Book 39: A Great and Terrible Beauty

 

"The vicar, whose name is Reverend Waite, leads us in prayers that all begin with 'O Lord' and end with our somehow not being worthy- sinners who have always been sinners and will forever more be sinners until we die. It isn't the most optimistic outlook I've ever heard. But we're encouraged to keep trying anyway."

Dates read: April 2-3, 2016

Rating: 4/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

I love secondhand shopping. Part of it is that I'm cheap: I don't like paying more for something I could pay less for. My clothes are only new the very first time I wear them. As long as something is in good repair, why not pay $7 for a pre-worn-but-great-condition cherry red cardigan instead of finding it new for $45? As I've lived in apartments my entire adult life and bought furniture that I've always intended to be temporary, why not just buy a table someone's served dinner on before? And books...well, I've already talked about my fondness for secondhand books, but this is something I will always repeat: I love secondhand books. As thrilling as it can be to score a book you've been looking for at the used bookstore, there's also a chance to browse through the shelves and see what catches your eye that you might be willing to take on flyer on for $2.

Which is how I picked up Libba Bray's A Great And Terrible Beauty. The cover art is striking, and the back promised a mix of the supernatural, girls boarding school drama, and a touch of gothic horror. While none of those things is a Must Read for me in and of itself, the combination sounded intriguing. And so, two American dollars later, I had my copy in my hot little hands. The book follows 16 year-old Gemma, who has been living in India with her parents for virtually her entire life and wants desperately to go live in England. But when she has a mystical vision of her mother's gruesome death, which comes true, she finds her wish granted in the worst possible way. To England she goes, sent straight off to boarding school at gloomy Spence Academy. She doesn't quite fit in with the other girls...until she catches queen bee Felicity in a compromising position and bribes her way into the inner circle. Gemma's power grows, and there's a secret diary that the girls read and use to find their way into a whole other world...where, of course, danger lurks.

Some experiments work out well. Some don't. This was a miss for me. It's the first of a trilogy, and it's usually been my experience that the first entry in a series is the best one in terms of a standalone story. Not so here...the entire idea of the realms and The Order and the Rakshana feels like Bray herself doesn't really understand how it all works and where she's trying to go with it, but figures she can get to it in the sequels. Same with Gemma and her friends...they're still sketches, their characters are very thin. I think YA can be a great genre, and some of the YA books I've read are still among my favorites. But I think it's often the home of some lazy writing and mistaking stereotypes and/or tropes for actual characters, and this book falls into the proverbial chaff rather than the proverbial wheat for me.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite genre to read?

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books That Have Been On Your Shelf (Or TBR) From Before You Started Blogging That You STILL Haven't Read Yet

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishThere are LOTS. Like, a couple hundred lots (one of the reasons I started blogging was to hold myself accountable for actually reading all these). So, I'm just going to list the next ten books (excluding ARCs, all of which I've gotten after I started blogging) that I'm scheduled to read. Yes, I have a reading schedule, and spreadsheets, and the whole deal. I'm a nerd like that.



Bel Canto: I actually had to Google the plot synopsis, because I didn't honestly know anything about it. I'd just heard good things about the author, Ann Patchett, and the book for so long that I grabbed a secondhand copy and I'm looking forward to reading it!

Inamorata: This was one I scored from the Kindle First program quite some time ago. Reviews indicate that the writing is very good, but the rest of it not so much. Sometimes solid writing can salvage an otherwise mediocre book for me, so we'll see.

Life Itself: I love movies (I used to watch a lot more of them before I started reading so much all the time) and whenever I see an older one, the first thing I do afterwards is go track down Roger Ebert's review. He was so good at critiquing movies without being mean-spirited...unless, of course, they deserved his disdain, and then he let it rip. But his wit and insight made him a pleasure to read, and this is the biography he wrote as he was dying.

The Bridge of San Luis Ray: I like to read prizewinners, and this won a Pulitzer in 1928. It's a fairly brief novel so I should be able to read it pretty quickly, which is always a bonus.

The Other Side of the River: I'm pretty sure I found this on a list of best non-fiction reads set in each state (Nevada's was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, of course, which I could not be less interested in). This takes place on the west side of Michigan, where two towns divided by a river are also divided by race and class. When a young man dies and is found in the river, the tension between the two communities escalates dramatically.

The Professor and the Madman: Like any good book nerd, words are my jam (my favorite has long been "effervescent" but I could put together a top ten list without much trouble). This book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and apparently is being made into a movie!

David and Goliath: I've somehow never read Malcolm Gladwell before but my husband got a copy of this book, so I figure it's as good a place to start as any!

A History of the World in Six Glasses: Beverages are an important part of cultural experience, and Tom Standage's book uses beer, wine, liquor, coffee, tea, and cola to tell the story of humanity from the Stone Age to today.

The Circle: I've never read David Eggers before either, and this book about an internet company that grows to emcompass more and more parts of the lives of its users feels super relevant to today. This was a bit of a flop, and I'm curious whether I think that's fair.

Sophie's Choice: I've seen the movie so I'm spoiled on the "twist", but I'm interested to read the source material. The book isn't always better than the movie, so we'll see how this one actually works.

My Reading Life: Sundance Books and Music

I've already talked about my love for Grassroots, but Reno is also home to another amazing independent bookstore: Sundance Books and Music. I've been super lucky enough to have gotten gift certificates here for Christmas for the last few years from my in-laws, and even though I can't usually bring myself to spend new-book money when there are so many books I want to read that I can snag second-hand, getting to spend time and gift-certificate money here is a treat!


Sundance Books is housed in the Levy Mansion, a huge old Victorian house in Midtown Reno. They take advantage of the unique setup by separating their sections into rooms: the more open downstairs houses new releases/best sellers/Nevada local interest and (thoughtfully for little legs) children's books, as well as the cash registers. Upstairs, there's YA, science fiction/fantasy, nonfiction, fiction, sociology...humor is housed in shelves installed along the hallways.


This is an independent bookstore, and prices reflect that: I've never seen a markdown from cover price unless it's a secondhand book, which they have a decent-but-not-huge section of, and which are themselves priced significantly over what most things go for at Grassroots. If you're in search of a screaming deal, this is not where you're going to find it. If, however, you'd like to enjoy the ambiance of a gorgeous old home and support a really cool local business, you should definitely stop in at Sundance. They do have a frequent buyer program, where for every $100 you spend in the store, you get $10 of your next purchase of $25 or more. Even if you only stop in a few times a year to grab a few books, it adds up, so it's totally worth it and there's no cost to join. So visit and snag that book your friend at work swears will change your life!

Book 38: The Group

 

"Helena, who was as immune to social snobbery as she was to the 'fond passion', had not felt the charm of the South Tower group to the same extent as Kay, but she raised no objections to the alliance, even though her teachers and her parents had worried a little, thinking, like Norine, that an 'exclusive elite' was a dangerous set to play in, for a girl who had real stuff in her." 

Dates read: March 30-April 2, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

My husband was my third serious boyfriend. We've been together for almost four years now and I think he's just the greatest thing since sliced bread. But as wonderful as he is and as much as I love him, I know that the deepest and most emotionally rich relationships I have right now are the ones I have with my close friends, Kailey and Crystal, that I've known since elementary school. They have known me and seen me and been there for me through my experiences growing up, through family conflict, through ugly breakups. They know me better than just about anybody and probably better than I know my own self. I believe that I'll be friends with Kailey and Crystal for the rest of my life.

So stories about female friendships and how they grow and change over time and through life experiences are catnip to me. Mary McCarthy's The Group follows eight young women who graduate from Vassar in 1933 and the course their lives take over the next seven years. The novel kicks off with the rather impulsive wedding of one of their number, Kay, to her long-distance and mysterious boyfriend Harald almost immediately after graduation. Kay's marriage (and its deterioration) make up the most coherent through-line of the story, which follows the members of the group one at a time as they make their way in the world (the world being 1930's New York for the most part) and continue to be involved in each other's lives. McCarthy's writing is sharp and insightful, and the characters she writes feel very real...all of them are self-deluding to some extent and McCarthy lets you "watch" them do it through her narration of their lives.

What struck me as I read this book, which was apparently enormously popular when it was published in the 60s, was how even though it was written 50 years ago and takes place another 30 years before that, it was so modern in many ways. Sure, some of the references are pretty dated, but the challenges these women face are largely similar to the ones we're continuing to face today: the difference between sex and love (and wanting the former to mean the latter even when you know it doesn't), dead-end relationships, sexism in the workplace, sexuality, marriage, raising kids. There's a character, Priss, who has a child and is struggling with the decision of whether to breast feed or bottle feed and the way she feels like she's doing it wrong depending on who's she's talking to. The Mommy Wars feel very current and endemic to the current social media-laden climate, but this book makes it obvious that it goes back waaay further than that. It's easy to feel like the stuff your generation is facing is new and different than the things that previous generations struggled with, but it's really much more similar than you might think. Plus ca change and all that.

Tell me, blog friends...do you still keep with high school and college friends?

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books Set On Campus

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic is books in X setting (X being whatever you want it to be). What floated into my mind immediately, with summer starting to wind down, was books set on campus. I'm going to cheat a little here: not all of these books are entirely set on a campus, but all of them have at least portions that take place there.



The Marriage Plot: This book tells the story of three students at Brown in the 70s, moving Jeffrey Eugenides's autobiographical focus from his Detroit childhood to his college education. This book follows the journey three characters as they navigate both campus and post-graduation life, and is honestly my least favorite of his three novels even though it's still pretty good (I really want him to come out with a new one).

The Secret History: This is probably my favorite campus novel and one of my favorite books overall. It's about a group of Classics majors at small liberal arts school Hampden College (usually assumed to be based on Bennington, Tartt's own alma mater) who you find out commit a murder right at the beginning. The mystery is the why, and the way the book unravels it is SO GOOD.

The Group: Most of the action in this novel takes place post-graduation, but flashbacks take us back to Vassar during the days that the girls who make up the titular group were in college.

Private Citizens: Again a book that takes place mostly after school but the events that transpired at school (in this case, Stanford, which was my dream school when I was applying and from which I was rejected) are recounted at length and are an important part of the narrative.

Lords of Discipline: I just finished this incredible book, about a cadet at a thinly-disguised version of The Citadel, and even though I didn't have high expectations going in I loved it.

The Namesake: While Yale is only a small part of the overall narrative here, it's an important part of Gogol's life. It's at college that he finally sheds his hated birth name and begins going by Nikhil, symbolizing his attempts to shed the identity his parents tried to create for him.

Lucky: I read this book, a memoir of sexual assault and its aftermath while Alice Sebold (who also wrote The Lovely Bones), during my own college years. While Sebold's experience is the less-common-on-campus "stranger rape", the struggle she went through to have her rapist prosecuted is still harrowing and really opened my eyes to how the justice system "works" in these kinds of cases.

The Golden Compass: And moving into the fantasy campuses, this novel is set at least in part in a parallel version of the University of Oxford. Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of the book and the rest of the series that follows it, is a headstrong preteen growing up among the scholars who populate the college.

Wicked: Another fictional school, this take-off on the Wizard of Oz features the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, as roommates at Shiz University. It's really a wonderful book and the musical is pretty awesome too!

Harry Potter: And it's not a college campus, but the campus of Hogwarts is still one I desperately want to visit (I've got a trip to the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando with my best friends coming up and I CAN'T WAIT)!

Book 37: Yes Please

 

"My phone is trying to kill me. It is a battery-powered rectangle of disappointment and possibility. It is a technological pacifier. I keep it beside me to make me feel less alone, unless I feel like making myself feel lonely. It can make me feel connected and unloved, ugly and important, sad and vindicated."

Dates read: March 28-30, 2016

Rating: 6/10

There is a line, I think, between knowing your own mind and being open to new experiences. If I'm being honest with myself, I'd say that I fall a bit too far on the "knowing your own mind" side of that line. I'm a person with strongly felt and sharply defined likes and dislikes. It is very rare that if you present me with an idea and ask me how I feel about it, that I shrug and say "dunno". Part of this is just who I am as a human, but I know that there's room to make more of an effort to let myself try something a few times before I decide if it's the actual best or the actual worst.

That being said, this book unfortunately reinforces my already settled mindset that I've told you about before: I just don't care for comedian memoir-essay books. I'll admit that I've always thought of author Amy Poehler as the less funny part of Tina 'n Amy, but once I started watching Parks & Recreation, I got a lot fonder of Amy. Her Leslie Knope is the first time I've watched a character onscreen and felt like I was seeing someone like me up there. Not physically, the only thing Amy/Leslie and I share there is being short. But the optimism, the determination, the gravitation towards politics...she's a great character and one that's honestly been kind of a role model to me.

So I really wish that I could tell you that Yes Please is an amazing book filled with wit and wisdom that you should rush out and acquire a copy of it right now. But that wouldn't be right, because it's actually an enjoyable enough but pretty standard-issue famous-funny-person-writes-a-bunch-of-essays-about-their-life-and-how-they-got-where-they-are. Amy recounts a very prosaic childhood outside of Boston in solidly middle-class comfort, where she made up stories to add drama to her life. She talks about her time in comedy, starting in Chicago and meeting Tina Fey (their friendship is not especially highlighted, she actually ends up talking more about her bond with Seth Meyers), working on Saturday Night Live, and some of her triumphs and missteps along the way. She talks about Parks & Rec (the book was written between the sixth and seventh/final season of the show) and how much she loves being a part of it. She doesn't talk much about her then-fresh divorce from Will Arnett, but she does talk about being pregnant and becoming a mother at length. Which makes sense, she has two small boys and clearly loves them like crazy. Basically, she just talks about her life.

It's written with warmth and an enjoyably humorous tone, but none of it is especially fresh or revelatory. Part of me wants to believe that you can write a compelling memoir of a more-or-less normalish life without having to relate giant obstacles you've managed to overcome or outrageous things you've gotten up to in your youth, but the available evidence that I've come across suggests otherwise. Amy Poehler has obviously achieved tremendous success, but the way she describes her days of being young and dead broke focus so little on that and so much on the sheer enjoyment she got out of building her comedy career that it hardly seems like she struggled much on her way up the ladder. Which is great, on the one hand. She doesn't try to engineer specious complications, she never pretends that she didn't party and have fun while she was also working her tail off, and it was clearly hard work that led her to the opportunities that she's taken and run with and that have paid off so well for her. But on the other hand, her completely understandable refusal to really get into what seems like her most challenging experience (her divorce) makes it so the book has no dramatic tension. Fundamentally decent person works hard and capitalizes on opportunities she was fortunate enough to have access to and prospers is just not a story that really goes anywhere, interest-wise. If you're a Poehler superfan, you'll love it, but it didn't do much of anything for me.

Tell me, blog friends...what TV character have you seen yourself in?

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Characters You Would Want As Family Members

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic is a rewind...i.e go back in the archives and find a topic you didn't do the first time around and do it. I picked a way old topic, long before I started book blogging: ten characters I'd want as family members! I love character-driven writing and usually remember more about them than the plot for most books, so this topic spoke to me.



Fred and George Weasley (Harry Potter): I grew up with just one sibling, my sister (who I love and adore), but Fred and George seem like the perfect brothers. Constant pranking would thicken your skin but how could you stay mad when they're so delightful? I'm counting them as one because they're a matched pair.

Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice): Her bright wit and lively personality would make her a great sister. Can you imagine all the fun marathon phone calls you could have with a sister like Lizzy just snarking on everyone?

Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games): On the flip side of the sister coin, Katniss is fiercely protective of her own and would make sure no one ever messed with you.

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo): She doesn't seem like she makes much of an effort to be super pleasant to a lot of people, so I don't know that I'd want her in the immediate family, but as a cousin that you see maybe once or twice a year? And feel like you could maybe call on for backup in case of emergency? Perfect!

Pi Patel (Life of Pi): A dad who can tell a story like Pi Patel can tell a story would be an awesome dad indeed.

Tom Bombadil (The Fellowship of the Ring): Too irresponsible for a parent, but a whacky uncle who shows up every so often to be charming and lighthearted and sing songs and tell stories? Yes please.

Wilbur Larch (The Cider House Rules): Dr. Larch's fatherly love and empathy for orphaned Homer Wells is so touching, even when Homer spurns him and his work. I've already got a book dad, but how about a grandpa?

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones' Diary): I'm giving myself all kinds of fictional siblings, because it wouldn't be hard to be the good/together sister next to Bridget, and she's really very good natured and would have the BEST stories.

Catlyn Stark (A Game of Thrones): She's flawed, like every single person in George R.R. Martin's world, but she's strong, loves her kids, and raised a bunch of fundamentally decent people. She reminds me of my actual mom, and I'd gladly join Sansa and Arya as one of her daughters!

The whole Murray clan (A Wrinkle In Time): I want to be a part of this entire educated, loving, crazy-adventure having family. Just all of them.