERY nice touch that it wasn’t this entire novel but only the part about Lynn. But the greatest part WAS the way the ‘we’ sort of surrounded you without ever becoming focussed and that wonderful, wonderful last line with just ‘you and me’ left. That’s from the Muse her ownself.
Oh, and wasn’t Janine sitting in the McDonald’s play area just a crushing image–and those jerks staring at her, and Joe calling them on it, and then they really feel their primal jerkiness. I thought a lot of it was LIKE Kafka but more fetching than Kafka, less distant and more able to draw you in, but still the same strangeness. And how about Benny’s totem pole?!! (Tres glad Marcia and Benny linked up.)
But now: ALL THAT SAID–why does it seem like IT REALLY DOES TAKE FOREVER TO READ!!!!!!?????????? I felt like I’d never get through it, even as I enjoyed each moment. (To be fair, my own exhaustion could have played a part in that.)

Fiction: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was our March challenge book, technically a re-read for both of us and super short!

DadReaction: It WAS a shorty. Too short really–I actually remember it as being longer, but I liked the sense of being taken over by one ghastly part of yourself. It’s one of those stories–Jekyll/Hyde one of those characters–that seem to live beyond the actual story itself, like Don Quixote or Sherlock Holmes. Also liked the oblique narration, getting the story at second and third hand from these peripheral figures. Also: the way stuff develops while some of the characters are just going on with their lives and they have to catch up. Kind of a tiny little gem.

I remember really liking the Spencer Tracy movie of this; Michael Caine’s in one, too–I think he actually impregnates somebody as Hyde and they spawn this grotesque child. Let’s see–Hammer films had a Dr. Jekyll/SISTER Hyde teaser out and Jean Renoir, of all people, adapted the original–Stevenson’s, not Hammer–for French tv.
What did you think? It actually ranks as a comfort book for me, since I read it in High School and can always pick it up again–like Treasure Island. Looking forward to the next one…..

GirlReaction: As you touched on, the thing that strikes me most is how it is such a dramatic story but told in a completely passive manner. Two dudes, going for a calm evening walk, one says to the other “So you see that door? Let me tell you a story about it…” Yet the story is smack full of drama. The events have all already happened off screen, yet even in the retelling they are gripping. All the hearsay and facts gathered from different sources give it a real urban legend feel. I also love the emphasis on the science of the experiments. First he just wants to explore the duality he already senses in himself…but eventually science fails to overcome the darker side of his personality. As he unwillingly becomes more Hyde than Jekyll, the story shifts to fantasy from science.