Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Short Story Collections/Short Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is meant to highlight short stories, but here's the problem...I don't actually read much in the way of short stories. I have included one collection I enjoyed, but I chose to highlight mostly quite short books I've read that have packed a punch.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: My token short story collection...I don't usually read short stories because I tend to find them uneven and this book was no different, but these stories centering on keys and possession were powerful and still pop back up in my head sometimes when I least expect it.

Animal Farm: Absolute classic based on the Russian Revolution, except with barnyard animals. I reference that "some are more equal than others" line at least once a month.

Anthem: This is a solid little dystopian novella about a world in which individuality itself has been stamped out. Yes, it's Ayn Rand so you've got that whole thing going on but it's a good book.

12 Years A Slave: The memoir from a free black man in the antebellum north who's kidnapped and sold into slavery and held for over a decade is very eye-opening and very good.

Siddhartha: This book is quite short but I found it profoundly moving, both in message and in style.

The Alchemist: I loved this book when I read it in high school and am honestly a little bit afraid to re-read it because I'm worried it will have lost some of the magic.

The Stepford Wives: If you've ever used the phrase but haven't read the book, it's a very quick read and very good.

Between the World and Me: What this book lacks in page count, it makes up for in power. As a white lady, I sometimes felt uncomfortable reading this...which was the entire point.

The Prince: I work in politics, of course I've read this. If all you know about it is a general idea of what people mean when they say "Machiavellian", it's worth it to read it for yourself. Very interesting insights into leadership.

I Am Legend: The Will Smith movie they made out of this completely changes the ending of the book and therefore completely subverts its very real message. Read the book instead!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book 137: Innocent Traitor

"When I open my eyes, I am still lying there. I realize, aghast, that not one person, not even my mother or my husband, has stirred to help me. Is that what being a queen will mean? I am alone, utterly alone, and will be so for the rest of my life. This realization is just too much to bear, and my composure breaks. Lying on the floor, I bury my head in my arms and fall to weeping piteously, great racking sobs tearing at my body. This is wrong, I know it! We must surely be damned to hell for all eternity, I along with them, even though I am forced to be their accomplice in this evil."

Dates read: March 30- April 4, 2017

Rating: 5/10

When I was in high school, I was on the mock trial team for three years. So when I became a lawyer, I went back and worked with them a bit. I was struck by how young they were, these 15 and 16 year olds. When I was that age, I was sure I was basically an adult, but coming from the perspective of actual adulthood, even less than a decade later, they were definitely not adults yet. But of course, cultural definitions of adulthood have shifted and changed over time. A couple hundred years ago, people of the same age would have been considered perfectly old enough to have jobs and be starting families.

Noble children in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance, especially, were placed in a double bind: from the time they were old enough to appear in public, they were dressed as and expected to behave like tiny adults, but they were simultaneously completely at the mercy of their parents. Historian Alison Weir's first fictional novel, Innocent Traitor, illustrates the way this played out, by looking at the life of Lady Jane Grey. Known as the "Nine-Day Queen" when she's remembered at all, she was briefly crowned after the death of Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII. She was deposed quickly by Mary I and less than a year later, she was executed.

Weir tells Jane's story from several perspectives: her mother's, her cousins', her governess', and of course, her own, throughout her 19 year life. Weir depicts Jane's parents, Henry and Frances (herself the niece of King Henry VIII), as grasping social climbers deeply disappointed in Jane's gender. The couple are Protestants who raise their daughter (and later, her younger sisters) to follow in their religious footsteps. They are harsh parents, even by the standards of their time, but Jane herself grows into a quiet, obedient, and devout teenager (she is given a top-quality education and has the love of a devoted caretaker, Mrs. Ellen, which certainly helps). While it is hoped that she'll be considered a suitable bride for her cousin Edward VI, she is eventually married off to Guildford Dudley to form a political alliance. When the king finally succumbs to tuberculosis, her family, as well as her husband's and their allies, proclaim her queen on the grounds that Edward's sisters are bastards and therefore ineligible to inherit...and also to ensure that a Protestant monarch takes the throne rather than the rabidly Catholic Mary. When Mary musters troops, Jane is rapidly deposed and imprisoned. While Mary is initially inclined to show mercy, she eventually realizes that Jane makes too attractive a figurehead for Protestant foes and has her beheaded.

I love Alison Weir's histories...she has a light, lively touch with her subjects, creating a real sense of the person behind the recorded deeds. So I had high hopes for her fictional debut. But those hopes were disappointed. It's honestly not very good. Her characters are, for the most part, very one-dimensional: Jane and Mrs. Ellen are good, her parents and husband are bad. I found it jarringly anachronistic that Jane's wedding night rape is conceived as such by her...is "rape" even a word that would have been in common use then for someone of Jane's class? Especially to describe nonconsensual-but-within-wedlock sex (which was perfectly legal in many states in the US well into the 1900s)? Weir does not handle her multiple perspectives with particular skill and it often feels like just when you're getting into the groove of one character that it shifts to another.

Weir clearly feels a great deal of sympathy for her subject, and paints a picture of a life that seems cruelly harsh to a modern eye: abused and manipulated and finally killed. But from my own reading, it seems different more in degree than in kind for noble childhoods of the era: distant, uninvolved parents who expected their offspring to be seen and not heard and made plans for their future in order to create or cement alliances with other families. Jane's short life is certainly a tragedy and her father's continued scheming around her even after her imprisonment, without seeming consideration about putting her life in very real danger, certainly evinced an unusually high level of disregard for his child. But the book creates no real tension or interest in the interplay between characters...it's just waiting for the historical events to play out as you know they will. I have a few of her later novels still on my TBR because I think some of these issues are simply mistakes by a rookie novelist, but I can't affirmatively recommend this book.

One year ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I’ve Read In 2018 (So Far)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at our top ten reads of the year so far now that the year is a little over halfway over. I usually try to restrict my year-end list to year-of releases, but for this one (since I haven't even read ten 2018 releases yet), I'm just going to talk about the best things I've read this year without including the 2018 releases, only a couple of which would have made my list anyways.

Exit West: I chose this as a Book of the Month selection last year, but hadn't gotten around to reading it by the time my book club moderator chose it for us a couple months ago and holy smokes did I love it. Spare, lyrical, and powerful (and I didn't even hate the magical realism).

Good Omens: If you enjoy British humor, this tale of two angels (one fallen, one not) trying to deal with the pending rise of the Antichrist and associated end of the world will delight you. Both funny and clever.

Stiff: Mary Roach examines some of less conventional ways to deal with dead bodies with her trademark warm curiosity and it's fascinating.

The Girl With All The Gifts: I don't usually read heavily in the horror genre, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really did enjoy this twist on a zombie story.

Possession: I can already tell that I'm going to want to read this deeply-layered, parallel-storylined book again to appreciate more of its subtleties and richness.

An Untamed State: I'd never actually read one of Roxane Gay's books before this year, despite knowing I liked her Twitter presence and editorial pieces and the raw power of her talent and skill, despite an extremely difficult subject matter, blew me away.

Thank You For Smoking: I watched the (excellent) movie version of this in college, but now that I myself work in the general public affairs arena, the sharpness of the satire was something I appreciated even more.

Far From The Madding Crowd: I'll be honest, I thought Tess of the d'Urbervilles was a stronger work from Hardy. But this beautifully told tale of romantic misadventure in the countryside is still a very good book with an indelible heroine.

The Color of Water: I'm not always big into memoirs, but when they're done right they can be profoundly moving and this one about a mother told by her son is definitely done right.

Mansfield Park: Fanny Price isn't the lively, spunky heroine many of us expect from Jane Austen, but that doesn't mean Austen's sharp wit and keen observations are any less enjoyable.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Book 136: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

"Even if I was way more famous, Lisa acted like she was twice my age, and I should've known from the beginning she'd say no to going out. It'd be like me dating a six-year-old. She'd make it as an actress and singer, because she wasn't a normal kid. She was an adult in a kid's body. If you were just a kid in a kid's body, you might make it, too, as long as you had good management."

Dates read: March 27-30, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Drew Barrymore. Miley Cyrus. Lindsay Lohan. For as long as there have been child stars, it seems, there have been child stars gone awry. How could they not? While most of us are playing and making mistakes and learning under no harsher gaze than those of school bullies, famous kids are working, oftentimes supporting at least some of their family members. So when they start to push at the boundaries and rebel like most teenagers eventually do, they've got further to fall...and a much more public stage to do it on.

Speaking of child stars gone awry, there's always one of our most recent examples: Justin Bieber. And it's not hard to see who was the inspiration behind the protagonist of Teddy Wayne's The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. A preteen singer with a trendy haircut, discovered on social media, with a mother who manages his career, Jonny is on his second nationwide tour when we meet him. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that for all his stardom, Jonny is actually very lonely: besides his mother (whose "momager" position means that her monetary interests are bound up in what's best for Jonny's career, not necessarily what's best for Jonny, and who he refers to by her first name, Jane), his closest confidants are his tutor and his bodyguard.

Jane keeps a very close eye on Jonny's access to the internet, and it's this that kicks off the action: one night when she's out, he sneaks into her hotel room to read about himself. And it's there that he finds a message from a man claiming to be his long-lost father. As his tour continues, Jonny tries to figure out if the commenter is really his father (and what to do if he is), watches his mother struggle personally and professionally, has his own professional struggles, negotiates a fake date with a fellow preteen star, and breaks out of his cloistered bubble a little when a 20something rock band becomes his new opening act.

This sounds like a lot of plot, especially when you're talking about a 300 page book, but Wayne handles it well. Part of the reason he's successful is the way he structures his book: with sections for each day of each stop on the tour, it keeps a constant sense of propulsive motion forward, building naturally towards the climax, the final show. A bigger part of the reason the book works is the voice he creates for Jonny. Simultaneously hopelessly naive in the way that 11 year-olds should be, and cynically jaded about his career and the industry in which he works, there's a tricky balance Wayne pulls off, making Jonny neither a complete sap nor completely bitter.

Some of the themes are handled in a way that's a little too on-the-nose: Jonny's coming-of-age is symbolized by his attempts to figure out how to successfully jack off, and his tutor assigns him a unit on slavery in a clear attempt to draw the parallels with Jonny's situation to both the singer himself and, of course, the reader. And while the story is about Jonny, from his own perspective, I actually found Jane the most interesting character and wish I'd gotten more about her. But having too many interesting and well-rounded characters is a good problem for a book to have. I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it!

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever wish you were famous when you were younger? Do you still?

One year ago, I was reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Red, White, And Blue Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting books with red, white, and blue covers because tomorrow is Independence Day! Or as my very British brother-in-law calls it, Unruly Colonists Day. Since this is a cover-focused list, I'm not going to write about my choices, but I will note for the record that all of these books take place in the USA!

The Great Gatsby

Into The Wild

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

From Dead to Worse


Fahrenheit 451

We Need To Talk About Kevin


All The King's Men

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: June 2018

And as of today, we're halfway through 2018! These first six months have had their challenges, but for the most part it's been a positive year and I'm really looking forward to the rest of it. Especially since we'll finally be doing more of the "getting out of town" bit...we've been squirreling away our vacation days and we've got some trips coming up that'll hopefully be fun! This month, though, was mostly pretty calm.

In Books...

  • The Sky Is Yours: First of all, this book is intensely weird. Dragons are only the beginning of it in this story of a far-future New York City menaced by the scaly beasts that's been winnowed down to the very rich and the very poor holding out. Weird is usually alienating to me, and indeed I never quite bought all the way into it, but damn if it wasn't well-written, entertaining, and compulsively readable. A very promising debut.
  • Boy, Snow, Bird: A fresh and powerful take on the classic Snow White fairy tale, Oyeyemi plays with race, surface appearances, identity, and mirrors. Up until the end, I found it compelling and thought-provoking, but there's a twist that felt...off, and kind of derailed the whole thing. 
  • Motherless Brooklyn: I was intrigued when this was selected for book club, since I'd had it on my TBR a while ago and then actually taken it off later because I decided I probably wouldn't like it. Was I right to add it or delete it then? The latter. I hated it. I never got involved in the mystery or cared about anyone involved. 
  • The Girl With All The Gifts: I bought this on a Kindle sale whim and was unsure about it before I started reading it...horror can be very hit or miss for me. But it's really good, twisting the zombie story to give us a tale about an unexpected bond and what it really means to be human after all.
  • Love Medicine: This book is more like intertwined short stories than a novel, but it's beautifully written and an interesting look at the lives of modern Native Americans and explores the rich variety of complications that love and family bring. I'm definitely interested in continuing the series!
  • Sloppy Firsts: I don't know how I missed this series when I was a teenager myself, because I would eaten it up. As it is, even 32 year-old me really enjoyed this story of a misanthropic high school girl trying to make it through the endless sea of high school b.s., which took me back in the best possible way. This is another series I'll be continuing. 
  • The Completionist: Feminist dystopian fiction is having a bit of a moment, but to be honest this was not a shining example of the genre. It's set in a future where there's been disaster resulting in a virtual vanishing of water and a growing crisis of fertility, leading to increasing restrictions on women who've managed to get pregnant. A young ex-Marine and his older, pregnant sister search for their other sister, a Completionist (basically a midwife) who's gone missing. I loved the character of the pregnant sister, but the book as a whole fell apart under scrutiny.
  • The Feast of Love: This Ann Arbor-set book had seeds of greatness (the prose is amazing, and the characters are vivid) but I couldn't get over how falsely the portions of the book written from the perspective of a young woman rang. It completely undermined the book for me. 

In Life...

  • Primary elections: Our client that had a primary made it through, so now we've got that race and a couple other to get ready for in November! Campaigns are hard work but they're always interesting and I'm fortunate in that I've gotten to work with amazing candidates that I really believe in. Anyone who doesn't think their votes count should be there as local candidates watch numbers come in, every one matters!
  • Our second wedding anniversary: Two years of married life down, forever to go! We celebrated with an ice cream cake (an annual tradition now!) on Father's Day, and then our favorite Italian place for the day-of, and I am a very lucky lady. 

One Thing:

That some people have made blogging a lucrative full-time career should no longer be a surprise. We've all heard about the thousands of dollars a Kardashian can command for a single Instagram post, and the reality is that there are people whose reach and dedicated following in their fields (travel, fashion, parenting, etc) are valuable enough to be worth a substantial amount to marketers. But by and large, this doesn't extend to book bloggers. Laura at What's Hot? has a very interesting piece about why the bookternet should be getting paid. My own following and engagement is small enough that I'd never be able to turn pro at this, but for those who do have it and whose work leads to sales for publishers, they should be compensated!

Gratuitous Pug Photo:

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book 135: Stranger In A Strange Land

"She had not thought about it at the time, as she had not believed that anything could happen to Ben. Now she thought about it. There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk 'his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor' on an outcome dubious. Jill Boardman encountered her challenge and accepted it at 3:47 that afternoon."

Dates read: March 21-27, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: Hugo Award, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Growing up, it's easy to believe that almost everyone lives more or less the way you do. It's only as you get older that you start to realize that's not true. But it's hard to resist the urge to think of the way you grew up as the right way. But what if it wasn't just the people in your neighborhood or town that you were comparing yourself to? What if it wasn't even the same state or country? What if it was a person who came from an entirely different world?

Valentine Michael Smith, the central character of Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, is an entirely unique person: the son of two space explorers on Mars who died shortly after his birth, he was raised by Martians in Martian culture. As an adult, Mike returns to Earth to explore his "home" planet. Initially hidden away in a hospital by the government, which is trying to figure out what to do with him, he's discovered by a reporter and smuggled out by a nurse. That nurse, Jill, becomes his constant companion, sheltering and protecting him as he learns about the world and becoming something of a disciple as he comes into his own and begins teaching Martian ways to his friends and, eventually, the world.

Jill and Mike are taken in, after their initial flight from authorities, by author/lawyer/doctor Jubal Harshaw, an older, cynical man who lives in a sprawling compound with three young women he employs as on-call stenographers for his writing and a handyman to keep things in good repair. This group forms the core of what becomes the Church of All Worlds, a religious movement centered on Mike and the teachings he espouses, including the deep significance ascribed to the sharing of water, the concept of "grokking", and (of course!), non-monogamous sexual relationships. The rise of this church upsets the established power structure of this future Earth, with predictable results for the figure at the center of this upset.

Smith is both human and profoundly non-human, which raises interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a person, a fairly common theme in the science fiction genre. Perhaps because it had been done before, or perhaps because he was disinclined to explore the issue, this is not the route that Heinlein chooses to go. Rather, he uses the story to explore the "Martian" philosophy on life. Which is interesting, for a while. But since the portions of the book that are effectively espousals of this philosophy actually make up a solid majority of the book, with relatively little character development, I found myself getting bored pretty quickly.

The plot is pretty straightforward: it's a messiah tale, with the kind of story progression you'd expect for this kind of tale. The prose is...not fluid. It's clunky, and the long passages of expository dialogue aren't handled with any particular deftness. While it raised some thought-provoking ideas, it never captured me as a piece of literature. I don't think there's any reason genre fiction can't be successful from a literary standpoint, but I never got wrapped up in the story this book was trying to tell me. It may be a sci-fi classic, but it didn't do it for me. I wouldn't recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite genre fiction books?

One year ago, I was reading: The Good German (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed