A while back, my roommates and I decided to start a book club together. I don’t remember who or what prompted it, but the rules were simple: each person picks a book, we draw the titles out of a jar, and then after about a month or so we’ll go out to dinner and discuss it.
The four of us have somewhat similar tastes in what we like to read: fiction, YA, fantasy, fun tropes, magic. But we chose books new to all of us and each pick could vary wildly in how much others like it. Sometimes we’ll choose books from our TBR lists, other’s recommendations, or if we heard enough good things about it. It’s an interesting mix, and the books definitely felt like a grab-bag of miscellany, but that’s what makes our book club fun. Reading Round 2 has been pretty spaced out, given the global pandemic that melted our ability to focus on anything. But we made it, so here are my thoughts.
We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
Henry Denton doesn’t live a great life; he and his college drop-out older brother live with their single mother, a struggling waitress whose dreams were put on hold when their father left. He’s no longer on speaking terms with his best friend. His on-again-off-again hook-up is also the homophobic school bully. And he’s never recovered from his boyfriend’s suicide a year ago. On top of that, Henry gets abducted by aliens somewhat frequently So when the aliens tell him the world is ending in 144 days, and Henry alone has the power to stop it by pushing a literal big red button, he’s not sure he wants to. Why not just let everything disappear into oblivion? Including his brother’s expected baby, the new boy in school, and grandmother who disappears to Alzheimer’s a little bit more everyday. Is the world worth saving?
I wouldn’t have chosen this book to read on my own, but that’s the joy of a book club. I enjoyed it by the time I finished reading it, and I think it shows a character’s complete arc in a way many works of literature—YA or not— lack. When I started reading We Are the Ants I found Henry absolutely insufferable, an obnoxious and self-pitying teenage boy. But as I read more, I understood that’s partially the point. Hutchinson really understands the angst of a teenager, but also I understood what Henry was going through as it became more obvious he wasn’t just angsty, he was traumatized and depressed. By now it’s been almost a year since I read the book, but I remember our group discussing it and really getting more of an understanding on how it feels when life is stacked against you and the temptation of when you’re offered a way out. Henry’s journey through despair, hope, and ultimately finding help definitely stayed with me.
Would I have finished this book outside book club? Finished it, yes. Picked it out on my own? No. And I’m glad I found it in the end.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin
This collection of short stories from Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin is a great taste tester of the author’s skills and abilities. From the Jemisin’s introduction, “The stories contained in this volume are more than just tales in themselves; they are also a chronicle of my development as a writer and as an activist.” They include the early layouts for some of her later novels, The City We Became and The Fifth Season, and stand-alone stories exploring the magic of food, storytelling, dangerous bargains, alien colonization, and the afterlife of the gods. Insightful and mystical, the collection is an adventure in craft, world building, and sci-fi fantasy.
This was my pick, I love short story collections for their variety and insight into an author’s writing. And while I’ve been meaning to read Jemisin’s trilogies, I figured my goldfish attention span could focus better on her anthology better. I was right, too. All of the short stories spanned across genres and left me thinking about their plot and the craft of short fiction. It was a tight collection and I felt each story made sense and fit with the others. I don’t remember them all, but my highlights: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” “The Effluent Engine,” “The Storyteller’s Replacement,” and “Walking Awake,” The stories haunted me, made me think, scared me, and stuck with me a year later.
Would I have finished this book outside book club? Yes, I think it’s a great example of sci-fi fantasy writing, craft, and why I should read more N.K. Jemisin as soon as possible.
Midnight Sun by Stephanie Meyer
It’s the iconic, infamous plot of Twilight. But told from Edward’s point of view.
We all chose this book for the same reasons a lot of America did: nostalgia, laughs, and to hate-read what we once loved. Unfortunately, it was none of those things, it was just bad. By the end of the book, I was skimming anything that wasn’t dialogue and still got 80 percent of the story. I tell anyone who wants to read this book “as a joke” that there isn’t even any joke. It’s just bad.
Would I have finished this book outside book club? God no. I wanted to quit as soon as I realized it wasn’t going to get any better, but my roommates wouldn’t let me. The downside of starting a book club with the people who know where you live.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
A collection of true stories from acclaimed neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks, each one exploring a different extraordinary case from his files. From the preface he writes about how Hippocrates introduced the case history, the clinical retelling of events following a patient. Sacks, however says, “To restore the human subject at the centre––the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject––we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what’…” The following stories do just that, retelling the humanity he sees in each patient.
Based off the introduction alone, I was immediately worried that the book would be too technical and I’d lose whatever Sacks was trying to talk about. The book ended up being a mix of readable stories and clinical case studies, the anecdotes mostly understandable if you were reading for the big picture. Some of the finer details got lost in psychology jargon (I could have used a few more parentheticals) but by the end of the story you knew what the doctor was getting at: these are extraordinary cases, but more importantly these are people first. The book originally came out in 1985, and while I’m sure it was revolutionary for its time, there were some parts that felt dated given what we know nearly forty years later. But I recognize Sack’s contribution to psychology and making it accessible for general audiences, which I think is a large part of how we’re able to have the conversations we hold today.
Would I have finished this book outside book club? I definitely wouldn’t have picked it up on my own, and I don’t know if I would have finished it. It probably would have ended up half-read on my bookshelf and then donated when I needed more room.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks is available now: Indiebound.org.