Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're revealing our fall to-be-read lists! Here are the next ten books that are up for me on my schedule (as always, there will be book club books that get added into the lineup).

Ready Player One: There was the hype. Then there was the backlash. So I'm going into this expecting something more enjoyable than not, but not anything extraordinary.

The Things They Carried: I've read a lot of books rooted in World War II, but I haven't actually read much literature based on the Vietnam War and this is a classic.

Flip: I think I found this on a list of underrated YA novels, and then found it on sale for the Kindle.

The Library Book: I am really excited for Susan Orlean's look at a historic library fire, and libraries in general!

Prep: I've never read Curtis Sittenfeld before, and I have a soft spot for coming-of-age stories, so this seems like a good place to start.

We Are Not Ourselves: This book got a bunch of praise a few years back, and a family drama does tend to appeal to me.

Detroit: An American Autopsy: The rise and fall and rebirth of Detroit is in my blood (my mom is a native Detroiter and I actually lived there for the first couple years of my life) so I'm always interested in reading about the city.

Bringing Down The House: They made this into a movie, which I never saw, but the real life tale of a bunch of nerds fleecing Vegas sounds entertaining!

Seduction: Karina Longworth's podcast is one of my very favorites so I am really looking forward to reading her book about Howard Hughes' Hollywood story.

In Defense Of Food: Michael Pollan has some bad takes, but I've always been interested in reading a book of his to get more of a sense of his work.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book 146: If We Were Villains

"Ten years of trying to explain Dellecher, in all its misguided magnificence, to men in beige jumpsuits who never went to college or never even finished high school has made me realize what I as a student was willfully blind to: that Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some strange fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses."

Dates read: May 15-20, 2017

Rating: 7/10

For someone who's been dead for over 500 years, William Shakespeare's still pretty damn popular. It seems like there's at least one major screen adaptation every year. And everyone reads at least one of his plays at some point in high school, right? They're probably the only plays which most people have actually read all the way through in their lives (I include myself in this number, I don't particularly care for reading plays). While some people hate his stuff and most feel more-or-less indifferent, there are also some people who REALLY love it. I'm not one of those people, but I do have a favorite of his works (Much Ado About Nothing) and still regret that I didn't get a chance to take a course focused on Shakespeare in college from a legendary professor.

It's a group of people who are super duper into Shakespeare that is the focus of M. L. Rio's If We Were Villains. The book mostly follows seven Shakespearean acting students in their senior year at an exclusive arts college. We know something big and bad happened, because the book opens with one of the seven (Oliver, our protagonist) being released from prison after a decade. He agrees to return to his alma mater and speak to the detective who put him behind bars to finally reveal the true story of what happened all those years ago.

Based on the length of sentence alone, it shouldn't be surprising that what happened was that someone died. The who and the how I'll leave for the reading of it, because the bigger issue is what happened after that person died. The way the remaining members of the group deal with the death, and how it changes their relationships with each other, both on and off the stage. They'd each developed a little niche over their years together (the king, the femme fatale, the good guy, the ingenue, the villain, etc), and the removal of one of the spokes of the wheel renders the structure unstable.

If you've read The Secret History, a lot of that will sound pretty familiar to you. Indeed, it's pretty obvious that Donna Tartt's debut novel was a significant source of inspiration for Rio for her own. And that's fine, Tartt doesn't own the concept of a tight-knit group of students studying an obscure subject at an exclusive private college dealing with the fallout from the death of one of their own. But here's the thing: if you're going to write a book with strong parallels to a novel that's been consistently popular since it was published 25 years ago, you have do it at least as well or better. And although I want to make it clear that I did enjoy reading If We Were Villains (I did love The Secret History, after all), Rio didn't quite hit that mark.

The characters fall a little too neatly into the roles they fill onstage: Richard, the king-type, really is a raging egomaniac; Meredith the femme fatale really is a sexpot; Wren the ingenue really is demure and sweet, etc etc. Where this fails most problematically is that the "background player" types are kind of underdeveloped, and that's Oliver and Filippa. Oliver, you'll remember, is the main character and while it's not unusual for a reader-insert-character protagonist to be kind of bland, Oliver never really captured or held interest for me. Filippa is the only other member of the group that doesn't come from privilege and the small peeks we get at who she is make her easily the most potentially interesting character, and it's frustrating that she's given the short shrift. The plot developments, too, weren't handled especially deftly. I'm generally not good at anticipating plot twists, but I called nearly all of the major ones easily. Rio's prose is solid, though, and I'd definitely be open to reading more from her in the future. I'd recommend this to people who loved The Secret History and want to read something similar, but if you haven't read that book yet, it's better than this one.

Tell me, blog friends...are there "if you liked that, you'll love this" books that you feel pulled off being better than the inspiration?

One year ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Smoke

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Hidden Gems

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that are great that don't get as much love as they should. I used Goodreads to get a sense of what's less rather than more popular, so here are ten books you may not have heard of that are pretty great!

The Big Rewind: I loved this debut light-hearted murder mystery with a romantic twist. It was delightful and I will continue to talk about how much I enjoyed it forever!

Valley of the Moon: Time-travely romantic drama does not sound like the kind of thing I would like at all, but I found it charming and a very pleasant read!

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: Like so many other lady people, I've been fascinated for years by Anne Boleyn and this nonfiction examination of the stories told about her was really interesting!

City of Thieves: This coming-of-age buddy adventure story set during the siege of Leningrad from one of the Game of Thrones showrunners is short and in many ways predictable but so well-told it packs a powerful punch anyways.

The Guineveres: I thought this novel about the lives of four young women, all named Guinevere, that end up in Catholic convent for different reasons was lyrical and powerful and was disappointed that it never took off the way I thought it would because it's great!

A Leg To Stand On: I am always here for Oliver Sacks, and this book, about his own experience of suffering an alienation from his leg after a horrible hiking accident, has the kind of wisdom and compassion that are a hallmark of his writing.

The Man Without A Face: This nonfiction work by Masha Gessen about the rise of Vladimir Putin feels incredibly prescient and relevant to our times.

So Big: Giant is Edna Ferber's novel that got made into the big splashy Hollywood movie (I haven't read it yet, but I have a copy waiting!), but this one won the Pulitzer and its testament to inner strength and finding the joy in life is beautiful and powerful.

The Butcher's Daughter: If you like Tudor-era historical fiction but want to get out of the palaces and into the villages, this smart, insightful book about a young woman who becomes a nun and then has to figure out what's next after the Reformation would be an excellent choice.

Stay With Me: You read the back, about a woman in Nigeria whose traditional in-laws push her husband to take a second wife when she fails to get pregnant, and think you know where this is going. But it twists and turns far deeper than ever expected.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Book 145: The Skies Belong To Us

"In struggling to make sense of this madness, pundits and politicians often invoked the term epidemic to describe the skyjacking crisis. They spoke more truly than they knew, for one of the best ways to understand the Golden Age of Hijacking is through the lens of public health. The phenomenon spread in strict accordance with the laws of epidemiology: skyjackings always occurred in clusters that traced back to a single incident that had turned contagious."

Dates read: May 12-15, 2017

Rating: 6/10

September 11, 2001, happened when I was in high school, at the beginning of my junior year. I remember being in Mrs. Brehm's Public Speaking class, chatting with a classmate about something in Spanish class, when the loudspeaker announced that there had been an attack in New York. We turned on the TV after the first plane struck, obviously, but before the second one did. It's a day burned in my memory, for which there is a very definite "before" and "after". The most noticeable hallmark of the after, of course, is the airport security regime that's been in place ever since.

I knew there had been domestic airplane hijackings (like everyone else, I'd heard of D.B. Cooper), but I'd had no idea how numerous they were until I read Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong To Us. In the late 60s/early 70s, they were happening all the time! Sometimes even twice in one day! Koerner tells the general story of the brief skyjacking "craze", but also focuses on a particular instance to tell the story writ both large and small. The crime he chooses to highlight was a hijacking to Algeria, committed by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow.

Holder and Kerkow were a deeply odd couple, united mostly by their love of drugs. Holder used them to salve the psychic wounds of a life scarred by systemic racism and the Vietnam War, Cathy used them because they were fun. A one-time small-town Oregon good girl (she was track teammates with Jeff Prefontaine), she grew up to become a party girl in hippie San Francisco. Through much more luck than planning or skill (they were almost thwarted by their own idiocy), they managed to pull off stealing an airplane and get $500,000 hard currency to take with them. Although their original plan was to head to southeast Asia, when that got derailed, Holder chose to head to Algeria. From there, the couple headed to France, where Holder fell deeper into long-brewing mental illness and Kerkow propelled herself into the most exclusive social circles she could find. While the pair eventually split and Holder returned to the US, Kerkow is still living the life of an international fugitive from justice to this day.

Although I certainly recall life before the TSA, I don't recall life before any sort of airport security at all. Which is apparently how it used to be for a long time, even after all this constant hijacking nonsense! The airlines pitched a fit about even the most minor screening measures because they didn't want to inconvenience their customers! Which, coming from a time in which little girls are bounced from flights because they're wearing leggings and ticketed customers are dragged off flights and beaten, seems literally crazy. I mean, there are definitely things about that time that I 100% don't want to go back to, but given what we hear about the actual efficiency of TSA at actually finding any sort of dangerous material, it seems like maybe considering the idea of lighter security (like PreCheck, but for everyone!) should be on the list of things to do.

Koerner does a very solid job of balancing all of the elements in his book: the state of the country as a whole at the time, the prime hijacking era and highlighting some illustrative vignettes (including one set right here in Reno where the banks were already closed after the money demand was made so the casinos ponied up the cash), and the story of Roger and Cathy. No one story thread feels irritatingly dominant, and Koerner's treatment of hijacking never feels like cheap drama being played up for shock value. The frequency of hijacking in that era was shocking enough and he's assured enough to let it speak for itself. That he was able to interview Roger before his death definitely helps in creating portraits of the central hijacker and his long-ago girlfriend as actual people and not caricatures. It's a very readable, enjoyable look at a phenomenon that happened not actually that long ago that I'd had NO idea about.

Tell me, blog friends...can you imagine the airlines pushing back on additional screen nowadays?

One year ago, I was reading: The Sisters Chase (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Other Side of the River

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Like To See As Miniseries

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I've done a little twist on the topic this week...we're supposed to be talking about TV shows we're excited to see start new seasons now that it's fall. Not to be one of those people, but I don't actually watch a ton of TV lately. So instead, I'm talking about books that could be turned into prestige miniseries that I would watch the crap out of!

The Secret History: This would work well as a movie, too, but a miniseries would give it room to breathe and really get the atmospherics right. It starts off in medias res with a murder (like Big Little Lies!), so there's your hook, and then into the dark and twisty story.

The Interestings: This lifetime-spanning story of a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for creative kids and continue to interact as they grow up and find themselves and settle down could really explore the shifts in their dynamics over time if it was given several hours in which to tell its tale.

Vanity Fair: This book ends up feeling rushed as a movie because there's a lot of plot there (it's long, y'all), but Becky Sharp is a rare compelling female antihero and her scheming and machinations deserve multiple episodes.

The Queen of the Night: The framing device of this book is that an opera singer is offered the opportunity to be the first to sing a new role...only to find out that the opera is based on her truly insane life story (there's too much there for just a movie). Only a handful of people could have done so, and cutting between her attempts to find the source and the actual events would work perfectly onscreen!

Helter Skelter: I know there's allegedly a Tarantino movie on the Manson murders coming, but I'd like to see Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story series take on this case using this book, written by the prosecutor who put Manson away, as the source material.

The Corrections: This has been bandied about for a series adaptation before, if I recall correctly, and I'm not sure why it never went anywhere, but I think the high drama of this family dysfunction story would work well given the room to sprawl out over several episodes.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: This book about cousins who create a best-selling comic-book hero series in World War II era New York has a lot of flashbacks and a lot of intricate storytelling and cutting any of it would be a travesty so a miniseries is the way to go.

Possession: They did make a movie out of this (which I haven't seen), but it's so textually rich that I can't imagine it did justice to it in less than 2 hours. The dual storylines of a modern-day set of academics studying fairly obscure Victorian-era poets who discover a hidden bond between them really needs several hours to do justice to both of them.

Middlesex: A truly epic family saga stretching from the conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s to modern-day Detroit and an intersex person's journey of self-discovery has a lot of story to tell, and would be an engrossing show.

The Lords of Discipline: Pat Conroy's military school drama could probably be squished down into a movie, but why do that when you can go full Southern Gothic and let the story sink in slowly?

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: August 2018

The end of August always makes me think about back-to-school time. Growing up in Michigan, I never went back before Labor Day...but here in Reno, they've already been back for nearly a month! And anyways, it still feels like summer since August temperatures were mostly stuck in the 90s. A record-setting 56 days in a row this summer above 90, actually, which honestly was pretty gross. But it's finally trending downward a bit and I am READY for sweater-and-boots season.

In Books...

  • Shantaram: There are two kinds of books that climb to 900+ pages: actual epics or overstuffed vanity projects. While this giant novel is not without merit, it's definitely the latter rather than the former. Based on the author's own experiences, this book is about an Australian man who escapes from prison and flees to India, where he gets involved with a wide variety of people, from a kind-hearted tourist guide to a prominent crime lord. It could have lost 300 pages through just editing out the purple prose and pseudo-philosophical rambling and would have been better for it. 
  • Less: Book club picks have been inconsistent for me, but this one I really enjoyed. I would not have thought that the concerns of an aging gay writer would particularly speak to me, but this tale about an only somewhat successful novelist staring down both his 50th birthday and his longtime sort-of-boyfriend's impending wedding to another man who decides the only way to deal is to accept a bunch of ignored invitations to make a trip around the globe was funny and touching and sweet. 
  • The Informant: The so-strange-it-has-to-be-true story of a corporate executive who exposes an international, multimillion dollar price fixing scandal...all while embezzling millions of dollars from the company and pathologically lying every time nearly every time he opens his mouth. They made a movie out of this, a comedy even (which I haven't seen), but on the page it's very dry and flat and I never really got into it.
  • The Butcher's Daughter: I'd grabbed a review copy of this on a whim and was so glad I did! This historical fiction tells the story of Agnes, a young woman in Tudor England who falls pregnant out of wedlock and is sent to an abbey, where she finds some real satisfaction in her place as a nun. But the religious turmoil of Henry VIII's England is not a good time to be of a religious house, and so as the abbey is closed down, she needs to find a new place for herself. Agnes is a great character and I found her story very compelling indeed. 
  • Life After Life: I wish I'd read this without the hype that set sky-high expectations for me. It's an imaginative, entertaining book that takes the unusual tack of presenting a female character for whom familial rather than romantic bonds are paramount, which was refreshing. As Ursula Todd's life begins over and over again after she dies in a variety of ways, she's always deeply connected to her older sister Pamela and younger brother Teddy, and Atkinson skillfully explores the bombing campaigns of World War 2 from many perspectives and with a poignant humanity. It's a very good book, but I was expecting a great one and for me, it wasn't quite there. 
  • Oryx and Crake: I love Margaret Atwood, and am generally interested in post-apocalyptic stories, so this was a natural fit for me. Though there are some things that make it really obvious this book was written over 15 years ago now (the emphasis on email and disc-based storage feel anachronistic), for the most part it feels frighteningly prescient. I wish the main female character had been better-developed, and I'm always annoyed at a book that ends in a clear cliffhanger for the next in the series, so it didn't blow me away but I very much liked it and intend to continue the series! 

In Life...

  • Tried not to melt and/or die of smoke inhalation: It was hot, and it was smoky. The wildfires that raged in California sent their smoke right on over into northern Nevada, where it settled in the valleys and choked us all for weeks. Add in those long 90+ degree days and it was miserable. It's been a smidge cooler lately thank goodness.
  • Veterinary drama: The gratuitous pug I like to show you every month has been a frequent flier at the vet lately! We started out with a significant number of tooth extractions, and no sooner was he on the mend from those than he gave himself a hot spot on his face from scratching and had to get dragged back to get antibiotic ointment and a week in the cone of shame. He's totally fine now, but here's hoping we can skip the vet's office for the rest of the year.

One Thing:

One of my guilty pleasures (honestly I don't feel that guilty about it) is reading about royal families, particularly the British one. What can I say? I'm basic. I'd heard about a failed attempt to kidnap Princess Anne in the 70s, but didn't know that much about it until I read this truly delightful short piece from Oh No They Didn't. Some of the dialogue is profoundly hilariously English and Anne is a BOSS.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book 144: Friday Night Lights

"Considering the circumstances of their lives, how could they be expected to accept the harsh reality of studies showing that of the 30 million children taking part in youth sports in the United States, only about 200 go on to become professionals in any given year?”

Dates read: May 5-12, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: The New York Times bestseller

Graduating from law school in 2010, it turns out, was one of the worst things I could have done for myself. There are articles about it and everything. After I moved back to Michigan and took (and passed) the bar, I started carpet-bombing the Ann Arbor area with resumes. Crickets. I came close a few times, getting to second interviews, but it wasn't until February, a full nine months after I graduated and five months after I passed the bar, that I got a job. Which meant I had a LOT of downtime. I did do useful things, but I also watched the entire run of a TV show that has become a barometer of true excellence in storytelling for me: Friday Night Lights.

I knew there'd been a book, and then a movie, and that the show wasn't especially closely related to either except in broad strokes. But I'd always harbored a curiosity about the book that had inspired one of my favorite shows of all time, so I picked up H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights to finally experience the source material. In it, Bissinger tells the story of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, in the late 80s. But he doesn't just tell the story of the team...like the subtitle ("A Town, A Team, And A Dream") suggests, he places them in context. He tells the story of Odessa, of the boom-and-bust oil economy in Texas with which Odessa lives and dies, the racial tensions that are ever-simmering, and the way that a community needing something to cheer for and feel good about can place so much hope and feeling into a sports team.

That enormity of public emotional investment into the team has real ramifications for the people who make it up: the coach and his family, of course, but also the players. The coach (only very vaguely reminiscent of the beloved Coach Taylor) is at least a well-compensated professional, but the players are just teenagers. You can see the loose outlines of some of the characters who would make up the core of the show: the hot-shot, big-talking running back, the reserved, wary quarterback, the trouble-making, fast-living halfback. But the players themselves are kind of inconsequential: they are merely the bodies inside the uniforms that have such symbolic meaning. It's Permian that the crowd roots for year after year, even as the names on the jerseys come and go.

Reading this after seeing the show is the opposite of the usual reaction: the screen adaptation is so rich and beautifully realized that the book has a hard time living up to the comparison. Part of that is because they're telling similar stories in two very different ways. The book is more interested in looking at the broader social picture and the way that team fits into that picture as a whole, and only then in its component parts, while the show takes the opposite storytelling tack and focuses on the people and their relationships making up the team, filling in the charged atmosphere around them but leaving it as mostly background. So by nature the book is more impersonal, more clinical and removed. The show, on the other hand, focused on realistic character development in a way that even many authors I've read could benefit from learning from. Of the two versions, I'd recommend that literally everyone watch the show, but the book is good-not-great. If you like stories about football and/or small town life, you'll likely enjoy it. If not, it's skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite TV shows?

One year ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Life Itself