Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book 134: Chemistry

"Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can't be the chemicals' fault, you think. They have no souls."

Dates read: March 18-21, 2017

Rating: 7/10

When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I had always been the kind of kid for whom "bad behavior" most directly translated into "mouthing off", and I loved to play devil's advocate, and I was stubborn like an ox. I was captain of the mock trial team in high school, and I really thought being a lawyer was exactly what I wanted. Until I got to law school, which I hated. And then started practicing, which I hated even more. Figuring out that I needed to go another way is a decision I'm constantly thankful I made.

Coming from an adult perspective, I think it's silly that we expect 16 year olds to have any idea what they might want to do for the rest of their lives. I think of myself as being pretty smart, but it turned out what I was sure I wanted to do at 16 was incredibly wrong for me. And the protagonist (never named) of Weike Wang's Chemistry is in kind of a similar boat. Pursuing a Ph.D. in, of course, chemistry at a prestigious New England university, she has a bit of a meltdown as her experiment fails to produce results. Although she does love the field, she begins to question her choices about everything in life as she takes time off of her program.

There's not a lot of "plot" in this book, really. The protagonist is trying to decide what to do about her long-term relationship with a fellow chemist who has proposed to her but she's not sure she wants to marry, trying to figure out how to support herself without her graduate student stipend, being there for her best friend through pregnancy and early motherhood and marriage crises, and figuring out when and how and if to tell her Chinese immigrant parents that she's not in school anymore. It is this last matter that most preoccupies her, and much of the book is made up of her recollections of her childhood, of her parents' relationships with each other and with her, of the pressure she feels to succeed in the ways that they value in order to validate their sacrifices.

Stories like these illustrate the power of "own voices": an Asian-American woman telling the story of an Asian-American woman. A lot of non-Asians look to them as a so-called "model minority", hard workers somehow naturally gifted at math and science. Of course the reality behind that is more complicated (it's as much a result of the kinds of immigrants that tend to leave Asia behind to travel to America as much as anything else), and Wang pulls back the curtain on what might seem like a neat little family of a scientist, a housewife, and their scientist daughter to show the internal workings that are just as messy as anyone's home life.

That being said, evaluating Chemistry on its novelistic merits reveals a book that is good but not great, and quite obviously a debut, though a promising one. Our nameless narrator is at times rather formless, and mostly reacts to the events around her rather than being proactive. She's very unsure of herself after breaking out a track that she found herself in more than chose, and while that's understandable, it makes her hard to really get enough of a feel for to connect with much. But Wang's writing is sure and emotionally true, and I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, especially to 20somethings that are wondering if they're on the right track.

Tell me, blog friends...did you end up doing what you thought you would at 16?

One year ago, I was reading: The Year of Living Biblically (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Song of Achilles

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I've always maintained that I'm awful at compiling lists of beach reads, so I'm taking this week's topic about summer books to literally share with you the books I'm planning on reading over the next few months!

The Completionist: It seems like dystopian stories with a feminist bent are pretty popular these days, but something about this one caught my eye and I've got a review copy to read!

The Feast of Love: I'm a sucker for stories set in places familiar to me, and Baxter's supposed a great writer, so this Ann Arbor-based book about the love people share in various types of relationships seems like a good place to start with him.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: Jon Benet Ramsey's murder seems unlikely to ever be solved, but I'm definitely interested in reading the foremost true crime account of what happened.

The Looming Tower: I'm a little worried this is going to be substantially similar to Ghost Wars, which I read in January, but I'm curious to read it anyways.

My Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a role model and a national treasure and my husband bought me this book quite a while ago so it's time to actually read it.

Olive Kitteridge: I'm always here for prize winners, and this one got the Pulitzer in 2009. I've also never read Strout before, so here's hoping I enjoy her work as much as others have!

The Romanov Empress: Ah, self-indulgence in the form of historical fiction about royalty. This book follows the mother of Nicholas II, which will be a new perspective for me to read from!

The Pleasing Hour: I've actually read some mixed reviews of this debut, but it's short and it was cheap for the Kindle when I bought it so I'll try it out.

Shantaram: I do love a gigantic sprawling novel.

The Informant: Another huge book, this one is about a federal investigation of price-fixing by a major worldwide corporation and the sometimes dicey control the FBI had over its prize witness and sounds fascinating.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Book 133: Green Girl

"She is such a trainwreck. But that's why we like to watch. The spectacle of the unstable girl-woman. Look at her losing it in public."

Dates read: March 15-18, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I'm a mostly pretty together person these days. I'm married to the person with whom I've been in a long-term relationship for years now, we have a dog, we have steady white-collar jobs. We enjoy our wine and beer, but I can count the number of hangovers I've had in the past year on one hand. I write a book blog, that's how cozily normal I am. It wasn't always so. My 32 year-old self is a much, much different person than my 22 year-old self. At 22, I was a mess. I partied often, drank more than anyone would consider reasonable, and I made some questionable decisions about who I chose to invest my energy in. I never got into any sort of actual trouble, but things were a little sloppy there for a while.

I think a lot of young women go through unanchored periods like this (and young men, for that matter). Stumbling around trying to figure out who and what we are, what we want, where we belong. Kate Zambreno's Green Girl focuses on this exact time of life. Ruth, an American in her early 20s, is living in London and working at Harrod's, which she's nicknamed Horrid's, selling perfume. Ruth's insecurities about herself and her place in the world are reflected even in what kind of wares she hocks. She's not assigned to the fancy prestige brands, but rather the celebrity scent of a teenage American pop star.

Ruth is recovering from the dual shocks of losing her mother and the end of an intense, damaging relationship, and is desperately lonely. She's "friends" of sorts with a young Australian woman who lives down the hall in the rooming house she lives in. There's little real connection between them, but at least it's another person to spend time with. Ruth makes some hesitant stabs at new relationships, but between the two men who both treat her as an object in their own way (one by putting her on a worshipful pedestal, and the other as a muse for his own artistic ambition), she can't actually bond with anyone. She knows she's stuck, but has no idea how to free herself.

Green Girl is relatively simple in terms of plot, but I found it challenging in its own way. It's not structured like a typical novel: each section (there are many, I don't believe any are longer than 10 or so pages) is prefaced by a quotation from another author writing about young womanhood. Zambreno's own writing is almost like prose poetry, short interlinked paragraphs that are about as much about the feeling they capture as moving the story forward. It's not even as much a portrait of Ruth as a character as it is a portrait of what it is to be struggling into womanhood in one's early 20s, feeling the openness of one's potential future to be as much threat as promise.

I was initially put off by it and was glad that at least it was short so I wouldn't be spending undue amounts of time on something I found alienating, but eventually I got used to its rhythm and once I got there it was hard to put down. Although she's not a strongly drawn character, Ruth's aching sadness comes across so vividly that watching her stumble and make mistakes is heart-wrenching. It's an odd little book, and its flaws (the lack of character development and story structure) are real, but it has power. I'd recommend it if you're down for something a little less conventional or had a messy time of it in your 20s.

Tell me, blog you prefer novels that play with form or are you a traditionalist?

One year ago, I was reading: Shattered (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Awaken the Travel Bug In Me

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books that make us want to go see another piece of our big beautiful world. I've been fortunate enough to travel both domestically and internationally, but there are still so many places to go and/or explore further! These are books that make me want to go to there.

Far From The Madding Crowd (rural England): The descriptions of the lush countryside sound so peaceful and beautiful.

Memoirs of a Geisha (Kyoto): There is a lot of fair criticism to be leveled at this book, but it's definitely driven Western tourist interest in the geisha districts. I want to see the Shirakawa stream!

The White Tiger (India): I know, this book does not paint modern India in a flattering light or highlight anything that's appealing for a tourist, but he paints such a vivid picture of such excitement and life that it makes me want to see it for myself.

Crazy Rich Asians (Singapore): The book makes Singapore sound like a gorgeous place full of gorgeous homes and gorgeous people wearing gorgeous clothes. Besides the fear of being the ugly sore thumb, it sounds amazing.

Enchanted Islands (the Galapagos): The jungle, the wildlife, the blue water...I wouldn't want to be sent there to live like in the book, but I'd love to travel there!

Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil (Savannah): Majestic homes and tree-lined streets hiding dark secrets? Yes please.

The Descendants (Hawaii): Come on, who doesn't want to spend time in Hawaii?

The Secret History (New England college campuses): The ivy-covered grounds are made all the more lovely for seeing them through the eyes of our industrial California-transplant protagonist.

Snow Falling on Cedars (Washington state coast): The images painted of the lingering ocean fog, the trees, the peace of it all with the falling snow make it sound magical.

The Lords of Discipline (Charleston): Conroy's love for the aristocratic, secretive city makes it practically another principal character in the drama.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Book 132: City of Thieves

"That is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk. You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war."

Dates read: March 10-15, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Friendships that form under intense circumstances can be especially enduring. Most of us are or at least know someone that's still friends with someone they met at college orientation, just because you find yourselves thrown together at a vulnerable time. It quite often has little to do with what you actually have in common, but something about sharing new and interesting experiences with a person bonds you in a way that's hard to compare. I think of some of my law school classmates almost as war buddies. 

In David Benioff's City of Thieves, Lev Beniov is an introverted Jewish teenager living through the siege of Leningrad during WWII. One night, watching for air strikes on the roof of his apartment building with his friends, they spot a paratrooper and race through the streets (well after curfew, of course) and run after him. The man is dead, and the teenagers steal whatever they can off his body, with Lev in particular snagging a knife. The police spot them and the kids run...but Lev is caught. Thrown in the notorious local jail, he thinks he's dead. Then his cell opens in the night to admit Kolya, a bold 20something in a military uniform who claims that he was snagged after going AWOL to defend his thesis. Instead of being executed in the morning as Lev fears, he and Kolya are given a task: to collect two dozen eggs in a starving city for a wedding cake.

What emerges from there is a fairly predictable quest narrative. Lev and Kolya journey within the city and eventually outside of it to find the eggs they need to get their ration cards (i.e. their only link to the extremely limited supply of food) back, and as they encounter characters and obstacles and characters who are obstacles, they grow closer. We know that Lev survives into the present day because of the framing device Benioff uses, in which he presents Lev as his own grandfather relating the story to him, but exactly how he does, and what will become of the people around him are unknowns that propel the plot forward. Both Kolya and Lev are well-written characters, and although the structure of their journey is a familiar one, Benioff's prose is lively and entertaining and a pleasure to read.

I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I picked it up because Benioff is a producer of Game of Thrones, one of my favorite TV shows, and I'd heard it was pretty decent, but I usually have a hard time connecting with stories that feel decidedly "masculine". But this was a coming-of-age story that wasn't overly steeped in gendered notions of what that means. It's still more masculine than feminine, but not to the point where I felt alienated from it as I often do with stories that posit violence and/or emotional repression as what it means to become a man. It's as much as anything a story about a brief, intense friendship that forever changed a teenage boy, and who can't relate to that narrative? I definitely recommend this book, I'm already looking forward to re-reading it someday when I finally read through my TBR.

Tell me, blog friends...have you still got friends that you made when you went through hard times together?

One year ago, I was reading: In The Skin of a Lion (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Shouldn't Have Bothered Finishing

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! A few weeks ago, we talked about books we didn't like but were glad we'd read anyways. The actual topic for this week are books we decided to stop reading too quickly. I almost never DNF (do/did not finish) my books, but there are some that if I'm being honest with myself, I should have because the book did nothing for me.

Where'd You Go Bernadette: I knew almost as soon as I started reading this that the tone was a mismatch for me. That never changed.

Bonfire of the Vanities: I'd previously read and hated Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I should have bailed when I started this and realized within like 50 pages I hated this too. Instead I read the whole thing and hated every second of it.

On Trails: I've actually got a pretty rocky history with the books my book club reads, but I love the group so much so I stick with it. This was last month's read, and the scattered way the information was presented was something that annoyed me pretty quickly and then just never stopped annoying me. This is a minority opinion, book club overwhelming liked it!

The Sisters Chase: This was another book club selection and holy smokes it was awful from the first page all the way to the last. This time everyone else in book club agreed.

Sophia of Silicon Valley: If you're going to like this book, you have to really be rooting for the titular Sophia and given that I thought she was terrible from the did not work out well.

Vinegar Girl: The gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew are hard to update to the modern world, and the wit and snap that would make it work do not materialize. Skip this egregiously bad book and watch 10 Things I Hate About You.

The Witches of Eastwick: The movie version of this book is a cheesy 80s delight with some genius casting. The book, which I was surprised to find out was written by the legendary John Updike, was a dull, tortured plod and never got good.

The Circle: I was so excited for this book before I read it...a 1984 for the social media generation? Sign me up! But then it fell SO. FLAT. Lazy characterization, clunky dialogue, and the least interesting plot choices made. Though I'm always honest when asked for my opinions, it's very rare I'll actively discourage someone from reading a book. This is one of the few exceptions.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Two Eggers in a practice with any given author is that if one book doesn't work for me, it's just as likely to be a weaker offering or just the wrong book at the wrong time as it is to be that I'll never like that author. Two, though, and I give up. Why I made myself suffer through this simultaneously anxious and boring book before I wrote off Eggers for myself I can't quite understand.

Dune: This space opera hits like 100% insanity right away and I do better when there's a little more world-building first.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book 131: Housekeeping

"And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again, or as if she could find the chink, the flaw, in her serenely orderly and ordinary life, or discover at least some intimation that her three girls would disappear as absolutely as their father had done. So when she seemed distracted or absent-minded, it was in fact, I think, that she was aware of too many things, having no principle for selecting the more from the less important, and that her awareness could never be diminished, since it was among the things she had thought of as familiar that this disaster had taken shape." 

Dates read: March 6-10, 2017

Rating: 5/10

Lists/Awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels

My husband has had the most normal life of anyone I know. He was born in North Dakota to two teachers, who moved out to Reno when he was five. They have been happily married for decades, with a wide circle of friends. They even had a Golden Retriever named Max that they adopted from the Humane Society when he was in middle school. Pretty much everything but the white picket fence. Until I met him, I didn't know that people with such conventional lives actually existed. Where was the drama, the scandal, the love child, the secret substance abuse issue?

But, as it so happens, those Norman Rockwell childhoods do exist, and my husband had one of them. It's a decidedly imperfect childhood, though, that's at the center of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Ruth, and her sister Lucille, don't have much if anything in way of memories of their father. They are raised by their mother, Helen, until one day she leaves where she's been living and returns to Fingerbone, Idaho, where she was raised by her own single mother (her father died during her childhood when the train on which he worked derailed into the local lake). She arranges her daughters on her mother's porch with a box of crackers and promptly drives her car off a cliff. The girls have some stability with their grandmother for a time, but then she dies. At first, grandma's two sisters-in-law come to take care of the kids, but as longtime spinsters, they're not quite up to the task. So then Sylvie, their aunt, comes to town. And that's when things start to change.

Sylvie is...a drifter, to be polite. She's actually more of a hobo. She likes the girls, loves them in her own way even, but it's hard for her to create a stable home for them. She can't break out of old habits: riding around in train boxcars, falling asleep with her shoes still on in case she needs to be able to move along, hoarding. While Ruth takes after her aunt, Lucille doesn't. As the girls enter the teenage years, Lucille wants normality. She breaks away from the family, and as she talks about what's going on back home, outside interest increases dramatically. This strains things to the breaking point and forces Ruth to make a decision about who she really is and who she really wants to be.

The more I read, the more I boil books down to three essential elements: plot, characters, and writing. A good book has two, a great book has all three. Robinson's writing is lovely, her prose clear and insightful and strong. But the other two legs of this stool aren't really there. Despite being told from Ruth's perspective, we never get much of a sense of who she really is. Her sister, despite being her closest companion, doesn't get much development either apart from wanting a more conventional life. Even Sylvie is elusive, even though you get a better sense of her than you do almost anyone else. As for the plot...despite being a coming-of-age novel, it seems almost more like a failure-to-come-of-age novel. Ruth never really grows or changes. She just...drifts along, like a leaf along a river. A rootless child, she follows her rootless aunt/guardian. Even her break with her sister, what should have been a deeply traumatic experience, feels anticlimatic and muffled, somehow. Since there was quite a long gap between this book, published in the 80s, and Robinson's next work, Gilead, not published until the early 2000s, I'm still interested in reading more of her works. Maybe that long gap helped her develop a better sense of people or plotting? This book, though, isn't quite good enough to recommend.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been interested in the life of a wanderer?

One year ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories