Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Title: Salt Houses
Author: Hala Alyan
Genre: Fiction

Rating: “I liked it” — ~3.5/5

Goodreads

I picked this up because it’s the selection of a local book club (that I will probably not be able to attend, but ~whatever~). I honestly wasn’t expecting much since many “book club reads” are not necessarily my cup of tea, and when they cover weighty issues can sometimes turn into easily digestible platitudes. With this one, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Salt Houses follows a Palestinian family over several decades and locations, as they are repeatedly displaced through war and conflict. Although they are fairly well-off–something that allows them relative safety and comfort–of course loss is a major part of their story.

I thought the book did its thing well. However, sometimes the “intergenerational story” falters from being packed with too many characters, a timeline that is too stretched. While I thought the timeline on this one was fine, I think it did suffer from having too many characters. I have a pretty good memory and I read it in under a week, and I was still struggling to remember who was from which generation, whose kid was whose, etc. Characters I came to care about were not phased out so much as just dropped unceremoniously only to be mentioned in passing, once, hundreds of pages later. The overabundance of characters was easily the biggest drawback of the book, and I think the intergenerational saga could have still played out to good effect with a smaller cast.

Despite that, the book was quite touching and moving in parts. Other reviewers have described the writing in glowing terms; while I personally would not describe it that way, I think that it the writing did strike the right chord throughout, which can be difficult to do in a book that deals with such issues. It didn’t come off as heavy-handed or overwrought. I’d recommend it to those who are interested in a sprawling family drama that also deals with the Israel/Palestine conflict.

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Things have been pretty quiet around here lately. I started a full time job and working so many hours has been pretty difficult for me. I’ve worked longer hours than this before, but mostly from the comfort of my home, and knowing it was temporary (even if it did last for years). There are days I forget what it feels like to love reading. I still read, probably more than “most,” but not as much as I’m used to. I’m sitting at about 30 books read this year so far, so not too shabby, but the new demands on my time certainly make it harder, and the prospect of writing reviews seems less fun/satisfying/whatever. It’s kind of a bummer :[

As far as my “challenge” this year to read through the Tournament of Books brackets, I’ve been having fairly good success, having completed 1/3 of the 18. I think finishing this goal is possible…not sure how likely it is, though.

My reading interests have shifted slightly as well. Now that I’m reading less, I really want to be improving the quality of what I read, and make sure I’m getting the most out of it. To that end, I read the first part of The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, and I’m starting on How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. I still read out loud to Peter whenever we have a chance, which is sadly not as often as it should be due to our conflicting work schedules…although I foresee that changing soon :3

Anyway, still kicking, although not doing much of that kicking on the blog. Trying to think of some easy ways to reinvigorate things over here…

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Title: Arcadia
Author: Lauren Groff
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads

Why I picked it up: I read Groff’s Fates and Furies and liked it a lot; then read her short story collection Delicate Edible Birds and liked that one a lot as well. I’d been meaning to get around to this one eventually and when I had an opportunity to pick it up for free after a library sale, I snatched it up 🙂

What it’s about: A hippie commune. A coming of age. Family. It follows the story of one character, Bit, from birth to middle age.

What I liked: It reminded me a lot of Fates and Furies, in themes, characters, tone, and mood, and as I’ve stated I liked that book a lot. I think it dealt with its topics in an evenhanded way, in that the questions raised (individuality vs community, nature vs nurture, etc) can be argued either way based on the text. I was planning to pass this one on when I was done because I’m trying to reduce my bookshelf in anticipation of moving eventually, but I think I’ll be holding on to it because it seems like one I’ll want to revisit eventually.

What I didn’t like: There wasn’t a whole lot I didn’t like. I will say that it kind of reminds me of a Coldplay song in that it can seem both happy and super depressing at the same time, and that it’s technically good but slightly pretentious.

Overall / recommended: I enjoyed reading this one although, like a Coldplay song, it can put you in a weird funk. But, of course, that’s a testament to the emotional power of Groff’s writing. It touches on so many topics and, although sometimes I wish it had gone deeper into some of them, it does what it does in a very satisfying way.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Title: The Idiot
Author: Elif Batuman
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 5 / 5

Goodreads

I picked this up for the Tournament of Books; it’s one of three “campus novels” that may earn a spot in the brackets. Even though I haven’t read the others, I’m kind of hoping this one will win.

 

The story is told in the first person by Selin, a freshman at Harvard and the daughter of immigrants. It’s 1995 and email is this cool new thing that you can only access from certain computers. What is the “story”? There isn’t one, so much. It’s one of those books that gets accused of not having a plot. I never hold plotlessness against books if there are other things to keep my interest, and in this case there’s definitely enough to like.

This book was hilarious. I was surprised and not expecting it. Books rarely make me laugh, but this one kept me chucking the whole way through. And, it’s smart. It’s one of those books where “nothing happens,” but really, so much is happening, and it just ends up representing life better than neat endings or even tidy stories. I found one part of it to drag, but for other readers, this section was their favorite bit; and, really, if it was dragging along for me, it definitely was for the narrator too. Sometimes I like it when authors do things like that, sometimes I don’t; overall, I think it worked really well in this book.

Not everyone is going to like this one, but some people (like me) are going to love it. It’s kind of made me want to study literature, read more about how it works, get a strong background in “the canon” or whatever. I love any book that makes me so curious.

Other reviewers’ thoughts that I enjoyed:
“The Baggy Monster,” by Evan Kindley
“No Fool,” by Molly Fischer