Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book 173: The Year of Magical Thinking



"If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die? The clear light of day tells me that I did not allow John to die, that I did not have that power, but do I believe that? Does he?"

Dates read: August 29-31, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award, The New York Times bestseller

I'm very lucky in many respects, and one of them is this: my entire nuclear family is more or less healthy and very much alive. My parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, my husband...I've never experienced that kind of loss. My mom had lost both of her parents by the time she was my age, which just blows my mind. Even now, I don't feel prepared to lose either of my parents, much less both of them. I know this will change, and one day I'll find myself having to say goodbye to people that I love dearly, but for now I'm grateful.

I was reminded of just how lucky I am when I read Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she recounts an incredibly terrible time: while their adult daughter Quintana is fighting for her life in the hospital, a normal-seeming winter cold somehow having progressed into pneumonia, septic shock, and coma, Joan and her husband John come home, and while she's getting things ready for dinner, he suddenly keels over, dead after a massive heart attack. She doesn't know that right at the moment it happens, of course. All she knows is that he falls, is non-responsive, she calls an ambulance, they try to resuscitate him, and then off to the ER. She finds out shortly after she arrives that he's gone. Forty years of marriage, and then he's gone just like that.

But she can't just focus dealing with the loss of her constant companion for decades (as professional writers, they both worked from home). Her daughter is still comatose, and Joan has to break the news to her not once but twice (she forgets when she falls back into a coma after being told the first time). Quintana does seem to recover, the funeral happens, and she flies back to California with her own husband...only to collapse again on her way out of the airport. Joan leaves her NYC apartment to head to LA to be there for her daughter, and is constantly buffeted by memories of her family's early, happy years in the area. Eventually Quintana recovers again, and Joan returns home, wrapping up her book a year and a day after her husband's death.

On the surface, there's very little in Joan Didion's life that I can relate to: she and her husband lived at a level of financial security where they made regular trips to Paris (their quibbling over what turned out to be their last trip, taken at John's insistence because he had a vague feeling that it might be his last chance is something Joan relates), they lived in LA for a time to write screenplays, they take daily walks in Central Park. And like I've said, I've never lived through the kind of awful experiences she recounts in this book. But she's an extremely talented writer, so her words spoke to me and tugged at my heart. She doesn't just tell you that grief takes you around in circles, she has motifs in her writing that pop up over and over again, taking you on that journey with her. You feel her agony when she thinks she's plotted her route around LA when she's there with Quintana to avoid anything that would remind her of when her husband was alive but she finds that she didn't plan carefully enough and the fragile scar tissue she's built up is battered by waves of memory.

It feels odd to say that I "enjoyed" reading a memoir about profound grief. But I found it incredibly compelling and difficult to put down even though it was hard to read. She really takes the reader on a journey with her. Knowing that even though she was alive at the end of the book, Quintana died shortly thereafter, made its impact even greater. I'd never read any of Didion's work before, but I picked up one of her novels and two of her essay collections after reading this book, because I wanted to read more of her writing. I'd recommend this book to anyone that feels like picking it up.

Tell me, blog friends...do you have to relate to a memoirist's experiences to get into their book?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

Three years ago, I was reading: Private Citizens

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the next books up on our list! These are the next ten books I'm planning to read (book club selections will be added but I don't know what they are yet!).



Inside Edge: I love figure skating and have watched it ever since I was a kid, so even though this book is getting up there in years I'm still looking forward to reading it!

The Rules of Attraction: I honestly don't know that I think I'll like Bret Easton Ellis, but I want to try his work.

All The President's Men: This is a classic that I can't believe I haven't read yet, especially since I work in politics!

The Last Romantics: This came out last month and I won an early reviewer copy...it's gotten rave reviews from some of my trusted recommenders!

Lilah: Revisiting The Red Tent on audio last year reminded me how I much I enjoyed that work of biblical fiction, so I'm hoping this one is also good (though it's obviously from a different author).

The Fever: I've read one of Megan Abbott's midcentury noirs and enjoyed it, but I've heard her contemporary work is really great as well.

The Lowland: I love Jhumpa Lahiri's writing.

Jackaby: This is one of the Amazon publishing books that I've seen get generally very positive reviews...lots of people seem to really like the whole series!

First: Sandra Day O'Connor is a total role model, so this new release biography of her is right up my alley.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: I know Junot Diaz is problematic, but I've heard such great things about this book for so long that I do want to read it for myself.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book 172: The Idiot



"I wrote her phone number on my hand, while she wrote mine in her daily planner. Already I was the impetuous one — the one who cared less about personal safety and tradition, while Svetlana was the one who subscribed to rules and inherited systems, and wrote things in the designated spaces. Already we were comparing to see whose way of doing things was better. But it wasn't a competition so much as an experiment, because neither of us was capable of acting differently, and each viewed the other with an admiration that was inseparable from pity."

Dates read: August 23-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Sometimes I feel like I'm learning in reverse: when I was a teenager, I was sure I know pretty much everything, and the older I get, the less I feel certain of. I think many other teenagers are the same way...at least, the ones I've known. Sometimes I almost miss that blazing moral clarity, the certainty that I was right and someone else was wrong. But letting it go (for the most part) has made me an easier person to get along with, and a better one overall.

Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, has the opposite problem. She's a freshman at Harvard, and she's overwhelmed by all she doesn't know. She doesn't know where her life is going, really, she doesn't know what classes she wants to take, she's not sure how to help the students she's been assigned as a part of her volunteer work doing adult education. She can't even figure out how to fall asleep regularly, adding exhaustion on top of her confusion. She kind of drifts along, and one of the places she drifts is into a beginner Russian class, where she meets two people that change her life.

One is Svetlana, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, who decides she's going to become Selin's friend and does so with aplomb, quickly becoming the dominant force in Selin's social life. The other is Ivan, a senior from Hungary, who becomes Selin's conversation partner for Russian class, and correspondence partner over the then-new medium of email outside of class in English. Their conversation gradually turns into them spending time together, and Selin develops an intense crush on him. Even after she learns he has a girlfriend (and while he's giving her very mixed signals), she takes up an opportunity to teach English in Hungary over the summer in the hopes of getting to spend time with him.

This book, like last week's Stoner, has a very passive central figure. Selin's unsureness about virtually everything means that she mostly reacts to the world around her instead of being proactive. This makes her simultaneously very relatable (who hasn't felt paralyzed with indecision, especially in a new situation?) and quite frustrating. If you've ever lived through the experience of having feelings for someone who wasn't quite sure what they wanted, you find yourself wanting to reach through the pages and shake her by the shoulders while telling her that this isn't going to end well. But you also know there's no way to learn that lesson except living through it, because you probably ignored the person who shook you by the shoulders and tried to warn you off.

Batuman is an incredible writer...I highlighted so many things on my Kindle that she wrote that just seemed to perfectly capture the essence of being young and lost and desperately self-conscious. And she creates a very real, sympathetic-even-as-she's-irritating character in Selin. The plot structure, though, could have used some work. While she's at school, the book meanders along slowly and had a hard time holding my interest despite the lovely prose. Once she gets to Hungary, however, and starts interacting with host families and students, the book gets much livelier and there were several moments that were actually laugh-out-loud funny. It's not that I didn't enjoy the portion of the book that takes place at Harvard, but I enjoyed the last quarter-or-so so much more. I wish Batuman had figured out a way to disperse some of that levity more equally throughout the book, because it's like 3/4 a good book and 1/4 a really good book. As is, though, I'd recommend this book, to recent-ish college grads in particular (I feel like if I were too much older than I am now, I'd be too annoyed by Selin to really enjoy what it had to offer).

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever have one of those flirtations with mixed signals?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Green Girl

Three years ago, I was reading: To Die For

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Standalone Books That Need a Sequel

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I personally am not big into series...I do read them, but they're more an exception than a rule. That being said, there are definitely books that I put down and wish I had the next entry waiting to pick up to see what becomes of these characters! Here are ten books I'd read a sequel to.



Pride and Prejudice: I know modern authors have done spins on this idea, what happens to Lizzy and Darcy, but I wonder what Austen herself would have done with them and how she would have kept their spark alive as a married couple.

Gone Girl: I want to hear from the child Amy's carrying at the end of the book...did his/her parents stay together long-term? What would it be like to grow up with those people raising you? I feel like there's a compelling story to be told there.

The Bell Jar: We know that Esther survives, goes on to (presumably) get married and have a child. How did that come to be? Like Sylvia Plath, does Esther continue to struggle?

Speak: I first read this book nearly two decades ago as a high school freshman and it's never left me. I'm still curious how Melinda grows up and how her high school experience continues to impact her.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Don't get me wrong, I love the coming-of-age aspect of this book, but I want to know what becomes of Francie Nolan, how she deals with moving away from Brooklyn, and what she makes of her life.

Matilda: I hope it all ends happily, but I do wonder how it plays out for Matilda and Miss Honey.

Catherine Called Birdy: The book ends on a hopeful note for high-spirited Catherine, but I don't think she'd easily adjust to life as a wife and mother, so I can only imagine there would be hilarity to ensue!

The Namesake: The tale of Gogol coming into his own is powerful, but I do find myself wondering what kind of husband and father (if he becomes a husband and father at all) he would be to his own children.

Let Me In: I mean, honestly, this book was super duper dark and I didn't want it to be any longer than it was, but I am interested in how Eli and Oskar survive together in the world.

The Lords of Discipline: I loved Will McLean and wish we would have gotten a glimpse at his adult life after college.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book 171: Stoner



"Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized how little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know."

Dates read: August 20-23, 2017

Rating: 9/10

When I was little, I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, like Sandra Day O'Connor. We're encouraged to dream big like that, to set our sights on the presidency or being a surgeon or designing skyscrapers. The reality, of course, is that most people won't achieve anything like that. We lead smaller lives. Our names never appear in headlines. The older I get, the more I realize that that's okay. It's wonderful to accomplish big things, but what actually brings me happiness is the smaller stuff: playing with my dog, getting a good-night hug and kiss from my husband, laughing with my best friend on the phone. It's the little things that actually make a life.

John Williams' Stoner chronicles a life that most would write off as mediocre. William Stoner is born to subsistence farmers in Missouri, and when he grows up, his parents send him to college to learn about agriculture. Stoner is a decent but unspectacular student until he takes a required English course and he's seized by the love of learning. He abandons his original plan to return home for the academic life, continuing his education and becoming a professor. Along the way he marries Edith, a lovely young woman who turns out to not be a very good wife, they have a daughter, and Stoner gets caught up in academic politics. He writes and publishes one book, and dies without much more in the way of accomplishments.

It's a "small" life: Stoner never really leaves Colombia once he gets there, and never rises to any sort of prominence. He opts out of World War I, his book never makes any waves, his marriage is a disaster (not only do they never love one another, she frequently goes out of her way to spite him and destroy any small measure of contentment he feels), his adored daughter is turned against him and grows up to become an alcoholic, and he permanently alienates the head of his department (preventing any sort of advancement) when he refuses to give his approval to allow a clever but shallow student to progress towards a doctorate. He has one short period of true happiness, an affair with a graduate student, but it doesn't last. He dies in pain, separated from those he loves.

It sounds like a massive downer. It should be a massive downer. But Williams' writing, particularly his characterization of Stoner, creates a portrait that's melancholic but in a way that's poignant rather than outright sad. Stoner has the stoicism that one might expect from a boy born to taciturn farmers...when you grow up expecting to eke a living out of the soil from which your parents struggled to do the same, you don't expect greatness or wild happiness from life. Fundamentally decent and essentially passive, Stoner accepts most of what his life brings with grace. Even his biggest fight, his determination to fail the unworthy student, is more of a refusal to back down from doing what he genuinely believes he should do than an active campaign against the student in question. Stoner is a very rare example of a literary protagonist who is almost entirely reactive rather than proactive.

It's Williams' beautiful characterization of Stoner that makes the novel's one significant flaw (for me, anyways, you might have more) so glaring: Edith is so one-dimensionally villainous. She's given some sympathy at the beginning, when she's no more prepared for the realities of marriage than her young husband. But she gradually progresses to be a vindictive antagonist without any real indication given as to why. When every other character is rendered with emotional honesty, it stands out that Edith is not, and as she is the most significant female character in the book, it's troubling. But not nearly enough to outweigh the merits of Stoner as a whole: it's deftly and elegantly told, in prose that's resonant without ever being flowery, and gives dignity to a kind of person and life that's usually brushed aside without much thought. I really loved this book, and completely understand why it's been rediscovered and celebrated as of late. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...what was your big dream?

One year ago, I read: The Martian (review to come)

Two years ago, I read: Housekeeping

Three years ago, I read: Dead Ever After

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Like To Switch Places With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at characters whose lives look pretty good...good enough to switch into for a bit, as long as I got to come back anyways!



Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): Being Harry Potter himself is dangerous and scary. Being Hermione, though, means you get to have all the adventures and be the smartest person in the room at all times, which is the dream.

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): The lessons she learns are fairly gentle, and she's handsome, clever, and rich, which honestly seems like a great way to be.

Daine Sarrasri (Wild Magic): Growing up, her magical connection with animals was something I loved and really wished I had!

Vasya Petrovna (The Bear and the Nightingale): She's brave, smart, beautiful, and magical, and one of my favorite recent series heroines.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones' Diary): Her life is honestly pretty easy even if her escapades are hilarious.

Professor Maud Bailey (Possession): She's lovely and smart and a feminist scholar and that's not a bad way to find yourself being.

Natasha Rostova (War and Peace): I will never get over what Tolstoy does with her in the end, but right up until then she's got the best, most interesting personality and journey of anyone in the book, and is one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever read.

Astrid Teo (Crazy Rich Asians): Okay, she's got romantical problems. But so does everyone and she's gorgeous and absurdly wealthy.

Cersei Lannister (A Game of Thrones): SHE'S THE WORST. But she's also beautiful, rich, powerful, and utterly (albeit wrongly) convinced of her own intelligence and rightness.

Sookie Stackhouse (Dead Until Dark): Yes, the constant unwanted intrusions of others' thoughts would be stressful, and the frequent murder concerns are a problem, but she also gets to have a bunch of love affairs with hot dudes, so...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Book 170: Mildred Pierce



"She felt wretched, wished Veda would come over to her, so she could take her in her arms and tell her about it in some way that didn't seem so shame-faced. But Veda's eyes were cold, and she didn't move. Mildred doted on her, for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery, which hinted at things superior to her own commonplace nature. But Veda doted on her father, for his grand manner and fine ways, and if he disdained gainful work, she was proud of him for it." 

Dates read: August 16-20, 2017

Rating: 6/10

One of my ongoing life projects (besides, of course, reading 500 books over the course of my 30s) is to watch all the movies that have won "major Oscars". For me, that's Picture, Director, the acting categories, documentary, and foreign language film. This is something I've been loosely trying to do for probably a decade. I've done all of the movies that are available either streaming or on DVD from Netflix for Picture, Actor, Actress, and most-but-not-all of Supporting. Less progress through Documentary and Foreign Language. It's been an interesting journey...some of the movies, even the older ones, are fantastic (I loved It Happened One Night and The Apartment). Others are not (too many to list, honestly). But seeing how the ways that stories are told both change and stay the same is fascinating.

So before I picked up James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, I'd already seen the Joan Crawford movie version. Which meant I knew the general idea of the plot, but this isn't the kind of story that's "ruined" if you know how it goes. It tells the story of the titular character, a wife and mother of two during the Depression era. Before the crash, her husband had supported his family through investment income, but is too proud to work for a living when that's no longer an option. He's decided to perk up his spirits by having an affair, and Mildred kicks him out of the house pretty much right off the bat. Desperate to keep the roof over her and her daughters' heads, she tries to figure out how to make money. Her side business selling cakes and pies isn't enough, and so even though she tries to find a white collar position, she finally has no choice but waitressing.

She's embarrassed to be forced into this service role...not just because it's hard for her personally, but because she's afraid of what her daughter Veda will think. The older of the girls, Veda is spoiled and selfish and snobby, and Mildred is completely devoted to her. Eventually, Mildred's hard work and a bit of luck lead her to open her own restaurant and attract the attentions of handsome socialite Monte, which Veda loves because his social connections open up an entire world of wealth to the now-aspiring musician. But Monte's fortunes fall, and soon he's taking Mildred's money but making no moves toward marriage. So she leaves him, but before long her relationship with Veda flounders. So Mildred and Monte renew their romance, though this leads to the ruin of everything Mildred holds dear.

The movie, to me, was in some respects more successful than the book. Some plot lines were cut and some were significantly changed to comply with the Code. In the book, Mildred's obsession with her daughter reads as almost romantic, which both explains why she clings to her so hard but honestly is also creepy. Mildred onscreen comes off as doormat-y as Joan Crawford was capable of being, but in the book she's got more moxie. Her rise also feels more organic, as it develops more slowly, and therefore all the more hard to read about as it starts to crumble underneath her. Cain created a great character in Mildred...she's clearly fundamentally good but not without flaws, with the kind of scrappiness that makes her easy to root for.

The characters around her, though, are flat: Veda's just a bitch with nothing redeeming about her, Monte's obvious trash, her business partner is totally shady. The plot hinges on Mildred's love for Veda, and although I've known of plenty of parents of brats that think they're just misunderstood geniuses, that she would so consistently overlook her daughter's harshness (especially when she's clearly capable of knowing when to push people away) strains the bounds of credulity. It's not a question of whether Mildred is going to destroy herself for her daughter's sake, but when and how. Cain's writing isn't particularly smooth or insightful, either. It's not a bad book or a waste of time, but it's not good enough that I'd affirmatively recommend it. If you like domestic dramas or want to read the source material of a story that's been adapted twice (there's also the Kate Winslet miniseries from several years back), it's worth a read. Otherwise, skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: A Leg To Stand On

Three years ago, I was reading: The Big Rewind