THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

51usrhmubkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our mother-daughter book club pick for September was The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The Giver is one of those books I’ve always heard about but had never read, and because it was on the girls’ summer reading list for school, I made it the first book of the year. I’m glad I did.

The Giver is about a futuristic society that celebrates Sameness. There is no color, no music, no variation. Children are born, assigned to parents, grow up, and are given roles in the society based on their talents. They marry, raise their own two children, and then live out their lives until they are “released” to another land.

The book centers on Jonah, a boy who turns 12 and receives his vocational assignment: a Receiver. This means that he receives memories from an older member of the society, who passes along institutional memories from many generations back. These memories are of sensations long gone – pain, joy, love – as well as evils that have been eradicated, like disease and war. They even contain memories of nature that have basically been engineered away – snow, birds. As the Receiver, Jonah must process and absorb these memories, but he cannot share them with others unless he is asked to advise the community’s elders.

The Giver is a disturbing but thought-provoking book, and one that is great for middle school readers. It prompted discussion questions about the costs of giving up freedom in exchange for predictability and safety, and about individual responsibility in a place where most people don’t understand what is really happening. What is the role of parenting in this society, and of marriage? Would you want the responsibility of being the Receiver?

We ultimately concluded that while there are a lot of things wrong with our world today, the answer isn’t to get rid of emotion, variety and individual choice.

I can understand why The Giver was such a sensation. I am always surprised to find that I like dystopian books as much as I do – Station Eleven, The Age of Miracles, The Hunger Games. Maybe it’s time to broaden my horizons a little more? More important, the 7th graders (I can hardly believe I just typed that – we started this club when they were in 1st grade!) enjoyed it too and seemed to get a lot out of it.


billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-paperback-by-ben-fountain-_sl1500_Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys are taking on the Chicago Bears in a game being televised nationally. Among the attendees at the game are the eight members of Bravo Squad, who are on leave from their posting in Iraq on a national victory tour celebrating their fight with insurgents, which was recorded by a Fox News crew and has turned the eight men into national heroes. The book is told mostly from the perspective of Billy Lynn, an 19-years old from a small town in Texas.

Ben Fountain skewers all of the people who want a piece of Bravo for their own agendas, from the Hollywood producer trying to sell their story to the owner of the Cowboys who parades them around for his rich ticketholders and the pro footballers who want to hear about what it’s like to shoot someone but scoff at the idea of serving in the military.

This is a rich, incisive, angry novel that spares no one in its cynical view of the military complex and America’s need for heroes and constant justification for war. Fountain’s writing is beautiful: descriptive, funny, poignant and (sometimes slyly) harsh on everyone who crosses his path (except for Billy). You won’t look at the military the same after reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. In addition to being entertaining, it’s an important read.

One passage that really stuck with me: Billy and a fellow Bravo are taken on a tour of the Cowboys’ equipment room, where they learn about the massive amount of gear needed for the football team to play one game. Billy says what we’re all thinking: do we devote the same amount of resources and attention to our soldiers in battle as we do for our professional athletes?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk came out in 2012, but it’s just as relevant now. While writing this, I am also watching a baseball game on TV, and I just saw three gauzy commercials (insurance, insurance and insurance) featuring soldiers and vets. Our relationship with the military is as fraught as ever. This may explain why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been made into a movie coming out this fall (on Veteran’s Day, of course). I am a little concerned about this adaptation and am worried it will become Hollywood-ized and lose its potency and edge. Ang Lee, please prove me wrong.

I listened to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on audio, which was brilliantly narrated by Oliver Wymer. With the exception of the women’s voices, he simply nailed everything else, including sound effects, Texas accents, and Lynn’s own tentative voice. I highly recommend the audio.


514ceo43n3LSo I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but I got sucked into the buzz about Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, and put a hold on it at the library. Then when it came in I grabbed it and promptly started and finished it.

Spoiler-free summary:

Grace and Jack are married and have a beautiful house in the suburbs. They are always together. They throw dinner parties with complicated menus that come out perfectly, and seem deliriously happy together. They are soon to welcome Grace’s sister Millie, who has Downs Syndrome, to live in their home with them, and Jack is over the moon about it.

