Book Club Questions: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977—with his wife and three young children—intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding. The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live—so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them. 

Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

Colleen and I were both pretty pleased that we picked this title as a book club book, since there was a lot going on which we both wanted to try and unpack during our discussion. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes raises a lot of questions for a Western reader, and in many different areas outside of just linguistics. Our experience of the memoir/linguistics-for-beginners story Everett is telling definitely benefitted from our ability to work together in navigating our own understanding of the concepts Everett introduced during our book club meeting.

I highly recommend this book, as it introduces many challenging concepts about language, culture, and perception for a Western audience, without being overly academic and terminology-laden. I would also recommend you read the book with the intention of discussing it with someone else, if possible, as your brain will benefit from being forced to grapple with the ideas Everett is introducing and to put your thoughts into words.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A space adventure set on a lone ship where the clones of a murdered crew must find their murderer—before they kill again.

It was not common to awaken in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood.

At least, Maria Arena had never experienced it. She had no memory of how she died. That was also new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died.

Maria’s vat was in the front of six vats, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship Dormire, each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it could awaken. And Maria wasn’t the only one to die recently…

As I mentioned in the Book Club Prep post for this novel, the synopsis above isn’t super accurate as to the actual plot, worldbuilding, and primary concerns of this novel, but at least it probably piqued your interest.

After reading and discussing Sadie and The Fact of a Body back to back, we were hoping to find something a little lighter to read, and Six Wakes definitely fit the bill. Although the novel asks a lot of questions of us as far as what makes a person this person and not some other person, it’s a light and fast-paced read that’s easy to fly through. Don’t expect a tightly plotted mystery, though—Lafferty’s book is best enjoyed if you focus your little grey cells on the philosophical questions she’s presenting, rather than looking out for clues the way you would with a Hercule Poirot novel.

Both Colleen and I enjoyed this read, although I was a little disappointed by the lack of a strong mystery storyline. We had a good time reading and had plenty to talk about during our discussion, but we also wished Lafferty had pushed some of her ideas even farther when it came to the societal repercussions of the world she’d created. Even so, I would still recommend Six Wakes, especially for people who want the sci-fi lit experience of contemplating interesting concepts and philosophical questions, but are also looking for a fun page-turner.

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Book Club Questions: The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins an internship at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.

[Note: Although Marzano-Lesnevich now identifies as non-binary, I am using the official synopsis of the book as written on their website.]

Although neither of us went into this book expecting a jolly-good-times read, we were both a bit taken off-guard by the intensity of the subject matter. The book is beautifully and carefully written, and the parallels and connections between Marzano-Lesnevich’s own lived experience and the trajectory of Ricky Langley’s life are artfully drawn. Like many great true crime novels, The Fact of a Body raises more questions than it answers, with the added weight of the author’s personal connection hanging onto the facts they ask us to consider. But if you can stand to carry this novel’s heavy subject matter with you, it makes for a impactful and worthy read.

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Book Club Questions: Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Both of us were pretty blown away by this novel. The way in which the story is told – podcast transcripts alternating with first-person narration – could have been absolutely awkward and clunky in the hands of a lesser author, but Courtney Summers’ subtle hand and complex approach to character results in a novel that is a simple and quiet masterpiece.

Although the book is touted as a thriller in its marketing, I would disagree. It’s certainly a page-turner, as many YA novels are (readability being a thing that YA authors tend to strive for, for some reason), but to me “thriller” connotes a sense of cheapness, of base tricks employed to keep my interest going until the last page. Sadie is remarkable for its respect of its subject matter, and for the way in which it makes us confront our reliance on established narratives to explain away the people who get lost in the margins of our world.

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Book Club Questions: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved Native American tribe, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man.

To further complicate his quiet existence, a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Leopolda’s piety, but these facts are bound up in his own secret. He is faced with the most difficult decision: Should he tell all and risk everything… or manufacture a protective history for Leopolda, though he believes her wonder-working is motivated solely by evil?

My friend and I picked this book out for our Seattle Public Library Adult Summer Book Bingo cards, which required a book written by a past or present Seattle Arts & Lectures speaker. It’s not really the genre of book either of us would typically pick up (leaning more towards the YA, mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi camps), so we were both glad that SPL Book Bingo forced us to go outside our bubbles and read this wonderful book. I especially recommend this book to anyone who enjoys complicated characters, beautiful and intimate imagery, drifting narratives not overly concerned with chronology, and a plethora of moments that are just as sad as they are hilarious.

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Book Club Questions: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

The future is small. The future is nano…

And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell? An orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nano-technology?

Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.

And it isn’t Nell’s. It was stolen. And now some very powerful people want to get their hands on this highly desirable object. Nell is about to discover that the world can feel very small indeed…

My friend and I had a bit of difficulty with this novel, to be honest. We both found it quite interesting and engaging for the first two-thirds, with plenty of neat concepts and strong characters. After that point, however, the book went a bit off the rails, and we were each left with a good deal of confusion by the time the novel ended. I might still recommend it if you are big into hard sci-fi and also have a soft spot for Victoriana and/or steampunk, since the first part of the book really was an interesting read that I just wish had continued in that same vein.

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Book Club Questions: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a special shine to them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets’ circle is not what it seems…

Both my friend and I really enjoyed reading this horror classic! I was reading it while on vacation in NYC, which was a nice coincidence – although I kept wishing I could just continue reading, rather than go do tourist things with my family. Fortunately the torment didn’t last too long, since the book is both a. short and b. a page turner. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to people who haven’t read much horror in the past and want to dip a toe into the genre. Also, if you’re sensitive to scary things, this book is (psychologically) frightening without forcing you to keep the lights on all night in order to sleep.

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Book Club Questions: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

My friend and I had mixed reactions to this critically adored collection of short stories. It’s certainly an interesting book, and one which I would say is worth reading, even though I personally found much of it frustrating. You will probably enjoy this book most if you appreciate more nebulous writing, with a focus on ideas and images rather than character or plot.

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Book Club Questions: Out by Natsuo Kirino (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.

The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.

The complex yet riveting narrative seamlessly combines a convincing glimpse into the grimy world of Japan’s yakuza with a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a violent crime and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between seasoned detectives and a group of determined but inexperienced criminals. Kirino has mastered a Thelma and Louise kind of graveyard humor that illuminates her stunning evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds and the friendship that bolsters them in the aftermath.

My friend and I definitely found this book an interesting read; its subject matter is grim and brutal, held together by the attention-grabbing puzzle that is Masako Katori. Masako’s rise from the cocoon of her dead-end middle-aged existence while she takes control following her coworker’s spousal murder is a journey laced with fascination and dread for the reader. It’s a dark read, and not for everyone – but if detailed descriptions of dismemberment or cat-and-mouse games with vicious killers don’t faze you, then this might be the book you’ve been looking for. I must warn that the ending perplexed my friend and I in its sudden departure from the narrative trajectory of the rest of the story – but aside from that, we enjoyed this book a great deal.

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Book Club Questions: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko…

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

My friend and I both read The Water Knife by this author a couple years ago as our “book based entirely on its cover” category filler. (The hardcover had one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen.) I was wonderfully impressed with that story, which I probably would never have read if I had seen the synopsis! This time my friend and I decided to read Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, which also happened to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Much like The Water Knife, this book can boast of extensive worldbuilding, a sometimes horrifyingly realistic plot structure, and an alarming vision of Earth’s future. Unlike The Water Knife, there were some features that were troubling – most glaringly, the way in which the titular character is portrayed, which may be a dealbreaker for some readers. Nonetheless, it was certainly an interesting read that provided plenty of conversation, and it will no doubt stick with me for a long time to come, just like Bacigalupi’s second novel.

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