Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book 267: The Library Book

 

 

"I was transfixed. It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever."

Dates read: October 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I don't remember the first time I went to the library. I'm sure I went quite often as a small child, but my first memories are of the Hamburg Township Library when I was probably about 8ish. There was a small market nearby to the original location, the one that was there for most of my childhood, and my mom would often drop me off to find a book while she took my sister and picked up some extra things for the week. As I got older, we'd spend more time at the library in Brighton, a neighboring bigger town with fancier facilities and wider selection. When my mom was mad at me for mouthing off, I'd be punished by being excluded from the next trip there. I can still conjure up in my mind the exact way the young readers section looked at Hamburg, the way the floors creaked. I remember how the nonfiction section smelled at Brighton, the older books with their distinctive aroma.

Like millions of people all over the world, I have a fond, deep attachment to libraries. Author and journalist Susan Orlean is one of those people who grew up loving the library, but found herself not visiting it as much as an adult. But then she had a kid, started visiting her local branch in Los Angeles, and found out for the first time about a major fire there in the 80s that burned hundreds of thousands of books...assumed to be arson, but never actually solved. This inspired her to write The Library Book, which explores not just that fire and the recovery afterwards, but also the history of the Los Angeles Public Library in general and the changing role of it (and other libraries) as the greater world has become a different place.

As you might be able to tell from that description, there's not one particularly strong focus for the book. The closest thing to a through-line is a true-crime-esque accounting of the investigation of the fire, and the primary suspect, a failed actor named Harry Peak. But along the way, Orlean touches on the history of libraries, especially the one in Los Angeles, highlighting several of the more interesting directors it has had along the way. While the image of a library in the popular consciousness tends to be of a somewhat stuffy institution, Orlean talks to librarians on the ground to get a more nuanced view, particularly about the role they play in coordinating community and social programming for their users, from children, to new Americans learning English, to the homeless. And she also includes input from the library staff that were there at the time of the fire, the way it impacted them, and how they and the library itself got back to normal.

Orlean's genuine appreciation and love for reading, books, and libraries shines through the text, making an instant connection with the reader. It's impossible to not happily recall your own wonder at the library the first time you went in and realized that all these books are just here, for anyone to take with them and read. And while it might not work for everyone, I found Orlean's subject-hopping to be refreshing...it kept any one portion from bogging down or getting boring. Her descriptions of how the Los Angeles Public Library came to be designed and built made me want to visit it, to see it for myself, and reflect on the ways that public good buildings like libraries have seen their value, in the eyes of the public, decline over the years. Older libraries were often constructed as grand, their mission seen as important and necessary. Nowadays, it's about how to keep costs down, aiming for sturdy functionality over inspiration.

The way Orlean unwinds her story may prove irritating to a reader who prefers a strictly linear narrative. And after spending quite a bit of time going down a path which makes you think she's relatively convinced of Peak's guilt for setting the library ablaze, she refuses to draw that conclusion, leaving it ambiguous in a way that could be frustrating for someone who really wants closure. But her storytelling skills are top-notch, and if you're willing to follow her, you'll be rewarded by a genuinely compelling work of non-fiction. While I'll admit it didn't have the little something extra that would have pushed it to "great" in my mind, it was very good and I happily and highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who love to read. 

One year ago, I was reading: Sin in the Second City

Two years ago, I was reading: Say Nothing

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Five years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Resolutions for 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It being the new year and all, this week we're talking about resolutions. I've decided to split mine up into five each, personal and bookish both!


Personal

Have a successful fifth session: February will mark the beginning of the fifth session I've spent working in government affairs, and though it will be a challenging one because of the pandemic, I'm ready to do my best!

Visit my new nephew: This will have to be after session at some point, which means I likely won't get to meet him until after he's six months old! I'm glad we've been able to facetime regularly with my sister so I've gotten to see him but I really want to meet the little guy in person!

Take vacations when it's safe: I made a trip to Michigan in the fall for my sister's baby shower, but that was the only time I've left Reno since last March. When it's safe to travel again, we are definitely going to spend more time out of town than we'd been doing!

Keep working out regularly: This is something I sometimes have a hard time with during sessions because of the scheduling difficulties that inevitably arise, but working out on a regular basis has been something that's been really important to me during the pandemic, both for my mental health and my physical health, so I want to keep it up as much as I can!

Watch more movies: I'm a former Blockbuster clerk, I used to watch so many movies! As I've focused more and more on books, though, I am now lucky to get to more than a dozen per year. I love movies, and I really want to focus on seeing more of them this year!

Bookish

Read 75 books: I know, my actual goal is always 50. But I've got a lot of books to get through, and I've been able to get to at leas 75 for the past five years now, so here's hoping I can get there this year too.

Read fewer white men: I have passionately loved books written by white men, but I have also read quite a lot of them over the years. There are so many books in the world written by people who aren't white men, so I'm going to try to read more of them.

Buy fewer books: I own enough books. I own MORE than enough books. I don't need more (but I really, really want them!).

Get more involved with bookish social media: I've made this resolution before, but I really do want to be more engaged with the book community on social media, but my actual job requires so much social media engagement that it's difficult to find the time. I'm going to work on this more this year!

Talk about books with other people more: I'm in one book club (which has been meeting on Zoom these days, which is honestly not ideal), but I have plenty of friends not in that book club who like to read and I want to talk about books with them more often because talking about books makes me happy!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Book 266: The Fly Trap

 



"People sometimes call me for help in investigating the possibilities. I am a biologist, after all. Their projects are often said to have an environmental dimension—the infallible key to getting grants—so I’m considered a good person to talk to. When we were new out here, I used to say that I was a writer, but all the women on the island felt so sorry for my wife that I started insisting I was a biologist instead. What else could I do? And if you’re a biologist on an island widely known for its rich biosphere, you have to put up with a lot of phone calls from morons. They always seem to assume that I’m a moron myself."

Dates read: October 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

For my dad, it's lizards. For my mom, hearts. For me, my book stockpiling has reached critical mass. Most of us collect something. And the rest of you can Marie Kondo your lives as many times as you like, you'll never convince me that the reason so many of us have so much stuff isn't that there's a primal human urge to gather. For most of us, it's just a side habit. But depending on your line of work, it can literally be your actual job!

If I had to come up with an insect that people collect, I'd get to butterflies, and maybe moths and dragonflies, before running out of ideas. Those are the good ones, right? But Fredrik Sjoberg catches and studies nothing so glamorous. Rather, near his home on a tiny Swedish island, he collects hoverflies. In case you, like me, have no idea what those are, they're large flies that look like bees. In The Fly Trap, he ruminates on a life devoted to an obscure bug, as well as the story of the man, Rene Malaise, who invented the fly trap with which he does most of his work.

Like me when this was announced as a selection for my book club, you might be extremely skeptical about the idea of a book about a guy who collects flies. I was very sure it would be either weird or boring or both. Surprise! It's delightful! Funny and smart! It feels like having a conversation with the slightly odd but very charming person sitting next to you on an airplane...there's a circuitousness to the narrative, with Sjoberg starting on one subject but getting sidetracked into another, but it's carried off with humor and verve. The way the narrative thread keeps looping also ensures that the pace is lively and it doesn't get bogged down anywhere.

There's also, as you realize when you get to the end, surprisingly little about Sjoberg himself. There's a remove to it that feels Scandinavian, very pleasant but ultimately very firmly impersonal. There's a lot about the nature of being a collector, pleasure of focusing your attention on one little small facet of the world and working inside that little niche, the thrills of finding something rare in your chosen field, the loneliness that can come from essentially solitary pursuits. It's thought-provoking in its own way, not in the heavy way that the term is usually used. This is a lightweight little snack of a book, enjoyable but not especially memorable in any way, and I would recommend it. Hey, at least now I know what a hoverfly is!

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of Scots

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Five years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the First Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's my biannual least-favorite topic: upcoming releases I'm looking forward to! I always have a hard time with these, I really prefer to wait for reviews to start coming in before I decide what I'm really amped for. But here are ten that look good coming out before the end of June (all of which I am fortunate enough to have gotten digital advance copies of)! And I did not realize it until I was almost finished writing the post, but all of these are by female authors!


The Wife Upstairs: Rachel Hawkins has been a favorite Twitter follow of mine for a while, but I've never read one of her books before! I love a twist on a familiar story, so I'm super interested in her take on Jane Eyre!

All Girls: This promises to blend three of my favorite sub-genres...closed scholastic environment, coming-of-age, and female friendship.

Forget Me Not: I loved Oliva's debut The Last One so much I was automatically on-board for her next work! That it's about the life of a little girl raised in isolation who escapes into the wider world and then has to continue to deal with the fallout of her upbringing is even better.

The Babysitter: One of the things I find fascinating about serial killers is that they aren't just, like, out doing bad things all the time. Most of them have something resembling a normal life with people who would find it hard to believe their friend would do wrong. Some would even leave their children with them, and this is the true story of a girl coming to terms with the fact that her beloved childhood babysitter killed people.

The Rebel Nun: Historical fiction based on the true story of a nun in the Middle Ages who led a group of sisters in a rebellion against ecclesiastical authority? Yes please!

There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job: This story of a young woman looking for the least taxing job she can find seems like a brand of weird I can get behind.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: This seems Daisy Jones-esque in that it's a story about a musical act that broke up, but it has the added layer of complexity of dealing with issues of race in the 1970s, which seems like it'll make for a compelling read!

A Special Place For Women: I have found the dialogue about the exclusive female-only coworking/collective franchise The Wing to be really interesting, so the idea of a book that mines the idea of a place like that having an actively nefarious side seems right up my alley.

Madam: I am always looking for books to scratch my The Secret History itch, and this one, about a boarding school in Scotland harboring dark secrets, would seem to be right in that kind of dark academia wheelhouse.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: Another Middle-Ages-set historical fiction, this one about a small town beset with fear, a woman accused of witchcraft and the scientist son who tries to defend her. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: December 2020

 

It's the last day of 2020, and good riddance I say. That isn't to say that nothing good happened in 2020, there were definitely good things (one very good thing this month alone, which I've talked about below). But as a year, it's been a challenging one and I am very glad to put it in the rearview. I know that vaccines being out doesn't mean it's all over, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel now and if we just keep our heads down and push through we'll get there!

In Books...

  • The Long and Faraway Gone: On paper, this is the sort of mystery/thriller should have been more for me, as it has a strong focus on its two lead characters and doesn't hide information from the reader that the characters know to build up suspense. But I kept expecting the two storylines (a nurse tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the sister who disappeared when she was a child, and a PI investigating a harassment case digs into what happened when the movie theater he worked in as a teen was robbed and everyone besides him was killed) to converge, and there was some lazy plotting in how things wrapped up. 
  • Can't Even: Anne Helen Petersen is one of my favorite writers on the internet, and her article early last year about burnout among millennials felt like it put its finger on a problem I'd long knew about but never put my finger on. This book basically builds the piece out to book length, and while it's well-done and thoroughly-researched, it doesn't really feel like it says anything that different or more special than the original article. 
  • Brideshead Revisited: This seemed like a perfect book for me...I really like classics, and I'm really interested in the period between the World Wars. But in practice, this story about a young British man who gets caught up with an aristocratic Catholic family just never actually took off for me. I'm not sure exactly what it was trying to be about or what I was supposed to get out of it. It wasn't bad, just not actually good. 
  • Second Helpings: I loved the first book in the Jessica Darling series when I read it a few years ago, so was excited to dive into the second. For the most part, it worked for me...Jessica's humor remained lively and her story felt so familiar as someone who was a high school overachiever at the time the book takes place. But wow was there a LOT of slut-shaming in there. Having been an insecure teenage virgin at the same time, I know that this attitude was very commonplace, but reading it with today's eyes was very jarring. 
  • Men Explain Things To Me: This essay collection is grounded in the ways the world works to diminish and silence women, and while all the pieces kind of run into each other because of their similarities in tone, it's still very good and also infuriating. 
  • Overdressed: The idea that fast fashion (Target, Forever 21, H&M, etc) isn't really good is not a new one, but this book managed to still examine interesting angles about the way its proliferation has impacted the world for the worse. It's a little on the dry side, but it actually got me thinking about my clothes in a new way, so it was a worthwhile read. 
  • Mindhunter: Like basically everyone who has read/watched The Silence of the Lambs, I think criminal profiling is really fascinating. John Douglas was a pioneer in the field and this book details his conversations with killers and how he worked on then-active cases, which is super interesting. There are also autobiographical elements to the narrative, which I will be honest, I found much less compelling.

 


In Life...

  • My nephew was born: My sister and her husband welcomed their first child, a son. Since he's not my baby and info about him isn't really mine to share, I'll just note that everyone is doing well and it is an extreme bummer that COVID is happening right now because it is likely to be quite some time before I get to meet little T, but I am very excited to be an aunt!

One Thing:

I had more or less forgotten about Martin Shkreli until this truly insane article came out and if you have not yet been aware of it, I am jealous you get to experience it for the first time because it is BANANAS! I have so many questions about Christie, her motives, what her ex and friends/family really think, and how exactly this all happened. I've swung back and forth between feeling sorry for her, thinking she's a narcissist, thinking she's just as much of a manipulator as he is...it's a fascinating story!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


2020 Bonus Stats: Like I have for the past several years now, I bought the Rock Your Reading Tracker from Sarah's Book Shelves and got some interesting information out of it! I do my major statistics post on my yearly summary posts, which I put up on my birthday in October, but here are some cool stats that I was able to glean from Sarah's very useful tracker, which I highly recommend!

My number of pages read increased year-over-year (even as my book count didn't): I actually read one less book in 2020 than I did in 2019, but read 1,021 more pages! Obviously I went for longer books this year, with most of my reading still in the 300-400 page range but 25 were longer than 400 pages (and only 18 were shorter than 300).

I still read a lot more debuts than I think: I don't think of myself as someone who tends to especially enjoy a debut, but they made up more than a third of my reading this year (38%), as opposed to 29% last year. I would not have thought they'd be more than 20% either year since I do not set out to read debuts but here we are!

I didn't like my reading quite as much in 2020: My average rating for this year was a little under six stars this year, while it was between six and seven for 2019. If we look at books I rated at least 7/10, 53% of my reading last year hit that mark, while only 43% did this year, a 10% drop! I wonder if some of that is related to the "more debuts" thing? Some may also be related to struggling to connect with my reading at times during the pandemic.

I still read mostly backlist: At 83% both last year and this year, my fondness for a book that's already proven it will stand the test of time is well-established.

I enjoyed my book club reading more than I previously had: I didn't HATE anything I read for my book club this year, and rated a few books at least seven stars, which is a marked improvement. My book club is run by a local bookstore and has a moderator that chooses books for us, so I don't expect to love everything and appreciate the ways I sometimes get forced out of my comfort zone, but there was a point at which I was considering leaving the club based on the issues I'd had with the books we picked so I am really pleased to see the improvement here!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite 2020 Releases

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our top 2020 releases. As always, I read overwhelmingly backlist, but I read about 15-ish new releases this year and these were my favorite ten (in order from more-to-less loved)!


A Luminous Republic: This short little book feels almost like folklore, telling a tale about a village on the edge of the Argentinian jungle that doesn't quite know how to react when it finds itself invaded by a pack of feral children. This really got under my skin and made me think.

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: The title is campy, and it often engages in winking humor, but the real story here is about women who feel like they don't quite fit in to their homogeneous southern town finding community together...and also maybe tracking down a vampire.

Mother Daughter Widow Wife: This book was mismarketed badly as a thriller when it's actually much more a work of character analysis, about three women whose lives are forever impacted by the actions of a psychiatrist. 

Plain Bad Heroines: This book has a big story to tell, spanning multiple generations of queer women. It doesn't quite succeed at weaving all of its threads together into a tight pattern, but it's a very atmospherically creepy and entertaining read!

Hidden Valley Road: Imagine having 12 children. And then imagine six of those children developing schizophrenia. It's what actually happened with one family in Colorado Springs, and this book examines the impact of the illness not just upon the children who had it, but the ones who didn't as well. 

Can't Even: Anne Helen Petersen's Buzzfeed article about millennial burnout is fantastic. This book basically just takes the idea and expands it through research and original reporting without adding much that felt new or different. Better for explaining millennials to other people than to themselves.

Followers: This futuristic story based on social media/influencer culture, and it does some interesting things but can't quite sustain itself.

A Beginning at the End: A post-pandemic story about a family which has experienced loss might have landed a little better in virtually any other year. 

His Only Wife: This debut does not imbue the central relationship its narrative depends on with the believablity it needs, but it is otherwise quite promising!

Highfire: I thought this was a bit of a miss, honestly, but my hopes may have been disproportionately high. It's silly and enjoyable enough, if ultimately forgettable. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Book 265: Flip


"If he had got away with it so far, it was only because the truth was too bizarre for any of the people in Flip's world to figure out in a million years. They might not always know what to make of this version of Flip, but to them, he was still Flip. A weird, puzzling Flip, but Flip even so. They only had to look at him to see that." 

Dates read: October 1-3, 2018

Rating: 4/10

It's easy to look at other people, people who are wealthy, attractive, skilled, popular, and think they have it made. To wonder what it would be like to go through life as them. To wish you could switch places, even if just for a day or two. Rationally, of course, everyone has problems. Appearances can be deceiving, and someone who seems to have it made could be hiding issues we could never even guess.

In Martyn Bedford's Flip, fourteen year-old Alex Gray is a nerd. He plays music and chess, not sports. He's nowhere close to having a girlfriend. His family in London is working class. It would seem like waking up one morning in the body of Phillip "Flip" Garamond, who is handsome, athletic, and popular, would be exciting. But it's six months later than Alex remembers it being and he has no idea where he is, or why he isn't himself anymore, and he's terrified. He bumbles through life as Flip while trying desperately to figure out what happened to him before making contact with a mysterious stranger called Rob...who knows exactly what's going on with Alex because he's lived through it himself. Alex has to discover if things can be made right, or if he's fated to spend the rest of his life as Flip.

The first half of this book is really solid, with a sophistication in the prose style beyond that which is typical in young adult books. For as much as it can be enjoyable to daydream about living someone else's life for the day, the reality is that waking up in someone else's body would be absolutely horrifyingly scary, and Bedford skillfully conveys Alex's terror at this turn of events. I appreciated how Bedford laid out the confusion that would suffuse every moment of trying to figure out where you are, who the strangers you live with are, what you're "supposed to" be eating for breakfast, even where school is and what classes you're supposed to be going to. His longing to return to his real life, even though it's less desirable in almost every way, is very affecting, and makes Alex someone easy to root for. 

But it's in Alex's quest for answers, and the ones Bedford devises, that everything falls apart. I'm going to throw in a spoiler alert here, because I will be discussing the ending, because it is the culminating cherry on the downward slide of the book. After looks of searching, Alex stumbles across a message board for "psychic evacuees", people whose consciousness left their body, usually at the point of death, and took over another body that was "connected" to them in some way. It is here that Alex meets Rob, who shows up to hang out and talk about the life he's been living in someone else's body for years now. They discover that Alex didn't die, but was rather in a car accident that's left him in a coma...and his parents are about to take his body off life support. Alex devises a plan to "trick" his spirit back into his body by smothering himself and honestly it's all just bonkers.

For a novel that begins so pleasantly rooted in realism, it's disappointing the way it careens into plot angles that could be charitably described as "crackpot". I was genuinely curious about how Bedford was going to explain the body-switching, because it seemed like, from the way he was writing, it would be something that seemed at least quasi-plausible. He might as well have had Alex touch a cursed amulet for all the sense it made, though. And although the novel asks us to feel for Alex, it's shockingly unsympathetic to Flip, who must have gone from minding his own business to being stuck inside a strange body that's unresponsive, which is even more awful than Alex's situation, and then finally being freed only to face the mess that Alex made of his life...not just his social situation at school, but facing criminal consequences for his behavior! It tries to handwave this away at the very end, but I didn't find it at all convincing. I don't want to write this book off entirely, because there was some very solid stuff to start it off, but the ending is too preposterous and poorly thought-out for me to honestly recommend it at all.

One year ago, I was reading: Without A Prayer

Two years ago, I was reading: Island of the Colorblind

Three years ago, I was reading: Rebecca

Four years ago, I was a reading: The Moonlight Palace

Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology