Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book 190: The House of Mirth



"She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life."

Dates read: November 17-22, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

This is going to sound stuck up, but I've been told I'm pretty since I was a little girl. Now that I'm an adult, I don't think I'm devastatingly good-looking, but I'm generally pretty secure that I'm more attractive than not. It's interesting, the way women are trained to think that our looks are one of the most important things about us, but then we're supposed to wait for men to notice and acknowledge it, and we're ridiculed for the things we do to maintain it in the face of time and aging. My husband worries about putting on moisturizer because his skin feels dry and gets flaky in the winter. I worry about putting on all of the steps in my Asian skincare routine so that I combat wrinkles. Don't get me wrong, I love my k-beauty. But I'm aware that social pressure plays a disproportionate role in how I engage with my face, my skin, my body...not just for my own comfort, but for everyone else's too.

And that's in today's world! The farther back you go, the more a woman's looks were central to her prospects in life. When we meet Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, she's 29 and worried that her celebrated loveliness is beginning to fade before she's managed to marry herself off to someone who can support her. Lily was raised in wealth, taught to abhor anything "dingy"...and then her father lost their fortune and died and her mother followed him shortly thereafter, leaving Lily poor and alone. She was begrudgingly picked up by her aunt Julia, who gives her the right address and some pocket money, but not nearly enough to keep herself afloat on the glittering social circuit, where she needs this season's stylish hats and gloves and dresses and is expected to gamble regularly at cards. It seems hopeful, though: she's on her way to her friend Judy's house, where she expects to meet and charm  and become engaged to Percy, a very eligible bachelor.

Instead, she feels no chemistry with Percy and earns the ire of married socialite Bertha when Bertha's ex-paramour Lawrence Selden turns up to see Lily. Bertha splits up the budding romance between Lily and Percy, leaving Lily in a position to have to ask Judy's husband, Gus, to make some investments for her to help keep her afloat. Gus views this as an investment in earning Lily's...favors, and though she manages to keep her head above water and even rise briefly, it all comes crashing down when Bertha invites Lily on a trip to keep her husband George distracted while Bertha carries on with her latest conquest. When George discovers the truth, though, Bertha spreads lies painting Lily as a temptress instead, which begins Lily's descent through the social classes.

This book plays with the same kind of themes Wharton would return to in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, which I read a few years before I read this: the artificiality of the upper-class New York "society" in which Wharton herself was born and raised and the way it constrains and even punishes real feeling primary among them. Lily herself is a great heroine: it's so easy to identify with her simultaneous longing to do the "right" thing and make it easy on herself by just finding someone rich to marry her and keep her in comfort and to be true to herself and wait for the kind of real connection she feels with Lawrence. Even though women are by and large much less dependent on men for material support today, I think there still exists the temptation, especially as one approaches 30, to just settle for someone good enough and check "marriage" off the list of things you constantly get asked about as a woman. And the power of the rumor mill, and its ability to ruin reputations, remains potent.

It's thematically similar enough to The Age of Innocence that comparison is inevitable, and for my money, Innocence is the better-developed and more rewarding work. But Mirth was also written 15 years beforehand, so it's not surprising that it's less mature. It does bring the added context of a female perspective, and it's partly refreshing to see how far we've come and at the same time how many things are still largely the same in terms of the constraints that society as a whole places on women. I will say one of the things that didn't quite work for me was the novel's central romance: it's never really developed, we're just meant to sort of assume that they've fallen for each other. It's necessary to have established for a late character moment to work, but it's done so superfluously that it doesn't quite have the power it could have. All in all, if you like a sharp social critique and old-society novels, or just like Wharton, it's definitely worth reading. Otherwise, pick up The Age of Innocence instead.   

One year ago, I was reading: Olive Kitteridge (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Moon

Three years ago, I was reading: The Last Picture Show

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Auto-Buy Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about authors who you hear are coming out with a new book and it gets pretty much instantly added to your to-buy list. Not all of these authors are flawless, and they've written some stuff that I didn't care for in most cases, but I'm usually excited enough about how good they have the capacity to be that I'm willing to give them a chance straight away.



Margaret Atwood: I love her ability to build characters while weaving in powerful themes and compelling plots, and her work always gives me something to think about.

Neil Gaiman: His humor and sheer storytelling ability mean I'm always interested in what he writes.

Michael Chabon: He knows how to put together a family epic like no one else.

Kazuo Ishiguro: He's got a way of drawing you into a story and then just amping up the quiet tragedy bit by bit until you're devastated.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Her writing is always elegant without sacrificing the ability to hit an emotional knockout punch.

Alison Weir: I love royal histories, and that's what she does, using facts to create compelling narratives.

John U Bacon: I'm obsessed with Michigan football, and so is he.

Mary Roach: Her books aren't big serious stuff, but they're always interesting and bursting with humor and curiosity.

Lawrence Wright: He takes big, wide-ranging subjects and manages to put them into a narrative that pulls you along and helps you understand without feeling pedantic.

Jeffrey Toobin: When it comes to the legal and political systems, Toobin has the kind of panache and analysis I find super compelling.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Book 189: A Vast Conspiracy



"Ironically, with respect to Starr, the Democrats fell into the same trap as the Republicans did throughout the Clinton years. The problem with Starr was not that he was a lawbreaker, as the questioners consistently tried to imply, but rather that he lacked judgment and reason when it came to this case. Neither Starr nor Clinton was a criminal. The errors of both Starr and his critics illustrated the perils of a world where the legal system had taken over the political system. It was never enough to prove that your adversaries were mistaken; you had to prove that they were evil as well."

Dates read: November 11-17, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

During the 2016 election, one of the most persistent themes seemed to be the constant air of scandal that floats around the Clintons, Bill and Hillary alike. Maybe that's one of the reasons she had such a hard time shaking the email stuff...there's always the assumption that they're somehow being shady, and that this little whiff of smoke MUST portend a fire somewhere. We all remember his fling with his intern, but there's also his other rumored dalliances, and then Vince Foster, and Whitewater, and it seems to go on and on. At a certain point, they're tied to so much that it feels like something surely has to be going on.

I remember the impeachment scandal, but I was like 10 or 12 at the time, so while I understood that the President had cheated on his wife and lied about it and that's why he was in trouble, I didn't really get it. After Hilary's 2016 loss, I was curious about the backstory that I "knew" but didn't actually know, so I picked up A Vast Conspiracy, Jeffrey Toobin's book on the Clintons in the 90s. It mostly focuses on the impeachment, but also spends a lot of time with Paula Jones' lawsuit and dips into the other scandals enough to give them context. After I read it, I felt much more informed...not just about the actual events of the impeachment, but about the history of the Clintons and how they've gotten to have that air of perpetual shadiness.

On one level, Toobin tells a straightforward story: a politician with a raging libido really likes getting blow jobs from women who are not his wife. When he's Governor of Arkansas, he has an encounter of some kind with a young woman named Paula, who originally seems unperturbed but eventually launches a lawsuit against him after he becomes president. While president, a young intern develops a crush and starts flirting with him and he decides to pursue her. His inability to either keep it in his pants or admit to his wife what he's been up to leads him to be untruthful when he shouldn't have been, and because of the profound dislike and determination of a special prosecutor, he comes very very close to losing his presidency. It's a compelling story, with lots of morally ambiguous parties to project either heroism or villainy onto. I understand why it transfixed the country for months when it happened.

But Toobin also ties it in to a larger story, in which the legal system has become part and parcel of the political arena. The technique was first used by liberal interests to find the victories through the judiciary that they struggled to achieve through the legislature, but as time passed, conservatives picked it up, too, and this is perfectly illustrated by the hounding of the Clintons via the courts. It's an interesting perspective, and even though I'm well-versed in both arenas I don't know that I'd made the explicit connection before. And while I ultimately think the courts do and should have a proper role in protecting and enforcing our legal rights and responsibilities, it is a double-edged sword. Judicial processes don't always lead to the results one thinks they ought to.

As always from Toobin, this is well-written and more interested with delving into the facts to take much of a side. That's not to say it's totally without a side...it does tend to favor Clinton, particularly over Starr and the scheming Joneses, but it doesn't shy away from digging into his flaws either. It seems like there's something about the Clintons that just absolutely enrages people and drives them to try to destroy them as hard as they can...which explains why there's been so much mud thrown their way, and even though relatively little of it has ever hit a mark, with that much dirt in the air everything looks dingy.

One year ago, I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Three years ago, I was reading: Under The Tuscan Sun

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Teenage Girls

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a character freebie, and I thought quite a bit about what kind of character I wanted to talk about. I decided to go for one of the types of people the world takes the least seriously: teenage girls. As a culture, we dismiss them and the things they find important. But they make some of the best bookish heroes you could ask for!



Vasilisa Petrovna (The Bear and the Nightingale): Vasya is brave and strong and true and vulnerable and scared and just the best.

Jessica Darling (Sloppy Firsts): Jessica's deprecation of herself and everyone else she goes to high school with are just so true to being that age.

Georgia Nicholson (Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging): She's kind of daft and boy-crazy, but she's hysterically funny.

Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Having been a nerd who loved school, obviously I've got a soft spot for those kind of girls.

Starr Carter (The Hate U Give): Starr is whip-smart and brave even through her fear and I loved reading about her.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): We all know who the real hero of this series is, right?

Lyra Belacqua (The Golden Compass): Bold as brass.

Sabriel (Sabriel): There is a type of "strong female character" which basically just means extroverted and ass-kicking and even though Sabriel is more than capable of kicking ass if she needs to, she's not that type of easy heroine and that's why she's great.

Lady Catherine (Catherine, Called Birdy): A true Sass Queen for the (Middle) Ages.

Charlotte Doyle (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle): The way we get to see Charlotte grow and change and come into her own is awesome.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Book 188: The Underground Railroad



"She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them."

Dates read: November 6-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times bestseller

Does anyone in popular American culture have a more valuable public endorsement than Oprah? She spent decades as the most trusted voice of American housewives through the power of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and when she's given a person or product her imprimatur, it's often a game changer. She's the reason Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz have the careers they do (whether or not that's a good thing, I'll leave up to you). When it turned out A Million Little Pieces was made up of a million little lies, half of the outrage felt like it was because someone had had the gall to lie to Oprah. And lately, I'm sure I can't even imagine how many more women joined Weight Watchers at her urging.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of her blessings have been the authors who wrote books which she included in her book club. Her power is such than in 2016, her selection of The Underground Railroad for that book club drove Colson Whitehead and his publisher to release it two months ahead of schedule. From there, it won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and ended up on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Obviously that kind of attention had nothing to do with Our Lady Winfrey, but it probably helped the book become a #1 best-seller. Which means that a lot of people who might not have otherwise picked it up did, which is a good thing because this book bends time and history to lay out a damning case on the way America has done wrong by Black people.

Set in the antebellum South, The Underground Railroad focuses on the journey of one slave woman, Cora, towards freedom. The granddaughter of a woman who survived the Middle Passage and was enslaved in Georgia, and the daughter of a slave who ran away when she was just a child, Cora has spent much of her life as an outcast even among her own community. So she's surprised when another slave, Caesar, approaches her to run away with him to find the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's alternative history, the railroad is literal...there are stations built into the earth that spirit slaves away to the north.

Run away they do, and Cora finds herself first in South Carolina, which in this world has outlawed slavery but holds ownership of Black people itself, and then distributes them as it sees fit in service work. But they're also secretly infecting men with syphilis to study it, and sterilizing women...and then Cora finds out she's being chased by a man called Ridgeway, a slave catcher. So the next stop is North Carolina, which has abolished slavery too...out of a fear that the Black majority population of the state will rebel against their masters. It's replaced their labor with white indentured servants, and escaped slaves are publicly executed. Cora hides there for a while, but before she can devise an escape, she's caught by Ridgeway. That doesn't mean she stops fighting for her freedom, but freedom isn't an easy thing for a slave to find.

I wanted to love this. I wanted to find it a revelation. And it's good, very good actually. Whitehead's prose is both lovely and powerful. And I understand why he can't "go easy" on Cora...it reads sometimes like she's a punching bag for the universe and she barely gets room to breathe before she's knocked down again, but that's probably what it feels like to be African-American, obviously back then and to a lesser but still very real degree even now. And the characters are interesting, with Whitehead even writing one-off chapters from perspectives other than Cora's, to give us context for the people who have an impact on Cora's life and where they're coming from when they interact with her.

But I just never connected with and got emotionally invested in the novel the way I do for the books that distinguish themselves for me as "great". I cared only in a kind of distant way about Cora, and for all that the side characters were developed they mostly just faded away...when Caesar and Cora are separated relatively early in the proceedings, for instance, I never found myself missing him on the page. And while I cared about Cora and what was going to become of her, it was never in the way where I wanted to skip ahead to see how she might make it around each obstacle thrown in her path. I'm not quite sure why that was, honestly...like I said, Whitehead's writing is incredible so it's not for any lack of ability to make her more compelling on his part. It just didn't quite get there for me. Nevertheless, it's a very good and powerful book, and one that I'd recommend to just about everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

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

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about childhood favorites. I have a bunch of teenage favorites that I already talk about all the time, so I made this list focus on books I loved more when I was a kid/pre-teen that I haven't highlighted much, if at all!



James and the Giant Peach: I loved Roald Dahl, but this story about an abused little boy who manages to escape from his wicked aunts with the assistance of a supersized stone fruit and some enormous insects was my favorite.

Julie of the Wolves: I'm not usually into "wilderness survival" type stories, but as an animal-lover, the bond that Julie developed with the wolves got me good.

The Babysitter's Club: I wonder what happened to the several dozen of these books I acquired over the years. I read SO MANY of them as a kid. The supersized specials were the BEST.

Animorphs: Oh man, another series I just absolutely devoured. I was obsessed with these books and read them over and over.

Black Star, Bright Dawn: I've maintained a lifelong interest in the Iditarod thanks to this book about a teenage girl who competes in the race that I re-read multiple times.

The Giver: I'd actually read and already loved this by the time it was assigned reading in middle school. I've never been able to make myself read the sequels because I don't want to diminish my memory of how much I adored this book.

The Egypt Game: I went through a period when I was a kid where I read everything about Ancient Egypt (fiction or otherwise) that I could get my hands on. This book was like the greatest thing ever at that point.

Redwall: I remember spending many summer days at my outdoors-oriented summer day camp hiding from counselors who wanted to make me participate in things to read these books and getting completely lost in the magical world of mice and badgers and stoats.

Charlotte's Web: The childhood tearjerker! Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte (and even Templeton) all have special places in my heart from reading this book many, many times.

Bridge to Terebithia: The other childhood tearjerker! I wonder if kids growing up today would even recognize having the freedom to just...go play in the woods for hours on end.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: June 2019



My life! I have one again! This month saw the end of legislative session and while it was a good one for me, with lots of professional growth, hot damn was it a struggle near the end. But now it is over until 2021! I'm hoping my reading pace picks up, I'm behind where I was even two years ago, the last time I went through session!

In Books...

  • Delirium: Reading this at the end of session, when my brain was exhausted, was the best possible time to do so. If I was ever going to be receptive to a young adult dystopia about a world where love is considered a deadly disease, this was it. I didn't think it was especially good, it indulged in a lot of cliches, but it held my attention and interest reasonably well.
  • Good Riddance: While the previous book was fun fluff, this was just offensively dumb fluff. The potential was there in the concept, of a woman who tosses her mother's annotated yearbook in the trash only to find a neighbor has rescued it and wants to make it into a documentary, but the execution was awful. The plot was silly, the characters were flat...a waste of time.
  • There There: I'd heard rave reviews of this book, so I was super happy when it was selected for my book club. And while Tommy Orange's writing is often breathtakingly good and he sketches vivid characters through short vignettes, I found myself frustrated with the structure. It's basically interconnected short chapters from many points of view and I wanted a more cohesive narrative for what could have been an amazing novel but was ultimately a very good one instead.
  • The Coming Plague: This book, about the impact of human behavior on the diseases that we experience, was fascinating! It also was a little too long...at over 600 pages of text in relatively small type, there was a point at which even the well-told and interesting stories about the emergence of "new" diseases like Ebola, AIDs, and Legionnaire's Disease (among many others) gets old.  
  • American Psycho: The satire of the soullessness of 80s consumer culture/Wall Street bankers is devastatingly, perfectly sharp. But this is beyond a doubt one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. Even just skimming the sex/violence I still read things that it's going to take me quite a while to get out of my head. 
  • Amsterdam: I picked this up because it had won the Booker Prize, and now that I've read it, I have no idea why it did. It's cleverly written, and amusing in the way it skewers the delusions of grandeur of two old friends who reconnect at the funeral of a woman they both once dated. But it didn't make much impact on me, and I doubt I'll remember it for more than a couple months.


In Life...
  • Session is over: My fourth time through legislative session wrapped up early in the month and it wasn't a minute too soon! I'm very much enjoying having an 8-minute walk to work instead of a 40-minute drive, going home at lunch to hang out with my husband and dog, and being home at a reasonable hour every night. Also the enormous lessening of the stress burden. And we've started playing pub trivia!

One Thing:

Like many people recently, I was sucked into and fascinated by HBO's excellent docudrama Chernobyl. If you haven't seen it, I highly, highly recommend it. And either way, I'd recommend this fascinating article about women who have moved back into the Exclusion Zone. The piece is several years old now but I find this dilemma really interesting: if you're older, and you've spent your whole life living in one place and don't want to leave it, accepting the risks of staying...should anyone be able to make you go?

Gratuitous Pug Picture: