Thursday, February 21, 2019

Book 169: Charity Girl

"The matron and her cornering. Barred windows. But all these things, it hits her, she can bear, has been bearing; these things every patient here must bear. And that's what's so awful: that they take it, that they can, that it's so easy to lose the fighting edge."

Dates read: August 13-16, 2017

Rating: 4/10

The process for how textbooks get developed is fascinating. Especially for K-12 public school texts in the United States. The information contained in what's really just a handful of books makes up the knowledge base for what the majority of students end up learning. Large buyers can exert significant influence, given that companies want to market their products to as wide a base as possible. So you end up with books that shy away from controversy, meaning that when you learn about "Manifest Destiny", you read about it as triumphant white people making their way from sea to shining sea with just side notes about the devastating effects that the migration had on Native American communities. You have to actively seek out information that runs contrary to the official version.

Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl explores one such "hidden" aspect of history. His novel follows Freida, a teenager who flees from her Russian Jewish immigrant mother after her father dies and she's about to be sold (literally) in marriage to a much older man she barely knows. She goes to Boston, where she gets a job in a department store and makes friends with her coworkers. She meets Felix, a dashing young soldier who sends her heart a-flutter...but leaves her with syphilis before he reports for training to head overseas to fight in World War I. She's tracked down by the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps, and even though she tries to get away, she's eventually picked up and sent to a reform facility.

She's committed no crime, but neither she or the other girls she's detained with (some prostitutes, some, like Freida, "charity girls" who don't sell their bodies but have offered their company to men who take them out) are sophisticated enough players to work the system. While there, the girls are treated for their STDs (this is the pre-antibiotic era, so those treatments are on the harsh side), as well as proselytized to about leaving behind their "scandalous" ways. There is a social worker who offers her help to Freida, and she never loses hope that Felix does care for her and will effectuate her release. She does eventually leave the home, but I'll leave the how for anyone who wants to read to discover.

Let's start with the good things about this book. First of all, it introduced me to a piece of American history I'd never heard of. That the military members who were as often as not the source of the diseases the girls had were able to get treatment and move on with their lives while the women were subjected to indefinite detention (sometimes followed by criminal prosecution), honestly, not all that surprising, unfortunately. But it was definitely something entirely new to me, and I'm glad I read it and found out more. I actually thought Lowenthal did a fairly good job with Freida's characterization (she's kind of wishy-washy and prone to flights of fantasy, but she's a 17 year-old girl who was sheltered for most of her life), and I appreciated that he surrounded her with a relatively diverse cast of characters.

But it wasn't really a very good book at the end of the day. Frieda might have been a well-drawn character, but as a protagonist, she was more irritating than not. The other girls she lived with might have been diverse, but they were all pretty flat. As soon as you find out than one of them is pregnant, it's obvious that there's going to be a botched abortion, because along with the helpful social worker turning out to be a predatory lesbian (yikes) who turns her back on Freida when she discovers that she's still infatuated with Felix, that's just the kind of story this is. I never really felt like the stakes were that high or got invested in the story. The writing is fine, but unspectacular. Unless you have a particular interest in this time period, I'd say that this is skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what did you only learn about after high school history

One year ago, I was reading: The Selfish Gene (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Three years ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books we've liked that are a bit more under the radar. I cheated a bit and picked two books that almost certainly will go above 2,000 soon but were published late last year so haven't quite gotten there yet. But if you're looking for something to read that isn't the same thing everyone else is reading, these are great choices!

The Anointed One: This is a pretty niche interest (Nevada politics), but it's also really good and still very relevant even years after it was published.

Seduction: This one is kind of cheating (it was a late 2018 release), but I recommend it very highly. If you enjoy the author's podcast (and its ratings suggest lots of people do!), it's very similar to what she does on the show but in book length!

The Butcher's Daughter: This book was so interesting and different than a lot of historical fiction! I'm bummed it never seems to have found an audience because it's really well-written.

The Big Rewind: Another one that should have blown up huge (so delightful!) and I will continue to push!

The Sky Is Yours: This one, at least, I can understand why it didn't take off. It's very very weird but I also found it really compelling!

Valley of the Moon: This is a sweet time-travel romance that appealed to me even though this is not at all my usual genre.

The Fly Trap: This was a book club selection, and when I found out I was going to be reading a book about a dude that lives on a Swedish island and studies flies, I was very skeptical. It's actually a really entertaining read!

Once Upon A River: This one is another cheat. I'm sure this book will be widely-read (and it should be, it's wonderful) but only came out two months ago.

Three and Out: Also kind of a niche interest, this is a well-reported, well-told account of the brief, unhappy tenure of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's head football coach.

Messy: This Fug Girls-penned sequel (to their debut, Spoiled) actually worked better for me than the first entry...I'm sure they've moved past this series, but I'd love to read another one if they ever wrote it!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book 168: The Sense Of An Ending

"We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it that said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient—it's not useful—to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."

Dates read: August 10-13, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The New York Times bestseller

Like many siblings, my sister and I squabbled a lot growing up. One time, and I can't remember what she said or did that prompted it (if anything), but I was mad at her and I told her that her teeth were yellow. It wasn't even true, they were pretty much the same color as mine. Years later, I asked her why she usually smiled with her mouth closed in pictures, and she told me that she'd been self-conscious about the way her teeth looked ever since I said that to her. I apologized and told her I was just being a jerk, of course, but I've made an effort since she told me that to really think before I snap back at someone I'm upset with. You never know how the words you toss off without thinking can really impact someone's life.

Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending illustrates the same principle on a much more profound scale. The book tells the story of Tony Webster, a deeply ordinary person. He went to school, worked a normal office job, got married, had a kid, got divorced, and remained on good terms with his ex into their retirement years. But a mysterious bequest drags him back towards most tumultuous time of his life. As schoolboys, Tony and his friends absorbed into their ranks the new kid in town, Adrian. Adrian was different than them: smarter, more serious. The group starts to fracture after graduation, everyone going their own separate ways to different schools or workplaces. At university, Tony meets and starts dating Veronica.

It is this ultimately short-lived relationship that changes lives. Veronica is mysterious and aloof, and Tony has a hard time knowing where he stands with her. They get serious enough that she takes him home to meet her family, but the only one that's nice to him once he gets there is her mother. They break up shortly after that trip, and not a particularly long time later Adrian writes to Tony to tell him that he's started dating Veronica. Tony is hurt, and writes back angrily. Then he goes on an extended jaunt to America, and it's not until he gets back to England that he hears that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony is, of course, upset, but his life goes on fairly smoothly until that bequest arrives: Veronica's mother has passed and left him a small sum of money and Adrian's diary. The money gets to Tony, but the diary is with Veronica.

Tony's journey to try to understand why he was left anything at all and attempts to get the diary comprise the balance of this slim novel. In its less-than-200 pages, it explores powerful themes: the difference between what we chose to remember and the truth, the impossibility of taking back something that's been said, how we change even though we feel like the same person we've always been. Barnes is a talented writer, and reflects on these with clear, emotionally resonant language that puts into words things that we (or at least I) have thought about but never really been able to distill. The mystery behind it all keeps the plot moving forward, but it never feels tantalizing just to inspire page-turning. Rather, the interesting thing is how Tony reacts to each new twist.

Barnes does brilliant characterization work with Tony, by the time things are wrapping up he feels like an old friend who has a way of dropping wistful bon mots about life. Both Adrian himself and Margaret (Tony's ex-wife) likewise feel realized despite appearing relatively infrequently in the narrative. But Veronica, who winds up being a significant factor, never really came together for me. The "clues" she gives Tony are maddening...if she really doesn't want to engage with him, she could have avoided him entirely, but for her to make just enough contact with him to drop cryptic references doesn't make sense. Either tell him what's going on, because he clearly doesn't get it, or ignore him. Her remoteness and Tony's inability to comprehend her are one thing, but I can't understand her own motives at all, which took away from my enjoyment of the book. As for the final resolution itself, I'm not sure I go all the way there with it. That being said, this is a lovely and powerful book, and I'd recommend it very highly.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever said something to someone that you wish you could take back?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Zealot

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Favorite Couples In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Valentine's Day coming up around the corner, this week we're looking at favorite couples! I feel like I did something similar-ish not tooooo long ago, so I'm highlighting my favorites from books I've read fairly recently.

Arthur and Freddy (Less): Arthur Less feels silly for being so sad when he finds out his ex Freddy is marrying someone else...after all, they weren't even ever really "official". But as he remembers their time together, it's more and more obvious how much he did actually love his lost flame.

Jessica and Marcus (Sloppy Firsts): We all have that one crush on the "bad" guy that we shouldn't have feelings for at some point, don't we? It's satisfying watching that relationship actually come together and kind of work!

Bathsheba and Gabriel (Far from the Madding Crowd): Watching Bathsheba make bad decisions about dudes is so rough because the right one is right there and you're just waaaaaiting for them to finally get together.

Maud and Roland (Possession): Like most nerds, the idea of falling in love while engaged in an intellectual pursuit is just impossibly romantic to me.

Nadia and Saeed (Exit West): These two young lovers and the journey they take is so deeply moving, even as their experiences change them in ways that put their future in jeopardy.

William and Katherine (Stoner): William's life is so sad that even knowing his affair with his beautiful, smart colleague can't last, I still found myself caring so much and wanting it to go on as long as possible so he has the chance for more happiness.

Lux and Joseph (Valley of the Moon): I liked the way Gideon built up the relationship between these two slowly and organically so that by the time they actually got together it felt so right!

Joe and Rosa (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay): I don't entirely love how Chabon wrote Rosa overall, but I really did care about the relationship between her and Joe and wanted things to work out somehow.

Vasya and Morozko (The Girl in the Tower): One of the things I love about how Arden writes these books is that Vasya is deeply aware of how ridiculous the idea of an actual relationship between a teenage girl and an ancient death god is...but they're so easy to get invested in!

Ifemelu and Obinze (Americanah): Rooting for these two to make it means rooting for someone who cheats on their spouse to end up with the person they're cheating with...but I found their love story so compelling I couldn't help it!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book 167: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

"I loved being a part of an administration that I thought was making the country better, and I had an incredibly generous, kind, and helpful boss who I felt had not only my best interests at heart but also the entire nation's. Plus, when I traveled for work, I took Air Force One, which never got old, and instead of wasting time at boring conference centers I was doing things like eating goat in the courtyard of Hamid Karzai's palace. They wouldn't let me go inside because I was a woman and they didn't believe I was actually part of the senior staff that was cleared to go in, but still: not much is cooler."

Dates read: August 7-10, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I've been a woman working in politics for six years now. It's an interesting field, but it's hard. In lobbying, you have to constantly be juggling your client's expectations, your relationships with legislators and how much you can bother them before they get sick of seeing your face, and keeping coalition partners engaged and trying to figure out if they have another angle they're trying to work at the same time. When you add into that the necessity of waking up at 5:15 to make sure that I get into the office on time (it's a 40 minute commute, and committees start at 8, but we need to make sure we have time to get the day prepped) and not getting back until at least 6:00, if not later, most nights...I'm glad our state only has session every other year.

And session started this week, by pure coincidence of publishing schedule and reading order. Which means that it's the perfect time to review Alyssa Mastromonaco's Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?. Mastromonaco was the deputy chief of staff to President Obama, and the book is structured around various personal qualities she feels helped her rise in her field (leadership, preparedness, etc). As she talks about these concepts, she fills in details about her experiences in the political world, from interning with Bernie Sanders to working on the Kerry campaign, to getting her start in with Obama when he was a senator and staying with him through the presidential race and then into the White House. There are highs and there are lows, and there's even some romance (and a look at the gentler side of her husband, a former Harry Reid aide known, like his boss, for being caustic).

Mastromonaco is up front about why she wanted to write her book: while there are plenty of works out there from male political types talking about their time in public service, there are comparatively few by women. Part of that is because there haven't been as many women walking the hallways of power, but even among members of that group there's some reticence about being out there about what they've experienced. Mastromonaco wanted to write something honest about being a young person, and a young woman person specifically, living and working in a field not necessarily known for being welcoming to females. And honest she is: she talks openly about her IBS and dealing with it when traveling around the world with the President, being walked in on at the office doing sit-ups, coping with the death and illness of a pet, and the sleep/health destroying stress and pressure that come along with working in the nation's most exclusive address.

I really enjoyed reading this book! When I'd seen the press around the book before I read it, it was described as being as if you had a smart, funny older sister who happened to work closely with Barack Obama, and that's exactly what it is. Mastromonaco's voice is warm, droll, and strikes a great balance between downplaying her success and bragging about it. She owns that she worked really hard and sacrificed a lot to earn what she earned, and how frustrating it could be to deal with people who sometimes let themselves treat her like her youth and gender made her less worthy of their respect. As someone who also works in the general field (though nothing like DC, thank goodness), her words and experiences rang true to me. Politics is exciting and frustrating and there are some of best people who work in it, but also some of the worst. There's nothing quite as great as the feeling of pulling together with your team to get some really good work done and winning the day, but there are also the days when you go cry in the bathroom stall because there are just too many things happening at once and it's overwhelming.

If I was going to offer a critique, it would be that the timelines could get a little hard to keep track of, jumping back and forth from the later part of her time at the White House back to the campaign trail, then forward and then backward again. Organizing around subject areas keeps it cohesive, and by the time you get into the back half off the book it's more chronological, but there were some moments of confusion when I started to read it. Overall, though, it's a look at a side of political life that most people don't ever think about, much less get to see, and I think it would be a great read for anyone interested in what it's actually like to work in this crazy field. I would recommend it particularly highly to women, but men absolutely should read it too. It's a very solid book.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Three years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Upcoming Releases I’m On the Fence About

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This is another one of those topics that I struggle with since I read so much backlist! I do look for things I might like on the frontlist, but generally wait to hear about other books from people I trust. I did manage to put together ten books that caught my eye but I'm waiting to have vetted to see if they'll make my list.

Machines Like Me: This concept seems intriguing (a love triangle with an android), but then again so did Ian McEwan's last book, Nutshell, which I mostly heard to stay away I'm waiting it out on this one.

The Body Lies: Thrillers are a category I don't always love, though this one about a creative writing group does pique my interest, so I'm going to hold out until I know if it's any good or not from people who generally don't read the genre.

Dual Citizens: I'm always interested in reading books about sisters, but there are plenty of stinkers out there so I'm hoping someone tells me if this one is worth picking up.

Polite Society: I'm on the fence, generally, about retellings-of-classics...for every one that delights, there's another that clings too tightly to the original to be fresh, so someone please tell me if this take on Emma is great or not so much.

Henry, Himself: This book about an old man looking back at his life seems like it will either be heartwarming and charming or intolerably annoying.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton: I used to love historical fiction but have found myself gravitating away from it more and more as I get older unless I hear great things...this one does sound like something I'd like, so I'm keeping an ear out for word about it.

Disappearing Earth: A mystery about missing children set in rural Russia, this promises to look at multiple perspectives in a way that I might be interested in exploring, but I want to hear how well it executes first.

Furious Hours: This is a book about Harper Lee planning to write a book about a murder trial (which, obviously, she never ended up publishing), which sounds fascinating but also I've heard virtually nothing about it, which makes me wonder if it's actually a dud.

Homeland: This is a novel about Basque nationalism and the ETA which sounds either like it'll be really good or really grim and I need more input to know!

Patron Saints of Nothing: This is YA, which I don't normally read, but the subject matter (the drug war in the Philippines) seems promising, so hopefully the word on the street is good.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Book 166: Party Monster

"Oh, Angel was probably dead, all right. No big deal. Or maybe he was in the hospital. Who cared? They had probably been partying too hard and Angel overdosed. Happens all the time. People die around us all the time. Drop like flies. Overdose. AIDS. Sometimes they kill themselves. People come. They go. Dying is the same as rehab or moving back to Missouri. It just means I won't be seeing them again. New people were already in line to take their place."

Dates read: August 5-7, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I've never really gotten what makes drugs fun. I'm not a total square, I drink regularly and I've partaken in the occasional marijuana cigarette, but nothing really harder than that. I don't like feeling out of control. I'm already high-strung enough without the help of uppers. Even very low doses of pain or anxiety pills just make me sleep, which I do love to do, but I don't really classify as "fun". And the idea of seeing or feeling things that aren't there just seems more scary than anything else. Who knows, if I tried those things maybe I'd like them, and if other people do enjoy them, that's their business, but I generally feel like I'll be okay if I meet my maker (or don't, I don't know what happens after we die) without ever having tried cocaine.

Suffice it to say that when it comes to drugs, James St. James and I have different opinions. In his memoir of his days as a New York City club kid in the late 80s/early 90s, Party Monster, he gleefully recounts his experiences doing LOTS of drugs, with ketamine as a special favorite. But the drugs aren't really the focus of the book. The focus is really on the murder of Angel Melendez, a crime that marked the end of the reign of the Club Kids. It's not a who-dunnit, as the murderers, Michael Alig and Robert Riggs, are identified right at the beginning through Alig's own confession to St. James. We even know how and partially why. What's left is the context.

To give us that context, St. James tells his own story. An earlier arrival on the scene than Alig, St. James tells us how he came to occupy a fairly high rung on the social ladder of the nightclubbers, introducing us to the people whose asses he kissed to get there. Just a short while later, Alig arrived and St. James tells us how he at first watched and then became a friend and sort of mentor to Alig as the younger man engineered his own meteoric rise up the hierarchy. And part of what Alig brought with him, along with a new group of hangers-on, was drugs. Well, there were already drugs obviously. But more drugs, and harder ones. The kind that let two strung-out junkies, high on a cocktail of pills and their own sense of importance and untouchability, brutally murder a drug dealer, shove his body in the river, and carry on with their lives like they're going to get away with it. And they very nearly do: despite the fact that Melendez is a missing person and Alig and Riggs' involvement in his disappearance is an open secret in their community, it isn't until the body is found that the police actually take any action.

I've never been one to find substance abuse memoirs especially appealing...reading about someone's experiences taking a lot of drugs doesn't really do much for me. But St. James' arch, gossipy writing style makes it about as good as it can be. And while there's no doubt after reading it that he mostly enjoyed the experiences, he doesn't shy away from exposing the less glamorous side of it. Like groups of addicts ripping the radiator out of an apartment wall because they think they remember someone dropping a bag back there, a scene he renders darkly humorous while still exposing as pathetic. Indeed, it's St. James' strong writing that makes this book workable overall. 20somethings drinking and dancing and getting high out of their minds wearing weird costumes is something that seems like it would make a decent essay but would be tiresome at book length, and yet the way St. James tells his story makes it mostly pretty fun to read. This is not great literature, but it's an interesting, well-told account of a very particular time and place.

Tell me, blog friends...are drugs more fun than I think they are?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Marlena

Three years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology