Books I’ve Read Lately: We Were Liars, Sh*t My Dad Says, Orphan Train, Code Name Verity

Okay, on other author blogs I read (and love) the authors often post their book reviews on their blog page as well as on Goodreads.

So here is me trying to adopt that practice —

Because right after I made my list of Top Ten Best Books of 2014, I read two very short books, and wrote reviews for them.

One was the Twitter-feed-inspired memoirish-collection of fatherly vignettes, Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern (2010, memoir).

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I’d been meaning to read this book for a long time — it’s certainly one of those it books that had escaped me till now. Pithy, touching, and hilarious — I thoroughly enjoyed this short, easy read. Four stars.

The other book I read right before Christmas was We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart (Young Adult novel, 2014).

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I really wanted to love this book. The writing is excellent. The beautiful prose sucked me in right away and kept me turning pages. In the opening pages, I felt a powerful “God of Small Things” vibe and so I anticipated the major plot twist of the story almost immediately. The “surprise ending” was therefore no surprise to me, but my disappointment didn’t hinge upon that.

Here’s a one-sentence summary of the story provided by The New York Times: “A grandchild in a New England clan with a private island off Martha’s Vineyard tries to piece together the story of a catastrophic accident that clouded her memory in this intense, cunningly constructed novel with a surprise ending that shatters.”

Even though the ending didn’t surprise me, I was not “shattered” by this book. Since I refuse to spoil this story for other readers, I will simply say that the “catastrophic accident” in this story is the result of some majorly ridiculous stupidity. I don’t mean the reasoning behind the event — I mean the execution of the plan that leads to the accident — and I just could not believe that characters who I had come to think of as somewhat intelligent could suddenly no longer have brains when it came time to execute what they’d decided to do.

There are four of them involved, and all four suddenly no longer have a brain at the same exact time. Their willful stupidity meant the ending didn’t feel like a tragedy at all, didn’t move me with sympathy or regret or sadness for them, since the ending became nothing more than a grim consequence for being so blatantly foolish.

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In searching for another voice to echo the strong sense of apathy I felt by the end of this tale, I found the words of Meg Rosoff, who wrote the review for this novel (May 9, 2014) in The New York Times:

“This is an ambitious novel with an engaging voice, a clever plot and some terrific writing. In the end, however, its portrayal of a shattered family and the desperate consequences of silence and greed, feels oddly flat. I couldn’t help thinking that the terrible fate of the Sinclair family might as well be happening to a collection of fairy tale characters. Or to those preppy models in the Ralph Lauren ads. Did I care how they lived or died? Probably not as much as I should have.”

Those words rang true for me. I wanted to care deeply for these four teenagers — the “Liars” of the title — and in the end, their stupidity in executing their plan robbed me of my despair. These children had so many things handed to them — and in the end, they played right into the stereotypical moronic behavior most people expect of spoiled children of privilege.

The most heart-wrenching moment for me involved the fate of two dogs in the story. I was deeply moved by what happens to the dogs.

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My book club, Women Reading Women, chose the novel Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline (2013) as our December read.

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Okay, for anyone who hasn’t heard of this novel, let me quote the brutal piece of mostly-unheard-of American history noted on the book jacket: “Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?”

If you want more information about why these orphan trains were invented, and why hauling children out of cities into the rural countryside to be “adopted” by strangers was ever put into practice — well, you need to read the “About the Book” section after the novel, because that information isn’t woven into the story.

And just so we’re all clear: many of these children were “adopted” by people who used them as slave labor. That is why this novel’s premise is so compelling — this is child slavery we’re talking about, and the horrors abound.

However.

This story is solidly women’s fiction, and it’s designed to be warmly uplifting, hopeful, and layered with wave after wave of redemption. Anger and outrage are not to be found in these pages. Resentment and fury aren’t conducive to the constant lemons-into-lemonade message pounded into this story.

The main character of the novel, Vivian Daly, age 91 in 2011, recounts her journey as an orphan train rider in 1929. As a child, Vivian suffers terribly, experiences a number of horrors during the early years of her girlhood after losing her family, and then one day, by age ten or eleven, a decent middle-class family finally takes her in, and the rest of her girlhood, adolescence, and young adulthood is ordered, predictable, safe, and calm. At age 21, Vivian is magically reunited with her true love, a young man she met briefly as a young child, and two years later, Vivian suffers hardship again, but at the age of 91, she finds a wonderful happy ending. All is roses.

The other narrator is a seventeen-year-old Penobscot Indian in foster care. Her name is Molly. While this is a fascinating narrative choice, and I commend the author for placing a Native American child into a place of prominence in her book, I found Molly’s voice, behavior, and emotional fortitude so incredibly unbelievable as a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian who’s grown up in foster care and who has no support network whatsoever that I was glad Molly’s narrative sections were much shorter than Vivian’s. Molly’s life plays a much smaller role in this novel, and I was very grateful for that, because nothing about Molly’s character felt true to her background. She read like a sad white girl to me, not like a child of mixed heritage who’s grown up in extremely un-ideal circumstances, facing poverty, loss, and abandonment issues all her life.

But books are much more than their plots. There is also craft to consider, and the writing in this novel is very pedestrian. These paragraphs don’t zing, zip, or swerve with brilliant lines or great insights. These sentences don’t possess flavor or phonetic music as you read. There aren’t gorgeous similes and metaphors to make the reader pause with delight and read them again. This is a tale you read to learn what it felt like to be an orphan train rider, not a tale you read for stunning craft.

Which is fine. I don’t have a problem with pedestrian prose, as long as the story itself is compelling enough.

However.

The author begins the book with a Prologue, and the first sentence of the novel is, “I believe in ghosts.” We are in Vivian’s point of view (since this novel is really her story, not Molly’s). As to the ghosts, Vivian continues, “Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real to me than God. They fill the silence with their weight, dense and warm, like bread dough rising under cloth.”

The Prologue is the most beautifully written section of text in the novel. These are all powerful statements, written with literary flair (I even quoted a line using a simile — another example of how this one-page Prologue is such a departure from the rest of the novel).

Now, you would think that this novel would develop this theme of ghosts, and Vivian’s belief in ghosts, her belief in God, and why she believes ghosts fill the silence around her.

But you would be wrong.

Because there is NO FURTHER MENTION of ghosts anywhere in this novel. No further mention of God. Or anything Vivian believes concerning God and ghosts.

This Prologue reads like something an editor asked the author to add at the beginning to “help suck the reader in.” It has absolutely no bearing on anything else in the book.

So let me return to what kind of character Vivian is, if we’re not reading a novel about ghosts, God, and beliefs. Unlike the prose in this Prologue, Vivian is one of those narrators so common to women’s fiction — she is blandly insecure, silently yearning for approval and acceptance. She isn’t given to powerful surges of emotion, doesn’t suffer rage or despair. She silently frets. She longs for safety and comfort. She suffers quietly, without trying to bother anyone, and life rewards her with the comfort and safety she wants.

Molly is much the same way. Despite her background of poverty, insecurity, and the bankruptcy of any support system, Molly is not angry and broken inside, not desperately struggling and stressed about what her future will bring, not suffering the ravages of grief and a crippled self-confidence — no. She is blandly insecure, has moments in her internal monlogues when she “feels angry,” but these moments are so muted, so stifled and brief, and never expressed as anything close to real fury, that Molly easily falls under that category of female narrators who “have to stay nice” or “readers won’t like them.”

Which I understand. Writers want people to love their characters. I get it.

However. This is a book about the orphan trains.

And I would have liked for someone — anyone — in this book to have expressed some kind of outrage or horror over these orphan trains. Not all of the children put on these trains were “abandoned” — some were simply rounded up off the street and shuttled onto these trains like cattle. Separated from families who were still alive. Or given to people who beat them, starved them, abandoned them all over again. Or given to people who let them freeze to death sleeping in a barn, or outside on the ground. Or outright killed them by any other method of negligence. Young girls (and I’m sure many boys, too) were raped and suffered all forms of sexual violence.

While I don’t mind books with overpowering messages of lemons-into-lemonade storylines, I didn’t like how the novel focused on only “the success stories” of adult orphan train riders, including magical twists of fate for Vivian, her true love, and the other train riders she knew. In this book, no one’s life is destroyed by these orphan trains, because we politely look away, and remind ourselves that hardships make us stronger. The children who died young — brutalized, raped, starved, and beaten to death — are no longer alive to speak for the atrocities they suffered, and this book makes it clear that is okay. No one needs to speak for the dead, for the ones who died young and will never be able to share their stories of redemption and make lemonade out of lemons. The survivors who made it into old age were redeemed, and that is what really matters. What matters is looking on the bright side of life. The silver lining that glows around any brutality, and should remain the focus no matter what.

I recommend this novel for anyone who wants to learn about a piece of history with a large dose of sugar, positivity, and wishful thinking. This writing won’t tax you, the story is told very simply, and happy endings glow like radiant sunbeams all over the second half of this book. Magic is real. Magical twists of fate are how the world operates. Silver linings abound. And then, if you want a bit of historical information concerning the trains, there’s a very short write-up about them in an “About the Book” section at the end. So you can educate yourself, feel uplifted, and feel good about the world, knowing that anyone, anywhere, can make lemonade, no matter what lemons they’re dealt.

However. If you are a reader like me, and would prefer a novel that addresses the soul-crushing hardship of loss, the horrors of building an identity when you have no family to learn from, and the despair of poverty when you grow up with nothing — well, this book might not explore those issues deeply enough for you.

I’m glad the author chose to illuminate this piece of history though. Because I had no idea these orphan trains existed. So the book is a three-star read for that reason. I just wish someone had been horrified by these trains, because I certainly was.

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What am I reading now?

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Code Name Verity, a highly acclaimed YA novel by Elizabeth Wein.

I’m halfway through, but I’m struggling with it. This book has everything I should love — female pilots and spies in WWII — and while I knew on page one that I was dealing with the MOST UNRELIABLE narrator EVER, so many important parts of the plot are so completely incredulous that I’m baffled by everything: the plot, the narrative choices, the behavior of the Nazis in the story — everything baffles me — and in my mess of confusion trying to turn what feels like an alternate reality into what’s meant to be actual history — I can’t find a reason to care. My emotions aren’t engaged.

The narrator telling the story — whose name is Queenie right now, a code name for Verity, which is also a code name for her actual name (as yet unrevealed) — well, Queenie writes about herself in the third person, and she describes herself as rich, gorgeous, and incredibly talented, over and over again — and she also makes it clear she’s amazing for befriending a girl who’s a working-class Brit, a girl who is also the Most Amazing Pilot EVAH — and I’m very tired of how full of itself this story is. The prose reads like a jackhammer going off in my head, and being at the whim of the MOST UNRELIABLE narrator EVER means every sentence I read is like putting my brain on a cheese grater, and then shredding with savagery.

Last night, a friend urged me to keep reading this book, insisting there is “one really great line” toward the end of the book. “Come on, Melissa,” she said. “You can read a book for one line.”

So I guess that is my goal now. To discover this one great line.

What about you, dearest Thought Candy reader? Have you read Code Name Verity? Or any of these other books? What did you think of them?

5 thoughts on “Books I’ve Read Lately: We Were Liars, Sh*t My Dad Says, Orphan Train, Code Name Verity

  1. You already know my thoughts on Liars (Enjoyable but yeah the stupidity was a bit much; though knowing kids that stupid at that age personally I didn’t find it a point that dragged me out of the story), and it’s unfortunate that Orphan Train misses the chance to dig a bit deeper as the topic sounds like one with the potential for a great story.

    Code Name Verity. AKA: “Imma tell you all about how I’m a coward…but how I USED to be the Most Bestest Beautiful Amazingest Person Ever and aren’t these Nazis adorable in the way they let me just ramble on, day after day, without demanding I actually write out the confession/information they spared my life to receive? Gosh, I’m the BEST STILL!!” I don’t know if it’s worth that one line but if nothing else; I think this will be my one “I didn’t want to but I slogged through it just to say I did” book for 2015….getting it out of the way early! 😉

  2. Agree with you on all BUT ONE of them- Orphan Train was a dismal disappointment, and I put it down unable to figure out why it was so popular. We Were Liars was strangely coincidental at the end– what were they thinking? Or not. Code Name Verity, though– just give it a chance. We need more stories about girls in war. About friendship and what it means for women to love each other. I’m biased though– I truly thought this was a unique take on WW2, about personal, collateral damage done.

    Just wait…You CAN read a book for one line, if it redeems the character you’ve given up trusting. Yup, I’m the girl who can read a whole book, and if I find one, completely perfect moment that shines with truth– that’s a better book than most.

    • I’m hanging with it, Evie — and waiting to find that moment of perfect truth! I do still want to love this book. And I’ll definitely check out “To the End of the Land” by David Grossman.

  3. Pingback: » Code Name Verity: A Book I Wanted to Love

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