None of the books I read for January’s three book clubs offered a character I could embrace — all of them were a bit self-absorbed. But a can’t-miss plot within “The Plot” kept me engaged in at least one of the selections. Two excellent bonus books, one an author’s debut and the other from an award-winning writer, lifted my month of reading.
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
What I thought • When a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself to Jake Finch Bonner, he jumps on it. An author whose star has dimmed and faded, Bonner is teaching in a third-rate MFA program when one of his students of him arrogantly boasts about his idea for a book with a plot that he ca n’t miss. It’s guaranteed to be a smashing success, they both agree.
A few years later, Jake learns that the student has died without writing that book. It would be a shame to let the can’t-miss plot go to his serious side, and just as his former student predicted, the book Jake writes becomes a No. 1 bestseller with Steven Spielberg signing on to direct the movie. Basking in the glory but always secretly dreading being found out, Jake starts receiving messages calling him a thief. Thoughts of being labeled a fraud begin to haunt his every waking minute.
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It took a bit for this book to build, but once it took off, I found it gripping and well-paced.
At book club • Most members agreed the book started slow (and the main character was whiny, tiresome and self-absorbed), and a few figured out where the book was headed about midway through. But mostly, it was an enjoyable read. One member has already chosen it to discuss her in another one of her book clubs.
Even more enjoyable? The potluck brunch we shared with egg cups, blueberry pecan baked oatmeal, focaccia, fruit salad, bloody marys and more.
Korelitz’s previous novel, “You Should Have Known,” was made into a limited series — “The Undoing” on HBO. “The Plot” is headed to the screen as well. Mahershala Ali will star and executive produce the eight-episode limited series for Hulu. Her next book, “The Latecomer,” comes out in May.
‘Lily and the Octopus’
By Steven Rowley
What I thought • When I saw this book was described as having “the magical spirit” of “The Life of Pi,” I groaned. Several people recommended “The Life of Pi” to me, but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters (although I did enjoy the movie).
Anyone who has had a pet knows how fiercely and quickly they can wedge themselves into your heart. The title character, Lily, is a sweet, aging dachshund, beloved by her not-so-lovable owner, Ted. The “Octopus” is a tumor growing on the side of Lily’s head.
Not only is Ted coming to terms with the imminent loss of his dog, he is also reeling from a bad breakup with his boyfriend.
I loved Ted and Lily’s origin story. “You, in fact, chose me,” Ted tells Lily. I also adored how Lily “spoke” to Ted in excited exclamations: “WHAT! IS! ESTE! CLOUD! YOU’RE! LICKING! I! SEES IT! TO! LICK! THINGS!”
What I had a hard time with was the magical realism. At times the book seemed more like a bad LSD trip. I usually don’t mind a good, mushy dog story (even though I am more of a cat person). BUT! ESTE! ONE! JUST! DIDN’T! HIT! THE! MARK!
At book club • The host admitted to starting the book in December and considered changing her selection after reading only a few chapters. One member said, “I enjoyed the book until it got weird.” And that about summed it up. Though most book club members thought Ted’s conversations with his dog were cute, the author took the octopus theme way too far.
‘Off the Reservation: Stories I Almost Took to the Grave and Probably Should Have’
By Michael Rossi
What I thought • I have never been a fan of memoirs (“Uneducated” by Tara Westover is one of the few exceptions), and Rossi’s confessional, self-absorbed book didn’t change my mind.
Rossi’s mother abandons him early in life, and his father dies when he is very young. Rossi, who was born in New York, moves to St. Louis to live with relatives after the death of his father. He is sadly shuffled from one mostly uncaring relative to the next, with only his sister of him, Amy, as consistency. Not surprisingly, he grows up to be a messed-up adult.
It was Rossi’s Metro East connection that led the host to select this book, published in 2015. Some of Rossi’s connections are to Edwardsville and nearby communities, and that is one thing that drew me into the story, trying to piece together some of the places (and people) he referenced — Boomerangs in Collinsville, Fireside in Maryville and a “restaurant named after his favorite drink” in Edwardsville.
I could have done with fewer scenes of him taking drugs and sleeping around because it got repetitive, but I give him some points for honesty. He does n’t attempt to hide any of his many sins from him.
At book club • All of us agreed this book was not well-written (it was self-published), but nevertheless we were all drawn into his can’t-look-away train wreck of a life. One member called the author “very narcissistic,” which was n’t surprising with his traumatic childhood, she said. It felt like he just wanted to brag about how awful he was, said another member.
The memoir wasn’t written as a mystery, but being from the area where many of the author’s escapades took place brought out the inner-sleuth in a few members.
19 Crimes Snoop Dogg Cali Red (a surprisingly good wine) was a perfect accompaniment to the discussion.
• Set during the early days of the Reconstruction era, the Civil War is over, and enslaved people have been freed. But Blacks have no money and no place to live, and their former owners and most people who live in the town of Old Ox, Georgia, still cling to past beliefs. In his debut novel of his, “The Sweetness of Water,” Nathan Harris creates an absorbing story that captures the tension of that time period. Black brothers Prentiss and Landry are living in the woods when they meet George, a white man who has just learned of the death of his only son from him, a Confederate soldier. George forms a friendship with his brothers and offers to pay them a fair wage to help farm his land. Those actions ignite a town already simmering with resentment. Intertwined into the story is George’s relationship with his wife, Isabella, each of them suffering, without knowing how to support the other in grief. Another dramatic subplot involves a secret relationship between two former Confederate soldiers. I look forward to reading more from Harris, who is only 29 years old.
Among other accolades for this book, Harris was the recipient of the University of Oregon’s Kidd Prize, which is judged by Anthony Doerr, and that leads me to my next book.
• Five points of view, spanning eight centuries, from the walls of Constantinople to the inside of an interstellar spaceship. Not to mention a story within a story — an ancient comic novel that connects the five characters and gives all of them hope. Also, this book is 626 pages. But I assure you, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is worth it.
Doerr masterfully weaves the past, present and future together in this beautifully written book. “By age seventeen he’d convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite, captive to the dictates of consumption. But as I have [Seymour] reconstructs Zeno’s translation, he realizes that the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”