My first in-person convening of the Magpie book club is this Wednesday (and there’s an offshoot happening in D.C.!) — are you reading along, too? (I hope?) As a reminder, we’re reading Anjali Sachdeva’s All the Names They Used for God. Meanwhile, scroll down to see our book club pick for next month! But first, I thought I’d share a couple of lines of inquiry I’ve been noodling over as possible starting points for our discussion; please share your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll read them (as I always do, voraciously), and weave them into our convo!
Book Club Discussion Questions.
How does Sachdeva portray the natural world in her stories — and why? I’m thinking specifically about Robert and Terri in “Logging Lake,” when they venture off to hike, or “The World by Night,” where Sadie ventures out of her house and repels into a cave, or the sea in “Robert and the Mermaid.” Is nature a benevolent force? An enemy? Why do the characters seem drawn into the earth, into nature, in so many of the stories?
Similarly — what are we to make of science/technology in these stories? Think about the glass lung, when a supposed discovery leads to an enormous explosion that injures and kills many, and the story about the septuplets as a miracle of science. What are we to make of the relationship between man and science?
Many of Sachdeva’s stories have a touch of the mystical or magical to them — the mermaid, the discovery of treasure in “Glass-Lung,” the supernatural powers the girls exert over their husbands’ minds in “All the Names for God.” How did you interpret those stories? How did they make you feel as a reader? Did you willingly suspend belief, or did you find yourself straining to read them as a fable or allegory? Are they fables?
One Magpie told me that she found these stories “unrelatable.” Do you agree? Why? Do you think that “unrelatability” is strategic on Sachdeva’s part? (I.e., could she have gotten her points across using less fabular/dream-like stories and anchoring them in more true-to-life narratives?)
There are several characters across the stories that suffer physical challenges — the partial blindness of Sadie, the glass lung (and therefore enforced muteness), the individuals who have been “forked,” the physically compromised septuplets. Why do you think she chose to feature so many characters with disablements and ailments? What did their presence establish?
Do you think the stories were ordered in a specific way for a reason?
What did you make of the story titled “All the Names for God”? Why did this story share the title of the collection? How did it make you read the other stories?
Why do you think Sachdeva’s stories span so many different timeframes and so many different cultures? Why would she skip around so much, and what is the effect on you as a reader?
Did any of the stories scare you, or leave you on edge? Why? Which ones?
Book Review of Anjali Sachdeva’s All the Names They Used for God.
Five stars. This book blew my mind. While it was written as a series of short stories, they all hung together so cohesively, I wondered whether Sachdeva conceived of the series as a whole — does your mind not ache at the expansive scope and imaginative magnitude of such an oeuvre? Each story points us squarely in the face of the inscrutable forces of nature, science, history, and even the mystical/supernatural that shape our lives and leave us wondering, “But why?” The opening story leaves us staring into pitch blackness; we’ve dug deep in search of something (truth? human connection? peace?) alongside Sadie, an ocularly-challenged woman who has been abandoned by her husband in the Ozarks, only to discover that the further we go, the more difficult it is to discern the markers of reality. At some point, Sadie loses track of the little bits of ribbon she used to mark her path, and we, like her, are left groping through the dark, feeling our way, until the enigmatic ending, when we aren’t sure whether Sadie is hearing the sought-after voices of human company or the babbling of a brook. Sachdeva leaves us here, flailing into the darkness. Many of the stories evoke a similar sensation; we join a ragtag group of characters in marveling over, reacting to, and attempting to make sense of the curiosities of life, only to discover that many of those curiosities — whether at the behest of nature or science — are ultimately unpredictable and inscrutable. (What was the mermaid there for? She didn’t return Robert’s affections; rather, she turns her gaze to the shark. What does Robert learn from that? Why is it that the father in the Glass Lung story happened to survive that accident of science — what did it mean? Why was he then able to take that impairment and use it to his benefit, to dig up treasure, only to find that the treasure was ultimately worthless?) There is a sense of predestination in many of the stories — life happens to people, and the forces at play behind the scenes are neither malevolent or compassionate; they’re maddeningly impassive. It’s interesting to see how these characters react in the face of such apathetic sweeps of fate: many of them seem to accept their lots in life, but not without small acts of revenge. Gina, for example, robs her Montana father and escapes with Michael, only to be abandoned somewhere in Florida. But rather than becoming indignant or defeated, Gina seems cool and complacent with her fate, though she does manage to arrest her errant beau at his wedding day. Abike and Promise turn the tables on their captors in The Names They Used for God by learning how to hypnotize the men around them. And even Sadie looks for an escape, a change, after her husband leaves her. But, all in, many of these characters seem to be swiping wildly, groping, flailing after meaning, which proves ultimately unattainable. And so we end the collection just as we started it: watching Del literally disintegrate into nothing: “We will be just a void in the cosmos, a dark place in the sky where there was once starlight.”
All in, a beautifully crafted, eccentric, thought-provoking (if slightly depressing) departure from a lot of the books I’ve read recently. I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Book Review of Gucci Mane’s The Autobiography of Gucci Mane.
Three and a half stars. I’m breaking my “only round numbers” rule for this one because it’s truly better than a three but not strong enough for a four. I think that because Roxane Gay raved about this book, I kept expecting something to blow my mind, and my expectations were soaring. Instead, I found the writing serviceable and the self-reflection poignant but not particularly groundbreaking. That said, I think it was an important addition to my personal canon, in that it was so completely out of the realm of books I’ve read in the past, and about a subgenre and subculture of which I knew little — trap music from Atlanta, Georgia. I was struck by Gucci, who is refreshingly honest in a way that makes you feel that the entire story of his life — as he tells it — must be true. I was inspired by his business-mindedness; he has a natural knack for strategy, for reading people, for reading situations, and I don’t know if I’ve ever read the words of someone with more drive or ambition. And even if I tried to listen to his music at least a dozen times while reading the book, only to decide it wasn’t for me, I respect it — in it, he talks earnestly about the trying, dark lifestyle he led for many years, selling drugs and living life in the fast lane. And some of his lyrics are outlandishly clever, wildly imaginative–poetic, even, in a seriously non-schmaltzy way. But most of all, many of his songs are gut-wrenchingly honest portrayals of his world, their gritty and raw sound and aggressive lyrics seeming to arise organically from his very tough life.
One big problem I had with the book was the shuttling between Gucci’s voice and that of his ghost writer / publisher / editor / etc. At certain points in the book, the narrative picks up what I assume to be Gucci’s own patois: he says his uncle “rode truck”; admits: “I really just wanted to get me some money”; and uses expressions like “same sh*%, different toilet.” Then there are jarring departures like this: “Even after the railroads were destroyed during the Civil War, Atlanta’s identity as a mecca of transport lived on. The rails were replaced by a web of interstate highways.” It’s poor editing, and it’s distracting. I can almost see someone at the publishing house urgently arguing that the book needs more foregrounding in Atlanta’s history — and Gucci shrugging it off as inauthentic to his voice — and the resolution becoming an awkward patching in of some third party history written by a copywriter. That kind of messiness drives me crazy. I’d rather have it all be a fairly consistent rendering of Gucci’s voice, or something that more clearly demarcates between his telling of his story and some sort of post-production editing.
Finally, the book enabled me to solve a puzzle that has long been plaguing me: do you know how on a lot of rap tracks, you’ll hear a sound byte saying: “Mike Will music”? I never knew what this was — and now I do: it’s the producer’s tag-line on mix tapes he’s produced, sort of a claiming/tagging of the song as his own. Mhm.
Book Review of Julia Sonnenborn’s By the Book.
Three stars. This book had all the hallmarks of being a private smash hit for me — it’s a retelling of my favorite Austen book, Persuasion, but one in which the protagonist, Anne, is an English professor. DING DING DING. Winner written all over it. My issue, though, is that I found Sonnenborn’s version of Anne insufferable, weak, and even a little dim. Ugh. How could she do such a thing to my Anne?! Still, the book was a super-fast read and not without its intrigue; a solid late-night-bed-wine read. (I also thought some of the repartee rather creative.)
Currently Reading: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.
I’m very impressed with the writing in this so far, which is apparently a fictionalization of Laura Bush’s life? It reads like a memoir, and the intricacy of detail and piquancy of emotion in it are startling.
Next on Deck for Magpie Book Club: Florida by Lauren Groff.
I was bowled over by Lauren Groff’s first book, Fate and Furies, so I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of her new new, Florida. (Fate and Furies grew on me with time — I was ambivalent about it at first but have thought back on it dozens of times with appreciation and respect.) This is sure to be a great book club pick if it’s anything like the dense and brilliant work of her first triumph.
Also on My Bookshelf…
+The Alice Network. (Been saying this for weeks, but…I really want to!) I mean, how can I not?: “A female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947 are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.”
+Something in the Water — supposed to be the next Girl on a Train / Gone Girl / Couple Next Door situation, AND a Reese Witherspoon pick.
What about you? What are you reading? Recommendations?!
P.S. I’m wearing this to book club. It’s so me — bows at the shoulder, floral, midi-length. Yes yes yes yes yes yes.
P.P.S. I can’t believe how heavily discounted these statement makers are.