Is that the whole story, or is there something perhaps more sinister going on?

I had a very hard time putting Behind Closed Doors down. I read it very quickly, which is unlike me, because once I got sucked into the story, I had to know how it ended. That doesn’t mean I liked the book, though. It is victim porn, which you can’t turn away from despite the horror of what is going on. It’s also incredibly stressful. I read this at night before bed and then had trouble calming down enough to sleep.

If you like heart-pounding books with seriously disturbed characters, then Behind Closed Doors may be for you. I was too disturbed by what was going on to enjoy it on any level. It’s not gory or violent, but upsetting on many other levels. Reading it was also further confirmation that I am really not the thriller type.

I was happy to move on from this one.

September EDIWTB Book Club: BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman

I am very excited to announce the next book for the EDIWTB book club: Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman.

Here is what it’s about (from the Politics & Prose website):

Bertrand-CourtBrafman follows her rich and insightful first novel about family and tradition, Washing the Dead, with this compelling profile of a suburban Washington D.C. neighborhood. Moving chronologically from 1993 to 2007, the novel follows the diverse residents of the eponymous cul-de-sac, tracking their daily routines, their secrets, and their sorrows in seventeen exquisitely crafted, interlocking narratives. Brafman, an award-winning filmmaker as well as a widely published writer honored with a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, employs humor, deft pacing, and artful jump-cuts to vividly and warmly evoke the lives and families of policy wonks, politicos, and housewives.

So it’s 1) domestic fiction 2) made up of interlinked stories 2) that take place in DC 4) over 14 years. What could be better?

Prospect Park Books has kindly agreed to provide 20 copies of Bertrand Court to people who participate in the EDIWTB book club. If you’d like to take part in the book club, send me an email at with the following:



Email address

The first 20 people to sign up will receive copies of the book, which comes out this month. We’ll discuss it here on the blog in a few weeks.


COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth (out 9/13) is smaller and quieter than some of her previous powerhouse novels, like Bel Canto and State of Wonder. It isn’t as meticulously researched or detailed as those other works, and it covers less ground. But it packs an emotional punch nonetheless.

163560Commonwealth is about the dissolution of two marriages – Fix and Beverly’s (2 kids) and Teresa and Bert’s (4 kids) – after Beverly and Bert meet by chance at Fix and Beverly’s youngest daughter’s christening party in Los Angeles. Bert falls instantly for Beverly, and though it doesn’t happen overnight, she eventually leaves Fix and moves with Bert and her two daughters to Virginia.

This move has deep repercussions for everyone involved, of course: Bert and Beverly, their exes, and their six children, who spend summers together in Virginia when Teresa’s kids go to visit Bert. Despite their anger at their parents, the six children coalesce into a loose band – kind of like camp bunkmates – conspiring and plotting to get what they want. Commonwealth follows the group of siblings/stepsiblings over half a century, checking in with different ones over the years and jumping back and forth between past and present to tease out their relationships with each other and with all four parents. The book is really more of a collection of detailed vignettes than a coherent, linear story. Characters get closeups for a chapter or two, and then they fade into the background of another character’s story.

There are some secrets that the six share, including the circumstances around one of their deaths (sorry, a little spoiler there!). And when these secrets eventually come out, they are forced to reevaluate their relationships both as kids and as adults.

Patchett tells the story of Commonwealth at a bit of an emotional distance. Yet its impact is an emotional one. I grew to care about the characters, and I felt that I understood them deeply by the end. Patchett is such an efficient, effective writer that a chapter or two is enough to really convey the core of the characters.

There was one passage I especially liked at the end of the book, where Franny (Beverly’s younger daughter) thinks back over all of the events that took place to bring her and her siblings to where they were in life. Chance meetings, adolescent rebellions, freak accidents, waiting too long to see a doctor… each of these events had serious implications for many people’s lives. How would their lives have been different if these events hadn’t happened, or happened in a different way? Would they have wanted things to be different?

Bel Canto remains one of my favorite books of all time, and in some ways it’s surprising that these two books were written by the same person. Commonwealth has such a different tempo and scope. But I enjoyed Commonwealth quite a bit, and recommend it to fans of Patchett or domestic fiction. You won’t be disappointed.


79030626-368-k57260I am a sucker for four-college-friends-moving-into-adulthood books, and predictably fell for Alice Adams’ debut novel Invincible Summer on vacation this summer.

Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien graduate from college in England in 1997 (Lucien is actually Sylvie’s brother and never actually went to college) and go off in different directions on the path to becoming adults. Eva, who grew up with a socialist father, goes into banking; Sylvie flails around trying to be an artist; Benedict pursues graduate studies in physics; and Lucien basically becomes a DJ/drug dealer. Adams checks in on this quartet every year or so to see how they are faring and to report on the waxing and waning of their relationships with each other.

Invincible Summer is basically Singles in a novel, told over time. Things don’t go as planned for any of these characters – relationships fail, children have health issues, stock markets collapse. But life goes on, and they ultimately find their way through the ups and the serious downs they never predicted in their early twenties, when they felt, yes, invincible. I liked how Adams weaved the characters’ relationships in and out of these plot milestones too, dropping and picking up strands in concert with the ebbs and flows of the friendships.

Eva is by far the most richly drawn character, and Lucien by far the least, but that inequity didn’t bother me.

I finished Invincible Summer over a week ago and it hasn’t stayed with me as much as I’d have expected. It’s definitely on the lighter side. But it was a great vacation read that I couldn’t wait to get back to, and I am glad I stalked this book at BEA when I had no idea what it was about and in fact thought it was written by another Alice Adams.

If you liked One Day or The Interestings… read this one. If you liked Singles… read this one. Or if you’re a sucker for the four-friends-plot too, then read this one. I bet you’ll like it.

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

1e3c0cb68882781b9a0f6a7067000e6bBefore The Fall by Noah Hawley was one of the hot books pushed at BEA last spring. (It was even featured on the BEA lanyard strings, which isn’t cheap.) Hawley is best known for creating and writing the FX series Fargo, but I know him from an earlier novel he wrote called The Good Father. I don’t think it got a lot of attention when it came out, but I really liked it and was intrigued when I came across Before The Fall.

Before The Fall is a thriller/mystery. A private plane takes off on a Sunday night from Martha’s Vineyard, headed to New York. The plane was chartered by a very wealthy family, the Batemans, who have two children aged 9 and 4. The Batemans invited another couple to fly back with them – a banker and his wife – and at the last minute an artist shows up for the ride, having been invited earlier that day by Mrs. Bateman. There are also three pilot/crew members and the Batemans’ bodyguard.

Eighteen minutes after the plane takes off, it crashes into the Atlantic. The only two survivors of the crash are the artist and the Bateman’s four year-old boy.

So what happened? Did the plane malfunction? Was it pilot error? Did someone purposely take the plane down? As the story teases out, we learn that both David Bateman and his banker friend had secrets to hide – did their shady business dealings have anything to do with it? And is the artist who he claims to be? What about the crew? Hawley follows each of these threads, flashing back in time to flesh out these characters’ stories, until he finally reveals what caused the fatal crash.

Overall: meh. Before The Fall kept my attention, and for that alone it wasn’t bad. I enjoyed the character development and found the backstories of these doomed passengers pretty interesting. But I had a bunch of problems with the book too. First, the character of the artist bothered me. He did and said things that made no sense and seemed so bizarre to me, yet no one else appeared to notice. Second, this book reads like a screenplay (for which the movie rights have probably already been sold, right?), which I’d forgive Hawley for if I hadn’t read The Good Father, which didn’t at all read like a screenplay. I expected more.

There are also little inconsistencies and impossibilities throughout the book that I found distracting. The plane took off after 10 on a Sunday night, and a Red Sox game was on, which is pretty unlikely unless it was in extra innings (it wasn’t). At one point the artist gave the boy a pen that he had had since he was a little boy, which made no sense because the artist swam to shore after the crash and his bag was not recovered, nor had he returned home since the accident. People talked on landline phones with long stretchy cords (seriously?). Just sloppy.

The ending was underwhelming too. I can think of like 5 other more satisfying explanations for the plane crash.

I’m glad I read Before The Fall because I was curious about it, and it was an engrossing vacation read. But in the end it left me cold. Proceed at your own peril.