Thursday, May 16, 2019

Book 181: The Blind Assassin

"You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones."

Dates read: October 10-15, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Lists/awards: The Booker Prize, Time Magazine All-Time 100 Novels

We're constantly telling the story of our lives. To other people, but most of all to ourselves. Amping up the parts that make us look good, glossing over the parts that make us look bad, editing out that parts that don't quite jibe with the character we want ourselves to be. No one likes to remember our worst moments, though those are the ones that creep into our heads at 2 a.m. when we can't sleep. But at the end of the day, all you can do is try to be better tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on and so forth.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin starts with the end at the beginning: Iris Chase's sister, Laura, drives off a bridge in Iris's car. From that point on, we get three threads of story: (faux) newspaper accounts related to Iris's life, Iris looking back on her own life as an old woman and telling the story that leads up to what happened with her sister, and a story-within-a-story, called "The Blind Assassin", about a pair of secret lovers weaving a science fiction tale about a pair of secret lovers. Unveiled early on in the narrative through the newspaper accounts, it is revealed that shortly after her sister's death (which is ruled an accident), Iris's husband died. And then their daughter grew up with drug problems and succumbed to them, leaving her own child behind. And then that grandchild was raised not by Iris, but Iris's sister-in-law, who also died. Iris is old, and alone, and has no reason to hold on to her secrets anymore. So she starts to write.

She starts with the story of her grandparents, and the button factory her grandfather started in their small Canadian town, the profits from which rendered him suitable enough marriage material for her grandmother, from a society family in decline. When their three sons went off to war, only Iris's father came back. His wife, Iris and Laura's mother, was never especially healthy and died from complications from a miscarriage. Her father tries to keep the family business together through the Depression, but the Chases find themselves unable to even maintain their own finances, and that's how Iris finds herself married off to Richard, an older industrialist, in a deal that's supposed to keep the factory open and what's left of the family afloat. Instead, the entire Chase family capsizes, in their own ways.

After revisiting The Handmaid's Tale shortly before I read this book, and then reading this book itself, I was reminded what an incredibly gifted author Margaret Atwood is. To pull off the narrative structure of the book, with its intertwining threads and mysteries, is a fiendishly difficult task, but to do it while writing so beautifully and powerfully is the work of a master. It is a little jarring at the beginning, when you're first getting used to the path the book is taking you down, but it works. There were so many passages in this book that I marked, struck by how gorgeous the phrasing was. The characters, particularly Laura and Richard, were vivid, and Iris herself is someone we gradually come to understand as she tells her story and feels so real that when the book and her story end, the loss feels unusually poignant.

This is an incredible book: sad, yes, but told with such skill and in a way that keeps you wanting more and more...I had a hard time putting it down at night. I'm kicking myself that this is only my second Atwood and I'm really looking forward to getting into more of her work. As a heads up to potential readers, there is some really heavy stuff in here: parental death, spousal abuse, sexual abuse/rape...I think Atwood handles this material with sensitivity and grace, but it's something to be aware of. I'd recommend this book strongly, particularly for mature readers (there's nothing gratuitous, but there's a lot of darkness and I think it's a work that's best appreciated with a little life experience behind the reader).

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains

Three years ago, I was reading: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Good Books That Would Not Make Good Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a page to screen freebie. I'm not one of those people who think that a movie made of a book is necessarily going to be bad...sometimes, I think the movie even manages to be better! That being said, some books, even ones I love, I cringe to think about as a movie. Here are ten books that I think should stay on the page.

Station Eleven: The time shifts, the interiority of the's hard to imagine a way this turns out well.

A Tale for the Time Being: The delicate paralleling of the narratives just seems like it would be really tricky to actually make work on-screen.

Middlesex: There's just so much story here...not to mention material that would need an extremely delicate hand to render with emotional honesty and not for shock value.

Lincoln in the Bardo: This book is intensely weird, in a way that's just inherently unfilmable.

The Bear and the Nightingale: Vasya is a heroine for the ages and if it was done correctly, a movie could be just as magical as the book. But I have a hard time believing that the chyerti wouldn't get cuted up and the heart of it dumbed down.

The Butcher's Daughter: I loved this book about a novice nun living through the religious turmoil of Henry VIII's reign, but it's way too much in her head. Nothing "happens".

The Blind Assassin: There are time shifts, unreliable narrators, and a lovely story-within-a-story that I can't imagine coming off as anything but cheesy if it were filmed.

Prep: Lee is so very inside her own head, the book is so rooted in the small-in-scope-but-large-in-impact agonies of adolescence, that rendering it so it could be visual seems impossible.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: This has the sweep and scope of an epic and I don't know that I think the parts of the story which integrate the comic, so important to the power of it, could be executed well.

Life After Life: There are so many lives here, some of which change only in small details and still end the same way, that I just don't think this story could be told anywhere but on the page.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book 180: The Royals

"There were no more seasoned actors than the British royal family. Like an old vaudeville troupe, they filed on stage to go through their practiced routines. Looking like rouged curiosities, they performed at weddings and funerals. In costume, they still drew a few regular spectators, but they lose their biggest crowds with the departure of their ingenue Princess. They knew that they were viewed best from afar; up close, their imperfections showed."

Dates read: October 2-10, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I'll admit it: when I went to London, one of the first things I wanted to see was Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. It feels a little un-American, given that the whole reason the USA is a thing was rebelling against the crown, but I love the British monarchy. If someone wore Saint Edward's Crown, I want to know about them. The jewels, the castles, and the wide variety of people who have worn them/lived in them through the centuries is something I just can't tear myself away from.

The family currently occupying the throne are the Windsors, and Kitty Kelley's The Royals recounts their modern history. She starts with the changing of their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor to downplay their Germanic origin in the World War I era, and traces the family through the divorces of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew (the book was originally published in the late 90s, shortly before the death of Diana, and while there is a bit of content added on to the later edition I had, the bulk of the material stops there). After some introductory material about the history of the House, she recounts it primarily by tracing the romances that have defined it: David and Wallis Simpson, Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Elizabeth and Phillip, Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, Charles and Diana, and Andrew and Fergie.

Kelley's book lies somewhere between the tawdriness of an expose and glossiness of an official biography...she's looking to tell a behind-the-scenes story to get to who the Windsors actually are, but mostly avoids being sensationalistic. Kelley highlights the steely reserve of the Queen Mother, who held on to her grudge against Wallis Simpson until the day the latter died, and how her deep opposition to divorce was internalized by her daughter and trapped many of the family members in marriages long past their expiration date (and prevented one marriage from occurring at all, in Margaret's case). Queen Elizabeth II is shown to be both deeply devoted to her duty as monarch, and also as a woman who's fundamentally introverted and struggles with social relationships, including parenthood. And while Phillip hasn't always been faithful to his wife, he has always been loyal to The Firm, as he calls the royal family.

This is actually what interested me the most as I was reading the book...the line that the Windsors walk between being a family, with all the messiness that entails, and being an institution, which needs to show staying power and continue to have meaning in order to maintain relevance. The Queen can never just be a daughter, or sister, or mother, or wife...she is always the monarch and the figurehead of the Commonwealth. For some, like Princess Anne, who has famously inherited her father's stubborn prickliness, this seems to have worked out just fine. But for Prince Charles, with his almost painful earnestness, it's clear that a more traditionally middle-class/warmer household would have been better for him...I found myself feeling more sympathy for him than I would have expected after reading this book. He's not either of his parents' favorite (Phillip prefers Anne, while Elizabeth reportedly favors Andrew), and his obvious desire to be feel loved and be taken seriously is sad. Kelley doesn't let him off the hook for the issues in his marriage to Diana (nor does she let Diana off the hook for her own contributions to the breakdown), but reading about his obvious lasting devotion to Camilla made me glad for him that they finally ended up married. 

Like I said previously, I think Kitty Kelley does a pretty good job of including enough gossip to be dishy, but not going overboard and just printing every rumor she heard while doing research. Obviously the Windsors themselves may disagree, but she definitely paints portraits of them as people who are neither flawless example of nobility nor cartoon villains (well, later-in-life Margaret veers towards cartoon villainy but it doesn't seem gratuitous, at any rate). At the end of the day, I found myself glad that the families I was both born into and married into are warm and loving and free from public scrutiny, even if that scrutiny does come with the castles and the jewels and all that. This book is sure to entertain those who enjoy reading about the British royal family, but won't have much for those who aren't already disposed to be interested. It's long, but never feels like a slog.

Tell me, blog you know anyone who's been raised in the public eye because of who their parents were?

One year ago, I was reading: Children of Blood and Bone (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

Three years ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters That Remind Me of Myself

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting book characters that remind us of ourselves. So there are a decent contingent of smart, book-nerdy girls on here, but also some that are probably less flattering comparisons.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): I know I just used her a couple months back in a similar topic. But is there an overachieving girl who doesn't identify with Hermione?

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): I am not much of a matchmaker, but I do enjoy gossip and drama like our girl here. And Emma does have a brain in her head: we're told she's clever right there in the opening line.

Meg Murray (A Wrinkle in Time): For reasons not worth getting into right now, I was an often-angry little girl. It's rare to find stories that center on a girl who gets mad and makes that part of her heroism.

Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Francie's determination to get an education and love for learning and reading make her a role model for plenty of nerdy girls.

Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar): I struggled with mental health and depression growing up and still do, honestly. Esther's struggle feels so familiar.

Daine Sarassri (Wild Magic): I tried getting into the Alanna series, but the central character's bravery was never something I could identify with. Daine's love of animals, however, really spoke to me!

Lee Fiora (Prep): I spent quite a bit of time reading this book infuriated at its teenage protagonist...because she made so many of the same mistakes rooted in hyper self-conciousness that I have made and to be honest, continue to make.

Jules Jacobson (The Interestings): Jules's struggle to recognize that her talents and worth may not be in the same place as her friends and deal with the jealousy she feels is all too recognizable.

Briony Tallis (Atonement): Briony's failure to understand what she's seen and desire to be important and listened to lead to own childhood busybody-ness didn't have disastrous consequences, but that was more luck than anything.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): Who can't relate to the refusal to really adult?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Book 179: The Bonfire of the Vanities

"Sherman lifted his Yale chin, squared his shoulders, straightened his back, raised himself to his full height, and assumed the Presence, the presence of an older, finer New York, the New York of his father, the Lion of Dunning Sponget." 

Dates read: September 22- October 2, 2017

Rating: 2/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

I try to pretend I'm kind and thoughtful, but I'll confess: when something bad happens to someone awful, even if they didn't deserve it, I don't usually feel sorry for them. I tend to figure that even if THIS bad thing isn't fair, per se, bad things that aren't fair happen to everyone, so at least when they happen to bad people we can smirk about it. What is life without those kind of tiny, petty joys?

Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, is filled with horrible people in 1980s New York City. Our main character is Sherman McCoy, a high-flying bond trader whose ridiculous salary somehow still isn't enough to fill his endless wants. One of those wants is a hot side piece, so he cheats on his interior designer wife with Maria Ruskin, herself the young trophy wife of a much-older rich businessman. The event that propels the entire narrative happens when he comes to pick her up from the airport one evening. On their way back to Manhattan, Sherman misses his exit and ends up in the Bronx. Now this is pre-Guiliani New York City, so crime rates are still quite high, and the Bronx in particular contributes significantly to this crime rate. Sherman is desperate to get out of the bad side of town in his fancy car, and so drives up a ramp back onto the highway only to find it blocked. When he gets out of his car to clear the debris, he's approached by two young black men, and he panics. He's aggressive with one of them, and when Maria gets behind the wheel and gets him into the car, they take off. He thinks he sees and feels one of the two guys get clipped by the car as it fishtails on their way out of there.

Sherman's inclined to report what happened to the police, but Maria dissuades him. But the guilt and worry begin to consume him, especially as the incident starts to pick up attention. Forces start to converge (a shady African-American preacher/activist type, an alcoholic English reporter desperate to prove his increasingly questionable worth to his employer, a Jewish DA trying to show the overwhelming minority community he serves action on their behalf in an election year), and Sherman is charged and sent to trial, where his prosecutor, Larry Kramer, is a man who seethes at the way his life has turned out, with a modest income that keeps him from being able to conduct the affair he wants to have with a former juror.

As you can probably tell from that rating up there, I hated this book. Basically everyone in it is The Worst, and no one's having any fun. I don't mind reading about morally questionable characters as long as they're compelling, but Sherman and everyone around him is miserable. Even before the accident, Sherman is living far beyond his considerable means and he's constantly worried about how to make sure he can stay afloat. Larry, who's the second lead in the book, is a covetous self-important blowhard obsessed with his own appearance and desirability to women. I hated both of them immediately and struggled so hard to make myself read this. It got better, plot-wise, as it went...when the pieces started coming together, I could appreciate the way Wolfe showed how the dysfunction of every participant in the process created the perfect storm in which Sherman was embroiled. But that doesn't mean I liked it.

I think part of it was the overwhelming male-ness of the narrative: all the major figures, save Maria, are dudes, and even Maria never gets the story told from her point of view the way the men do. I have no particular interest in masculinity crises, and there's a lot of that here. I think I'm also going to give up on Tom Wolfe from here on out...I read his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test a couple years ago, and I hated it just as much as I hated this. His tics as a writer, particularly his fondness of repetitious phrases, do not jibe with me as a reader. I recognize that as a satire of a particular time and place, it has merit, but I did not like it at all. I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...are there any writers that you just can't read because you don't like the way they write?

One year ago, I was reading: Game of Crowns (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Highest Tide

Three years ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Thought-Provoking Book Quotes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're focusing on quotes from books. Specifically, quotes that are either inspirational or thought-provoking. I'm too cynical to get deep into inspiration, but I love a book that makes me think, so here are ten quotes from books that get my brain going.

"Does the walker chose the path, or the path the walker?"- Sabriel

"Life is fleeting. Don't waste a single moment of your precious life. Wake up now! And now! And now!"- A Tale For The Time Being

"Things can change in a day"- The God of Small Things

"Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence. When you're unhappy, you get to pay a lot of attention to yourself. You get to take yourself oh so very seriously."- Jitterbug Perfume

"Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?"- Anna Karenina

“To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect”- Sense and Sensibility

“After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”- Remains of the Day

“Imagination, of course, can open any door - turn the key and let terror walk right in.”- In Cold Blood

“Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.”- The Handmaid's Tale

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”- Seeing Voices

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Month In The Life: April 2019

With tomorrow being the last day of April, that means we're 1/3 of the way through 2019 already, which just does not seem at all possible. It was another busy busy month, since we're still in session and this was the month the first major deadlines started cropping up but of course, I still managed to read books.

In Books...

  • All The President's Men: This book is a legend of political journalism, and I couldn't believe I hadn't read it yet. Honestly, though, it was so dry and seemed to be assuming that I had a lot of context around Watergate that I don't have. There's an amazing book to be written about this triumph of the free press, but the reporters were too far inside it to tell it effectively.
  • Princess Masako: In just in a few days, Emperor Akihito will abdicate the Japanese throne in favor of his oldest son, Naruhito. Which means Naruhito's wife, Masako, will be empress. Her story is quite sad: a highly educated, accomplished woman, she's widely reputed to be miserable in her tightly constrained life as a royal. This book means to examine her life, but the quality you can expect is right there in the subtitle: "Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne". Thinly sourced and inflammatory, but not without entertainment value.
  • The Last Romantics: This is the kind of long-ranging family-dynamics drama that I tend to enjoy, so it should come as no surprise that I really liked this book. Tara Conklin's writing is lovely and insightful, and the tensions that drive the plot arise from skillful character development. There were a few things that didn't quite work for me as plot points that kept it from being a true standout, but mostly this is a solid, engrossing read. 
  • Lilah: I hadn't read biblical fiction in a long time, and this didn't exactly encourage me to read more...Marek Halter did some decent characterization of Lilah, but the focus seemed strongly on the world-building and I thought the book, though short, dragged through the first half and rushed the second. 
  • The Fever: When one pretty teenage girl has a sudden seizure in class, it's a mystery. When a second does, though, and a third, it starts to feel like an epidemic. The entire small town starts to fray at the seams, and Megan Abbott's thriller keeps the tension high. I did find myself feeling like the three points of view was at least one too many, but this is a very readable, compelling book.
  • The Lowland: This book tells the story of two brothers in India whose lives take divergent paths as they grow up, and a woman who they both marry, weaving through the course of their tragedies and triumphs over a lifetime. It is an elegant, accomplished novel with deft prose styling and layered characterization, but I never quite connected to it. There's a sense of remove that blunted its impact, for me. 

In Life...

  • I was on Jeopardy!: Honestly, a lifelong dream. Even though I didn't win, I'm proud of my performance. I accomplished my make sure "Nevada" was pronounced correctly and getting to play Final Jeopardy! 
  • Session continues: We're now about 2/3 of the way through, just a little over a month to go! It'll be a pretty grueling month and change though, but then there will be some nice down time over the summer.

One Thing:

Instead of linking to something outside I'm going to write a little bit more about my Jeopardy! experience. I'm of two minds about it: on the one hand, I watched James play four shows before mine since I was on the last show of the day and knew what I was getting into...not that I was intimidated, per se, but his performance on the show has been of the sort where I don't feel bad that I lost. Lots of very smart, capable players have lost to James. I didn't lose a squeaker where I'd be kicking myself over one blown answer. On the other hand, I wish I'd gotten the experience of playing a "regular" show...getting your one chance to ever play be against such a dominant player is unfortunate timing but that's how life goes sometimes. For those of you, who (like me!) love to watch from home and shout out answers, know that buzzer timing is SO much of the game and WAY harder than you think it is. I never quite got the hang of it. But I am (I think) the first person from my hometown to ever make it on, which is pretty cool, and I will never forget that Edward is the other British king's name (along with Henry and George) to be used more than five times ever again in my life.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: