Here are four books I read to myself and two I read to my daughter Lydia in the past month.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Nine people check into a ten-day wellness retreat in rural Australia. Three of them are a family, two others are a couple, but otherwise they’ve never met before. Each of them has some conscious reasons for being there and some buried issues that are blocking their happiness.
Masha, the retreat director, is certain that she can guide all these people to be reborn as healthier, stronger, more effective human beings, just as she herself was reborn ten years earlier. She’s enjoyed success with previous retreat groups, but this time she and her faithful assistants Yao and Delilah are going to implement a new protocol that will really shake up the lives of their guests.
It’s not what anyone expected . . . and it goes wrong . . . but not as wrong as you think! This is a very twisty novel of twelve well-written characters who are pulled repeatedly into different perspectives on their lives and each other.
The Moonball by Ursula Moray Williams
My partner Daniel picked up this children’s novel, originally published in 1958, at a used-book sale when he was a kid. We’ve never seen another copy. This odd little book is sort of science fiction, sort of ordinary British children’s story. What makes it special is the vivid narration of how things feel–both the children’s interactions with the moonball and their experiences of weather and time.
Kids are playing cricket on the village green as a thunderstorm builds, sending down rain so suddenly that they run into the nearest shop. When they return to the green, they find what they think at first is a drowned hedgehog, but it has no face or paws, but it feels alive somehow, and when the mean boy throws it they see that it sinks slowly like a bubble and chooses to land in William’s hands. He calls it a moonball.
What is it? Where did it come from, and why? The local professor wants to take it to the British Museum for study, but can they trust him? The moonball seems to want to be with the children, to love them like a pet–and it gets into mischief, eating things, making messes, singing in church, changing size and appearance. . . .
The ending is kind of vague and unsatisfying, but Lydia and I both enjoyed this book. One of my favorite things about it is the empathetic depiction of Freddie, a boy whose disrupted family leaves him prone to getting into trouble, as he just wants to feel loved and help the group–a realistic juvenile delinquent who narrowly escapes terrible consequences in a way that’s not too scary for young readers.
The Secret Sister by Brenda Novak
Maisey is returning to the South Carolina island where she was raised by a rich, domineering mother and a sad, gentle father who died when she was ten. She’s been estranged from her mother for good reasons, but now she’s coming back to help her brother, a drug addict who attempted suicide. She’s also recovering from divorce and struggling with writer’s block. Immediately running into an ex-not-quite-boyfriend doesn’t help her relax. When a hidden box of old photographs implies that Maisey once had an older sister, she can’t resist investigating, despite her mother’s and brother’s panicked resistance. Which one of them killed her sister, and which one is covering for the other, and is Maisey in danger?
I probably would have quit this book within the first two chapters if I hadn’t been on a train with no other books in my carry-on bag! The narration and dialogue just spell things out so much that it’s annoying, like this:
He shot her a look that acknowledged the tension any reference to Josephine created. “The same. She might not act like it, but she’s excited to have you home. She’s had a room in the east wing prepared for you.”
The guest wing? The significance of that didn’t escape Maisey. If there’d been any doubt that she was to be treated with cool disdain until she’d done her penance, this proved it.
But I’m glad I kept reading, because the plot turned out to be competently structured and satisfying, with a conclusion I couldn’t predict until the clues were really coming together. Also, for a book with “Which man will she choose?” as a central issue, this one was better than many, making both men seem like real people and not punishing Maisey for enjoying sex.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Now, this is a good book to read all in one day while traveling: The story is simultaneously realistic and very interesting, the narration and dialogue flow well and tell you just enough without spelling out everyone’s interpretation of everything, and there’s a lot of spot-on commentary about Generation X parenting experiences mixed with multiple perspectives on how our society deals with the existence of pedophiles.
Sarah holds academic degrees in feminist studies but ended up working as a barista and then becoming a stay-at-home mom, wincingly trying to make conversation with the “normal” moms at the playground. Todd was a handsome football player who always said he’d be happy as a stay-at-home dad, yet now that he’s doing it, everyone expects him to pass the bar exam; he’s trying to make himself study for his third try, but he keeps getting distracted watching preteens skateboarding. His wife, Kathy, loves being a documentary filmmaker but wishes Todd would take a turn earning money so she could spend more time with their son and have another baby. Sarah’s husband, Richard, was doing a websearch for work–really!–when he stumbled upon a site that promises a totally different lifestyle he’d love to pursue.
Meanwhile, Ronnie is back in town after serving jail time for molesting little girls, and Larry just can’t stand it–his fear for his own sons’ safety morphs into a campaign of violent harassment against Ronnie and his elderly mother, at the same time as Larry is recruiting Todd into his football team. Meanwhile, Sarah and Todd and their respective three-year-olds meet at the playground and start spending a lot of time together. It all adds up to a complicated tangle of adult lives, with each of the adults being a complex real person.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
Lydia has been interested in robots since she was just a year old, so I eagerly picked up this well-illustrated novel about Roz, a robot whose crate falls off a ship and washes up on an island with no human inhabitants. Roz learns to speak the animal language, but the animals see her as a monster at first. When she accidentally falls on a nest, crushing the adult geese and all but one egg, she decides to adopt the surviving gosling and raise him as her own. Gradually, Roz becomes an accepted member of the island ecosystem and helps the animals survive an unusually harsh winter . . . but then some other robots arrive to capture Roz and bring her back to the manufacturer.
It’s a lot of fun watching Roz’s learning algorithms adapt to a situation her programmers never expected her to encounter! Sometimes she knows useful things the animals don’t, but at other times she’s hilariously clueless. Together, they ingeniously solve problems like fixing Roz’s broken foot.
Although written for kids, this book has some deep and difficult ideas in it. We didn’t get very far past the nest accident before Lydia rejected the book, saying it was “too sad and scary.” I put it aside (left on her bedside table) for a few months before she asked to hear it again. Life in the wilderness can be harsh, even before the other robots stomp in focused on capturing Roz without concern for collateral damage. Brightbill, the adopted gosling, has to accept that his mom is very different from him, can’t teach him a lot of the things he needs to know, and can’t come along on an important journey that teaches him harsh lessons about the human world. The book’s conclusion, while perfectly logical, is heartbreaking–but it’s setting up for a sequel. . . .
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Various animals have various patterns of mating behavior, but everybody knows that human beings naturally form an exclusive pair-bond that lasts the rest of their lives, right? Okay, sometimes it doesn’t work out for some couples, but they must have done it wrong or not had enough social support, because that’s the type of sexual relationship that humans naturally have, right?
Maybe not. Ryan and Jetha make a convincing case for an alternative interpretation of what’s natural for our species, presenting research findings from primatology, anthropology, and physiology. They suggest that what would really work best for humans is living in smallish groups in which each adult has multiple lovers and all adults care for all children regardless of biological relationship. They explain how many research studies distorted or misinterpreted the very situations they meant to observe, and how some findings about our anatomy were suppressed and later disregarded.
The weakest section of the book is the one that tries to guide us toward a new model of relationships, moving forward from the society in which we find ourselves after generations of struggling with monogamy. It’s like the authors were getting close to deadline and didn’t have time to interview a bunch of happy, functional polyamorous people to find out how that works. But at least they advocate talking very openly with your partner(s) about how love and sex work for you and trying to work out what will be most fulfilling for everyone.