PIs, Librarians, Dystopias, Dogs, & Loser Porn | What We’re Reading

This week, “What We’re Reading” (WWR) team members from LJ/School Library Journal & Junior Library Guild (JLG) range far and wide in fiction realms, from a utopian society with a dark side to New York City and neighboring Long Island to Loserland, World War II France, and Los Angeles.

shustermanscytheMahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
Over the weekend, I was immersed in Neal Shusterman’s YA novel Scythe (S. & S.). Ordinarily, sf isn’t my bag, but Shusterman’s always so thoughtful that I just had to give this one a try. The book is set in a utopia ruled by an artificial intelligence known as the Thunderhead, which has put an end to war, poverty, famine, disease, and death as we understand it. And because Thunderhead is so efficient, there’s no need for government; even religion has largely disappeared (actually, I couldn’t help but think of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as I was reading). The downside? Because there is no such thing as natural death (people can be revived if they die by accident, and their bodies can be replaced as they age), overpopulation is rampant. That’s where the Scythes come in, people tasked with culling individuals to combat overpopulation.

The two teenage protagonists are apprentice Scythes who are making sense of what it means to kill (or “glean”) and whether they will be able to do so when their time comes. I’m halfway through the story so far and loving it. Unlike many dystopian works, this one doesn’t involve lots of action and angst, and at this point there are no love triangles (or parallelograms, for that matter). This is a much more contemplative narrative, one that forces us to ponder what kind of a society we’re really attempting to achieve. I haven’t been this excited about sf since Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Lois Lowry’s The Giver!

hoffman-faithfulLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
It’s easy to immerse yourself in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful (S. & S.). Her writing style is immediate and descriptive, and seemingly effortless, though it took me a few pages to absorb the present tense delivery. The heroine is a walking ghost, a Long Island girl who survived a car accident that left her best friend Helene in a coma. Shelby retreats into a perma-shell and cuts herself—literally, in the shower, in places no one can see, and figuratively, off from everybody—smoking dope, zoning out, and watching TV in her parents’ basement. Meanwhile, a cult of sorts, fueled by rumors that her touch can cure, springs up around the comatose Helene. Shelby’s mother is a former librarian who quits her job to watch over her suicidal daughter, who hasn’t visited Helene since the accident two years ago. Here’s a snippet about that:

One day Sue Richmond is driving home from the market when she makes a right turn on Lewiston for no reason, something she’s always avoided before. Because Sue was the librarian at the local elementary school before the accident, she knows most people in town. She’s checked out books for decades of children, all grown up now, the ones who succeeded and the ones who failed. She loved her job, but then Shelby needed her. She couldn’t read books to second graders when her own daughter was locked in a basement.

Later in the story, there are dogs. Shelby and a handsome stranger, Harper Levy, rescue a bloodied street person, and for their troubles, they have to go to the hospital and get tested for AIDS and vaccinated for tetanus and hepatitis. On the way there, they exchange info about themselves. He mentions that he’s a veterinarian and Shelby does that thing where you don’t disclose that you live with a significant other, but she does tell him she loves Chinese takeout.

“I just finished a Chinese cooking class,” Harper informs her. “I make fantastic wontons.”
He cannot be as good as he looks. So Shelby gives him her ultimate test question for a man she might consider. “Do you have a dog?”
“Two pit bulls. I adopted them when their owner went to prison.”
Is it possible the perfect man can be found on the street beside a pool of blood?
“Those dogs are loyal,” Harper says. “Even though their owner treated them like shit, when I say his name they still jump up and run to the door looking for him.”

moshfeghLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I’ve had the book for a while, but I finally had to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (Penguin) when it hit this year’s Man Booker Prize short list—enough of my simpatico friends were saying, “REALLY?” that I had to see for myself. And on the whole I pretty much agree, even though the book was well written and pleasingly weird and dark. I realize it’s sloppy reviewer speak to term something that immersive and efficiently pushes all a reader’s buttons as “porn.” Yet I can’t help it—Eileen is great loser porn. Eileen is the friendless girl your mom told you to sit with at lunch whom you just don’t like, the awkward uberpathetic creep you work hard not to resemble in any way, shape, or form, and at the same time you can indulge your loathing because she’s just a character in a novel. But Moshfegh’s treatment of her is just a shade too heavyhanded to be sympathetic—which is, of course, what every loser really needs in at least a tiny dose to be approachable. And though the story is supposed to be Hitchcockian—it would be obvious even if the cover copy didn’t say so—there isn’t enough tension or twisty plotting to earn the designation. Eileen isn’t bad, but I’m not sure it’s Booker caliber either. Or maybe it’s just that Facebook has ruined public hand-wringing for me and I’ll never be a good person again. Still, when Eileen’s voice isn’t over the top, it is delightfully crackling dry. About her dog Mona, who died shortly before her mother:

Without hesitation I can say my heart was broken as much over the loss of that dog as by the death of my own mother. I imagine I’m not the only person on earth to feel that way, but for a long time the feelings seemed shameful. Perhaps had I a [psychiatrist] Dr. Frye to confess this to, I might have uncovered something which would have brought me relief, a new perspective, but I never did. Anyway, I don’t trust those people who poke around sad people’s minds and tell them how interesting it all is up there. It’s not interesting. My mother was mean and that dog was nice. One doesn’t need a college degree.

suitefrancaiseGeorgia Siegchrist, Assistant Editor, JLG
I recently began reading Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (Vintage). Perhaps the most notable thing about the book is stated on the back cover: “When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Francaise, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.” Given that background, and that the book is about various people fleeing Paris as the Nazis bear down, this is a surprisingly funny read. All the petty bourgeois concerns of the refugees are both completely realistic and absurd (one family delays leaving until their fine linen comes back from the laundry; another couple worries whether, because they’ve fled, they’ll be fired from their jobs at a bank). So far, an excellent, well-observed, and well-written work.

joeideiqHenrietta Verma, WWR emerita
I’ve been reading a lot lately (thank you, NetGalley and Edelweiss). I just devoured two novels: Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things (Ballantine) and JP Delaney’s The Girl Before (Ballantine). The Picoult is great for those who enjoyed Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives. It’s the story of a labor and delivery nurse who makes a life-altering decision and the decision’s legal aftermath. Race plays a large role in the tale, and that aspect of the book was too formulaic for me (while there’s much more to it, one theme is that a clueless white woman is schooled by a wiser black one), but overall I enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait to find out what happened.

Thankfully, The Girl Before isn’t just another “Girl” book. It’s the story of two women, one now and one in the recent past, who both rented the same bizarre house with its even more bizarre owner. What happened to the previous tenant, and how the current one will get out of her predicament, had me on the edge of my seat, as well as thinking that maybe minimalism isn’t all self-help author Marie Kondo cracks it up to be. (Still, I just requested Eve Schaub’s Year of No Clutter [Sourcebooks] on NetGalley…we’ll see.)

But king of them all for me at the moment is the title I’m doling out to myself in morsels: Joe Ide’s IQ (Mullholland). It’s the most unexpected and thought-provoking mystery I’ve read in a while, as well as the best written and funniest. I won’t give much away, but it’s the author’s debut (please let there be more) and features a smart young man who’s down on his luck and trying to make ends meet as a private detective in L.A. For a taste of the laughs, here’s the main character’s friend, who can’t believe she hasn’t made it to the red carpet yet.

“I was born to be a celebrity. I should have the spotlight all over me.”
“Spotlight all over you—for what?” Isaiah said.
“What do you mean for what? That Kardashian girl’s booty could fit
inside my booty.”

 

 

 

Share
Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench