Book 90: Neon Green

"It was his birthday after all, and this was who he was- a committed environmentalist. The very idea filled him with energy. His life was a fight. He was a fighter, no apologies and no breaks for inconvenience. Of course he knew that mopping up the spill would probably do nothing, that it was an infinitesimal smidgen in the grand scheme of things, but his fight was no less important when it was symbolic. Symbols added up to something." 

Dates read: September 17-19, 2016

Rating: 5/10

What is history? Specifically, what is historical fiction? I've been trying to wrestle my head around it for a while. If a book was written as contemporary literature 100 years ago, is it now historical fiction? On a related note, I think we'd all agree that a book set 50 years ago is historical fiction...but what about 40? 30? 20? 10? Or is it based on set events? Is a pre-9/11 book set in America historical fiction, since there was a significant cultural shift that occurred after that point? Is it within a lifetime? Whose? As an almost-32-year-old, I don't like to think about my own lifetime as encompassing history, but to a 14 year-old, a childhood before smart phones may well be.

Set two decades ago, before widespread home computing/internet access and cell phones, Margaret Wappler's Neon Green seems like it can be considered historical fiction relatively safely. Well, maybe, because there's an important difference: in Wappler's world, Earth has been visited by alien life from Jupiter since the early period of the Reagan administration. While the details are kept carefully shrouded (a time before Wikileaks!), it's become normalized enough that you can send in an application to be visited by an alien ship. No lifeforms will emerge, but it looks really cool on your lawn for several months. You have to be at least 16 to apply, which means that Gabe Allen is just old enough to secure a ship for his family's yard. The problem is that his parents, especially his father, are definitely not on board with it.

Parents Ernest and Cynthia Allen are both staunch environmentalists: Cynthia has channeled her passion into an environmental law-focused career, while Ernest does freelance environmental consulting. They're the early-90s-crunchy-granola kind of people that do most of their shopping at the food co-op and brought their own bags long before it was trendy. They live a cozy little life, mostly pretty happy, in a cozy little neighborhood outside Chicago until two things happen in fairly close succession: the spaceship arrives, and Cynthia's advanced brain cancer is discovered. The confluence of these events sends Ernest over the deep edge.

Despite the aliens, this isn't really a science fiction story. It's a story about a family in particular, about a man in crisis, because Ernest is really at the heart of the narrative. The social changes around families and gender roles that took place throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s eroded a lot of markers of traditional masculinity, and not even hippy-dippy types like Ernest are immune from the angst that can bring. It's easy to see that his reaction to the spaceship is rooted mostly in his inability to control what he thinks of as his home turf, and the ways in which he tries to cope with his wife's health situation only further demonstrate that he's spinning out. Both son Gabe and daughter Alison deal with their grief about their mother's grim prognosis in their own different ways, and before long the once mostly happy family is unrecognizable from what it used to be.

It's well-written enough, but for me, there wasn't enough "there" there. It's the kind of character-driven family drama that I tend to enjoy, but crucial to these kinds of books is a connection built to the characters. The story suffers for its focus on Ernest, whose masculinity-based identity crisis isn't particularly compelling. I thought Alison's story was much more interesting but incredibly underdeveloped, and Gabe and Cynthia herself could have also done with more attention paid to them. This didn't "feel" like a book written by a woman, to me: thinking that a middle-aged guy's largely self-inflicted sufferings are worth a preponderance of the reader's time and energy doesn't usually tend to be a mistake female writers make. I enjoyed the 90s throwback nostalgia, but otherwise found this pretty skippable.

Tell me, blog you think we'll make contact with aliens within your lifetime?

One year ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Top Ten Tuesday: Recommendations For Feminists

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! I am so excited that Top Ten Tuesday is back, y'all! Putting these lists together is honestly so fun, both to do for my own blog and reading what other people have come up with. Anyways, today's topic is recommendations for a particular group of people, and I thought I'd put together some recommendations for feminists. I've tried to mix it up with both fiction and nonfiction so no matter what you read, you can find something here.

Bossypants: Tina Fey's book is one of the few comedian-writes-collection-of-amusing-essays that I thought actually lived up to the hype. It's not 100% on, but it's funny and insightful and a must-read for being an ambitious female in the world.

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: This recently-published collection of essays from Buzzfeed's peerless Anne Helen Petersen profiles the ways in which famous women exemplify culture prohibitions against being too much, and how they've escaped (or in some cases, haven't) from the consequences for violation. Anyone interested in both pop culture and feminism should get their paws on this.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: She was Queen of England for only about 1000 days hundreds of years ago but she's been a subject of fascination ever since. Susan Bordo chronicles the ways that the perception of this long-ago royal have changed over time, reflecting overall shifts in how women are treated.

Under The Banner of Heaven: I considered adding Reading Lolita in Tehran instead of this book here, in the "religious fundamentalism leading to oppression of women" slot. But I think it's easy for white people in the Western world to look at a Muslim country in the Middle East and point the finger at them for oppressing women. It happens right here in the US, too. This is the best Krakauer, for my money.

My Horizontal Life: Sure, it's easy to respect "good" women, like Tina Fey, who for all her genuine feminist bona fides is still quite traditional in many ways. It's more challenging to look at a woman like Chelsea Handler, who is perceived as having slept her way into her E! show that she did before her current Netflix gig. But feminism includes women who don't necessarily do things the way other women approve of, and Handler's stories about being drunk and on drugs and sleeping with who she wanted when she wanted are pretty funny in her first memoir.

The Handmaid's Tale: This feminist classic has been recently revitalized by the Hulu production of it, and none too soon because it's just as relevant as when it was first published. Most chilling is the way that not only men control women, but the ways in which other women's cooperation is necessary and so easily given.

Americanah: Being a woman in the world is one thing, but we can't forget the necessity of considering how other identities intersect with femaleness. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel focuses on an African female experience, both in Africa and America, and her protagonist Ifemelu is as rich and complicated and ambiguous a character as any ever written, regardless of gender.

So Big: A recent book club exploration of a Willa Cather novel reminded me of how much I liked this book, which won Edna Ferber a Pulitzer Prize. She crafts a story of a woman who faces long odds and disappointments and changes in fate with good humor and cheer, without being saccharine about it, and it's a testament to women's perseverance.

The Group: For better or worse, many women I know are as much defined by their friendships as they are by their romantic relationships. It's not really a progressive view of femaleness in that the women involved are often catty, but it's worth reminding ourselves that the struggles we face (work or family life, breast or bottle) are ones that have been around for generations.

Wild Magic: For a younger reader wanting to explore female-driven adventures, any Tamora Pierce series will do. But for me, the series kicked off by this book was my favorite...I've always loved animals, so Daine's brand of nature-based power was right up my alley.

Book 89: The Wolf In The Attic

"I'm getting too big for Pie, Pa says. I like it when he tells me I'm growing up, but I won't let her go. She's my best friend, if a friend is someone you can tell things to, and sit quiet with, and hug in the dark of the night. He doesn't like her. She still has the burn marks on her from that last terrible day, when we were hemmed in between the fire and the sea. The day mama died."

Dates read: September 14-17, 2016

Rating: 5/10

As I'm writing this (late September 2016), there's still a lot of rhetoric around refugees...whether they should be resettled here, what kind of security controls there should be, that kind of thing. Allowing anyone to enter the country necessarily comes with some measure of risk and in a world where terrorism is increasingly present in areas where it hasn't been, I understand the knee-jerk impulse towards fear. But once you start thinking about what it might be like to be a refugee, to be so traumatized and at-risk that you need to leave behind everything you've ever known and loved...I personally can't even imagine going through that. Refugees deserve our sympathy and support.

The refugee experience is a major thread in Paul Kearney's The Wolf In The Attic. Young Anna Francis left behind her home, her language, whatever might remain of her family, and even her original name behind when she and her father fled Smyrna. They anglicized their name and fled to England, and although Anna's father has a hard time completely leaving Greece behind, he tries his best to raise Anna like an English girl. We get glimpses at what used to be, a happy and prosperous family of four living by the sea, making the reality of what is seem even harsher in comparison: eating nothing but bread and butter for days at a time to try to scrimp up enough money to stay current on rent, unable to afford properly fitting shoes for Anna, hardly able to keep the fireplace lit for heat in the winter.

Anna is about to become a teenager, but she's still clinging to childhood (symbolized in the form of a beloved doll, a gift from her long-gone brother, which she keeps close all the time). For me, this is a characterization that works...the experiences she's suffered through would definitely make one leery of change, of adulthood in all of its complexity. But thrown into adulthood she is when her father dies and she has nowhere to go but the workhouse. Nowhere, that is, but to a band of travelers (they're not exactly Romani, but a similar kind of idea) that she'd previously met when exploring the woods near her home. This is where the story veers away from a refugee tale and into magical realism, because Anna finds herself drawn into the centuries-long skirmish between her new friends (who are hiding some secrets) and a sect descended from the Druids. There's even the devil hisownself in the mix for her soul. Where Anna ends up with, and how, make up the balance of the story.

The back half of the story, honestly, was where it lost me. Kearney creates a compelling world for Anna in Oxford...some familiar literary giants even show up, but in a way that I thought was organic and worked naturally within the narrative. The story of Anna and her father and how they got into the circumstances they're in is well-crafted and heartfelt, and Anna is an easy character to connect with: a pre-teen who is bold and curious but not indomitable, and who finds herself just wrenchingly alone when her father is gone. Her first few encounters with the travelers set the stage well for her to flee to them in her time of need. I actually loved the way her encounters with the Devil were written...eerie and unsettling and emphasizing just how vulnerable she is. But the greater war between the travelers and the Druids, how it all plays just fell totally flat for me. It felt like Kearney didn't have a great idea for his own backstory and so provided only minimal details in the hopes that the reader would infer a richer background than is there. It's a promising premise and has merit but is torpedoed by its own last third.

Tell me, blog do you feel about "famous person" cameos in literature?

One year ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Book 88: Smoke

"The laws of Smoke are complex. Not every lie will trigger it. A fleeting thought of evil may pass unseen; a fib, an excuse, a piece of flattery. Sometimes you can lie quite outrageously and find yourself spared. Everyone knows the feeling, knows it from childhood: of being questioned by your mother, or your governess, by the house tutor; of articulating a lie, pushing it carefully past the threshold of your lips, your palms sweaty, your guts coiled into knots, your chin raised in false confidence; and then, the sweet balm of relief when the Smoke does not come."

Dates read: September 10-14, 2016

Rating: 5/10

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one there whose trust in a person that seemed well-founded turned around and bit them straight in the tuchus. Thankfully, it hasn't happened to me in a while, but I'm sure we've all been burned a time or two by someone who turned out to be not what they seemed. If high school alone doesn't teach you that nice-seeming people can be actually pretty awful (some of us ourselves had our moments of being pretty awful in high school), life always seems to get around to that one at some point. Wouldn't it be nice if there was an easy way to tell who was a good person and who wasn't?

Dan Vyleta's Smoke presents us with an alternative reality historical fiction. In the novel's world, during the Middle Ages, humans evolved a gland inside our livers that produces Smoke...actual, literal smoke that escapes the body (mostly through the pores, as well as the mouth and nose) when someone sins. Well, it's more complicated than that, but that's how we're introduced to it anyways. Aristocrats send their offspring to exclusive schools to learn to control their thoughts and feelings and the resultant Smoke, but the cities, like London (in and around which this book is set), are just thick with it.

At first it seems like an English boarding school book: we're introduced to best friends Charlie and Thomas and resident bully Julius. Thomas and Charlie are a bit of an odd couple: while Charlie is fundamentally decent and well-liked for his openness and good nature, Thomas is proud and defensive, a permanent outsider who can't get his head around the idea that letting well enough alone might be a virtue. We're introduced to their professors and other school leadership, and get a sense of the politics of this world, so similar but different than our own. But when the boys go to visit a relative of Thomas's for Christmas, they find themselves (and Thomas' cousin, Livia) much, much deeper in complicated moral and theological debates than they ever could have imagined.

Up until about three quarters of the way through the book, I was really liking it. Vyleta builds an intricate world and creates characters who hold our interest (the fact that he rotates perspectives fairly frequently helps keep it fresh and give us new information about the world they live in). But feels like he's really trying to raise the stakes super high to give us a big dramatic finale, but he raises them so high that it becomes completely over-the-top and any actual emotional impact it might make is blunted. The book has some similarities in concept to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series (a longtime favorite of mine), and the ending feels reminiscent in a way, but instead of three books worth of storytelling to get us really invested in the outcome, he tries to shove it all into one. It doesn't work.

And since I was pulled out of the story at the end by the ridiculous quality it took on, it made me see other plot issues that I'd had issues with. One of the most glaring, to me, was that while there were several references made to Smoke differing in color and quality according to the underlying emotion that produced it, it was never actually laid out what corresponded to what. I had an e-ARC (electronic advanced reader's copy) so maybe that was changed in the final printing, but I found that personally bothersome. At the end of the day, this is about 75% of a good book but 25% of a pretty bad one. I wouldn't recommend it, but I wouldn't warn anyone away from it either.

Tell me, blog friends...does an iffy ending derail a book for you, too?

One year ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita In Tehran

A Month In The Life: July 2017

This post is coming at you from my beloved Michigan! We're probably somewhere near the Mackinac Bridge right now on our way back to Ann Arbor, but this is scheduled to auto-post. I am zero percent looking forward to having driven all day today and then traveling back to Reno all day tomorrow, but that's how it worked out scheduling-wise, so that's how we're doing it. Now that I've whined about my entirely self-inflicted wounds, let's look back at the last month, eh?

In Books...

  • The Good German: I know that I saw the George Clooney movie they made out of this book when I was in college but I didn't remember it at all. It's a shame it wasn't better, because this story about Berlin immediately after WWII and the questions of guilt and blame for the atrocities committed by the Nazis was both thoughtful and twisty and quite good. 
  • My Antonia: I do really like it when the book club selections match up with things I'm already planning to read. This Willa Cather pioneer classic didn't have much of a traditional story structure, but her writing, especially about the lonesome loveliness of the prairie, is beautiful. 
  • Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: I love Anne Helen Peterson's writing about celebrity culture at Buzzfeed, so I was stoked to be approved for an ARC of her book about female celebrities that transgress social boundaries. I think I would have liked to see fewer focuses to allow for more in-depth discussions (a lot of times it felt like it was skimming the surface of something much deeper) but it's still an incisive look at the ways women are constrained in how much we're allowed to be.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: I'm sure you, like me, have heard the massive hype around this Pulitzer Prize winner. It's all true. It's incredible. Beautiful and funny and heartbreaking and hopeful and sad and holy smokes it's so good. 
  • Crazy Rich Asians: I've generally found that a way to avoid book hangover after reading something stellar is to make a major tonal shift for my next read. And so I went from a Great American Novel to a frothy send-up of the rich and fabulous of Singapore. It was ultimately a little too frothy, with not enough substance, and employed one of my least favorite tropes: drama that could have been avoided if people talked to each other. 
  • Valley of the Moon: A good reminder of why I need to let go of my genre snobbery, this time-travel romance was well-written and enjoyable.
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day: This was my first Sedaris essay collection and I found them to run the gamut from generally amusing to actually laughing out loud while reading (which I don't do very often). I'll read more of his stuff for sure.
  • Station Eleven: The post-apocalypse subgenre has been a popular one lately, making it hard to find a unique take. But Emily St. John Mandel's novel is haunting and elegant and a real pleasure to read. 

In Life...

  • We went to see Ali Wong! If you haven't seen her Baby Cobra standup special, filmed when she was very pregnant, it's a must. I nearly wept with laughter. She was very, very funny live and we had a great time. 
  • We went to Michigan: Technically, like I mentioned above, we're still there. My dad is from a small town in the western half of the Upper Peninsula, and there's a family reunion at grandpa's every summer. I've obviously been a bunch of times over my life and most recently went two years ago, but this was Drew's first time there. We spent a few days downstate with family and friends and then headed to the UP and we're driving back today and then on an airplane tomorrow! We had a great time in both peninsulas, I very much miss Michigan so I'm always stoked to go back, especially when we had fantastic weather.

One Thing:

I've made a couple stabs at organizing my library with cataloging software, but I stopped using them and then things got really out of date really quickly. So I just did another round using, a service that I really like and want to/hope I keep using. Instead of getting ambitious and curating a list of my "want to read" books or including my Kindle titles, I'm keeping it simple-ish and restricting it to my physical library ONLY. The link to my personal library is here if you're curious about what I own in print.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Book 87: The Other Side of the River

"That's not to say the history isn't there. Whites have killed blacks before. Or killed because of blacks. The stories have passed on from generation to generation, over supper or over a beer, on stoops or in parlors, told by grandmothers and by pastors, the narratives shaped and reshaped by people's prejudices and blurred memories and by their own experiences. And while they may not be recorded in history books, they exist just as powerfully and vividly in these oral tales."

Dates read: September 6-10, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Maybe it's just my own privilege, or growing up in a small, fairly homogeneous town, or cluelessness, or other/more things, but I feel like the shooting of Michael Brown really kicked off a national movement of racial issues back into the mainstream. As much as we, as a country, tried to clap ourselves on the back for electing our first black president and pretend really hard that we're living in a post-racial world, it didn't work. Racial divides, state-sanctioned violence against people of color, and institutionalized prejudice still exist. As a white person, it's been an exercise in learning the limitations of my own experiences and trying to figure out how to do better in the ways that I can. There's a whole process to that, of course, and it's one that requires constant learning and growth.

But really, of course, these issues have been a problem for a long, long time. It doesn't seem like the early 90s were that long ago, but it's somehow been 25 years since then. And in 1991, the mysterious death of a black teenager in small-town western Michigan inflamed the same kinds of tensions that surround race today. Alex Kotlowitz's The Other Side of the River examines the fallout of the drowning of 16 year-old Eric McGinnis on two towns, Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor, divided by race and class, and yes, a river.

If you're the type of person who needs their mysteries to be solved, don't read this book. We never do find out how Eric ended up in the water where he perished. He could have been walking and slipped. He could have tried to swim. He could have been chased and fallen in. He could have been pushed in. Trying to figure out exactly what happened bedevils Kotlowitz, as well as Jim Reeves, the detective assigned to the case. What they do know is that Eric, from mostly black Benton Harbor, came into overwhelming white Saint Joseph one evening to go to a teen dance club. He had recently had a short flirtation/relationship with a white girl. At some point in the night, he was busted stealing cash from a car and was briefly chased down the road by the furious owner. And a few days later, his body surfaced.

Kotlowitz pulls back and widens the frame to give us the context for the scene in which Eric's death occurs. He talks about the history of the two towns, how Benton Harbor was initially the big, prosperous one and Saint Joe was little more than a string of beach cottages...but, like in so many cities, white flight during the 60s drained it of capital. Despite being neighboring communities, the divides between St. Joe and Benton Harbor just got deeper and deeper as the years passed. The communities had already been roiled before Eric's death when a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager who he mistakenly believed was a dangerous suspect in a crime. So when Eric drowned and the St. Joe's police department, unused to handling potential homicides, made some tactical errors and failed to find any serious suspects, unease and suspicions between the communities flared back up.

The book is interesting enough, and well-written enough, but it doesn't really go anywhere. Kotlowitz clearly wants to get his readers to think about all sides of the issue (and by that I mean there's a definite sense that he knows most readers will be white and leads them through the struggles of the local black community so they understand why a drowned teenager was viewed with such suspicion), but he doesn't have anything especially insightful to add to the conversation. It's a solid read, but ultimately doesn't resonate much.

One year ago, I was reading: Behave

Dreamcasting: Catherine, Called Birdy

One of the books I look back on most fondly from my childhood is Catherine, Called Birdy. I was always a feisty child (surprise!), so this story about a high-spirited medieval teenager scheming to thwart her father's plans for marrying her off delighted me. Thinking back, it was fairly accurate about what life would have actually been like for a daughter of the minor gentry in that time: her parents plan on marrying her off despite her only being 13, she's expected to endlessly sew, and hygiene isn't really a thing. Assuming everyone would get aged up to about 16, here's who I would cast in the major roles:

Catherine: Rowan Blanchard

Catherine has been a great favorite of mine since I was a teenager myself, and I really think Blanchard could knock it out of the park. She's got the mischievous twinkle in her eye that seems perfect for the high-spirited Catherine, who amuses herself by repulsing her various suitors.

Aelis: Mackenzie Foy

Catherine's only real friend her own age, the Lady Aelis falls for Catherine's favorite uncle, George (see below), bringing out her green-eyed monster. When nothing becomes of this mutual attraction because of differences in social status, Aelis ends up married to a child duke and eventually, Catherine's own brother. The only other thing I've seen Foy in is the Twilight series and she's lovely and charismatic onscreen and seems like she might be able to capture Aelis's sparkle.

George: Josh Hutcherson

Although it wasn't uncommon to see massive age gaps between couples in the Middle Ages (see who I've cast as Catherine's own suitor below), George and Aelis are supposed to be a couple who might have married for love, so I wanted to keep the difference between them not tooooo bad. Josh Hutcherson looks young for his age and exudes kindness without the kind of scary manliness that would probably be off-putting to a teenager.

Ethelfritha: Amy Poehler

After his budding connection with Aelis is broken off, George marries Ethelfritha, a wealthy older widow who's been a bit scrambled ever since she was struck by lightening. She's comic relief, but she's also supposed to be good-hearted and someone that Catherine grows genuinely fond of. I feel like that sounds like a perfect fit for Amy Poehler's warmly offbeat comedy.

Shaggy Beard: Tom Hardy

Now, both you and I know that Tom Hardy is very good-looking indeed. But in full giant beard, to a teenage girl? He'd probably be horrifying. Shaggy Beard is Catherine's most persistent suitor, and I'd like to see Hardy stretch a bit into a comedic role.