Book 95: Sophie's Choice

"I was unable to make the anthropomorphic leap and thus failed to comprehend the resemblance between a swan and any specific human being, but Sophie swore that they were dead look-alikes, began to call him Tadeusz and murmured to him in little glottal clucks and clicks of Polish as she heaved at him the debris from her bag. I rarely ever saw Sophie lose her temper, but the conduct of the other swans, bossy and preemptive, so fatly greedy, infuriated her and she yelled Polish swear words at the big bastards and favored Tadeusz by making sure that he got more than his share of the garbage. Her vehemence startled me. I did not—because I could not at the time—connect this energetic protectorship of the underdog (the underswan?) with anything that had happened in her past, but her campaign for Tadeusz was funny and immensely appealing."

Dates read: September 30-October 8, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Growing up, we all read books and stories about the Holocaust in school. We all learn about Auschwitz and the ovens. But for me, personally, there were three movies that took it beyond words in a history book and made the horror of it visceral: Schindler's List, The Pianist, and Sophie's Choice. They are all beautifully and powerfully made films that I never want to watch again. There's something about actually seeing it depicted on film that takes what is objectively horrible on the page (all three are based on books) and makes it just a harrowing gut punch almost too much to be borne. It's still hard to read about, but not as hard as watching it.

William Styron's original novel of Sophie's Choice takes us to post-WWII Brooklyn. It's not the poverty-ridden borough of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, but neither is it modern-day wealthy hipster Brooklyn. It's in-between, an "ethnic" (read: mostly Jewish) working-class neighborhood. It's in a boarding house there that our narrator, aspiring writer and native Southerner Stingo, finds himself after he quits his dead-end publishing house job and can't afford Manhattan any longer. His first day in his new room, he's treated to the sound of noisy, athletic sex in the room right above his...and not too long after, he meets the lovers, Sophie and Nathan, in the midst of an awful, emotionally and physically violent public fight.

The pair are soon reconciled, though, and Stingo is quickly drawn into their orbit. Beautiful Sophie is a Polish survivor of Auschwitz who does secretarial work for a chiropractor, and the mercurial Nathan is an American Jewish medical researcher, and Stingo falls a little bit in love with both of them as he begins to write a novel based in his experiences of the South. But another messy fight and breakup between Sophie and Nathan ultimately reveals that neither of them is exactly who they seem to be and makes their tragic end seem inevitable.

This took me unusually long to get through: not because the subject matter is tough, even though it is, but because the book is just dense. Styron's prose tends towards the purple, and while usually I'm down with books that are on the overwritten side, it's a lot, you guys. It feels like the writing is struggling against the story, almost, trying to keep it from sweeping over the reader. There are plenty of remarkable passages, but the ratio of those to portions that drag isn't nearly high enough.

The story of Sophie and Nathan, when it manages to take off, is sweeping and powerful and dramatic (if a bit on the Freudian side...there's a lot of eros/thanatos stuff going on). But what grinds it to a halt is the character of Stingo. He's an obvious writer-insert character, and Styron badly overestimates how interesting the portion of the book that's devoted to his sexual frustration is. It's not only boring, it's cringe-worthy, especially the section where he jerks himself off while sharing a hotel room with his father and makes so much noise when he finishes that he wakes his dad up. I'm not going to say that no one wants to read about that because maybe someone does, but it's tonally discordant with a book that's mostly about the evils humans inflict on themselves and each other and the way we tell our own stories to try to shape the world into a way we can better cope with it. There's greatness here, but it desperately needed a better editor to cut it and make it shine like it should have. As is, it's worth reading but not something I'd honestly recommend.

Tell me, blog friends...can you rewatch those kinds of movies?

One year ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman

Top Ten Tuesday: My Fall TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic, our fall to-be-read list, is probably supposed to be focusing on fall new releases. But since I don't read a ton of new releases, I thought I'd show you the next ten books I'm reading! There will be a book club pick or two inserted in this lineup, but I don't know what those will be yet so here's what I'm planning to read.

Stay With Me: An ARC I meant to get to earlier but didn't, I've heard kind of mixed reviews of this story of an African couple debating polygamy in order to have a family. I'm curious, though, and some people seem to have really liked it, so I'm going to go for it.

Bonfire of the Vanities: Apparently this is very 80s-tastic...I've never seen the movie but it was a legendary flop, so I'm really curious about the source material.

The Royals: I know, I know, this book is filled with gossip and half-truths and is nearly a decade old now, to boot. But I've always been interested in the British royal family and I want to read it so I'm going to.

The Blind Assassin: I recently re-read The Handmaid's Tale and was struck not only with the relevancy of the tale, but the quality of the writing. I want to read more of Atwood's work, and also it won the Booker Prize, which is an awards list I tend to enjoy.

Player Piano: The only Vonnegut I've read is Slaughterhouse-Five, which I really did like, so I decided to read more of his work.

White Fur: I'm behind on getting to this ARC too, but I've heard some good stuff about it from bloggers I trust so I'm looking forward to finally reading it!

The Book Thief: A bunch of people I know love this book, but my middle school English teacher mother-in-law doesn't care for it...I'm curious who I end up agreeing with!

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter: This book is one of those that tends to show up on lots of different "best of" lists, so I snagged it on sale for the Kindle.

The Underground Railroad: This book was a major hit last year and I've been meaning to read it for months, so it's time to finally make that happen.

A Vast Conspiracy: I love Jeffrey Toobin, so I was super stoked when I found a second-hand copy of his book on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal so I could read it.

Book 94: The Circle

"Suffering is only suffering if it's done in silence, in solitude. Pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain. It was communion."

Dates read: September 27-30, 2016

Rating: 3/10

I don't know about you, but a lot of my internet presence is tied to either my Google account or my Facebook account. It's so hard to remember a million different passwords and logins when you can just authorize logging in through Facebook and not have to worry about it anymore. But we all know it's not quite as innocuous as we'd like it to believe...we see the ads for that cute dress we looked at on our work computer show up on our home computer and know that we signed into the website selling that cute dress through Facebook. Technology and social media are awesome, but they're also new. If we're being honest, we don't really understand the full ramifications of putting so much of our lives on the internet. We're making a lot of it up as we go along.

In Dave Eggers' The Circle, we're ever-so-slightly in the future, and one large umbrella company has taken over most of what happens on the internet: all your social media and e-commerce goes through a TruYou profile, a product of The Circle. When Mae Holland, a recent graduate of an East Coast private liberal arts school who grew up in working class California, is able to get a job at The Circle through her friend Annie, she's thrilled. The sprawling and luxurious Bay Area campus is beyond her wildest dreams and the company is at the forefront of every breaking new development in internet technology. She's increasingly drawn into the world of The Circle as it encroaches further and further into formerly private arenas of life, and can't understand her family and friends who resist the shifting landscape of the world.

Theoretically, this is a really good book, a modern 1984. When you hear about things like the lawsuit in Spain about the right to be forgotten, it really makes you think about how deeply the internet has enmeshed itself in our lives. The Circle illustrates how slippery the slope could be for it to completely invade all aspects of our existence...microchipping and GPS tracking children to prevent kidnapping, very small constantly streaming webcams to open up closed regimes, politicians livestreaming their professional duties to make government transparent. All of these things sound like they're positive developments on the surface, but it creates a culture of constant surveillance.

Where the book fails, though, is the execution. Mae (short for Maebelline, which I thought was a nifty way to communicate what kind of people her parents were without having to spell anything out) is obviously meant to be an audience-insert character, like Twilight's Bella. But it doesn't work here to the extent it works for Twilight...the characteristics Mae is given, ambition and a certain amount of selfishness, render her mostly unpleasant. She needs to be a compelling character to have us follow her down the proverbial rabbit hole, but she has no real personality. She seems close to her family in the beginning, but drafts away from them easily and without apparent regret. She has "relationships" with peers like Annie and her ex-boyfriend Mercer, but we're not given any sense of history or any reason to believe that she's actually emotionally connected to other people. The writing is clunky, with awkward phrasing all over the place. It's extra disappointing because the ideas behind the book are there, and if it had been rendered better it could have been amazing. I understand why it flopped, and I wouldn't recommend it.

Tell me, blog you ever take technology breaks?

One year ago, I was reading: The Wolf In The Attic

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Love That Are At Least Ten Years Old

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This is a topic that was MADE for me, since I am a devoted backlist reader. I tried to mix in both books I've read several times over the years, and books that I've read more recently but that I'm looking forward to revisiting. There's definitely something exciting about reading the new buzzy book that's on everyone's mind, but there are so many amazing books that are older but just as worthy of your time. Here are ten of my favorites!

The Virgin Suicides: Middlesex might have been the award-winner, but I've always enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides' debut more. It's tightly constructed and beautifully told and I've been on a months-long mission to make it a book club read because I'd love to have a reason to revisit it yet again.

The Secret History: Every campus novel I read gets compared to this incredible story about a group of students who commit a murder...and none has quite measured up to the engrossing story and well-drawn characters of Donna Tartt's book.

Anna Karenina: I'd made a stab at this one in high school and only gotten through about 50 pages, but when I picked it back up a few years ago I ate it up. The portions about farming get a little dry but the bulk of the novel is incredibly good.

Emma: Austen, like Tolstoy, is an author I only was able to get a handle on later in life. I'm going to confess my unpopular opinion that Pride & Prejudice is overrated, and instead recommend Emma. If you've ever seen Clueless, you'll recognize the broad strokes of this story of a wannabe matchmaker.

The Namesake: I'd heard great things about this novel for years before I finally picked it up, but I'm glad I did. If you like books that are all about delving deeply into a character, you'll love this one about the son of Indian immigrants who hates his name.

All The King's Men: If you pay attention to politics for long enough, you'll probably realize that there are very few people in it who are either all bad or all good. This story is told through the eyes of a cynical reporter who becomes a right-hand-man for a governor and watches the once-idealistic candidate become a ruthless operator.

1984: I first read this book when I was about 12 and even though I didn't really get all of it, I got enough to understand its timeless message about government manipulation and control of information. It's a book I get something new out of every time I revisit it.

The Great Gatsby: I loathed this classic when I first read it as a junior in high school. I thought everyone involved was selfish and whiny. But when I picked it up again in college, I fell in love with its powerful language and indelible characters.

In Cold Blood: The first true crime novel, this book tells the story of a heinous murder in the middle of nowhere, Kansas, and the men who committed it, and what happened to them. It's almost impossible to put down.

The Stranger Beside Me: Another true crime classic, this brought Ann Rule to immediate prominence in the genre as she recounted working at a suicide crisis call center along a handsome young man named Ted Bundy as a series of murders swept Washington.

Book 93: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

"Unlike beer, which was usually produced and consumed locally, and wine, which was usually made and traded within a specific region, rum was the result of the convergence of materials, people, and technologies from around the world, and the product of several intersecting historical forces. Sugar, which originated in Polynesia, had been introduced to Europe by the Arabs, taken to the Americas by Columbus, and cultivated by slaves from Africa. Rum distilled from its waste products was consumed both by European colonists and by their slaves in the New World."

Dates read: September 24-27, 2016

Rating: 4/10

For someone who's as fussy of an eater as I am, my taste in drinks has changed a lot over the years. I changed over to coffee, finally, from my longtime Diet Mountain Dew habit only a few years ago once I was finally convinced that my continued possession of my own teeth depended on it. I drank mostly shots and liquor in college, wine through law school and early legal practice, and have become a beer person over the past couple years. I've ever developed a fondness for some kinds of tea...especially kombucha!

Tom Standage's A History of the World in 6 Glasses examines what was going on in the world as six different drinks were developed and had their heyday: beer, wine, liquor, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. It's set in that order, too, taking us chronologically from early civilization to close to the present day. While each subject is worthy of its own full book-length treatment, honestly, shorter examinations provide an interesting lens through which to look back at history.

I think the three most interesting segments are the ones regarding liquor, coffee, and tea. While anyone who remembers history class can probably connect the dots between rum and the large-scale slave trade, I think Standage does a good job of developing both that connection and going into the larger cultural history of liquor. The coffee section details not only the beverage itself, but the role that coffeehouses played in political intrigue, which is something I'd never read about before. And he does a great job tying the British imperialism to the tea trade, which isn't a connection I would have drawn on my own but was really insightfully done.

Nothing about it is particularly did more to pique my interest into looking more deeply into some of the topics it covered than captivate me on its own. But it's a novel way to look at the span of human history, it's well-written, and it's an enjoyable if not mind-blowing read. A good choice for the beach or the airplane!

Tell me, blog friends...if you had to drink just one thing besides water for the rest of your life, what would it be?

One year ago, I was reading: The Other Side of the River

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Took Me A Long Time To Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Today's given topic is books that took a long time to read, and to be honest, this is a list I struggled to put together because I generally read really fast. Even for books I don't like, because I try to burn through them as quick as I can so I can move on to something better. That being said, there are definitely some books that I had to chip away at bit by bit, mostly because of length but sometimes because they were genuinely difficult.

War and Peace: This book took me about three weeks to read, because it is very very long. But there's a reason it's virtually always at the top of lists of best books: it's really incredible. Natasha might be one of my favorite characters in literature. Very much worth the time investment.

Les Miserables: Another super-long epic. I've actually never seen the show, but I did see the (very hit and miss) movie before I read it, and honestly I think it helped to have some sort of idea of the general plotline because there are so many characters and so much story that without an idea of generally what was going on I'd have been discouraged. It's also very good and worth the time.

Creative Mythology: This was the end of a four-book series that I'd found tiresome even after the first one but I'm both a completist and very stubborn. By the time I got around to this one, I was deeply and profoundly ready for the series to be over but they were really hard to slog through so it took weeeeeks.

A Suitable Boy: I read this the summer after my freshman year in college because my mom had a copy hanging around and it had always intrigued me. Another super super long one, this book actually taught me most of what I know about The Partition. I'd like to revisit this story one day when I have a LOT of spare time.

The Grapes of Wrath: This was the bane of my senior year of high school. I'm not much for Steinbeck and this is a lot of pages of Steinbeck. We had to keep these reading logs for each chapter, so I actually had to do a close read of every part of it and by the time I finished it I was so angry about reading it.

Vanity Fair: I'd made a stab at this in high school for fun and never was able to get into it, but a couple years ago I picked it up again and made it through. I usually have a hard time with books with unlikable protagonists, but once I decided that Becky's scrapiness was actually kind of admirable I got around to enjoying it if not loving it.

A Storm of Swords: All of the A Song of Ice and Fire books are long, but the third volume was the only one that stymied me on my initial read-through. I got bored and actually had to start it over again after getting about 1/4 of the way through because I put it down for so long that I couldn't remember what was going on. Once I made a second stab at it, it went really fast, but that first try was rough.

Don Quixote: I loathed this book so hard. It was all I could do to make myself spend just 20-30 minutes a day with it, so it went by slooooooowly.

The Divine Comedy: This is kind of cheating, because I read this three-part epic poem over the course of an entire semester in college. I loved it, don't get me wrong, especially since taking the whole class gave me so much of the context behind it...well, most of it anyway. Paradiso was kind of weak, but the other two parts were great.

Wolf Hall: Once I got into it, I really liked it (and its sequel even more), but I had a hard time getting grounded in the way Hillary Mantel was telling her story. It's one of those things that I'm glad I was able to push through until I got my head around, though, because it's a great book.

Book 92: David and Goliath

"We think of underdog victories as improbable events: that's why the story of David and Goliath has resonated so strongly all these years. But [the] point is that they aren't at all. Underdogs win all the time. Why, then, are we so shocked every time a David beats a Goliath? Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?"

Dates read: September 22-24, 2016

Rating: 7/10

I am a short, hourglassy, relatively attractive lady with long hair. I love to dress myself in styles that are hyper-feminine: florals and bright colors and the kind of 50s-style fit and flare silhouette that tends to flatter my figure. I am also a woman who has worked in male-dominated industries (the law and politics) for my adult professional career. A lot of dudes don't take me seriously because I'm a bubbly little thing that dresses like a cupcake. Professionally outmaneuvering and coming out ahead of these dudes is one of my great pleasures in life.

You see, me being the whole way that I am tends to not fit in with ideas, particularly men's ideas, about what kind of person should be taken seriously. And how our brains fail us in our perceptions and value judgments is what Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath is all about. Gladwell takes us through a variety of situations, from the titular story to classroom sizes to policing tactics and everything in between, to show us how our preconceived notions, particularly of weakness or strength, often fail us.

My interest in psychology has always tended towards mental illness and treatment, but cognitive psychology is fascinating in its own right. Our brains take in so much information constantly that we simply have to derive shortcuts in order to be at all efficient in processing it. Most of the time, these shortcuts work...but not all the time. My favorite portion of the book might actually be the opening section about the title pair. Gladwell walks us through how what we think of a young man with a slingshot against an enormous armored warrior is very different than how that same scenario would have played out in its own time and context. But our brains hear "young man with slingshot" and "enormous armored warrior" and create a whole picture, and while that will usually be close enough to the truth, it won't always be. It wasn't for David.

This was my first experience with Malcolm Gladwell's books, but before I read it I burned through the first season of his podcast "Revisionist History" on recommendation from my husband (which I also recommend to all of you, it's great). This sort of thing seems like it's his wheelhouse: cognition and perception and their quirks. He's got a distinctive and enjoyable authorial voice: I could "hear" him and his cadences in my head as I was reading the words on the page, which was odd but neat. If you like reading about how you might not know what you think you know, I'd recommend this book. It's a quick, interesting, and enjoyable read!

Tell me, blog friends: what's your favorite podcast?

One year ago, I was reading: Life Itself