Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Books I Really Enjoyed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're actually meant to be talking about books that gave us "hangovers"...you know, the kind where you finish it and it's so good that you have a hard time getting into your next read because you can't get it out of your head. As a devoted schedule reader (rather than mood reader), I don't really get book hangovers, so I'm twisting this just a bit to be the last books that I really got into.

Columbine: This is a hard book to say one "enjoyed" per se, but it's an incredible piece of journalism about an event that is misunderstood in important ways that have a continuing effect on our culture.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: I'd seen the movie, of course, so I thought this would be similar: kind of lightweight, enjoyable, not especially memorable. But in Tom Ripley, Highsmith created a fascinating villain and I really want to read the sequels!

Marie Antoinette: She's often held up as a symbol of the worst excesses of pre-French Revolution Europe, but this biography tears down the myths and reveals her as a woman whose own faults didn't help anything but was mostly caught up in forces beyond her control from the moment she came to France.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: One of those books you finish and immediately want to read again, telling a multigenerational Dominican (and then Dominican-American) story about a family curse with bright, vivid language.

Battleborn: I don't even particularly care for short stories, but this collection about Nevada was incredible.

Daisy Jones and the Six: I read this before the hype exploded and then became a participant in the hype, because the Behind The Music-style story of a band whose blood and tears created a classic album before it all came crashing down again was impossible to put down.

Bad Blood: We are living in a new era of fraudsters, and Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos were one of the highest-profile ones of all. A fascinating behind-the-scenes look of how the company got so big despite being based on total lies...and how it was all revealed.

Astonish Me: I am a sucker for ballet books, but was a little hesitant because I'd not enjoyed Shipstead's other novel. This one, though, was a treat: it beautifully balances a domestic story about a family against the drama of the exclusive world of ballet and totally captured my attention.

The Winter of the Witch: I loved the first two books and was so worried that the conclusion of the trilogy would falter, but I was wrong to doubt Arden. It was a perfect ending to an incredible story.

Once Upon A River: A historical fiction tale that celebrates storytelling, as a young girl is brought nearly dead into an English tavern and is claimed by several families, any or none of which might be her own.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book 220: Freedom

"This wasn't the person he'd thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to chose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones."

Dates read: March 30- April 3, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition), The New York Times bestseller

Something that seems to come up fairly frequently in profiles of successful people is that they have a daily uniform. Like Steve Jobs' constant black turtleneck and jeans, many of them report that not having to think about what they're going to wear every day frees up their minds for "more important" things. It's a concept called decision fatigue...the more decisions you have to make, the worse (over time) you get at making them logically. For me, deciding what to wear is enjoyable, but I do eat almost the exact same thing every day because food isn't that interesting to me. Cutting unnecessary choices out of your life does make things a lot simpler.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom isn't very subtle: he tells you the major theme of the book right there in the title. It's the story of a family, headed by Walter and Patty Berglund, and how it comes to be and how (of course) it begins to fray. It begins with a short, third-party history of their residence in a newly-gentrifying neighborhood in Saint Paul, which begins when they're young, energetic newlyweds, and continues through their raising of two children, Jennifer and Joey, the latter of whom causes quite a bit of grapevine drama when he takes sides against his own family in a growing border war with their neighbors. Just about as soon as the kids are out of high school and off to college, the parental Berglunds pick up and leave suddenly, and several years later in the newspaper their former neighbors read that Walter's gotten into a bit of a professional dust-up. So right from the beginning, we know that something is rotten in the state of Minnesota.

We then go back and time and get Patty's life story, in which she always feels like an outsider in her ambitious upstate New York family, culminating in her parents' refusal to do anything when she's raped by the son of a powerful neighbor. She flees on an athletic scholarship to Minnesota, where she develops a friendship with a disturbed classmate, through whom she meets musician Richard Katz and his roommate, Walter Berglund. Though Richard and Patty are interested in each other, Walter is also interested in Patty, and though he "gets" the girl, the attraction between his wife and his best friend lingers. We also move forward to Richard, Walter, and Joey's perspectives after their move out of Minnesota, and how each struggles with freedom as opposed to stablility, and the consequences of exercising choices that become available.

Jonathan Franzen as a human being is not my favorite. But as a writer, he is undeniably talented. Freedom wrestles with some weighty stuff: 9/11, environmentalism, corporate philanthropy, temptation, infidelity, the way family patterns repeat over generations, sexual assault, selling out, forgiveness. That's a lot for one book, even a long-ish one, to tackle. But for the most part, he pulls it off. Though I didn't necessarily always like the characters he created, I almost always found them compelling and interesting. Though some of the plot schemes he tangles them up veer towards the ridiculous, he mines them for emotional truth well enough that they stay on the good side of the line of believability.

There are some missteps, though. I found some of his decisions regarding Patty's trajectory baffling. Her rape doesn't seem like a character-informing experience for her, serving rather as an explanation to write her parents out of the book until there can be a rapprochement at the end to bring things full circle. And her college friend Eliza's obsession with her also seemed underbaked...it never really went anywhere besides serving as her introduction to Richard. The balance of Patty's story rounded her out, but the way he wrote Connie (Joey's childhood sweetheart) never made sense to me. She's not a person, she's a symbol, as was Lalitha, a young colleague of Walter's who becomes besotted with him. Maybe our cultural moment just has me primed to see underlying misogyny better than I used to, but I can't deny that it's here and it was part of what kept me from being fully absorbed in the novel. It's good, very good even, and I would recommend it with the caveat that if you're looking for strong female characters, you won't find them here.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Three years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Four years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Non-Romantic Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! As usual for the week of Valentine's Day, this is a love freebie. I've written about couples for the past several years for this prompt, so this time I'm switching it up. Here are ten of my favorite deeply bonded pairs who certainly love each other, but not in that way.

Harry and Ron (Harry Potter): The relationship chronicled over the seven books of the series between our hero and his best friend is complicated and rich and more thoroughly developed than either of their romantic lives.

Meg and Charles Wallace (The Wind in the Door): The connection between these two siblings is beautifully rendered and significant in all the books in the series, but particularly in the second one, where Meg has to save his life.

Vasya and Solovey (The Bear and the Nightingale): We've all heard enough jokes about horse girls to recognize the strength of the bond between young women and their equines, but Solovey isn't just any horse and I really enjoyed the bickering and love between these two.

Joe and Sammy (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay): The artistic partnership between these two cousins has ups and down but is rooted in mutual admiration and care that pays off deeply in the end.

Francie and Johnny (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Johnny is a warm-hearted, charismatic addict, which makes him a terrible husband and a bad provider, but the easy, straightforward love he's able to show his sweet, bookish daughter is a lovely thing.

Becky and Amelia (Vanity Fair): Becky is a fascinating character, with her scheming and lack of morals. She's not a good friend in the conventional sense, but she does care about the docile Amelia in her own way, and their friendship is both interesting and of an uncommon sort.

Boris and Popper (The Goldfinch): One of the things I found most delightful about this book was the bond between protagonist Theo's crazy Eastern European best friend and the little dog he ends up liberating from his stepmother. These two were my favorite characters in the book, honestly.

Legolas and Gimli (The Lord of the Rings): The longstanding disdain between elves and dwarves means these two are often at each other's throats in the beginning, but the grudging respect and then genuine friendship that grows between them is often a more light-hearted highlight in an otherwise often serious series.

Annemarie and Helen (Number the Stars): I loved this book growing up, not in the least because of the warm, close friendship between gentile Annemarie and Jewish Helen and how it helps give both of them the strength for the former's family to help the latter's escape.

Lyra and Iorek (The Golden Compass): She's one of my favorite literary characters, and the way she earns the admiration and friendship of the king of the armored bears with her quick wits and bold lies is one of the reasons why.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Book 219: Of Human Bondage

"He yearned above all things for experience and felt himself ridiculous because at his age he had not enjoyed that which all fiction taught him was the most important thing in life; but he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were, and the reality which was offered him differed too terribly from the ideal of his dreams." 

Dates read: March 25-30, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Sometimes I think about my younger self and I want to shake that girl by the shoulders. I took myself so seriously, took the world so seriously. I was so sure of things, and while I do sometimes miss that clarity of certainty, I think I'm happier now. I tend towards the "control freak" side of things, and the more steps I take towards letting go of that need to be in charge of everything, to know where it's all heading, the more relief I feel and the better able I am to roll with the punches. I wish I could tell that girl that I was how to loosen up a little bit, how to think a little more broadly...but maybe all that can really teach those lessons is time.

Anyone who's ever taken themselves too seriously will recognize a kindred soul in Philip Carey of W. Somerset Maughum's Of Human Bondage. We meet him when he's still a child and very recently orphaned, going from a relatively privileged life with his mother to a much sparser one with his aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a pastor in a small town in the British countryside. Scared a bit by his distant uncle, he escapes into books and becomes a voracious reader. The next year, he's sent to boarding school, where his disability (he has a clubfoot, which gives him a limp), combined with his shyness and senstitivity, makes for a generally unhappy experience. He becomes passionately religious and plans on a career in the clergy, but when his prayers for a cure for his foot are unanswered, he loses both his faith and his direction in life.

He goes to Germany briefly, comes back to England and tries being an accountant, which doesn't take, then to France to study art, then back to England again, where he decides to settle down and study medicine, which was his father's career. But all his indecision has driven down his available resources so he'll need to live very modestly until he's a doctor and can start earning a living...and then he meets Mildred. Despite Philip's self-pity, he's had a few relationships with women at this point, and is actually in a good one, when he meets the waitress his friend has a crush on. Philip becomes obsessed with her, despite her obvious disinterest in him and lack of social skills. His situation eventually becomes desperate, but with some kindness and a bit of luck, it resolves itself.

If you've been reading here for a while, you know I'm a die-hard never-DNF (did not finish). This has lead to my spending my time reading books that I hated or worse, bored me silly, and I very much understand why other people do put down books that aren't working for them. But even though it does backfire on me sometimes, other times it pays off to stick with a book, and this was one of those instances. About halfway through it, I was sick of Philip and his moping and the garbage way he treated women and his refusal to understand that as wonderful as self-discovery is, there's no money in it. The whole book is his story of growing up, and he was so grating that I wasn't at all invested in him or rooting for him to succeed. But then he starts to mature, puts his head down and works hard, uses his own hard-earned life lessons and experiences to be a good doctor to the people he sees. And by the end of it, when he does find some measure of happiness and chooses to do the harder, better thing, I couldn't have been happier for him if he were an actual person and a friend at that.

I've always been a character-over-plot type of reader, and this book is all the former...the only major outside event is the Boer War, which happens late in the book and while it does have an impact on Philip, it's pretty far removed from the central themes of the coming-of-age story. In some ways, it suffers for its fixation on Philip...like I said above, he can be a hard character to really sympathize with, particularly early on. But the payoff in the back half is real, and seeing him grow as a person is really rewarding. This is a good book, a very good one even, but it may not be the right book for every reader. If you're looking for a dynamic plot, or lack the patience for/interest in a long-term character study, this probably isn't going to be something you enjoy. If you've read what I've written and are intrigued, though, I highly suggest you get ahold of it...it'll be a rewarding experience!

One year ago, I was reading: The Buried Giant (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sellout

Three years ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR I Predict Will Be 5-Star Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books that we haven't read yet, but are pretty sure we're going to love. I actually rate very few books five stars because only ones I find really spectacular get that rating...something that's very good and I really like just as often only gets four stars because it just doesn't have that extra bit of magic. These ones, though, I think are going to hit that five-star rating...both fiction and non-fiction!

Know My Name: I've heard nothing but glowing reviews of this memoir from Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted by Brock Miller. I'm sure it'll be heavy, but it seems like the kind of thing I will really get a lot from.

Just Mercy: As a recovering lawyer, I have mixed feelings on legal books...my personal connection with the subject area can be a blessing or a curse. From what I've heard about how good this is, I'm thinking it'll be on the blessing side.

The Fire Next Time: I read Baldwin for the first time last year and just loved his fiction writing. This work of non-fiction is supposed to be incredible and I expect it'll be a highlight.

Trick Mirror: I love a good essay collection and have gotten raves about this from several different people I would not expect to agree with each other, so I've got really high hopes.

Matriarch: I love a good royal bio, and this one about Queen Mary (the current Queen's grandmother) is supposed to be fantastic.

A Gentleman in Moscow: I love books about Russia, and I love long, life-spanning novels, so this seems like it will be exactly my type of thing.

Homegoing: Tracing what happens to the descendants of two half-sisters from Ghana over the centuries...one of whom stays in Africa, the other of whom is enslaved and taken to America. This sounds amazing.

My Brilliant Friend: As someone who really loves reading about female friendship, there could not be a more "perfect for me" sounding series than the one that starts with this book.

Beartown: I'm not always here for a sports book, but this is supposed to be less about the actual hockey than the small town who get really into their hockey team, which I think will really be something special.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: I absolutely devoured the latest Taylor Jenkins Reid book, and this previous one has gotten similar kinds of praise, so I think I'll love it!

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: January 2020

The first month of the first year of the decade is over! Hard to believe that in another year, I'll be in full prep for legislative session, but I'm enjoying the easier pace of an off-year for now. And any month where you get to put your feet in the ocean is a good one, eh?

In Books...
  • Catch-22: Oh boy did I hate this book! It's a modern classic satire about the absurdity of war. It sort-of has a plot and characters but is mostly just "wow, war is absurd, isn't it?" for nearly 500 pages. This is just very much not my type of humor so it did not work for me at all. 
  • Native Speaker: A second-generation Korean-American, Henry, has had a mostly successful career in a sort of corporate espionage, but his latest mark, a Korean-American city councilman in New York City, raises a lot of complicated feelings: about immigration, about language, about being an American. And then there's his personal life, where he's estranged from his Caucasian wife. Mostly meets its high ambitions, though its debut-ness shows at times. 
  • Queen of Scots: For a 500-page biography, this actually moves pretty quickly! I'd really had very little understanding of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots before I picked this up but it was fascinating. It's thoroughly researched and mostly well-paced, though it does start to drag a little near the end. If you're interested in the Tudor era, it's definitely worth your time.
  • Sin in the Second City: As much as I love Serious Books, a little change of pace is always welcome. This book tells the story of the Everleigh Club, an exclusive brothel in turn-of-the-century Chicago run by two sisters, and the development of the Mann Act/eventual closure of the vice district in highly entertaining fashion. There have to be some slight embellishments here, but they're in service of telling a good story and this was really fun to read!
  • Mozart in the Jungle: This isn't just a memoir about Blair Tindall's experiences as a classical musician playing the oboe in New York City, but also about classical music as a cultural phenomenon and industry. The latter works better than the former, because once you get over the shock value of the casual sex and substance use among orchestra members, there's not much compelling left...unless you too have tried to make oboe reeds and found it as stressful as she did, because she talks about it quite a bit.  
  • Followers: This exploration of the world that social media has wrought has two storylines. In the present, gossip blog writer Orla helps launch the influencer career of her roommate, Floss. In the second, Marlow, a government-sanctioned "celebrity" living in a town that's a full-time reality show, gets off the mood stabilizing drug she's been the face of for years and starts to see the appeal of the outside world. Mostly decent characterization, with a few missteps, snappy writing, page-turning plot, but it never came together to be more than the sum of its parts for me. 

In Life...
  • Work retreat in Newport Beach: This year's work retreat was in Orange County, which meant I got to visit the Pacific for a little while along with the actual work bits. The weather was lovely and I had a nice time reconnecting with my colleagues who work in Las Vegas and Phoenix that I never get to see!

One Thing:

Do you need your heart warmed in this cold month? Check out the Dads Who Did Not Want Pets subreddit. Reddit has some toxic communities, but this is just what it sounds like: dads who didn't want to get a pet, got a pet, and now adore the pet. If you are softhearted like me, make sure there are some nearby tissues as you may get something in your eye.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Book 218: Possession

"Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or be confronted by."

Dates read: March 21-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, Time's All-Time 100 Novels

When you learn a second language, one of the first verbs you usually learn (after "to be" and "to do") is "to have". It's a fiendishly tricky beast to work your way around how it's used in various languages, not in the least because it's so broadly used in English. You can have tangible things, like a dog. Intangible ones, like a cold. You can "have" relationships. You can "have" a fight with the person you're in a relationship with. English, it seems, is hung up on the idea of having.

Many of the various kinds of having come into play in A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession. Young British scholar Roland Mitchell has a dead-end, barely-paying job doing research work for a university literature professor, who specializes in a (fictional) Victorian-era poet called Randolph Ash. While paging through one of Ash's books at the library one day, he finds two drafts of a letter to a woman that Ash met at a breakfast. Impulsively, he pockets them, and goes on a mission to discover who the woman was, and if the letter was ever even sent. He figures out quickly that it was, and its recipient was a fellow (fictional) poet called Christabel LaMotte...which leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey, who studies LaMotte.

The two then have a secret, as they try to uncover what might have passed between Ash and LaMotte without alerting Roland's boss, Maud's colleagues, or an avaricious American researcher who is constantly acquiring Ash memorabilia for his museum in New Mexico. That the two poets knew each other at all is new information, and as Maud and Roland discover more and more about how deep the connection ran, all of the knowledge that anyone "had" about them gets flipped on its head. And all along, Roland and Maud grow closer, which is problematic because Roland has a long-time girlfriend whose work supports them both, and Maud has issues of her own when it comes to relationships.

Despite their plot differences, I was reminded of nothing so much as The Name of the Rose while I read Possession. Both are rich reads, dense in the best possible sense of the word...the kind of thing that even while you're reading it, you know you'll get even more out of it the next time around. Byatt doesn't just include the main narrative, she supplements it with poems "by" the poets, "their" letters to each other, diaries from third parties. This must have been enormously difficult, to come up with distinct voices and styles for all of these characters, but it all fits in so smoothly it's hard to believe that this isn't all based on real people.

The mystery that Roland and Maud are trying to solve unwinds slowly but maintains tension...the delays that pop up feel organic and not just shoehorned in to pad page length. The characters are well-developed, and the way Byatt parallels their stories with those of the people they're researching is beautifully done. The prose is lively, despite its density, and the book moves faster than you think while you're reading it (partly because it's so absorbing). It's really an excellent book, one that I look forward to reading again one day. I highly recommend this, but beware: it's not light or easy reading, and deals with some emotionally turbulent subjects. Go in ready for something that will reward attention and move you, and (hopefully) you'll enjoy it!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Lost Horizon

Three years ago, I was reading: Marlena

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology