The Week in Books #72

10/12 ✅

The week in books. I got through two this week, leaving just two on this pile. It has been beautiful outside so I’ve spent as much time as I can manage sitting on the balcony and reading, can’t complain! This week I will be getting my covid vaccine so I’m hoping things start to return to normal and we can get back to more socializing, but I’m also tempted to remain a book nerd hermit forever now. Choices, choices.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I’m not totally sure I understand why Franzen is such a beloved author. This novel is incredibly smart and readable but the characters were all white, privileged and AWFUL. Patty has got to be one of my most hated literary characters ever. She is unpleasant, sarcastic, self-serving and just plain unlikeable. All of her dialogue made me so angry. She treats her husband Walter like crap. Walter treats their son Joey like crap. Joey treats his girlfriend Connie like crap and she was unrealistically docile and subservient to him the whole time. Patty and Walter’s daughter Jessica was a ghost of a person, barely involved in the story at all. Richard was the one meant to be the asshole but, surprisingly, I found him the most likeable. There are many intelligent arguments for environmental conservation (reducing the population, protecting endangered bird species, etc) but the main thread to this novel is everything to do with Walter and Patty’s marriage and given how intolerable I found Patty it was hard to really root for them. Franzen is a very talented writer but I’m afraid I don’t get why he is hyped so much over other writers that I think have written far more engaging and memorable novels.

Patty and Walter Berglund were the pioneers of old St. Paul―the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant garde of the Whole Foods generation. But now, in the new millennium, they have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter, once an environmental lawyer, taken a job working with Big Coal? Most startling of all, why has Patty, the perfect neighbor, turned into the local Fury?

Patty and Walter Berglund are indelible characters, and their mistakes and joys, as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, have become touchstones of contemporary American reality.


2. The Incarnations by Susan Barker. Wow. I was surprised by how much I loved this book. Most of the time I buy specific books I have had recommended or seen online and am interested in, and sometimes I just come across one that looks interesting and I grab it. This was one I bought at Value Village, I think, because the blurb looked cool and I’m really glad I gave it a shot. Wang is a taxi driver that starts receiving letters telling him about his past lives. There are 4 stories of his previous incarnations and how they intertwine with those of the writer, and they are magical, filled with ancient Chinese history and folklore, and super interesting. There is also an engaging narrative happening in the present day. No part of this novel dragged and I devoured it as quickly as possible. Very, very good.

Hailed by The New York Times for its “wildly ambitious…dazzling use of language” and “mesmerizing storytelling,” The Incarnations is a “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over a century. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, literary classics, and the notion of reincarnation, this is a taut and gripping novel that reveals the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.


I’m getting close to the end of this stack so here are the upcoming ones to drool over…

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