Book 77: The Lords of Discipline

"To walk in the spire-proud shade of Church Street is to experience the chronicle of a mythology that is particular to this city and this city alone, a trinitarian mythology with equal parts of the sublime, the mysterious, and the grotesque. But there is nothing to warn you of Charleston's refined cruelty. That knowledge must be earned. No gargoyles hang from the sides of St. Philip's or St. Michael's. No messages are in the iron scrollwork of its gates to warn visitors like Poe, Osceola, me, and you."

Read: August 7-12, 2016

Rating: 10/10

When I'm grabbing my next book to read, I'm not reaching into a bookshelf and snagging whatever catches my eye. I have a spreadsheet. I have SO many unread books that it's really the only way to keep it together. I try to alternate hard copies and Kindle titles, and try to read about three ARCs for every five backlist titles. Since I've bought a lot of books over the years, it's the only way I'll be able to make sure I actually read all of them...without making myself do it, a lot of the older stuff would just pile up as shiny new things stole my attention away. Sometimes this means I read books I'm not actually super interested in anymore. That's okay, because it also means there are some total gems, like Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline, that I snagged on Kindle sale years ago and forgot. I honestly don't even know what drew me to buy the book in the first place, military school coming-of-age doesn't really speak to me, but I'm really glad that I did buy it because I loved it.

Will McLean is about to start his senior year at the Institute, a military academy in Charleston (based on the Citadel, Conroy's own alma mater). He didn't really want to go, but promised his father he would before his father died and gets a basketball scholarship anyways. He's not distinguished himself as a military man during his time there and doesn't plan to enlist and ship out to Vietnam as so many of his classmates intend, but he's almost made it through and is closely bonded with his three roommates, especially native blue-blooded Charlestonian Tradd St. Croix. Will is a quasi-outsider...while he's Southern and from an Institute family, he's also Catholic and an athlete, and probably the closest thing to a liberal on campus. Which is why he's assigned to look after incoming student Tom Pearce, the first black student to ever enroll, and protect him from the threat of a mysterious group called The Ten, who are deadset against integration. As Will's final year unfolds, he relives his own traumatic freshman year and we see how he's been shaped (sometimes against his own will) by the experiences he's had at the Institute as he tries to look out for Pearce, investigates The Ten, and falls in love with a troubled young socialite.

First of all, Conroy is an incredible writer. His plotting and pacing are masterful. He covers a lot of territory (freshman hazing, two suicides, a love affair, an investigation into a shadowy group, the experience of participating in organized athletics), but it never drags, nor does it feel overcrowded. Drama drives not from the mystery plot (which really only picks up in the last 20% or so of the book), but from experiences and relationships. The prose is strong and sure, lyrical without verging into purple territory, poignant and resonant. I have to imagine that Conroy loves Charleston as much as his protagonist does, because much of his most sweeping and sentimental prose is dedicated to the city and made me want to take a visit there myself.

The characters Conroy creates feel real...we obviously spend the most time with and are asked to identify the most with Will, but he's not perfect or beyond reproach. Even the person who's ultimately revealed as the "bad guy" has motivations that make sense. He places those characters in high-stakes situations without turning it into the lurid melodrama it could spill over into with less control. It's just a fantastic novel and I'm adding everything Conroy wrote to my TBR and I recommend this book highly to anyone, even if you don't think you'd like it.

Tell me, blog friends...has an author ever painted such a lovely picture of a place you feel inspired to visit there?

One year ago, I was reading: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Interesting Mother-Daughter Relationships In Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Since we just had Mother's Day this past weekend (hi Mom!), I thought I'd look at some mother-daughter relationships in fiction. Some are good, some are bad, all are interesting.

White Oleander: Astrid has many mothers- primarily, her biological one, Ingrid, whose reckless murder of a faithless lover leaves her daughter to the mercies of the foster care system. The relationships she has with the various women who take her in change her in different ways.

The Red Tent: This book tells the story of Dinah and her mothers: Leah, who birthed her, and Leah's three sisters, all of whom became the wives of Jacob. It's a lovely story focused on the relationships between women and the ways each of her mother-aunts leaves indelible fingerprints on Dinah.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Katie Nolan prefers her son and plays favorites in a way that feels a little jarring to a modern audience (maybe just me?), but that doesn't mean she loves her daughter Frances any less fiercely.

Pride and Prejudice: Mrs. Bennett is always scheming to get her five daughters married off and makes many blunders/faux pas along the way, but her love for her girls is always obvious.

The Golden Compass: This is really across the entire His Dark Materials series, but the growing relationship between Lyra and her mother, Mrs. Coulter takes lots of twists and turns over the course of the series.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: While I prefer to view this novel by itself (rather than along with its companion Little Altars Everywhere), I find the complicated relationship between Vivi and her daughter Sidda fascinating...remembering that our family members are people with stories that go far beyond any particular bond is always helpful.

Chocolat: I love this book, and the way Joanne Harris draws the relationship between Vianne and her daughter Anouk with such devoted love and tenderness is definitely a part of why I enjoy it so much.

The Guineveres: Each of the four main characters in this book has a different story about her own mother...each of which leads to being left at a convent as a teenager, which are revealed only piecemeal as the story progresses. By the way, this book is only $2.99 right now on the Kindle!

The Joy Luck Club: The story of four immigrant Chinese ladies and their American-raised daughters (and the inevitable clashes that result from that tension, along with the natural ones that come along with being mothers and daughters), it's an emotionally perceptive look at the way the told and untold stories of the mothers' lives play against the lives of their daughters.

Beloved: This story asks an impossible question- how far could a mother's love go? Escaped slave Sethe commits an unspeakable act when she believes she and her child are about to be captured and forced back into bondage, which figuratively and then literally haunts her for years. I tend to be wary of magical realism, but this book uses it powerfully. 

Book 76: Reading Lolita in Tehran

"The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality."

Read: August 3-7, 2016

Rating: 7/10

I was allowed to read pretty much whatever I wanted growing up. Which was awesome! My mom definitely encouraged my sister and I to read whatever we liked, which often meant things she wouldn't have picked out for us (my brief Lois Duncan phase comes to mind), but it was more important to her that we were reading and enjoying it than that she put a lid on what we wanted to read. I've always been suspicious of people who want to exercise a lot of control over what other people read. Sure, there are some books that have themes that are more mature and younger readers might benefit from being able to talk about, but books are just books. They develop your imagination, hone your curiosity, open you up to experiences outside your own. What's so bad about that?

Totalitarian regimes tend to believe everything about that is bad. An uninformed, incurious population is much easier to control. Theocracies, too, tend to be interested in suppression of alternate ideas. So a totalitarian theocracy, like the modern-day Republic of Iran, is doubly suspicious of books. So when native Iranian but American-educated former university professor Azar Nafisi starts teaching Western literary classics to a small group of past students in her home, she's doing more than assembling a book club with promising young minds. She can't even get enough black market copies of Lolita for everyone to have one...some of the girls use photocopies to read from.

Nafisi uses four major works of the literary canon as lenses through which to tell her story: the titular Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice. She touches relatively briefly on her childhood in Iran, her emigration to the United States to study, and her brief, unhappy first marriage followed by her second, much better one. The book spends much more time discussing life when she returns to Iran with her husband and begins teaching as the Islamic Revolution unfolds, and the restrictions on female and literary life under the ayatollahs.

Nafisi has a unique perspective on the Islamic Revolution as both insider (she was born and spent a large portion of her childhood in Iran, and married a fellow Persian and moved back) and outsider (she spent her early adulthood in the United States and got a Western education before she came back). It's fascinating and horrifying to read about how women's roles and rights were pushed back and back as time went on...Nafisi is never run out of the workplace per se, but she is threatened with an anonymous note and was subject to constant harassment over not wearing her headscarf properly, and eventually decides that continuing to teach is more trouble than it's worth. As she watches her students struggle to make their own lives and raises her daughter, it becomes obvious to her that she can't stay in Iran even though she doesn't want to leave, either.

It's useful to come in with a working comprehension of the novels Nafisi focuses on, since she discusses them and how their themes relate to situations she deals with at length. I'd read three of the four coming in (no Daisy Miller for me), and while it's certainly possible to understand the book without the literary references, it's definitely richer and deeper if you can follow along. For the most part I enjoyed the way she used the focus novels, though I did get a little irritated in the section on Lolita when she claimed repeatedly that she wasn't comparing the ayatollahs to Humbert and Iranian women to Lolita and then went on to do just that over and over. I think it's an interesting and valid way to look at Lolita, but if you're going to go there don't pretend that's not what you're trying to do. On the whole, though, it's a very interesting memoir, especially for a bookish audience!

Tell me, blog friends...have you read all four of the classics that Nafisi uses in this book?

One year ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Want To See More Of In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're highlighting things we'd like to see more of in books. This one was a little hard for me to distiguish from things that I really like to read about, because obviously I want to see more of those things too, but here are ten things I'd like to see more of at bookstores!

Female anti-heroes: Part of the reason, I think, that Gone Girl was such a runaway success was that it presented us with a creature rare in pop culture...the female sociopath protagonist. While it's not uncommon to be shown a ruthless man who we're supposed to root for, it happens far less often that we see the same situation around a woman. More like Amazing Amy please!

Own voices: While all fiction is based on imagination on some level, I'm starting to find myself very skeptical of books about a particular subgroup (women, minorities, people who aren't heterosexual, etc) written by people outside of these groups. It's not that it can't ever be done well, but how about having black female stories written by, well, black women?

Environmental non-fiction: I think we're all growing more aware of the effect that our actions have on the environment, and there hasn't been a major work of environmental nonfiction that I can remember since An Inconvenient Truth. I'd like to see more information about the ways our world is changing.

Politically aware characters: I know that political references can date a work, and I'm definitely an outlier since I work in politics, but most of the people I know, even outside of work, are at least somewhat aware of what's going on at least in D.C. I'd like to see more books where characters are actually paying attention to politics.

Two sides to the story: There are two (or more) sides to every story, and I always really like books where we get to see the same interactions and events from multiple viewpoints to emphasize the need for perspective.

Stories that follow groups of friends over time: I know that my friendships have been my most enduring relationships over time, and have changed and grown as we ourselves have. I really like books like The Group or The Interestings that follow friends as they grow up.

Realistic marriages: As a recently-married person myself, I'm really interested in reading stories about marriages that are based in reality...not high-octane domestic dramas, but stories that deal with the actual day-to-day of what makes up a marriage.

Adult fiction about professional dancers: I've always loved stories about rarefied sports worlds, like figure skating or gymnastics or ballet. And while there's YA fiction about that kind of thing, it's hard to find stories about professional dancers all grown up. I'd love to read some if I can find it!

Characters with chronic diseases: It seems like popular fiction never deals with people in wheelchairs, or with diabetes, or even something as basic as migraines. Plenty of people go through life with these kinds of conditions, though, and I think it would be eye-opening to read about it more often.

Anthropological looks at modern society: I bought (but haven't yet read) a book called Watching the English that looks at modern British society through the perspective of an anthropologist, looking at the rituals that define life. I think it would be really interesting to see more of these for other countries (including the good old US of A and all our subcultures!)

Book 75: The White Tiger

 "If I were making a country, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy, then I’d go about giving pamphlets and statues of Gandhi to other people, but what do I know? I’m just a murderer!"

Read: August 1-3, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012), Man Booker Prize

Here's a weird thing: I am actively pro-spoiler. Which you've probably noticed reading this blog...I try not to be gratuitous, but I will spoil things if it's necessary to talk about what I want to talk about regarding a book. I maintain that if your work (and I'm including movies and TV here) doesn't hang together if you know the Big Plot Twist, it's because it's not very good in the first place: the characterization, the quality of the writing, the dialogue, the pacing...if those aren't there, you don't have a well-told story, you just have a plot twist. Discovering the why is always more compelling for me than discovering the what.

Which is why I have a soft spot for books, like Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, that tell you their big plot twist right up front. We know at the end of the first chapter that our narrator Balram, a former servant turned entrepreneur in India, killed his former master. What unfolds over the rest of the book is the story of why. It's the story of India in the modern day, a place of desperate poverty but also extravagant wealth, where ancient temples are just as much a part of life as smartphones. Balram is born into poverty in a rural area, and even though he seems destined to become a laborer, he resists the forces (including his family) that try to keep him in the underclass as long as he can. He finds himself a position as a driver for an upper-class landowner, and eventually moves with one of the landowner's sons to New Delhi to be his driver there.

New Delhi fundamentally changes both that son, Ashok, and Balram. Ashok has been educated in America, and treats his servants more or less like people. As he gets more and more sucked into the mire of his family's business (they're in the coal industry, and Ashok does a lot of running around with briefcases full of money to drop off with various politicians and officials), he becomes harder and harsher. When Balram is nearly forced to take the fall for a bad accident caused by Ashok's wife's drunk driving, Balram realizes that even as far as he's come from his roots, he's still not really safe. As long as he's poor and a servant, he'll always be expendable. But in order to get out of his situation, he needs money, and the money he has the easiest access to? Those briefcases that he's driving Ashok around with.

It's a dark satire, and after reading a lot of Serious Literature, I appreciated its wit and liveliness even more than I otherwise might have. But I would have enjoyed it no matter what. It's an epistolary novel (Balram writes to the prime minister of China, who is visiting India at the time, to explain India's entrepreneurial spirit), which allows it to skip around in time a little for maximum impact...we know that he's committed murder and gone on to start his own business, but how (and why) did he do it? How did he get away with it? What exactly does he do now?  The organic tension propels the book forward without being too mysterious. Balram is an indelible character, and I really appreciated the way that Adiga developed Ashok as well, portraying his moral decay even though we only see him through Balram's eyes. It's a quick read that manages to be thought-provoking while still being entertaining.

 Tell me, blog do you feel about spoilers?

One year ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Haven't Read Yet, But Want To Because Of Their Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishSince I talked about my favorite covers of books I've read fairly recently, I decided to take a slightly different tack and look at books on my TBR with especially intriguing cover art! So here are ten of my favorite book covers from my upcoming reads.

The Sense of an Ending: There's something very evocative about the image of dandelion seeds blowing.

In the Woods: I've heard this is actually the weakest of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, but the cover art creates a foreboding, spooky mood on sight.

Stiff: This I just find delightfully clever, using the toe tag as a place for the title of the book

Boy, Snow, Bird: That image of the snake winding among greenery is a subtle biblical allusion and is eye-catching besides.

Life After Life: The simple image of a double sided rose is striking and intriguing.

The Luminaries: I love the way this cover moves through the phases of the moon.

The Goldfinch: The little 3D-esque effect, with the painting being "revealed", is neat and I'm super excited about getting around to reading this after all the praise.

Wild: The dirty, crusty, broken boot speaks to the central hiking/breakdown and self-discovery narrative of this memoir.

The Vacationers: The vivid aqua of this cover is unusual and it creates a sense of intrigue about what will happen to those floating people.

Dear Thief: The broken face of the bust, combined with the title, immediately makes me ask a bunch of questions, which makes me want to read the book.

A Month In The Life: April 2017

The winter-or-spring dance has continued from March, with surprising (and honestly, desperately needed) amounts of water coming out of the sky. Nevada's the driest state in the nation and we've been in a bad drought even by our own sad standards for the last few years, so it's great, but since these are the four months every other year that I have to be driving about 40 minutes each way to work every day, I wish had happened any other time. On the bright side, I've been racing through podcasts and audiobooks lately!

In Books...
  • Innocent Traitor: I love Alison Weir's non-fiction, so I wanted to love her first stab into a fictional story about the time period she so often writes about. But I didn't...her inexperience with the genre is obvious, and although there's interesting stuff here, the writing of both dialogue and internal monologues come off clunky. But her later fiction has good reviews, so I'm looking forward to reading more.
  • Moonglow: Even though I haven't been able to be to book club since January (I can't wait to get back in June!), I have been keeping up with our selections. This month's pick was Michael Chabon's latest novel, the first of his that I've read. Loosely based on his actual great-uncle's life, it's a wonderful blend of the personal and the epic.
  • Big Little Lies: Instead of reading an Amazon freebie that I was not looking forward to, I let myself pull it out and bump up a book I've been really wanting to read since I started hearing rave reviews of the HBO series. Liane Moriarty is outside my usual wheelhouse, but I quite enjoyed this fast-paced look at marriage, mommy politics, and murder.
  • The Children of Henry VIII: Back into Alison Weir, but this time nonfiction. There was a lot of overlap with the novel I read earlier in the month, honestly, since it covers many of the same people in the same time period, but I found it a much more rewarding experience. She's got such a great touch with history. 
  • The Leavers: I won a copy of Lisa Ko's hyped debut through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, and I had a hard time with it, honestly. While I loved the portions of the book that told the mother's story, I found the dominant narrative around the son to be difficult because I found him such a hard character to connect with or like. 

In Life...
  • Still in session, but only about 5 weeks left to go! This month saw our first two major bill movement deadlines: bills had to pass out of their first committee, and then their first house. A significant number of bills failed at each of these deadlines, so we're now left with a smaller pool of bills to track and work on. But a smaller number doesn't mean any less work, things are still very busy and will be until sine die

One Thing:
  • I've long since been a better baker than I am a cook (probably because my mom was the same way), but for the past few celebrations with my in-laws, including Easter a few weeks ago, I've found recipes on Sally's Baking Addiction and they've turned out amazing! Her recipes are straightforward, tested, and delicious. I even bought her cookbook!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: