Book Club Books Read in 2008

I joined a book club in 2008, in part to force me to read more fiction, and to think about what I read more. In spite of how much I read — well, maybe because I read so much — I don't think about what I read as much as I would like to. Knowing I'm going to have to talk intelligently about the books forces me to read more mindfully, which improves all my reading.

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult is a book about a girl, Anna, who is born to provide her sister Kate with bone marrow. Kate gets better but then gets sick again, over and over, and Anna keeps getting tapped for more and more biological matter. I quite enjoyed the book, I think (it was a while ago, but I know I didn't hate it, except the ending which was egregiously heart-rending), and there was plenty to talk about: the ethics of designer babies, issues of identity and responsibility to family, and a bizarre subplot about a lawyer with an anachronistically shameful disorder of his own. Pretty good but don't run out and read it or anything.

The Girls by Lori Larsen is a book about conjoined twins living in a small town near London, Ontario. This is a beautifully crafted book, not just about the sisters but about life in small-town Canada. I found the characters so compelling and real that I kept feeling I could Google them to find out their ultimate fate. The one weird thing is that although the girls in the book are almost my exact contemporaries I kept feeling the book was set in the fifties or sixties. I don't know if that was intentional on the part of the author, to evoke the nostalgia of small-town life or of the cloistered nature of the girls' lives, or not, but it quite jarring when one of the sisters started looking things up on the Internet herself. Other than that I really enjoyed this book.

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs is about a New York woman who owns a knitting store and has a teenage daughter and meets up with an old friend and, I dunno, hilarity ensues. As you might guess I wasn't overwhelmed with love for this book. It was fluffy like a ball of mohair and seemed contrived.

Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant is a book about the various inhabitants of a dying town on the Massachusetts coast. It's gloomy reading but compelling. The characters are well-drawn and the stories are interesting and credible. A worthwhile read.

The Memory-Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards is about a woman who, upon being asked to take a doctor's baby daughter, born with Down syndrome, to an institution, instead kidnaps the daughter and takes her to live in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile the doctor tells his wife that the baby died and they go on to have a messed-up marriage and never quite find happiness. A bunch of things happen and everyone lives happily ever after, more or less.

This was another good book which didn't blow me away. It seemed quite contrived and book clubbish, with lots of Talking Points and Dramatic Turns.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Yes, we read Ender's Game in book club. Weird! About half of the book club members don't read science fiction, so it was an interesting meeting. Anyway, so this is another book about a kid who is born for a special purpose, this time to be the child genius who saves mankind by having the a unique combination of video gaming skillz and innocence required to defeat an alien species which threatens mankind. You have to suspend your disbelief pretty high over a couple of things in this book, but if you give yourself over to Card you're rewarded with a good yarn and some interesting things to think over, like the ethics of using children to fight wars, and the similarity between modern warfare and video games. Also the techniques of military training, the value of adding in bits to a book which don't really make sense in that book but pave the way for a sequal, preemptive war, genocide, whether we could recognize the "humanity" in alien species, and what form those species might take, collective intelligence versus individual minds and the inability to truly know another person. Lots to talk about.

I actually read Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett as a companion piece to this (according to Blake there is a whole subgenre of "video games that turn out to be real" SF out there). They're quite different books but they're neck and neck in terms of quality of characterization and depth of insight, with Pratchett coming out ahead with Humour over Earnestness.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is my big winner this year, in terms of fiction. This book ripped me up. The writing is gorgeous and the characters are instantly compelling, but the plot is gruelling and horrifying. I wept for the women in this book, and at the same time I learned so much about Kabul and the recent history of Afghanistan. I sent my mother a copy of this book and she read it in two days. Fantastic book.


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