Thursday, September 24, 2020

Book 252: Shantaram

 
 "Personality and personal identity are in some ways like co-ordinates on the street map drawn by our intersecting relationships. We know who we are and we define what we are by references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them." 

Dates read: July 27- August 6, 2018

Rating: 5/10

If you had asked me where I'd be at 35 at virtually any point in my life, I 100% would not have said living in Reno, Nevada and working as a lobbyist. When I was in high school, I would have said probably in a major city practicing law, preparing for a career as a judge. In college, I would have waffled about maybe becoming a psychologist or academic, but probably still would have come down on the side of being a lawyer-looking-towards-the-judiciary. I wanted to be a prosecutor and then move onto the bench pretty much until the bottom fell out of the economy when I was in law school. With shrinking firm openings, even the kinds of public-sector jobs I'd had my eye on got super competitive, and for the first time I had to shift my dreams. That shift continued all the way until I got to where I am, and while it's worked out pretty damn well, it's nowhere near where I thought I'd be.

Of course, this is a pretty fortunate variant of the curveballs life can throw. The man who calls himself Lindsay "Lin" Ford (this is an alias, but we never get his real name) in Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram had a real switch-up. At one point, he was a typical suburban husband and father in Australia. Then he got into heroin, and then bank robbery, and then there was divorce and custody loss and prison. Facing a decades-long sentence in a high-security prison, he manages to escape and goes on the run, landing almost by chance in Mumbai with his forged passport and a chance decision to trust a street guide with a big smile changes his life all over again.

Lin's adventures in India are truly epic, from six months in his street-guide-turned-friend Prabakar's rural village, to living and working as a medic in one of the city's enormous slums, to Lin's passionate love for Karla, a beautiful and mysterious Swiss ex-pat, back to prison (in India this time), then into organized crime and even to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen. Along the way there's a shadowy, malevolent madam, a traintop marriage proposal, and Bollywood movies, among other things. It's sprawling, with countless side characters who appear and re-appear throughout. Lin's ability to proceed with cautious optimism keeps him generally lucky in both friendship and opportunity, but even that can't keep him safe from tragedy.

The book is based heavily on Roberts' own experiences...like his protagonist, he was an Australian addict-turned-robber who escaped from prison and lived for several years in India. While some characters are, in fact, entirely created, several (including Prabakar and his family) are actual people who Roberts did know in India but whose stories he may have rendered somewhat less than faithfully. It walks a fine line between obvious invention/fantasy (the scene in which Lin and Karla finally sleep together has them running into each other's arms while a thunderstorm rages around them and I literally laughed at how ridiculous it was though it was not at all meant to be funny) and things it seems like we're meant to believe even though they are clearly ludicrous (like the idea that Lin has apparently has an extraordinary ability to know instantly if someone is a decent person and is almost immediately accepted and tightly bonded into every community he finds himself in).

If you're looking for a plot-driven adventure story and have a high tolerance for flowery language, this will likely be something you really enjoy! It can honestly be hard to focus on how silly some of the events in the book are because he generally keeps things moving quickly enough that you don't linger on them before Roberts takes you in a new direction. I'm not kidding about the prose style, though...I'm generally fairly tolerant and sometimes even enjoy work that tends towards the overwritten, but only about 100 pages into the nearly 950 of this book I was already rolling my eyes and it didn't get better from there. There's a very good 500-600 page book in here, but it would have taken some serious editing down of the often-trite philosophical patter Roberts constantly inserts, and honestly more development of Lin as a character. He's our protagonist and we spend all our time with him, but we actually know vanishingly little of his life before he was imprisoned in his home country. We get full backstories for several less important characters, which made it extra frustrating for Lin to be so unrooted. As I think is probably obvious by now, I didn't especially like this book, finding it only mediocre-to-average in quality and completely unworthy of its enormous length. But honestly I think if I had read it in my early-to-mid-20s, when my tolerance for "poignant" pronouncements about life was higher, I'd have liked it more. As is, though, I can't recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Soon The Light Will Be Perfect

Two years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Four years ago, I was reading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is one of my favorite TTT topics: seasonal to-be-read lists! I've got a good mix coming up...a little humor, a little romance, a little history, a little biography. I think keeping my reading switched up helps keep me out of ruts!



Naked: How can one say no to David Sedaris essays? I certainly can't.

Adaptation: I've heard good things about Malinda Lo, and a fast-paced YA sci-fi dystopia will be a nice mental snack. 

Exhalation: I don't love short stories as a general rule, but this is the book club pick for October so it's on my list.

Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story: Obviously Michael is a very controversial figure, and this book was published well before the Leaving Neverland specials, but there is a lot I don't know about his actual life that I would like to.

A Bollywood Affair: I don't read much romance, but I do love Bollywood movies and have often enjoyed books by Indian authors so this seems like something I'll like!

His Only Wife: I won a copy of this debut contemporary fiction in a giveaway and am really excited to dive into it! I feel like I've read several books by Nigerian authors and I can't remember one I've read by an author from Ghana so I'm looking forward to branching out a bit.

The White Princess: My beloved Plantagenet/Tudor series trash!

Looking for Alaska: I've never read John Green before! I remember the buzz, and then the backlash, and I'm curious to see how I respond to his work.

Lazy B: Sandra Day O'Connor is one of my all-time idols, and this is her memoir about her childhood experiences on her family's Arizona ranch, which I think I'll appreciate more having lived in the West for nearly a decade now.

George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Much of my interest in the World Wars is personality rather than battle-based, so this look at World War I through the relationships between three royal cousins: George V of England, Nicholas II of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany is EXTREMELY on-point for me.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Book 251: The Pleasing Hour



"They had forgotten me, and I felt snug and warm in my blanket of incomprehension. I had always wanted to go to France to learn the language, but instead I’d come and lost my own. Finally I was free of the need to explain anything to anyone."

Dates read: July 24-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

It can be difficult to see your own family objectively. Many families have a level of dysfunction that seems normal from the inside, but if you were to see someone else's family doing the same thing would seem maladaptive. That doesn't necessarily mean the people in that family are unhappy, though. No one's family is perfect, and if it's not one weird pattern of behavior, it's another. Finding a balance where personality quirks are able to be negotiated and worked out with each other is the important thing.

The Trivot family, living on a houseboat in Paris, looks happy from the outside in Lily King's debut novel The Pleasing Hour. A beautiful mother, Nicole, a successful father, Marc, and three fundamentally good children: lovely teenage Odile, high-spirited Lola, and serious Guillame. Every year, there's a new jeune fille who works as an au pair, helping with the kids and around the house, and this year, it's 19 year-old American Rosie. Usually, the young women in her position are studying at the Sorbonne, perfecting already skilled French, enjoying a social life untethered to the "real world" they'll return to at the end of the year. But Rosie is different. She's clumsy with the language, not attending school, and spends most of her off-duty time in her small bedroom. What drove her to France was not an appetite for adventure, but escape from a situation she couldn't face.

Not long before she arrived, Rosie had a child, and gave him up to the older sister who basically raised her. She's still working through that experience when she comes into the Trivot household, where the glossy surface conceals plenty of problems underneath: haughty Nicole and sheepish Marc are disconnected, and the kids each have their own struggles. Rosie becomes more integrated into their lives, finding some sense of security, before a trip to Spain unsettles everything.

One of the major themes of the book, and one that really resonated with me, is language: the power of fluency and the way it can both bring people together when it's shared and isolate them when it's not. Rosie arrives speaking poor French, setting her apart from the family, and even as her proficiency increases to the point where she feels comfortable speaking it in most situations and to everyone else in the household, she fears Nicole's ability to make her feel wrong. Nicole herself tries to bury the Provencal accent that marks her as a non-native Parisian. And the way Rosie sees herself and is seen by the Trivots shifts when they go to Spain and she has the most command of Spanish. Anyone who's ever tried to learn a language, or gone someplace where they didn't speak the primary one well, knows how isolating it can be when you don't understand it, how frustrating it can be to sort-of understand, but be unable to clearly make yourself understood, the thrill of being able to communicate.

While I found that particular thematic element of the book compelling, as a whole I'll admit it was just okay for me. It is a debut, and though it's the promising kind (King's prose is strong, and she shows flashes of brilliance of characterization), it doesn't seem quite sure of what exactly it's trying to say or do as a whole. We get in-depth looks at the family's children, and go back in time to learn about Nicole's parents and childhood, but get no insight into her as an adult or into Marc at all. The plot meanders, and important threads of narrative, like Rosie's emotional processing of her pregnancy and surrender of her child, didn't feel like they went anywhere. It's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not particularly good either. If what you've read makes you interested, you won't be wasting your time in picking up the book, but you won't really be missing out on anything if you don't.

One year ago, I was reading: Empire Falls

Two years ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

Three years ago, I was reading: Duel with the Devil

Four years ago, I was reading: Neon Green

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Great Posters For Books Made Into Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is technically supposed to be a cover freebie, but honestly I am not huge into book covers. So I'm doing a little twist on it: I'd originally thought of highlighting books that get new covers when a movie is released and the best or worst of those, but instead, I'm just going to do the posters for the movies themselves! I have either seen the movies or read the books (mostly both) for every one of these.



The Silence of the Lambs

24 All-Time Best Movie Posters with Great Designs

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Amazon.com: Pyramid America Breakfast at Tiffanys Audrey Hepburn Holly  Golightly Romantic Comedy Movie Film Cool Wall Decor Art Print Poster  24x36: Posters & Prints

Gone With The Wind

Amazon.com: Pop Culture Graphics Gone with The Wind 11 x 17 Movie Poster:  Prints: Posters & Prints

The Godfather

Amazon.com: The Godfather 1972 Marlon Brando Classic Movie Poster No Frame  (11 x 17): Posters & Prints

Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness)

Apocalypse Now (1979) Original Australian One-Sheet Movie Poster - Original  Film Art - Vintage Movie Posters

Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)

Amazon.com: Pop Culture Graphics Blade Runner 27x40 Movie Poster: Prints:  Posters & Prints

Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby (1968) - IMDb

Perfume

50 Beautiful Movie Posters — Smashing Magazine

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (Original poster maquette for the 1973 film) by Friedkin,  William (director); Bill Gold (poster design); William Peter Blatty  (screenwriter); Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Linda Blair  (starring): (

A Clockwork Orange

The 50 Best Movie Posters Ever | Movies | Empire

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Book 250: The Romanov Empress



"For the moment I obliged, reasoning that the ongoing burden of the war, the shock of Alexei's illness, and Alexandra's distress were an impossible combination. Let time ease the brunt of it. Once it did, I'd try again. I'd not cease until Nicky accepted that in this modern age, our autocracy was already doomed. No tsar could rule as his ancestors had. If he didn't concede, they would force him to it."

Dates read: July 20-24, 2018

Rating: 6/10

My husband and I are both fortunate in the in-laws department. His parents like me, my parents like him. While I very well remember the feeling of discomfort when it comes to "meeting the parents" for the first time (with the exception of my college boyfriend, this always went well for me but was still nerve-wracking), now that that part of my life is over, I find myself wondering what it must be like to be on the other side of it. To know that your offspring is bringing home someone they really like and want you to like, and you hope you like them but also want them to like you. It must be a tricky situation if you get a bad vibe off the new person...do you discourage and get called a meddler? Passively accept that your adult child can do whatever they want and let it go? Figuring out how to play it must be a very thin tightrope to walk.

Of all the decisions that Maria Feodorovna, Empress of all the Russias, made in her long life, one of the most fateful what was to do about her oldest son, the tsarevich Nicholas, and his devotion to a minor German princess called Alix. She failed to dissuade him from her, and Nicholas and Alexandra, of course, were deposed and ultimately executed along with their five children. But while it might be the fate of her eldest and her grandchildren that the world mostly remembers her for, Maria had a long and interesting life of her own, and C.W. Gortner explores that life in his historical fiction novel The Romanov Empress. We first meet her when she's the teenage Princess Dagmar of Denmark and follow her through the beginning of her years in exile after the fall of the royal family.

That gives us roughly 50 years to cover, and there was a lot that happened in those years. Dagmar initially falls for and is betrothed to tsarevich Nicholas, and is enthusiastically preparing for her new life in Russia when Nicholas has a horse-riding accident and dies, but before he does he begs Dagmar and his younger brother Sasha to wed. They do, despite initial coolness on both of their parts, and the marriage is ultimately a happy and successful one. But this was a time of increasing instability in Europe, and after multiple attempts on her father-in-law's life, Tsar Alexander II is assassinated and Sasha becomes Tsar Alexander III. Sasha's reign is challenged by the same forces that ended his father's, but Maria stays mostly out of politics and turns her attention to charity, court life, and raising her children, and is particularly close to her eldest, Nicholas, whose mildness irritates his father. Neither Sasha or Maria want him to wed Alix, but when it becomes apparent that Sasha's kidney condition will take him sooner rather than later, they reluctantly consent so Nicholas can be married before he assumes the throne. Sasha's death makes him Tsar Nicholas II and his bride Tsarina Alexandra, and Maria tries to guide her son and his wife through continued social turbulence, but Alexandra will have none of it and turns to an obscure mystic called Rasputin for guidance after it becomes apparent that her youngest child and only son, Alexei, suffers from hemophilia. We all know how it goes from there.

Though I've read/heard about Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children (particular Anastasia), I'll admit my familiarity with any other Russian rulers besides Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great is non-existent. So even though "the grandmother" is always present in Anastasia stories, I literally had no idea who she was, and this book was a solid introduction to her. She lived in an era of such turbulence that she's a great lens through which to take a look at how Europe completely changed within one generation. The downside of that, from a novelistic perspective, is that since there is so much actual action to pack in, once you add in the interpersonal Romanov drama on top of the greater social shifts, that Maria ends up being kind of a passive, reactive character. Which isn't such a bad thing in and of itself, but when the writing is constantly telling us about Maria's high spirits and sense of mischief and all we see is a woman who's mostly pretty conventional and constantly placed in a position to be reactive rather than proactive, it creates a mismatch.

That being said, though, Maria does feel like a real person. Gortner indulges in some insta-love in her initial engagement to Nicholas, but I appreciate the way he built her relationship with Sasha over time, as a couple who barely knew each other when they married and grew their connection gradually. I also enjoyed the frenemy dynamic between Maria and her sister-in-law Miechen, whose actual roguish energy made Maria seem even more well-behaved and dutiful in comparison. With the time span this covers, and all the events it needs to touch, it almost feels more like a highlight reel than a portrait of a person, and comes off a little cluttered. I think some of the material could have been trimmed down a little, which would give it all a bit more room to breathe instead of feeling like we're hopping from major life event to major life event. It just never really takes off, and while it's a solid read, it's nothing more than that. It did serve to introduce me to several figures I'm hunting down actual biographies for, so there's that at least. If you're interested in Russia and the Romanovs, this is decent and worth reading. If that time and place doesn't hold any interest for you already, though, this is skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Silence of the Girls

Three years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls

Four years ago, I was reading: Smoke

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent(ish) YA Books My Teenage Self Would Have Loved

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! So, a little while back I made a list of young adult books, published while I was a young adult, I wish I would have read. This list is similar, but with a twist: here are ten YA books I wish had been published when I was a teenager (so, after 2004), because I would have been very into them!



The Hate U Give: I thought this book was a solid read as an adult, but it's really more targeted towards teenagers, and I think teenage me would have been extremely into it!

The Hunger Games: This book and its sequels (haven't read the new prequel yet) are exactly the type of young adult I would have loved, complete with stereotypical love triangle.

Twilight: I read all these books when I was in college, so not too far removed from my teenage years, and I ate them up (I still find them the perfect kind of brain dessert).

Uglies: I very much liked the first one of these that I read off my little sister's bookshelves, but the second one kind of lost me because I was really out of the "teenage dystopia" headspace by that point. 

The Serpent King: I absolutely loved this book even as an adult, but think it would have been even more appealing to me as a small-town nerd in high school.

Shatter Me: Another one I quite liked even as a grown-up, but would have been even more appealing to teen me.

Children of Blood and Bone: This did not do much for me as someone who has come to really enjoy a character-heavy drama instead a plot-driven adventure, but I think I would have appreciated the thrill of it more when I was younger.

Divergent: I read the first two books in this series several years ago, and I think teenage me would have been more tolerant of all the tropes on display there.

The Book Thief: I thought this was moving, enjoyable book when I read it a few years ago and I would have been obsessed with it if I'd first encountered it as a teen.

Delirium: I found this inoffensively fluffy as an adult but I'm pretty sure I would have found it very swoony once upon a time.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Book 249: Olive Kitteridge



"As a matter of fact, there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can't occasionally take a little of this, a little of that—just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give herself a little burst. Because Christopher doesn't need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything. Nobody knows everything—they shouldn't think they do." 

Dates read: July 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

It's easy to think that we really know the people in our social circle. We see them being regularly rude and snappy, we write them off as jerks. They're always kind and thoughtful when we see them, we assume that they're a good person. But it's hard, if not impossible, to actually completely know anyone else. The lovely human we know in the work place might go home and be cruel to their family. The person we see being prickly could spend hours volunteering in their community. Unless we've seen someone in every possible context, there's always an aspect of them that could be missing from who we think we know.

The thirteen short stories that make up Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge all feature the main character at least once. Sometimes she's the center of it. Sometimes she's a passing reference between two other people who live in her small Maine town. It moves roughly chronologically, beginning when Olive and her husband Henry are already older and headed toward retirement (though the first story, about Henry, is mostly a flashback), and their son Christopher is an adult. Olive negotiates her relationships with her family and her community at large as they all change, slowly but inexorably...or, often just as aggravatingly for her, don't change much at all.

Though many of the lives we encounter look at least moderately happy on the surface, there's often profound sadness lurking underneath. This is not new territory, suburban dysfunction and familial drama, and while there's nothing special plot-wise it's Strout's skill as a writer that makes this book shine. Each story is a whole unto itself but subtly builds to create a full picture of Olive, her strengths and her flaws. She can be infuriating, as when she deals with the fear from finding herself the victim of a crime by berating her husband, and she can be deeply relatable and sympathetic, like when she overhears her new daughter-in-law mocking the dress she made herself for their wedding. She is stubborn and proud and controlling and rendered with profound emotional truth. Strout never has to explicitly ascribe these qualities to Olive, because she understands the power of showing rather than telling, which she does in spare-yet-lovely prose.

As in any short story collection, some entries are stronger than others. I loved the first one, "Pharmacy" about Olive's husband's long-ago infatuation with a shy technician at his pharmacy, and two where Olive is only a background mention, "Winter Concert" and "Ship in a Bottle". Some others, like "Tulips" and "The Piano Player", failed to move me. But one of the upsides to reading short stories is that even if you don't care for a particular story, it'll be over soon! I'll be honest, I was not looking forward to reading this book, because it felt like I was in a rut of books that were interconnected vignettes without strong central plots and I wanted to read something with more structure. Happily, though, it's good enough that I found myself very much enjoying it and I'd highly recommend it even if you're skeptical of short stories!

One year ago, I was reading: Tower

Two years ago, I was reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Three years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Four years ago, I was reading: Life Itself