Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book 194: The Games

"Payne and his friends had promised an Olympic Games funded entirely by the private sector: a modernized version of Los Angeles 1984, but with turbocharged levels of sponsorship and television money. As with all neoliberal fantasies, the project actually rested on the massive and multifaceted involvement of every level of the American state, the short-circuiting of institutions of democratic control, the use of force, where necessary, and all on terms unambiguously favorable to a tiny slice of private and already-powerful interests."

Dates read: December 4-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I am not an athlete. Grace, balance, poise...these are not qualities I possess. I have exercise-induced asthma, so even going jogging for a couple miles like I do on the weekends when it's a reasonable temperature outside is an endeavor. For the most part, I've made my peace with this. I still try to be active, so I do jog (after I hit my inhaler), and I enjoy forms of dance that are more about rhythm than grace. But every so often, when I watch something like figure skating, I find myself wishing that sports were a thing I was any good at.

I suffer the worst fits of this desire to be sporty once every two years or so, when the Olympics rolls around. It also tends to turn me from someone who likes discussing the gulf between America's promise and America's reality into an intense jingoist whose favorite song is Miley Cyrus's "Party In The USA". So in the run-up to the 2018 Pyeongyang Winter Games, I decided to read David Goldblatt's The Games to get some perspective on the biennial sports fest. This book is a comprehensive overview of the modern Olympics, beginning with the first small-scale variety in 1896 in Athens, going through the lead-up to the grandiose 2016 Rio de Janiero Summer Games.

This book is packed with information, and I learned quite a lot by reading it about how the Olympics have grown and changed from their genesis as the dream of Pierre de Coubertin to display the best in white upper-class male sporting accomplishment to their gradual (and often reluctant) inclusion of women, people of color, and commoners. I was surprised by just how many of things I think of as hallmarks of the Olympics: mascots, the torch-lighting ceremonies, the Winter Games, the offsetting of the schedules between Winter and Summer so there are Olympics every two years, are relatively recent additions. And it's astonishing how low-budget they used to be until very recently, and how the ways that different governments have approached their infrastructure projects have created very disparate outcomes.

While Goldblatt does good work separating the modern Olympics into eras and providing a brief introductory chapter linking the themes that arched across all the Games in a particular era, there wasn't as much narrative flow as I tend to prefer in my nonfiction. It's not that his prose is clunky (indeed, it moves very well considering its fact-intensiveness), it's that he seems to be someone, at least in the way he wrote this book, who can't see the forest for the trees. His research was clearly rigorous, and it sometimes feels like he was so enthusiastic about sharing what he uncovered that he lets himself get bogged down by trying to fit in as much as possible. This made for slow reading, because I had a hard time going more than 15-20 pages before I felt like I needed a mental break, and that's not usually true for me, not even for nonfiction.

But if you're looking for a deep, well-structured resource for the history of the last 100ish years of the Olympics, this is the book for you. If you're looking for more information about the winter Games in particular, though, you might be disappointed...they began later and even today seemed to be popularly considered the lesser of the two, but Goldblatt pays them very short shrift indeed...I'd estimate the percentage of this book that deals with them to be 10% or less. Also, if you're looking for stories about the athletes themselves, by and large this won't be where you'll find it. It's mostly about the structures and logistics and international pressures that have grown and created and challenged the Olympics. If that's what you're into, you'll love it. And while it's a very competent book at what it's trying to do, I don't think I'd recommend it to a wide's too dense and specialized to have broad appeal.

Tell me, blog friends...are you a Winter Games person or a Summer Games person (or do you not watch?)

One year ago today, I was reading: The Informant (review to come)

Two years ago today, I was reading: Charity Girl

Three years ago today, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Love to Be Besties With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting the characters we'd love to be friends with. I decided to challenge myself a little and not list characters that I've talked about extensively already by choosing only age-appropriate friends...I'm in my 30s, so only adults made my list!

Robin Ellacot (The Cuckoo's Calling): I'm not as gung-ho about the Cormoran Strike novels as I wish I was, but Strike's assistant Robin is a wonderful character. Smart, capable...she seems like the kind of person who would be a very solid friend!

Minerva McGonegall (Harry Potter): Definitely my favorite of the adults in the world of Harry Potter. She's kind of terrifying, but in that way where you hope she decides you're worth befriending.

Sayuri (Memoirs of a Geisha): She spends her life training to be a pleasant companion, so obviously her company would be enjoyable to share.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): We all need a hot mess friend who makes us feel a little better about our own choices.

Mrs. Murray (A Wrinkle in Time): Beautiful, smart, and practical enough to recognize that a dinner made over a bunsen burner means your kids get fed and that's really all that matters. Just like we all need a messy friend, we all need an aspirational one too!

Sookie Stackhouse (Dead Until Dark): She has a bad habit of getting involved in potentially deadly situations, but she also values her relationship with her best friend Tara in a way that makes it clear she's willing to put the work into maintaining her relationships.

Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence): She seems more like she needs a friend than that she would be an especially great one, but she is a good person.

Iris Chase (The Blind Assassin): Another one that could use a friend...between her own family and the one she married into, she definitely needs someone to vent to.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): Being friends with someone who knows how to make delicious food is a solid call.

Selina DeJong (So Big): Her ability to find the beauty in the ordinary and deep inner strength and determination would make her an absolutely fantastic friend to have by your side through thick and thin!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Book 193: The Lady Elizabeth

"She fixed Hertford with a regal glare and was gratified to see him wilt slightly under her gaze. Thus she had seen her father do, and it cheered her a little to know that she had inherited something of his formidable will and presence. This was what it was to be royal, she reflected, this mysterious power that could make others tremble; it was something that might prove useful in the future. But what use was the semblance of power without the substance? For when it came down to it, King’s daughter or no, she was just a helpless young orphan, with no choice but to do as she was told."

Dates read: November 29- December 4, 2017

Rating: 4/10

As blended families become more and more common, I'm often surprised to hear the amount of judgment people have for parents who have children with different partners. In my experience, it's certainly not unusual to know others who, like myself, have a half-sibling, but I still hear snippy comments fairly regularly about women who have children with different dads, or vice versa. Being generally unafraid of confrontation, I almost always let people know that they're talking to someone whose sister is actually her half-sister, and most people walk it back, but it seems like there's often a gut instinct to deride it as "low class", which is just total nonsense.

Indeed, one of the most admired women of all time is a product of such a household. Queen Elizabeth I had not one but TWO half-siblings! Actual royalty has been doing this for hundreds of years, it does not get more upper-crust than that. At least in the Tudors' case, though, it does create some issues, which Alison Weir explores in her novel about the childhood of that monarch, The Lady Elizabeth. It begins with some segments of Elizabeth's early childhood but really takes off shortly before the death of Henry VIII, and while it primarily focuses on the perspective of Elizabeth herself, we also see events through the eyes of her nursemaid, Kat, older half-sister Mary, and stepmother Katherine Parr, ending in Mary's death and Elizabeth's ascension to the throne.

The relationship Weir depicts between Mary and Elizabeth is...complicated. Mary was stripped of her royal title and proclaimed a bastard when Henry divorced Katherine of Aragon to wed Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. Although this devastated both Katherine and Mary, Weir depicts the latter as having made a real effort to be kind and loving to her little half-sister, despite having been made a part of Elizabeth's service when she was born. Elizabeth, too, was made a bastard when her mother was executed, and the book depicts Mary as haunted by the allegations made during Anne's trial that Elizabeth was actually the offspring of one of Anne's alleged lovers. Once their brother Edward dies, there is too much between them, from that history to their differences in religious faith, for them to be close any longer, and it is only Elizabeth's canny walking of a very thin line that keeps her from being disinherited.

I wish the book had focused more on this, and less on the salaciousness of the relationship between Elizabeth and her stepmother's new husband: Thomas Seymour. While it's certainly a significant factor in the period between her father's death and her own inheritance of the throne, and deserved to be explored, it got a little too bodice-ripping for my taste. There's historical record of some of the improprieties that occurred while Elizabeth lived with Katherine and Thomas, but Weir really makes it the centerpiece of the narrative and escalates it as high as she possibly can. We get endless scenes of Elizabeth's growing desire, of Kat's encouragement of the sparks between them, and it's like Weir is going for a kind of Philippa Gregory-esque fun prurience (I'm not trying to mock, I like Gregory's books) but forgot the fun part of it.

All in all, this was a second disappointment for me with Alison Weir and her fiction output. I read Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, several months before I read this and while this one was better, they both fell flat for me. Her nonfiction histories do an admirable job of being informative but feeling light rather than heavy, making the people on the page come alive, but her fiction prose drags. There's just no spark there, and her characters feel boiled down to as few personality traits as possible. While I certainly intend to keep reading her nonfiction, I think this is my last stab at her fiction. I would not recommend this book.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: British Covers I Like Better

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is cover redesigns that we love or hate, but the only cover redesigns I can think of besides the classics are movie covers, which I pretty much always hate. So I'm going to turn my eyes across the pond to show you ten lovely covers (for books I love!) that I like much better than the American versions!

 The Bear and the Nightingale


Memoirs of a Geisha


An American Marriage

A Brave New World

The Kite Runner


High Fidelity

Exit West


Daisy Jones And The Six


White Oleander


The Virgin Suicides

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Book 192: The Hate U Give

"WebMD calls it a stage of grief—anger. But I doubt I'll ever get to the other stages. This one slices me into millions of pieces. Every time I'm whole and back to normal, something happens to tear me apart, and I'm forced to start all over again."

Dates read: November 26-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Growing up as a white girl in an overwhelmingly white small town, I was always taught that police were the good guys. The police are there to help you if something bad happens. They are trustworthy. And I continued to, for the most part, believe that through when I graduated from college. Sure, some police were corrupt or abused their power. But there are assholes in every line of work. I don't think I really started to understand how systemically rotten policing can be, even if individual officers are often good people, until I took criminal law in law school and read about the wide variety of misbehavior they perpetrated from a position of trust. I don't think all police are bad, or villains, but I think it's a profession that can be very appealing to exactly the people who shouldn't be in it: the type who want to have the ability to control the lives of others and enact state-sanctioned violence when that control is questioned.

Starr Turner, the teenage heroine of Angie Thomas' debut novel The Hate U Give, has a pretty neutral perspective on cops when the book begins: her beloved uncle Carlos is a police officer, and she's been taught by him and her parents to behave in a threat-neutralizing way if she interacts with them: be polite, follow orders, don't make sudden movements. And she's never had any trouble. But then one night, when she's getting a ride home from a party from her long-time friend Khalil, they're pulled over on a pretext by a white cop, and he's shot to death, right there in front of Starr. It changes everything about her life and how she sees the world.

Starr's already living a fairly unusual life...she lives with her family in the inner city, but goes to a private, overwhelmingly white high school in the suburbs, where she has mostly white friends and dates a white classmate. She's always found herself living half in each world, but what happens that night really blows up her burgeoning racial consciousness. Her relationships with her friends and family shift and change as she tries to navigate the legal system and get justice for Khalid, and she discovers more and more who she is and who she wants to be.

This book had been hyped for months before I got to it...glowing reviews all over the internet, movie rights sold before it was even published. I always try to temper my expectations with any kind of media that's been all the rage, but sometimes it doesn't work. And honestly, I think it contributed towards the way I felt about this book: it's very good, and I probably would have thought it was amazing if it hadn't been sold as life-changing and mind-blowing, but it didn't quite measure up to those enormous accolades for me. There's a compelling story, solid writing with both emotion and humor, and great characterization. But as a reader, there just was never that moment where it really went into hyperdrive and became more than the sum of its parts.

Like I said, though, it does everything it's trying to do very well: Starr practically jumps off the page and feels very real, and her family is also beautifully, warmly drawn. Even though Khalid is barely alive during the novel, the way that Starr thinks about him as she processes what happened to him is touchingly rendered and makes the reader really feel his loss. Thomas also does an excellent job of balancing the heavy topic at the center of her book with lightness...there were parts that literally made me laugh out loud, but she never either undercuts the seriousness of police violence or gets too ponderous. But the characters of Starr's school friends, and especially her boyfriend, seem underdeveloped for the significance that the narrative places on them. And a decision Starr makes near the end of the book seems out of place, in a way that was jarring.

At the end of the day, I'd recommend it to just about everyone, honestly. It's written as YA (and as a primarily non-YA reader, I'd say it doesn't read as typical for the genre but does have some markings of it), so it's appropriate for younger readers, but it didn't feel dumbed-down to me, someone who loves a gigantic tome of literary fiction. Obviously the focus on police violence will be difficult for some, but it's a well-crafted, enjoyable book that will likely inspire you to examine your own pre-existing opinions. I highly recommend it!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Three years ago, I was reading: The White Tiger

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: July 2019

After a pretty chill June, we made our first big trip in a while this month! It had been over two years since I last visited my beloved home state of Michigan, and a week there was exactly what I needed after an intense winter and spring.

In Books...
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: I'd never read Japan's master of magical realism before, and while I definitely wouldn't say that I "got" this book about an ordinary man drawn into a shadowy world when first his cat and then his wife disappear, I found it compelling and interesting and I enjoyed reading it.
  • Washington Black: This made the Booker Prize shortlist last year and I'd seen positive reviews floating around the internet, but the descriptions I'd seen of it as an adventure story kept it off my list...until it was chosen for my book club. I liked it more than I'd expected, finding the self-development of the titular Wash compelling, but I thought it had pacing issues and it never really clicked for me.
  • Polite Society: I do quite enjoy Jane Austen's Emma, so when I read that this book was a modern twist on it, set in India, I thought that sounded intriguing. I'm always prepared for this kind of book to be disappointing, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it! It's darker than Austen's work, and adding in the viewpoints of other characters made it more complex.  
  • Nickel and Dimed: One of those books I can't believe I've never read! As it's been over 20 years since its publication, a lot of the material from the undercover look at living on poverty wages has become a well-known part of popular discourse and has lost the power to shock. But it's still interesting and worth reading.
  • The Man in the High Castle: I'll admit that reading this in a disjointed way, on vacation, might not have shown it to its best effect. But it seemed more like Philip K Dick was conducting a thought experiment about what the world might have looked like if the Axis Powers had won the day than writing an actual novel. Flat characters, often silly plotting but interesting enough on the thought experiment side to have merit. 
  • How to be Good: Nick Hornby turns his trademark humor and insight on a marriage in crisis. Katie and David feel relatable (both have moments of sympathy and moments of being profoundly irritating, like most people), and Hornby's prose always shines, but it felt like the plot kind of got away from him. 
  • Sashenka: Simon Sebag Montefiore primarily authors nonfiction books about Russian history, but this was his first novel. That inexperience with fiction shows in often clunky writing even as he weaves an interesting story about a woman (the titular Alexandra, called Sashenka) living during the Russian Revolution and then the Stalin era, and then another young woman living in the modern day who tries to track down what happened to her.

In Life...
  • A week in Michigan: I should have known when I found out we were headed home during Art Fair that it was going to be a hot and muggy time! We spent a couple days out at my mom's getting in some quality lake time, and then into Ann Arbor to visit with my sister and brother-in-law in their newly purchased home (which was lovely)! I scored some Art Fair finds and luckily our only experience of power loss was a very brief one.

One Thing:

A New York indie bookstore takes user submissions of their favorite books and roasts them in this delightful Twitter thread. My own submission (The Virgin Suicides) did get an enjoyable quip back!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Retellings/Folklore-Inspired Tales

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so I decided to highlight one of my favorite subgenres...retellings! There is so much potential in taking a look at stories we already know and changing the perspective on them.

Wicked: Gregory Maguire has made a career of retellings, but his first was this take on the Wicked Witch that is so much deeper and richer than the musical (which is also fantastic in its own way). 

The Bear and the Nightingale: There's a kind of vague Cinderella aspect to this, but the real treat is the Russian folklore, alongside an incredible heroine and a wonderful story that continues over two sequels.

Polite Society: I just recently read this take on Emma, transported to modern day India, and found it really enjoyable, striking a great balance between the broad strokes of the original while still telling its own story.

Ella Enchanted: Teenage me loved this YA spin on Cinderella where she's cursed to always be obedient.

The Song of Achilles: I did not especially enjoy reading The Iliad. But I did enjoy reading this take on it that posits Achilles and Patroclus as a long-term, committed couple.

Boy, Snow, Bird: I did not love one of the concluding "twists" of this book, inspired by Snow White, but until then had found it complicated and rich and interesting.

The Red Tent: Dinah, only daughter of the biblical Jacob, is barely a footnote in the Bible, but this book takes her portrayal there and fleshes it out with life and love and sorrow and joy.

Lamb: This is another retelling of a Bible story, but takes on a much more prominent character...Jesus himself, given a dumbass best friend called Biff, who narrates the "real" story of the Son of God. 

Bridget Jones's Diary: It's a pretty loose take on Pride and Prejudice, but I love this book. So few "funny" books actually work for me and it's hilarious.

The King Must Die: I super loved Greek mythology growing up, and the religious aspects of this retelling of the story of Theseus made for a fascinating read.

American Gods: Neil Gaiman's vivid imagination brings together the spirits of mythological tradition from all over the world to face off with "the new gods" to which society has dedicated itself (media, technology, etc).