Book 86: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

"Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a single feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God."

Dates read: September 4-6, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: Pulitzer Prize, Time All-Time 100 Novels

Life isn't fair. It's a lesson our parents start trying to teach us young, usually, but it takes a long time to really stick. Sometimes good things happen to bad people for no reason, and the reverse is even more infuriatingly true. Someone who could have helped cure cancer was probably shot somewhere today and there's nothing we can do about it. Why? Just because. Same reason these kind of things happen all the time.

It might sound bleak, but this kind of thinking actually makes me feel better when bad things happen. It's nothing personal, it's just the way things are. But to Brother Juniper in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, that explanation isn't good enough. Brother Juniper is a monk, and in his eyes, people die for a reason. So when five people fall to their deaths when a Peruvian bridge collapses, he gathers their stories to try to puzzle out why.

The five are are an older woman estranged from her beloved daughter, that woman's young helpmeet, a young man mourning the loss of his identical twin brother, a stage manager who made an actress famous, and the actress' son. It's a brief little novella, but it's actually more a series of interconnected short stories than anything else. There are four stories going on: the story of the fall of the bridge and its effect on the local populace, the story of the woman and her companion, the story of the twin, and the story of the manager and the actress' son. The people on the bridge, far from being sinners cast down by a vengeful deity, were for the most part flawed but fundamentally good people who had experienced sorrow but were about to make a turn into happiness. What divine justice is there in that?

Even Brother Juniper can't see any. But while the mysteries of life and death may not be revealed by the story of those who perished with the bridge, what really comes through in these stories is love. The love of a parent for her child, the affection between companions, the love of siblings, romantic love, unrequited actually reminds me of Love, Actually (which I know some people wish would vanish entirely from the earth, and definitely has issues, but I attach a lot of sentimental value to) in the way that it highlights the bonds between people. At the end, it's love that moves us, no matter what form that love takes.

This is a small book with a big reputation, and I...didn't really get the hype? Yes, it was good and surprisingly thought-provoking considering its length, but I wouldn't have identified it as a literary classic if I didn't already know it was exactly that going in, if you know what I mean. It was definitely a quality piece of writing, but it wasn't...special. I would be willing to bet that within a year I will have forgotten that I ever read it but for the recordation of it on this here blog. But it is a classic, so it's apparently been very meaningful to some people and it's definitely an enjoyable, quick read.

Tell me, blog look at the other side of the coin here, is there a novel that you think should be a classic that you can't understand why it's not?

One year ago, I was reading: The White Queen

Book 85: Life Itself

"Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can't even think about the movie's plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me."

Dates read: August 30- September 4, 2016

Rating: 8/10

When I joined Twitter, what feels like a million years ago, I joined for one reason: to follow Roger Ebert. I've loved movies for years, and there were no one else's reviews I enjoyed reading like Ebert's. He had a way of honing in on the essential truth about a film with understanding and eloquence. When I started reading his blog that he wrote after cancer complications took his physical voice, he brought the same style to his reflections on life. I know there's this showy public mourning that goes on when someone famous dies, but when Ebert passed, I felt a real sense of loss that I'd never be able to read something new from him again. Before he was gone, though, he wrote an autobiography: Life Itself. It was made into a documentary, which I watched but didn't think was particularly special. But I bought the book, hoping it would be better. And for me, it was. Not only was it better, it was wonderful.

Life Itself is structured loosely chronologically, beginning with Ebert's family history and going through to when he was near the end of his life and knew it. The first few chapters, which detail how his ancestors came to the United States and his parents' upbringings as well as his own early years, are probably the weakest. While most of us are interested in these details for ourselves and sometimes our loved ones, reading about someone else's is not exactly captivating stuff. Once Ebert gets to his own life, though, the book really finds its footing and takes off. He recounts his life with insight but largely without excess sentimentality: his father's early death and his mother's alcoholism, his experiences on the college paper at the University of Illinois, his journalism career, his international travel, his own alcoholism, the joy he found with his wife Chaz, his relationship with Gene Siskel, his meetings with prominent actors and directors, and his own insistence on an aggressive course of cancer treatment that likely lost him his jaw and ability to speak. He clearly knew that this book was his last chance to put his own story out there and it's obvious that he didn't want to squander the opportunity. Given that he spent his final years in a painful and uncomfortable situation, it's remarkable how little bitterness his writing contains. Instead, he uses his last testament to to reflect on a full life, with all the moments of joy and sorrow it contained. 

If you're thinking about reading this book, you're probably already interested in Roger Ebert and his writing. But if you haven't, I recommend going to his blog (still online) and browsing around a little. If you like what you find and enjoy autobiography/memoir style books, this will likely be a win for you. If that's not something that intrigues you, you may appreciate the writing but find it a largely pointless exercise to read. For me, I found it moving and a likely future re-read, but I could completely understand if it's not for everyone.

Tell me, blog friends...who would you like to read an autobiography of?

One year ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Book 84: Inamorata

"There was a reason we existed- I existed. To give mankind a reason to strive. In a world that wanted balance, it made sense that something must exist to counter death and disease and suffering. Inspiration. Beauty. Love needed hated. Destruction was necessary for creation. A price must be paid for great and lasting beauty. Art required sacrifice, and that was where I came in. Balance." 

Dates read: August 27-30, 2016

Rating: 4/10

I'm not a creative person. It's something I've long since accepted about myself. I'm an appreciator of the arts, and I enjoy singing and dance even if I'm not especially gifted at either (I've got a decent voice but no training, and a complete and total lack of grace). I took a creative writing course in college and it was like torture for me...any short story I wrote ended in the untimely death of the protagonist, and I took to turning in haikus for my weekly writing assignment until my GSI let me know he was on to me. I know a lot of book bloggers have aspirations towards a writing career of their own, but I'm perfectly happy to read other people's words.

It is art, and its inspiration, that drives Megan Chance's Inamorata. The plot revolves around four characters: Joseph and Sophie Hannigan, twin siblings fleeing New York, Odile Leon, a beautiful courtesan, and Nicolas Dane, one of Odile's former lovers who continues to follow her. It's set in Venice in the 1850s, and the Hannigan twins are just about broke, but hoping that in the city, Joseph's talent as a painter will catch the eye of a wealthy patron so they can support themselves. Odile is on the lookout for new talent herself, but not to patronize it, exactly. And Nicholas is trying to keep Odile from getting what she wants.

Her exact nature isn't spelled out until quite late in the book, but that Odile literally feeds on artistic talent is obvious from the outset. She takes two kinds of lovers: the minorly talented, like one-time poet Nicholas, who often commit suicide in despair after she drains their small gifts and leaves them, and geniuses, who she inspires to create a single transcendent work that they are never able to come close to again. That Joseph has the kind of gifts that Odile seeks is obvious to Nicholas when they meet, and whether he will be able to keep them from each other and what might happen if he fails to do so provides the narrative tension that keeps the story moving forward.

While the actual plot is pretty straightforward, there's actually a lot going on here: female power and agency in a world that wasn't comfortable with either, child sexual abuse, love of family versus romantic love and the tension between the two, the relationship of artist and muse, the difference between sex and love. Not all of it is developed especially well, but all of it comes into play. As a warning for the easily squicked out, the relationship between Joseph and Sophie is...uncomfortable. It's implied that they may have been forced into engaging in sexual acts with each other during their childhood, Joseph depicts Sophie in a sexually suggestive manner in his art, they kiss each other on the mouth in a way that other characters are taken aback's not a full-on Flowers In The Attic situation, but it leans in that direction.

Besides that, my biggest complaint is that it drags. It takes forever to get to the point where Joseph and Odile meet and the stakes get raised. Odile's true identity is treated as a big reveal when it's really not, it became more-or-less clear what she was before it was confirmed by the book. She was probably the most interesting character, in her determination to make her mark and leave a legacy in a world which prized women for their beauty above all. Actually, the women are overall better served by the narrative, since Sophie's story was more compelling than Joseph's (which could have been better, but was underdeveloped) and Nicholas felt like an afterthought. But the writing is pretty good, and while it's occasionally improbable and weird and the pacing isn't perfect, the plot is serviceable if you're not thinking too hard. I wouldn't recommend it per se, but I wouldn't slap it out of someone's hands for their own good if I saw them reading it either.

Tell me, blog friends...if you could be immortalized by any artist, living or dead, who would it be?

One year ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

A Month In The Life: June 2017

And just like that, the year is halfway over! I've been glad for the dramatic slowdown of my work obligations...I took on significantly more responsibility in this past session, which was my third, which was rewarding but also exhausting. Since we adjourned at the end of the day on June 5, my life has been much more boring but that is 100% fine by me.

In Life...
  • Like I noted above, legislative session is over! Which is always a mixed much as it means very long days and high stress levels, I do love the community of session. I get to see more of our Las Vegas-based team, who I really enjoy getting to spend time with, and I get to reconnect with my session friends that live outside of Reno, who I miss when it's all over. But it's been a long 120 days and I am ready to take it a little easier for a while.
  • We celebrated our first wedding anniversary! It fell on Father's Day, so we didn't really do anything special besides dinner the night before and then had a Father's Day dinner with my in-laws and friends, but my husband is my favorite person to just hang out with so I was perfectly happy. Our cake topper was surprisingly decent after a year in the freezer, and we got a sweet ice cream cake from my in-laws just in case the topper had gone bad.
  • I went to my first rodeo! My husband's company does a box at the annual Reno Rodeo, so I got to experience my first official cowboy event. I enjoyed what I got to see...but that was only about 45 minutes worth, because I turned out to be deeply and profoundly allergic to the rodeo. I want to go back sometime, but with Claritin onboard. 

In Books...
  • Mrs. Dalloway: This was my first-ever Virginia Woolf, and I really enjoyed reading it. It took me nearly a week even though it's less than 200 pages because the text was so dense, but it was a rich and rewarding experience.
  • In The Skin of a Lion: I felt about this book club pick much like I felt about Michael Ondaatje's more famous The English Patient- it was very beautiful and I could not connect with it at all.
  • The Man Without A Face: A recounting from an actual Russian journalist of the rise and power consolidation of Vladimir Putin seemed very timely. There's necessarily a lot of speculation because no one would confirm on the record the kinds of things that are going on, but it's informed speculation and this is a book well worth reading. 
  • Shattered: Journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes had been working on a book that they expected to be about how Hillary Clinton was elected as the first female president, and then when things went the other way, wrote this book about how the campaign played out from the inside. I know a lot of people who worked on the Hillary campaign and so I take some of this with a grain of salt, but it was definitely an interesting read. 
  • Spoiled: After two serious, information-heavy non-fiction books in a row, this frothy YA novel hit the spot perfectly. From the bloggers behind Go Fug Yourself, a longtime favorite of mine, this book was kind of like a Twinkie: light, tasty, and insubstantial. 
  • The Year of Living Biblically: This memoir from a secular Jewish man who decides to spend a year living according to the many (700+!) rules of the Old and New Testaments is amusing and fairly interesting, but not anything particularly special. 
  • Spook: This was my first Mary Roach, and if her style is dry, sardonic humor combined with genuine curiosity, sign me up for literally all of the rest of them. This book, in particular, featured her traveling around to try to look at one of the most persistent questions of there life after death? I definitely enjoyed reading this. 

One Thing:

In our just-finished session, Nevada's legislature was 40% women: one of the highest proportions in the country! So why don't more women in the country at large run for office? This piece from Politico looks at this very question, noting that although there's not much of a gender gap in political aspirations in high school, there starts to be one in college when ambitious men are encouraged to run someday, while women don't get that kind of feedback. As a woman working in politics (I'll admit here I'm part of the problem in that I have zero interest in running), I'd love to see Nevada's legislature make it to gender equality...and the rest of the country catch up!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Book 83: Bel Canto

"He made what he felt to be wild presumptions in handing over his suggestions, but what did it matter? He was a vice president in a giant corporation, a numbers man, suddenly elevated to be the accompanist. He was not himself. He was no one he had ever imagined."

Dates read: August 25-27, 2016

Rating: 8/10

As I've become an adult, I've realized how hard it is to make friends outside of school. Groundbreaking stuff, I know. But there's something about being regularly a part of the same group of people all the time that gives you the chance to get to know each other, and get past the initial niceties and get to be friends. There's obviously people that you're never going to bond with, but there are people who you just need to see often enough to start realizing that you enjoy each other's company. And the experiences you share give you something to naturally bond over.

The unexpected bonds that can grow between people is at the heart of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. Katsumi Hokosawa, a Japanese industrialist, is having his 53rd birthday party in an unnamed South American country. The country has invited him to this party, to be held at the Vice President's mansion, in the hopes that he will invest there. He has no intention of doing so and declines...until he finds out that they have secured the performance of Roxane Coss for the party. Hokosawa is an opera devotee, and Coss is the world's foremost soprano. So he and his translator, Gen Watanabe, make the trip. No sooner, though, has Coss finished her performance than all the lights go out. Suddenly, the partygoers find themselves surrounded by young men bearing arms. They've come to abduct the president, and when they find out he's not there, they're not quite sure what to do but take the 200+ guests hostage.

The hostages are winnowed down over time to the 39 most important men, including the vice president, ambassadors, businessmen, and of course Hokosawa himself (along with his translator) and Roxane Coss. Days go by, then weeks. Gen the translator finds himself very busy indeed as the guests and the soldiers get to know each other inside the mansion. Relationships of all kinds form: one of ringleaders and Hokosawa become chess partners and teach one of the young soldiers, another soldier with a beautiful voice becomes Roxane's student, romantic entanglements form (it turns out not all those soldiers are boys, after all). Always the question looms: how will this all end?

This is the first time I've read Patchett, and she's a gifted writer: her prose is sensitive, deeply felt, lyrical. She has a strong sense of character, and besides the ending, no action the people she creates on the page (and she creates people, complete with their own emotional truth, rather than just "characters") feels false. Even the people she spends less time with feel complete and real. The novel is well-paced and plotted...after the initial high drama of the home invasion, little else happens in terms of events and the action unfolds naturally from the unveiling of personalities and the growing bonds between the people at hand.

What keeps this as a very good book rather than great one, for me, is the very end. The action that two people take is...jarring. Trying to contextualize it in terms of what those two have gone through, you can understand that a rash decision might be made, but it still feels off. And it bugged me a lot, because I'd so loved everything that came before and to close on that sour note didn't feel right. It's 98% of a great book, but it could have been 100% of one and that is frustrating.

Tell me, blog friends...does a wonky ending ruin a book for you?

One year ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I've Read In 2017 So Far

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Now that we're about halfway through 2017, this week we're looking back at the reading year so far and picking out the highlights. I've read some really great books this are my ten faves for now and looking forward to even more in the next six months!

Americanah: This is a book I've had on my shelf for a long time and expected to love and once I read it, I did love it. It's so nice when a book meets expectations that have been set very high from years of praise. 

Between The World and Me: This was a book club pick (it was on my own TBR but got scooted up the list) and it's a searing indictment of race relations in the US. I found it occasionally difficult to read but all the more important for it. Extremely powerful. 

The Bear and the Nightingale: This debut novel, set in a fantasy version of medieval Russia where the creatures of Slavic folklore are real, was something I read early in the year that I just loved. Fantastic world, awesome heroine, solid writing. And the sequel comes out in December!

City of Thieves: Another Russian-set book, this one takes place during the siege of Leningrad. A Jewish teenager and a young Cossack army officer, both in trouble for reasons of their own, are sent on a seemingly impossible quest for food in the starving city. Adventure ensues. Man-quests don't tend to be my happy place but this is very charming. 

Chemistry: Another debut, this book's nameless narrator is a Ph.D. student at a top tier university when she has a mental breakdown that forces her to really think about her life and what she wants from it for the first time instead of just following the path set out for her. It's easy to read, but packs a punch.

Moonglow: My first-ever Michael Chabon novel and I loved it and want to read more of his work. I've heard that Kavalier and Clay is his best and that just so happens to be coming up reallllly soon on my TBR!

Big Little Lies: I still haven't watched the show, but it seemed interesting enough that I snagged a copy of the book. This genre tends to be not my deal, but I did enjoy the mommy wars with surprisingly dark themes. 

If We Were Villains: This was clearly inspired by The Secret History and while it didn't live up to that book's greatness, this was an enjoyable read nonetheless. 

Mrs. Dalloway: You know those books that you read and enjoy and can already anticipate reading again and getting more out of every time you do? This is one of those.

The Man Without A Face: More Russia, but this time non-fiction, about the rise of Vladimir Putin. Topical and timely and fascinating. 

Book 82: Yesternight

"I had tried to be a good girl. Oh, my Lord, after hopping into boys' beds, how I worked until my brain ached; how diligently I had played by the rules. I had stopped seeing men altogether, dressed in skirts that fell well past my knees, and wed myself to the 'female-appropriate' stratum of a male career."

Dates read: August 23-25, 2016

Rating: 3/10

Like most people, I hold some irrational beliefs. I've always had a soft spot for astrology (which I know is making my husband shake his head as he reads this), and I've made a visit or two to palm readers/psychics (neither of which told me anything that was particularly true). When you acknowledge your own irrational beliefs, it's hard to draw a line and say that yours are truer than any other. If the position of the stars in sky when I was born has an influence on my life, why couldn't ghosts be real? If my crooked little fingers are significant to who I am as a person, why couldn't someone have a guardian angel that watches over them?

At the beginning of Cat Winters' Yesternight, Alice Lind doesn't believe in anything irrational at all. A female psychologist in the 1920s, she's been shoved into the pink ghetto of school (and by extension, child) psychology rather than the doctoral research she desperately wants to conduct. She mostly administers intelligence tests, but has dealt with a few significantly disturbed children who were thought to be supernaturally influenced and revealed their troubles to be the product of entirely mundane phenomena. Her own childhood had a mysterious event of its own: at age four, she violently assaulted a group of neighborhood children. Her family refuses to provide her with more information regarding the incident, and it would seem it precipitated her interest "solving" the mystery behind the troubled children she encounters. When she steps off the train in Gordon Bay, Oregon, though, she soon finds herself confronted with her most perplexing case ever.

The seven year-old niece of the local school teacher, Janie O'Daire is a math prodigy, able to perform complex calculations in her head and working on college-level proofs. More than that, though, she's claimed since the time she could talk to be a young woman from Kansas named Violet, who drowned. With a set of acrimoniously divorced parents (which would have been very rare in that time period), it would seem she is ripe for the kind of emotional issues that might provide a prosaic explanation for her claims. But as Alice digs deeper, it becomes more and more probable that this might, in fact, be a genuine case of reincarnation. As she becomes convinced that Janie is telling the truth about her past life, Alice finds herself wondering if her violent outbursts might be the product of her own previous existence as a notorious murderess. 

So I know my policy around here with regard to spoilers has been to avoid them as much as possible without compromising my ability to fully discuss the book, which usually means no or minimal spoilers. While they don't ruin a book for me personally, I know other people feel differently and I do my best to respect that. However, the ending of this book had a substantial impact on how I ended up feeling about it, so if spoilers bother you, please close this window and come back when you've read it (or don't, I guess, I'm not the boss of you, but I hope you do!). 

It turns out that Janie is in fact a reincarnated spirit, and a visit to Kansas to see Violet's sister proves it. Alice has convinced herself that her childhood outburst, as well as an experience in college when she attacked a classmate who impregnated and then dismissed her, is the result of her own past life as the homicidal owner of an old hotel not too far away. No sooner has she convinced herself (and her new lover, Janie's father) that it's true, then Alice's sister reveals that the details Alice recalls about the murderess in question were actually told to her by that sister when she was very young. She's not expressing the violence of a vengeful presence inside her, she just has anger issues. Soon thereafter, Alice and her lover have a fight that becomes physical and he ends up dead. We're treated to an epilogue in which Alice is now raising her young son, the product of that relationship, and he's revealed to be...the reincarnation of his own father. Which, no. That's stupid and terrible. Until the end, the book hums along pretty well. It's nothing particularly special, but the plot moves quickly and it's entertaining to read (I'd have rated it at a 6). The end, though, just completely ruins it. It's awful. I'd had some quibbles with the book previously (Alice doesn't make much of an effort besides taking people at their word to determine whether Janie has ever experienced any abuse and the unlikelihood of an actual divorce at that point in would have been much more realistic to have Janie's parents estranged than divorced) that were enough to keep me from finding it anything more than slightly above average, but that ending just torpedoed it. I would not recommend this book to anyone.

Tell me, blog you have any irrational beliefs?

One year ago, I was reading: The Song of Achilles