Book 54: Hidden

 

Did people's lives really change this quickly? Years of sameness, and then a few hours, a few moments, and everything's different? But yes, of course they can. It happens all the time."

Dates read: May 18-20, 2016

Rating: 3/10

I have never, to my knowledge, been cheated on. Given that I'm getting married less than a month after I write this, I hope I never will be. But that doesn't mean I haven't thought, over the years, about what I would do if I were to find myself with a boyfriend who cheated. When I was young, I was sure I would want to know right away. As I grew up, though, I became less and less sure: an emotional long-term affair was one thing, but what if it was an isolated incident (drunken hookup with someone we don't know or something like that), unlikely to recur and less likely to result in a breakup? Like I said, I've never had to put it to the test, but I wonder what I would really actually want in a situation like that.

Catherine McKenzie's Hidden puts this dilemma in front of the reader: how much do we really want to know? The novel kicks off with Jeff Manning being struck by a car, stressed out and not thinking about looking both ways before crossing the street after a bad day at work. The news of his demise devastates two different women: his wife Claire, and his colleague Tish. It's obvious quickly, from the depth of her grief, that Tish has a relationship with Jeff that's above and beyond just coworkers or even just friends, but what was actually there between them? Just some flirtation? Actual romantic feelings? Sex?

The story is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Claire, Tish, and a pre-death Jeff himself to explain just what is going on here. Before Claire was Jeff's wife, she was his older brother Tim's girlfriend. Although he's aware of that (obviously) going in, even long after they've married and had a son together, Jeff never quite gets over his jealousy. When one of Tim's rare trips home results in him making a move on Claire during a low moment in their marriage, when she's vulnerable, all of Jeff's old suspicions that he's merely the consolation prize come roaring back and fault lines open up between them. And when he meets Tish, who drifted as aimlessly into her own marriage as she did into her job in HR, their attraction sparks something more. When Claire discovers a text message from Tish on Jeff's broken phone before it dies completely, she finds herself putting together little pieces of evidence, seeing a picture that she can't be quite sure is there.

The whole point of the book seems to be whether or not Claire will find out what exactly there was between Jeff and Tish, a question for which the answer is held back from the reader as well until it's wound up in the epilogue. Which isn't really enough to sustain interest, honestly. McKenzie adds in a bunch of extra characters and situations to flesh it out, but at the end of the day, none of them contributes much to the actual story. I got bored with it and read quickly through the back half of the book so I could just be done with it already. Because once the level of Jeff and Tish's emotional entanglement becomes apparent, the question of whether it ever got physical was almost beside the point: they were cheating, whether or not they'd slept together. The book also suffered for McKenzie's failure to take advantage of the alternating narrators structure to create three different voices for the three people involved. They all sounded similar, Claire and Tish particularly so. And for this kind of story to actually resonate, all of the participants have to be sympathetic or at least interesting. But no one is all that interesting, and only Claire is remotely sympathetic. There's nothing especially rewarding to the reader to be found in Hidden: the writing is just decent, the plot drags, and the characters are one-note. It's not awful, it's just kind of a waste of time.

Tell me, blog friends...do you think emotional cheating is "better" or "worse" than physical cheating?

One year ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishThis week's topic: authors I read for the first time in 2016. I try to read a wide variety of books and so I've read a lot of different authors over the years. But each year brings new ones, and so here are ten authors that I'd never read before.



Malcolm Gladwell: On recommendation from my husband, I started listening to his podcast, Revisionist History earlier this year and really enjoyed it. And then I read David and Goliath, and it offered the same kind of interesting perspectives on conventional wisdom. I'll definitely be looking to read more of his stuff in the future!

Dave Eggers: I know a lot of people love him, but I'd never read him before. I'd been intrigued by The Circle when I read a description of it, so I picked up a secondhand copy and got to it. And while I found the ideas behind it interesting, I actually thought the writing was pretty bad. I've got a copy of another of his works already, so I'll read it, but unless I like it a lot more I'm not going to keep reading him.

Ann Patchett: I'd heard praise for several of her books, but Bel Canto is what I found in a local secondhand shop, so that's what I read. And it was really good: she creates well-rounded characters who relate to each others in interesting ways. But this book fell flat for me at the very very end. I enjoyed the reading of 99% of it so much that I'll definitely be looking to read more of them in the future.

Pat Conroy: Conroy writes a lot of books with a military theme, which doesn't tend to be my wheelhouse. But Lords of Discipline was a Kindle sale book that I bought on a whim, and I was happy that I did. Conroy's writing is powerful, and I found myself deeply invested in the story about a cadet at a military college simply through how well he told the story. I'll definitely be reading more of him!

Helen Oyeyemi: I'd heard wonderful things about Boy, Snow, Bird, and that one is on my shelf to read, but my book club's first read was her collection of short stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. I found it to be a more intellectually stimulating than necessarily enjoyable experience, but I did come away wanting to read her novel-length work!

Alison Weir: I'm finding myself drawn more and more to non-fiction as I get older, and there's no subject I enjoy more than royalty. The Six Wives of Henry VIII has an intimidating length, but Weir writes their stories with such clean, readable prose that it all but flew along. She's definitely among my favorite historians!

Don DeLillo: He's an incredibly renowned author that I'd just never come across before. But then I got an ARC of Zero K and while he's got magnificent command of language and the ability to create a strong sense of mood, I just didn't get it. I'm still interested in reading White Noise, because I've heard it's his best, but it's always good to remember that just because "everyone" likes an author doesn't mean you have to.

Erik Larson: Devil In The White City has a great reputation, and I read that one too, but I actually started with Dead Wake, in which he tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania. Of the two, I actually prefer Dead Wake, but both are well-researched narrative non-fiction stories well worth the read!

Lionel Shriver: I remember seeing the trailer for the movie version of We Need To Talk About Kevin and being interested in maybe seeing it someday (I haven't yet). And then I came across a secondhand copy of it and figured I might as well read it. It's incredible, and I've got a couple other of her books on my TBR now that I know what a great writer Shriver is.

Jhumpa Lahiri: I've actually had a copy of The Namesake on my shelves for YEARS...it's a little torn up in one of the corners because one of my mom's dogs tried to eat it at one point. But it wasn't until this year that I actually sat down and read it and I just loved it. I'm far from the only one raving about Lahiri, but she's worth it, y'all!

Book 53: We Need To Talk About Kevin


 "I'm no longer sure whether I rued our first child before he was even born. It's hard for me to reconstruct that period without contaminating the memories with the outsized regret of later years, a regret that bursts the constraints of time and gushes into the period when Kevin wasn't there yet to wish away." 

Dates read: May 14-18, 2016

Rating: 10/10

Columbine happened when I was in the eighth grade. I remember how it rocked all of us (the students, our parents, the teachers) in the small town I grew up in, the kind of place (like Littleton, Colorado, probably once thought) where it seemed like bad things just didn't happen. There was a brief security craze, where we had to have our backpacks searched on our way into school every day for a few weeks or a month or so, but eventually that died down and normality more or less resumed. I know that Dylan Klebold's mother recently wrote a book about her experience with her son before the shooting and what happened afterwards. I've read some good reviews, even, but I can't find much interest in actually picking it up. It seems too raw, too real. Fifteen years later, but it's still too soon somehow.

But I was interested in picking up Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, a fictionalized account of a mother's life before and after her son perpetrated a hideous act of school violence. There's just something about real life actual tragedy that's harder to read about, even if it's much less graphic than a fictionalized account. I've read one book about a sexual assault survivor's experience (Alice Sebold's Lucky, which was mandatory reading for a college class or else I likely would never have thought about reading it), but several novels about the same kind of thing without blinking an eye. Fiction, it would seem (at least for me) draws a veil between the reader and the story recounted that insulates it a little, even when the book is about things (like rape) that are horrifyingly commonplace and may well have been inspired by an author's own experience.

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, main character Eva Khatchourian isn't a very good mother. She would (and does) admit that freely. She never had a burning need or desire to be a mother; she was mostly content with her marriage to Franklin Plaskett, their life in New York City, and her position as founder and CEO of A Wing And A Prayer, a series of backpack travel guides. But all her friends were having kids, and Franklin really wanted one, and she'd been feeling like her life needed a bit extra spark for a while, so she agrees to have a child. It's rough from the start: she chafes at the restrictions foisted upon her as a pregnant woman, she has a long and difficult labor, and when Kevin is finally born, he refuses to nurse or even drink her breast milk from a bottle. She suffers from post-natal depression, and when Kevin proves to be difficult at best throughout his entire childhood, she fails to bond with him. Not only that, but as he grows up, she comes to see malice behind nearly all of his actions and regard him with suspicion and fear. Just before his sixteenth birthday, he kills a teacher and several classmates at school. So she was right about him all along...wasn't she?

Eva, whose story is told by Shriver as a series of letters from her to Franklin a year or two after Kevin's school rampage, is a classic unreliable narrator. While she's unafraid of presenting herself in a negative light or admitting fault, she's also our only source of information about Kevin. The incidents she relates about his conduct are often unsettling and worrisome...but they're hand-selected, by a woman who has had all her worst thoughts about her offspring confirmed by what he did. But while there were plenty of people Kevin alienated throughout his life besides his mother (a succession of childhood nannies, kids in his play groups, school classmates), Kevin did have people in his corner, most significantly his father, as well as a high school teacher who ended up among his victims.

The question the novel raises and never answers (but gives you lots of food for thought in both directions along the way) is the age old one: nature or nurture? Kevin was difficult from the moment he was born, but if he'd been able to bond with his mother, would he have been just plain difficult, instead of a murderer? Eva herself is prickly and sometimes, even often, unlikeable. Maybe he just takes after his mother that way. How much does Kevin's pushing back against her result from her aloofness and reserve from him? On the other hand, if he is truly evil, like she sees him and his own murders tend to indicate, what could she have done to change that? Eva and Franklin cared, were present, took an active interest in him and his life. There are a lot of kids who don't even have that. I found myself changing opinions as I read, sympathizing with Eva, then Kevin, back and forth. Shriver doesn't let either of them off the hook, nor should she. There's plenty of culpability to go around. This sucked me in and haunted me after it was done. I'm sure I'll continue to think about it in the future. It's disturbing subject matter, but it's phenomenally well-written and I highly recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...nature or nurture?

One year ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

A Month In The Life: November 2016

It's the last day of November, so that means it's time for my monthly wrap-up!


In Books: I had a cross-country trip this month, so lots of airplane time (4.5 hours each way with a one hour connecting flight on each end!), which means lots of dedicated reading time. I read more than usual this month...
  • The Confessions of Saint Augustine: From what I knew of the man, he lived a pretty party-hearty life before finding religion, so I was interested in seeing what spurred his conversion. Turns out it was mostly his mom. I had an abridged version, which I was glad of because theological pondering is not my reading sweet spot. 
  • The Queen of the Night (ARC): I finally gave myself permission to skip some of my e-galleys that I'm less excited about and read the ones that I'm actually really intrigued by. This book had gotten a lot of buzz early in the year and it was totally bonkers and I LOVED it. 
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: I've been wanting to join a real-life book club for a while and now I have, at local indie bookstore Sundance Books. This was the first selection for the club, and immediately pushed me out of my comfort zone because I don't read short stories almost ever. It was an interesting, if not really especially enjoyable, read: I don't usually go for short stories because I like immersing myself in a book and I feel like I'd appreciate the intricate magical realism of Oyeyemi's writing in a long form better.
  • Invisible Man: This I started reading almost immediately after the election, and the reports of racist activity that followed, and although it was coincidence this was a very timely read. Ellison's chronicle of his nameless narrator realizing that he's effectively invisible because of the color of his skin is searing and rich and powerful and a must-read.
  • The Paper Magician: This was a pleasant enough, fluffy little read. The characterizations were pretty thin, but the magic system at the heart of it is intriguing, and the central plot device of being a journey through a heart and what it holds was novel. It was neither great nor terrible, but after the previous book it was nice to read something less substantial.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: Alison Weir is a favorite historian of mine, and her account of the incredible life of Eleanor of Aquitaine is, as always, lively and interesting.
  • The Emigrants: This is really more a collection of four short stories on a similar theme than it is a novel. W. G. Sebald spins achingly poignant tales of four different emigrants and the loneliness and dislocation that results from their moves, whether or not they were voluntary in the first place.
  • The Girls (ARC): Emma Cline's book was pretty buzzy this summer, but I didn't get to it until now. Its inspiration in the Manson murders has tended to be what people mention about it the most, but I found that part of the story to really be secondary to the focus on what it means to be a young teenage girl and wanting desperately to be wanted.


In Life:
  • Election Day happened: Apart from my own feelings about politics on the national level (I've outed myself as a Democrat before, so you can assume my disappointment with the outcome), this also influences my professional life since my work concerns the state legislature. Nevada's Assembly swung back to blue from red, and the state Senate did the same. We've got some new faces coming in, so I'm looking forward to meeting and working with them! No really, I like people and relationship-building, so I actually do like getting to know the new legislators. 
  • BFF2K16: My annual girls trip with my best friends since the time I was a kid! This year's destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, so we took a long weekend down to the state where we saw more than one person drive in reverse on the highway. It was super fun, we did one day of theme park and one day on the beach (coming from the other side of the country, I had a full day of travel on each end) and mostly hung around and chatted and talked about our changing lives. This is the weekend I look forward to the most every year and I'm already excited for next year!
  • First book club meeting: For all that I'm a die-hard reader, I've never actually been in a real live book club. Like I mentioned above, this one is hosted by our local indie bookstore, Sundance Books, and has a facilitator and everything. It's a good mix of people, and our discussion around What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours was interesting and brought new things to light. Can't wait to discuss The Wonder next month!
  • Family Thanksgiving: As usual, we (me, the husband, and the pug) spent Thanksgiving with my in-laws and their usual holiday crew. Along with the usual things to be thankful for, I'm thankful that the group is mostly aligned along similar political lines, so the most controversial thing was how much food the dog got snuck under the table. No one can resist spoiling him!
One Thing:
  • What's the one thing that I've been particularly into lately? It actually doesn't show in my reading here (yet) as much as it does in my bookshelves, but I am a royalty junkie, and I am loving Netflix's The Crown! Queen Elizabeth has been queen for the vast majority of her adult life, and the look at the human who wears that headpiece and has those duties is well-done and really fun to watch! I already can't wait for next season!
Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Top Ten Tuesday: Holiday Gift Guide

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishThis week's prompt is to create a holiday gift guide. As my gift guide, I'm going to tell you about ten books that I've reviewed on this blog over the last year, and who they would make a good choice for this holiday season!



Beloved: Someone interested in the ways that slavery's pernicious evil continues to reverberate. Toni Morrison's classic makes the horrors of slavery, which can almost seem abstract in their scope, personal and real.

All The King's Men: Anyone who is interested in what can be hiding behind a populist veneer. President-Elect Trump is not the first politician to rise to power behind a populist message. There are some definite parallels to Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark in our incoming administration.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: Budding feminists. Most of us have heard of and are at least somewhat familiar with Anne Boleyn. Susan Bordo's examination of the myths that have sprung up around her and how they've changed over time is a great primer on variable views of women over time.

The Serpent King: Anyone who has ever felt like they don't belong. Which is kind of everyone, right? Jeff Zenter's story about three high school misfits in their senior year brings that aching longing of adolescence rushing right back in the best possible way.

The Namesake: Someone with a complicated relationship with their parents. In Jhumpa Lahiri's justly lauded novel, Gogol's angst over his given name mirrors the tension he feels with his immigrant parents and their culture as he grows up in America. 

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Anyone who's loved someone unreliable. Little Francie Nolan worships her ne'er-do-well father in Betty Smith's coming-of-age classic. The pain that he causes both Francie and her mother, Katie, without really "meaning" to will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has tried to count on someone that they shouldn't.

The Big Rewind: Nostalgic older millennials. Remember mixtapes? If the actual creation of a putting songs on a cassette before your time, Libby Cudmore's witty, entertaining debut probably won't resonate with you very hard. But for the rest of us, it's a treat!

American Gods: Mythology buffs. Neil Gaiman is an incredible writer, and this is one of his most popular works for a reason. It posits a world in which the gods of classical mythology (along with more modern subjects of worship) are actual, corporeal beings...a great mind-stretcher for people who love myths!

The Group: Young women who've just graduated from college. When you graduate, you feel like the whole world is in front of you. And it is! But the struggles that exist out there in the real world: relationships, work, motherhood are the same ones that we've been dealing with for nearly a hundred years. It's comforting to realize we've all been through it before.

Enchanted Islands: Anyone who feels like the later stages of their life are fated to be boring. After a difficult but not particularly exciting life, the heroine of Allison Amend's novel experiences real adventure for the first time in her late 40s, in a way that continues to play out through the rest of her days. Life's adventures never really end.

Book 52: I Am Livia


 "When I was a girl, I imagined love was a kind of prize for virtuous behavior. That was how the philosophers described it. Love was a tribute that flowed naturally only to those with undivided spirits and pure hearts. It occurred to me now that it was something else, wilder and less comprehensible."

Dates read: May 11-14, 2016

Rating: 7/10

As I'm writing this (in mid-May), Hillary Clinton is on pace to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. However you feel about her (I personally support her, but understand there are plenty of completely valid reasons not to), there's no denying she's raised an issue that a lot of people, including myself, have unexplored feelings about: female power. A woman's rule gives a lot of people pause, and has throughout history. Think about it: how many books and movies have you read and/or seen where a woman with power is a sinister and malevolent force?

Phyllis Smith's I Am Livia is a fictionalized account of a very powerful woman who has been regarded suspiciously by history: Livia Drusilla, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus (born Octavius). I'd actually never heard of her before I read this book, but it was a Kindle First title and I'm into historical fiction, so I picked it up and I'm glad I actually got the chance to read about Livia and her life. And a lady who gets her first husband to give her away to her second husband just days after she gave birth to the first husband's child (true story!) is someone I'm interested in learning about.

Livia was the older of two daughters of a Roman senator, and Smith kicks off her story just as Livia's father is throwing his support behind the assassins of Julius Caesar. Like many historical fiction heroines, Livia is a smart and strong-willed young woman, educated by her father about government and politics. Despite having had a chance meeting with young Octavius in which the two become besotted with each other, Livia's marriage to her older cousin, Tiberius Nero, is arranged for political purposes. Smith doesn't take the easy way out and make Tiberius cruel to Livia to get readers to root against him and their marriage: he's not a bad man or even a bad husband, Livia simply doesn't love him. She tries to be a good wife to him anyways, bearing him two sons and trying to advise him on how to best navigate the complicated world of Roman politics in the era of the Triumvirates. But when Livia and Octavius re-encounter each other years after her marriage (and when she's heavily pregnant with her second of those sons she had with Tiberius), their connection can no longer be denied and Tiberius is persuaded to bow out as graciously as any person possibly could, really, with the whole giving-her-away bit I mentioned above.

Livia uses her status as wife of the First Citizen of Rome to assume some power of her own: she handles his correspondence, gets him to allow her the legal right to make her own decisions about her own property under the guise of giving the same right to his popularly-beloved sister Julia, helps him see the advantages of making sure the citizens of Rome are taken care of and not just focusing on war and conquest. The use of one of my least favorite literary tropes, love at first sight, bothered me like it always does, but I appreciated that Smith drew Livia and Tavius (a pet name for Octavius) as a complicated couple. Besides their ultimately unsuccessful struggle to have a child of their own and the strain that situation places on their relationship, they're both hard-headed and stubborn and there's a point at which their marriage is very near breaking down because of miscommunication and pride. And while Livia loves her husband, she's not so crazy about him that she can't see advantages to their separation, which takes some of the saccharine out of the tired "we've been in love since we first laid eyes on each other" sweetness that underlies their relationship.

Smith does a good job of neither making Livia a paragon of virtue nor a tyrant greedy for ever-more authority as she acquires and uses power over the course of her life. It lets us ask ourselves why we're uncomfortable with the idea that a woman would want the power to make her own decisions even if her husband would never deny her the opportunity to do what she wanted. Livia's mother was content to be in the traditional female "power behind the throne" role, why does Livia want more active power? If she plants ideas with her husband after they've slept together, is it her using her body to get what she wants or simply taking advantage of the time they're most relaxed and are actually alone together to discuss the things that are important to both her individually and them as a couple? The questions the book raises and the strong characterization of Livia overrides some underdeveloped side characters and a workmanlike prose style to create a work that's definitely worth a read, especially if you're interested in Roman history and/or feminism.

Tell me, blog friends...can you imagine a modern-day husband ever giving away his ex-wife less than a week after she had his child?

One year ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Am Thankful For


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishThis week's topic is gratitude, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays...it's about food, and family, and really taking time to take stock of your life and realize how much is good, even if there's also stuff that's less good. This Thursday, we'll be heading over to my in-laws house and celebrating with them and their extended group of friends...the wine flows freely and it's good people, so we always have a lot of fun! Things I'm thankful for this year:

My husband: Getting the cheesy stuff out of the way first. I'm grateful for him in my life because he's the actual best, and also that he's officially my husband and that means the wedding is over, because planning that was one of the most stressful experiences I've ever had (I'd happily take another bar exam before planning another wedding).

Our family: Between my wonderful in-laws and my own adored and missed mom, dad, sister and brother-in-law, I'm fortunate to have so many great people in my life that I love and love me.

My besties: Kailey and Crystal are the best friends a girl could ask for...the kinds of friends that have been there for you since elementary school are the kind you cherish. Our trips are the weekend I look forward to the most every year!

Stanley: Getting our little pugling almost a year ago now was the best thing. He is just a constant source of delight and love.

My health: Apart from a recent unpleasant seasonal flu and my hormonal migraines, I haven't had a major health issue since my gallbladder removal in 2014. I am very, very fortunate that this is the case, many others aren't so lucky.

Having a good job: I have work that I find fulfilling, and my coworkers are all people I enjoy and respect. That hasn't always been the case for me and I'm so glad that it is now.

Reproductive freedom: The development of birth control options means that women can take ownership of our lives and careers without having to constantly worry that we might become pregnant before we want to (if indeed, we want to at all). This is no small feat, when you look at the course of human history, and recent political realities have reminded me how lucky I am that this is the case.

The ability to vote: Speaking of recent political realities...I can feel however I want about the outcome of this year's election (spoiler alert: I do not feel good), but the fact remains that I was able to go to the ballot box and have my say. This wasn't always the case for lady people, so I am grateful to the suffragettes for their work securing the vote for women.

Books: Cliche, I know, but I am constantly grateful that my mother instilled a love of reading and appreciation for the power of the written word in me when I was little. Through books, I get to explore the past, the future, and the incredible variety of experiences that constitute being human.

Living in a post-paper map world: This last one is a little flippant, I know, but I am actually constantly, consciously glad that I live in a world where my awfulness with directions doesn't keep me from getting where I'm going without getting horribly lost all the time.