A book you could finish in a day

Stardust-Movie-Still-stardust-337717_700_419

“Have been unavoidably detained by the world. Expect us when you see us.”

-Neil Gaiman, “Stardust”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 4

Gaiman is one of my best friend’s favorite authors, and I have been quite a delinquent friend in not reading him sooner. When she hooked into my family’s monthly book club recently this was her first pick and it did not disappoint! Bonus points that it’s the first book everyone finished in its entirety in about two years. I’m being a bit generous with the category here because I technically did not read it in a day.. but I did read 80% of the book in 24 hours (including plowing through the last 100 pages in the hour and a half immediately before book club), so we’re going to rock letter of the law here with “could” finish in a day.

Stardust is the story of a young man named Tristan Thorn who lives in the town of Wall in Victorian England. On the edge of the town is, you guessed it.. a wall. Through a small hole in the wall is the passage to the land of Faerie. Every 9 years the villagers of Wall (and travelers near and far) are allowed to gather for a festival in the meadow just beyond the wall and purchase food and goods from the merchants of Faerie. In an effort to impress the most beautiful girl in town, Tristan offers to go to Faerie one night after the festival to bring her back a fallen star.

(In my best Stefon impression) Witches, pirate ships, ghosts.. this book has everything. It’s like the style of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets a fantasy world like Alice in Wonderland. The world Gaiman creates is imaginative and cheeky. I especially liked the little details, like that the conversations of the ghosts of dead brothers (who have all killed each other vying for the crown) sound like leaves rustling to the living. There’s a love story that runs throughout the book, and dare I say, it might be one of my favorite literary romances. No love at first sight, no I’m attracted to you and don’t know a damn thing about you.. rather, it’s a slow building trust and an epic adventure. As true love should be.

I tend to be attracted to books where the plot serves as a greater commentary. The first 50 pages felt slow and I found myself frustrated with the story (it’s just a weird interesting place with weird interesting people?) but I slowly came around to wanting to read every Gaiman book that exists. There is a kind of simple charm and sarcasm that I had somehow stopped pursuing in my reading habits that I was happy to re-discover with Stardust. Next on my list is Graveyard Book and probably my own Gaiman obsession will follow soon thereafter.

A book with a blue cover

image

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

-Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 48

This was one of those books that everyone in my book club independently put on their challenge list at the beginning of the year. It’s that good. However, I’m ashamed to say this book suffered a bit from start reading, get distracted by shiny things, then pick it up again weeks later.. it is in no way a reflection of how incredible this book is. This post could consist of only, “just go read this book” and that would be everything you need to know about it.

The story is told through a series of flash forwards and flashbacks, and from multiple perspectives. Marie-Laure is a young girl in France on the verge of World War 2. Her father is a locksmith at a museum and she accompanies him every day to work, where she is treated to an infinite world of knowledge and discovery. When she is young she loses her vision but is incredibly resilient, largely due to how her father raises her. He builds Marie-Laure a model replica of the town they live in which she learns through touch. Werner is a young German boy, hundreds of miles away, growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta in a poor working class town. Years ago they lost their father to a coal mining accident, and fate seems set that in a few years Werner will have no choice but to work in the same mines that killed his father. He has a knack for electronics though and is soon fixing things through the whole town. At night, he and his sister listen to an unknown French man teach science lessons on an old beat up radio, and for those brief periods of respite, they experience the awe and wonder of the world beyond their reach. Doerr is a master at weaving through each narrative- the jumps between perspectives and time points feels fluid, never jerky.

As the war reaches them, both Marie-Laure and Werner’s worlds are shattered. When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to evacuate, and carry with them an important mission from the museum. Werner is recruited to a school for elite young German soldiers due to his aptitude for engineering. In very different ways they experience the cruelty of war, the tangible displacement and danger and the intangible shifts in relationships and understanding. One of the most incredible parts of the book is the way we experience the world through Marie-Laure. Despite being blind she very much sees the world around her, the way people walk when they’re scared or excited, the smell of the sea, the feeling of the wind just before it rains. I wondered if in some ways she sees the world far better than I ever have. Werner too has an incredible talent for truly seeing people, their weaknesses, fears, the quiet beauty in them that no one else seems to notice.

There’s a meditation on bravery throughout the book that Doerr explores with an incredible amount of grace. As Marie-Laure learns to navigate through the world, literally and figuratively, she does not hold back. In Saint-Malo she joins the underground resistance to the German occupation, retrieving messages concealed in bread from the bakery, to be broadcast on the illegal transmitter in the attic of her great uncle’s house. Repeatedly she’s told how brave she is, for her it is just life. She knows no other way. Werner is drilled about bravery at school but he begins to question the kind of bravery they teach. Is it brave to attack the weakest and most vulnerable around us, enemy and countryman alike? He struggles with this and is confronted with more as a young boy than most of us face in a lifetime. Through both Marie-Laure and Werner their humanity is revealed through how they traverse the inhumanity of war.

Book endings are notoriously difficult to nail, and this one was perfect. The way all the narratives come together (and those that don’t) say something about what war does to us. 500+ pages later this book sent me into the affliction known as book hangover.. curl up and set aside several hours for this one.

A book that is published in 2016

city-593145_960_720

“You’ve got to entrust yourself to the waves, lash yourself to the mast, pray the gods are on your side, and rely on cunning to survive the rest. The seas are full of forgotten monsters, yes, but they’re full of forgotten glories too. And people who stay at home and sit out the war never get to see them. That’s what I think, anyway.” 

-Kristopher Jansma, “Why We Came to the City”

Rating: 4.5 stars
Time to read: 21 days

When I was reading through the POPSugar list at the beginning of the year I started to research this category like a good academic. Who talks about books before they come out though? I thought. This is by no means a rare phenomenon, but this was stupid of me. There is a whole rabbit hole of blogs talking about books that are coming out over the next 6-12 months and I got happily sucked into all of it. Once I found a snippet about this book I couldn’t wait until it was published. Thank the good book overlords that I only had to wait until mid February.

Why We Came to the City is a story about 5 friends from college now in their late twenties living in New York City around the beginning of the recession in 2008. Sara is a magazine editor and type A planner, who is dating George, an astrophysics postdoc bordering on functioning alcoholic. William works in finance and is far too shy to admit he is in love with Irene, an artist. Jacob is a gay poet who has not written poetry in quite some time. I almost hesitate to call it a story because it is more a reflection about connection and humanity through a group of friends as they navigate through the world, together and alone, over the span of a couple of years with a very loose beginning, middle, and end. The first chapter itself is practically poetry that I might have read about 5 times before proceeding (“For the rest of the world, it seemed to us, had somewhat hastily concluded that it was the chief end of man to thank God it was Friday and pray that Netflix would never forsake them”).

One of my favorite threads throughout the book was the attachment that Jacob and William feel towards the classics, particularly The Iliad. Jansma uses this beautifully as a juxtaposition for the struggles of the characters. Unlike their fictional counterparts, though, they are not heroes on fantastic journeys. Their battles are not epic, nor do their misunderstandings and failures always result in lessons and greater understandings that can be dissected and analyzed. They each struggle in unique ways for connection and meaning and in earnest fail in petty ways, over and over. It is, in so many ways, painfully beautiful in its ordinariness. Far from the navel gazing that tends to characterize much ‘I’m just trying to figure out life’ writing (I’m looking at you, every “X number of things about my twenties!” Thought Catalog list), Jansma’s take is refreshing and subtle.

Although much of the book captures the singular spirit of New York City, I saw so much of myself in their story. In one of the opening scenes they drunkenly find a hot tub on the balcony of a luxury hotel in the middle of December and decide on some impromptu skinny dipping. It reminded me of a night one summer in college when we climbed to the roof of a beach house, passed around a bottle of wine, and watched a far off lightning storm in the distance for hours. There was an infinity in that moment, the kind that changes you. Now far past the limitless feeling that marked the beginning of my twenties, I suffer a lot from being restless and often I’m not content with where I am right now. I’m in a part of my career that’s jokingly (with a sick thread of truth) referred to as career purgatory. My twenties have included more than one lost love, and often feeling like I have to leave a city just when I’ve finally fought to make it feel like home. Potentially the hardest– feeling like I’m not where I should be, perhaps because there is no such thing, despite my emotional protests to the contrary. The beauty of all of this through Jansma’s lens though is that my wars (and theirs) are small but to live they need to be fought. In the struggle we find our character.

If I continue this will become a Dead Poets Society-esque monologue, but it might suffice to say that I lost myself in this story the way that only a book that articulates something about yourself that you were never able to can. I would venture to say it might do the same for you.

 

A book based on a fairy tale

Photo on 2-28-16 at 8.38 PM #2

It’s important to accessorize properly while reading..

“So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?”
“Shazi?” Jalal’s grin widened. “Honestly, I pity the wolves.”

-Renee Ahdieh, “The Wrath and the Dawn”

Rating: 3.75 stars
Days to read: 5

I first received this book as part of my Uppercase Box subscription many months ago (hence the cute matching scarf!) but finally got around to reading it just this month.. which is a complete shame, because I’ve liked all this girl‘s picks! It was a perfect fit for this category and I already owned it, making it a win/win on my goal of getting through the year only on books I can borrow or already own.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a re-imagined One Thousand and One Nights. In Khorasan, each new bride taken by Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, is strangled at dawn after their wedding night. Dozens of girls have been murdered. The latest victim is Shahrzad’s best friend, and she decides to volunteer to be Khalid’s next wife with the sole plan of murdering him in revenge for killing her best friend. She does so of course without consulting anyone in her life, least of all her father (who is still grieving over his wife’s passing many years ago) or the boy she loves. This is incredibly dumb but I’m willing to suspend some disbelief for love of a best friend. She manages to survive the first night by telling an intriguing story about a thief who gets lost at sea, stopping right at a cliffhanger. Khalid is interested enough to let her live to the second night. In addition to Khalid, most of the staff at the palace seem thoroughly taken by Shazi and genuinely care for her. She has an incredible wit and a lot of tenacity. I particularly loved the back and forth with her handmaid and the unlikely friendship they forge.

Eventually Shazi begins to see a little more to Khalid than a completely evil monster, and she finds her resolve to kill him wavering. This would less infuriating if it was not so strongly tied to being incredibly attracted to Khalid as well. Girl, you have been there for less than a week and you already want a makeout sesh with the guy who murdered your best friend? Sounds like a great idea. For a character we are continually told is a complete force of nature and the definition of a strong, independent woman, this part of the plot felt lame. Meanwhile, Shazi’s father and childhood friends are running around trying to literally start a war to get her back. For someone stubborn enough to walk into a near death trap to avenge her best friend, her surrender is maddeningly premature.  The attraction precedes most of the glimpses of understanding she gets about his true character, which would have been so much more powerful the other way around. Over time though they have misunderstandings, frustrations, and moments of true friendship, which slowly redeemed the book for me.

After much prodding, Shazi finally learns the secret Khalid has been hiding from her. She sees his predicament and his guilt for what he’s done, and she comes full circle to loving him in full and all his flaws. I have mixed feelings about this because I think the ‘I’m attracted to you because you’re broken’ deal is overplayed and is often a really unhealthy foundation for a relationship in YA literature (and life). However, there are some really beautiful passages about the power of forgiveness and mercy and needing the company of others to understand yourself as a person which I really enjoyed.

The Wrath and the Dawn is part one of a duology (are single book stories outlawed in YA fantasy literature? Did I miss a memo?) but it sets up its successor quite well for some great action. With the coming war Shazi’s friends and family make an unfortunate ally out of what they think is a shared enemy. Despite my protests to some aspects of Shazi and Khalid’s relationship, the world Ahdieh sets up is beautifully described (make sure you’re well fed when you sit down to read this, the descriptions of the food alone are to die for and rival watching Food Network at midnight) and I found the tension of the brewing war and nuanced politics genuinely interesting to watch evolve. The Rose and the Dagger is due in May and I’d be lying if I said I won’t try to scoop it up soon thereafter.

A dystopian novel

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

-Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 8

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to cling to YA in many of my book selections. For this category I specifically wanted to avoid YA, because as much as I loved Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner, I need to branch out a bit. When I was researching possible selections for this category I came across Brave New World, and it dawned on me that this is a classic that I really should have read a long time ago. Being a product of the International Baccalaureate program, a lot of my high school reading lists concentrated on translated works (no complaints here– it was great exposure to a world of literature!), so it wasn’t really on my radar until college. I think it’s really important to read the classics and I’m glad I did, but I don’t think this book will crack my list of favorites.

The story begins at a Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in central London in the future where we follow a tour of the facility with a group of young boys. In the future children are no longer born but rather ‘decanted’. We have apparently learned so much about development that the entire process proceeds from start to finish in a lab. People can be created by the thousands, often in identical batches. Not only can humans be created, they are tailored for designated social castes. For example, Epsilons are purposefully deprived of oxygen to their brains for a brief period of time, making them ‘well suited’ to the mundane labor jobs to which they will be assigned later in life. These descriptions are enough to send chills up your spine. As a scientist, there are times I think we fail to think about whether or not we should create a technology, only if and how we can. Because of these technologies and the control they allow society, words like ‘mother’ become dirty.

Most of what shapes society in Brave New World is indeed built around convenience and carefree living as the supreme goal. Solitary pursuits, including reading, are discouraged as they tend to take away from time people spend money on entertainment and material things. The majority of the plot revolves around two characters. Bernard, an Alpha, is a bit shorter than the rest of his caste (rumor has it there was some alcohol in his ‘blood surrogate’) but perhaps because of this he is naturally a bit more secluded from the rest of society in a quite unorthodox manner. He doesn’t get the same enjoyment as everyone else from mindless consumption of material goods. He also doesn’t rely on soma, a drug that provides a hangover free mental retreat and is poised as a cure all for any negative feelings. This relative social isolation provides the substrate for the beginnings of the realization that this consumerist world is not quite as fulfilling as it could be and he seems at first to escape the mindless conditioning that rules society. On the other hand, Lenina (a Beta) is interested in Bernard but confused by his continual refusal of her advances. She is the ultimate product of of her environment– completely unquestioning, content with the world she has been designed for, and troubled by Bernard’s unorthodox comments.

Through a series of events Bernard and Lenina take a vacation to one of the ‘savage’ reservations still left in America. Certain areas of land have been designated as almost a living museum to the “old ways” where people are allowed to live in something that vaguely resembles our current world. People age naturally, procreate naturally, and they follow a bit of a weird mix of all the world religions as one. During this trip Bernard finds Linda, a Beta who used to live in London but became lost on the reservation during a trip there many years ago and was abandoned. While she was abandoned she gave birth to John, who was actually fathered by the director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in Central London.

Linda and John come back to London with Bernard and Lenina. John provides a little bit of political cover for Bernard spouting his unorthodox views (especially as it ‘outs’ the director for having fathered a child), and John becomes a spectacle for people to meet and comment on. Not surprisingly John becomes tired of being a tool for Bernard and is increasingly frustrated at the strange ways of the ‘new world’ (especially the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else”). Eventually John lives on his own in a remote cabin without the luxuries of the new world but he is still an object of intense fascination and bullying from people.

Although the plot felt a bit stilted and meandering, I found the theme of forgoing truth for happiness to be incredibly fascinating. In essence, if we want to know truth and grapple with it then we will know suffering as well. We could numb the suffering but that requires numbing truth, and the World Controllers in Brave New World know this and have explicitly chosen to do so as the greater good. Of course, the happiness that results in this scenario is false or at least incredibly shallow. There is something deeply satisfying about stumbling (and I truly mean stumbling) to figure something out your own way– it’s hard and it’s messy but you learn in a profound way so much about yourself and about the world. Convenience, for all its glory, can never give you this. One of my chief frustrations was that Bernard at times felt so close to grasping this concept but was more concerned with flaunting the superiority if his unique intellect and ideas rather than truly wanting truth. This perhaps is a fascinating warning in itself, that our intellectual pursuits can either truly be ordered towards pursuing truth or a false cover for our own ego.

Like 1984Brave New World is one of those books everyone needs to read for the sole reason that history repeats itself. It was written in 1932 but might be even more applicable now that our technologies are even closer to the fantasy world described in the book. The intersection of happiness, truth, consumerism, and mass culture is an interesting and worthwhile examination.

A book set in Europe

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

-Marcus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 11

Sometimes the hardest books to review are the ones you loved the most. The ones where all you can say is, “stop everything immediately and go read this book, I have nothing more to add.” This book caught my eye after 2 friends rated it highly on Goodreads and both mentioned crying at the end. I don’t really cry while reading so I almost approached it as a challenge: if you’re really as good as they say you are, little book, give me your best shot. The book won.

The Book Thief is the story of a girl named Liesel who lives in a small village outside the city of Munich with a foster family starting right before World War 2. We first watch 10 year old Liesel on a train ride with her mother and brother as they travel to an orphanage where they will be given up for adoption, presumably because her mother can no longer care for them. Before they make it her brother dies on the train, and his death haunts Liesel’s nightmares for many years in her new home. It is also this event that begins her career of book thieving as she grabs a copy of a cemetery procedures book (of all things) in the snow at the funeral even though she can’t read. She and her foster father form a special bond as he is the one to console her after each and every one of her nightmares, and in those quiet early morning hours he teaches her to read. Down the street from Liesel’s foster family is a boy named Rudy. Liesel and Rudy become great friends, even if (probably because) they spend most of their time teasing and cursing at each other. How this scenario becomes incredibly endearing and heartwarming is a testament to Zusak’s prose– he is able to convey the kind of fierce love that is present between two people even when they don’t show it explicitly (see also: Liesel’s foster mother, whose generous heart becomes much more apparent later on in the story).

Liesel and her family live in a contentious time in Germany. Frequent and ostentatious demonstration of one’s allegiance to Hitler is expected to the point that any perceived weakness in this regard has serious consequences. At first her family attempts to play along even though their hearts are never truly in it, which becomes more complicated when a series of events leads Liesel’s father to hide a Jewish man (Max) in their basement. Liesel forms a strong bond with Max as well, like an older brother she never had. At one point he becomes incredibly sick, sleeping for several weeks, and Liesel reads to Max every day. When he wakes up he writes a few books for her; ‘The Word Shaker’ in particular is incredibly moving and speaks to the power of words, both those of Hitler and his rise to power, but also the words of those who stand up against him.

These characters alone are enough to capture my love for this book, but what makes the novel truly great is Zusak’s choice to tell the story through the character of Death. Death is sarcastic but not really evil. He is a result but not a cause. He does not delight in our passing, he’s just the carrier of souls. I loved his commentary about war not being “death’s best friend” as the phrase goes, but rather more like a “boss” who continually demands more. Death is particularly affected by our humanity, our best and our worst, and even seems attached to many of the characters. He has the perfect perspective for telling a story about how we live before we die. Death almost has a tenderness that belies how we normally think about and process death.. “It kills me sometimes, how people die.” I couldn’t get over this line. It’s beautiful.

I cried when Liesel cried for the last 100 pages of the book. It was a punch in the gut. In the words of George R.R. Martin, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page (and to do that) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.”

I’m worried for any book that comes after this, because I’m in a complete book hangover. There’s not a doubt in my mind this book gets 5 stars. Trust your friends when they warn you of book tears.

A book from the library

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.”

– Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 10

This might as well have been my freebie category, because just about every book I’ve read this year is from the library. I’ve wanted to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as well as Everything is Illuminated (both by Foer) for a while so freebie category it was. I was aware of the high acclaim for the latter and assumed the former would be just as good, but I finished the book a bit disappointed and wondering if I was mistaken in that judgment.

Oskar is a 9 year old boy struggling with the death of his father, who was in a meeting in one of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. He is a precocious and challenging kid with a lot of emotion to work through, especially as he compares his grief to his mother’s, which he has trouble understanding. His grandmother lives across the street and they communicate through walkie talkies on a regular basis. After his father’s death he accidentally knocks over a vase one day, revealing a key in a little envelope labelled ‘Black’. He decides this must have been the beginning of a large scavenger hunt organized by his father (a game they used to play often) and he proceeds to go throughout the entire city trying to track down every Black in the phone book to find the lock that matches the key. Aside from the improbability of a 9 year old boy being allowed that much unsupervised free time, many of his interactions are sweet as he meets the flawed but charming individuals with the surname Black through the city, none of whom can help him figure out the right lock in all of New York City. The way Oskar sees the world is often strange and beautiful and endearing, although at times whiny and frustrating. Foer does an amazing job of making the reader feel Oskar’s panic attacks and restlessness, and over time I came to truly root for him even though I felt like my affection was often challenged (maybe this is the sign of a dynamic and realistic character).

In parallel the reader is introduced to a man, whose name we do not know, who was born in Dresden and fell in love with a girl named Anna during World War II. He loses her in the bombing of Dresden and later when he gets to New York he progressively loses his ability to speak, instead relying on a journal he keeps with him to talk (and even then, is incredibly limited in his communication). As with Oskar we hear his story in his own words, but I felt frustrated with just how slowly his character developed. Eventually we learn that this man is Oskar’s grandfather, who left his grandmother (who turns out to be Anna’s sister) many years ago but has been living with her again.

The intersection of the story plot with real history felt almost gimmicky. It was never really referenced directly but featured in repeated allusions. The only time I felt like it was a beautiful addition to the plot was Oskar’s descriptions of his dad’s last voicemails, which left me nearly in tears. The addition of the grandfather’s story felt like too much for a single narrative, they were both so out there that it felt overwhelming to try to believe in not just one but both of their stories. The joining of their stories seemed haphazard and underwhelming as well.

What felt missing from the plot was redeemed by some beautiful writing about angst and grief (especially the concept of “heavy boots”), and for this I can’t write off the book entirely. Everything is Illuminated remains on my TBR even if it has to wait until the end of the POPSUGAR Challenge (all the more reason to get it done before the end of the year!).

A satirical book

IMG_3555

Home sweet home..

“Mr. McIntryre,” Tierney said, putting his notepad on the desk, “now let me be candid. I don’t particularly care about Pan-Pacific.”
“You don’t?”
“To put it bluntly, another sleazy Washington lobby story is no longer front-page news.”
“Well,” Bird said, “I don’t know about ‘sleazy’, but if you say so.”
“My interest is Groepping-Sprunt.”
“Ah.”
“Specifically, a project they’re developing for the Pentagon.”
“Keeping America safe by keeping America strong. It’s on the letterhead. Under the eagle.”

-Christopher Buckley, “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to finish: 12

My first introduction to Christopher Buckley’s novels was back in college. It started with Thank You for Smoking and I devoured most of the rest of his work quickly thereafter. At one point (very briefly) I was an aspiring international relations major, and being a native of the DC area the drama of current events was something you had to converse in fluently. Buckley is the son of William Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. He was also a speech writer for George H.W. Bush and became known outside political circles in 2008 when he endorsed Obama over the McCain/Palin ticket. Our politics are somewhat different but he came from a time where you could go have a beer with your opponent and have a productive, meaningful debate. We are now sadly past this era, and frustration with the current mode of operations is reflected in the way he treats Washington as a subject in his books, mostly by poking fun of Washington mercilessly. What sets Buckley apart is that it’s the kind of teasing you do when you still reluctantly care about things, even if they feel hopelessly awry.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Bird McIntyre is a consultant for a large defense contractor and is trying to convince Congress to buy their latest and greatest. After a rough testimony he teams up with Angel Templeton (a character who can only be described as Ann Coulter if she actually knew the names of the people she insults), a pro-war lobbyist, to manufacture a fake threat from the Chinese to bolster American sentiment that Congress needs to increase defense spending. It’s both ludicrous and true to Washington form, and has enough threads of reality to be as scary as it is funny. Rounding out the characters are Bird’s wife, Myndi, who enjoys spending Bird’s money on new horses, his brother who has no other job than to reenact Civil War history on their large plot of land in Virginia, and his mother with severe dementia.

The narrative goes back and forth between DC and China, where President Fa is trying to placate the desires of an aggressive and manipulative cabinet. In parallel both Angel Templeton and the Chinese come up with the same goal: kill the Dalai Lama (who is of rapidly deteriorating health anyway) and blame it on the other country. For the DC crew, this would show how dangerous the Chinese are and how much we need to stop them. For the Chinese, this would prevent the Dalai Lama from returning to Tibet before dying, where the Chinese can take over the reincarnation ceremony and nominate a successor much more ‘compatible’ with their plans for Tibet. Each plan only works if they aren’t caught. The highs and lows of manipulating the unwieldy beast of public perception create an amusing roller coaster for both sides.

In some ways Buckley’s books are hard to review in depth because the themes are timeless and simple: people are crazy and reality is stranger than fiction. There’s no giant stirring of emotions but the witty back and forth dialogue is enjoyable if not downright hysterical at times. If you’re an amateur political wonk, Buckley’s entire collection is well worth your time.

A YA bestseller

“When did we see each other face to face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade, but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”

-John Green, “Paper Towns”

Rating: 3 stars
Days to read: 3

It should be no surprise that one of the categories I checked off first was a YA novel (any good suggestions for ‘a book that takes place on an island’? I have a feeling this will be the last one I get to!). I loved A Fault in Our Stars in so many ways and was excited to explore the rest of John Green’s work. Teenage angst is such a universal and relatable theme but it tends to feel stale and overdone in most writers’ hands, and I felt like TFiOS captured so much without falling into many predictable character black holes that plague a lot of other YA work. In passing I’d seen trailers for the movie adaptation of Paper Towns, so I used that as a pseudo-endorsement that this might be another great story.

At the end of his senior year of high school, Quentin is taken on a wild, one night adventure with literally the girl next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the number of names you use for a person is correlated with your love for them, clearly), a girl with whom he has been infatuated with since childhood. There were many things I liked about Margo; she is a force to be reckoned with, she seems aware of the temporary nature of high school and its dynamics, and for the most part she rises above being motivated by the approval of her peers. Her function in the story, though, is to be a distant but dizzying mystery to Quentin (and thus, the reader), that of course in turn requires an epic obsession. After their one night adventure, Margo disappears and Quentin embarks on his own adventure to find her, sometimes enlisting his friends in various capacities and who are often nonplussed at Quentin’s devotion to solving the mystery of Margo’s disappearance.

In the end, when Quentin finds Margo through a series of both intended and unintended clues on Margo’s part, the result is anti-climatic. This is in many ways purposeful on Green’s part– Quentin has built up Margo and what might come after finding her, and he’s let down by reality. In that sense the ending is really quite fitting, but I felt frustrated by the pace that the adventure unfolded. At first when Quentin is going from clue to clue, I waited in suspense as he struggled to decipher the meaning of each clue and often went through several rounds of failed attempts before being able to continue. The final road trip felt frantic though, as if the plot just needed to be wrapped up and it was time to call it a day. Instead of building suspense I felt like I still had no idea where the plot was going, we were just going a lot quicker.

In a discussion with my little sister I brought up that one of my chief frustrations with the book is that I’ve become incredibly weary of the manic pixie dream girl. Female protagonists/main characters become relegated to some ethereal mystery status that is revered but results in extremely shallow character development. We allow ourselves to go no deeper than scratching the surface of a person, as long as that surface is really pretty and fun to think about. My sister argued that the point of this book is the deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl. Indeed, I did enjoy Green’s exploration of how the way we see each other and even ourselves is wrapped up in our ideas of each other almost more so than the actual person (for a beautiful exploration of this as it pertains to missing loved ones who have passed, read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis). It is not until these ideas are cracked that we truly can connect with one another; almost ironically it is sharing brokenness that forges bonds. In Green’s hands this topic was beautifully done and without boring platitudes, and for me these passages were the highlight of the book, especially the imagery with cracked vessels and internal “strings” that cross within ourselves and between each other.

Would I still read another John Green novel? In a heartbeat. There’s a lot to take away from this book even if it wasn’t my favorite. It’s hard not to stay endeared to a fellow nerd.