Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book 199: Fourth of July Creek

"Regretted saying the word the moment it slipped out of his mouth and they looked at him like he’d broken out in French. Literature. What drugs and literature in the houses in and around Tenmile, Montana. Louis L’Amour and James Michener, and comic books, furled and foxed Penthouses, some marijuana. Popular Mechanics and some truckers’ speed. The Bible, if you were lucky."

Dates read: December 29, 2017- January 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

There's a certain kind of person attracted to life in a rural area. I've never lived in a truly rural area (I grew up in a small town, but it was exurban more than rural), but I live in an area now that's only a short drive from the middle of nowhere, and I've met plenty of people who think of property lines in acres rather than yards. When you go out to the wide-open areas in the West, there's an undeniable thrill to it: the possibility in that remoteness. There's a dark side to it, of course: you're that much farther away from medical or police help if anything bad were to happen, it's harder to make sure you get your trash picked up regularly. There's a reason most of us live relatively near a city, at the end of the day, but there's something appealing in the wildness of off-the-grid.

In the West, especially, there is a not-small portion of the people who live in areas sometimes still officially deemed "frontier" who don't just do it for the excitement of living unplugged and off the land, they do it because they don't really fit in with mainstream life. This is true for Montana social worker Pete Snow, in Smith Henderson's debut novel Fourth of July Creek, but it's even more true for most of his clients. He's already got a pretty full plate between his current caseload and his rocky home life when a young boy wanders into a school, dirty and wildly undernourished. Pete's attempts to help the child, Benjamin, bring him into contact with Benjamin's father, Jeremiah, who lives so deeply off the grid and is so proud that Benjamin's not even allowed to retain the clothes Pete buys to replace the rags he found the boy in. He is, happily, allowed to keep the medicine for his scurvy.

This story forms the borders of the larger narrative. In the meantime, Pete's trying to deal with his unruly clients and his own personal struggles. His brother is on the lam from his parole officer, Pete's got some alcohol issues, and he's recently separated from his wife, who goes to Texas with their teenage daughter, Rachel, to follow a new boyfriend. And then Rachel goes missing, and Pete's desperate to find her. But she's gone, and figuring out what's going on with Benjamin and Jeremiah begins to overwhelmingly dominate his life.

This book is a relentless downer. Nearly everyone involved is damaged and acting out in some way, from the clients all the way up to our protagonist. And not like, in a quirky or reasonably socially adaptive way, but in a very serious Real Problems way. There's a realism to that sort of portrayal that can be appreciated, but the small spots of hope and happiness are very few and far between. I found myself drawn into the central mystery of what was going on with Jeremiah and Benjamin and that family, but most of the characters just made me sad.

On a technical level, Henderson is a very talented writer. His writing was clear and insightful, and while they were depressing, his characters rang very true. My major issue with the book from a craft perspective is that he used a rhetorical device interspersed throughout the book, in which an unidentified interviewer is talking to Rachel about what happened to her. We never know the context in which this dialogue is taking place, which leaves her plotline frustratingly unresolved. If you want to read a well-written book that has a compelling central mystery and don't mind if that book is very bleak, you'll likely enjoy this. I certainly think it was well-crafted and appreciated Henderson's skill, although I don't think I'd say I enjoyed reading it. I'd recommend only to someone that feels up for an unhappy look at life.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Stay With Me

Three years ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Things to Eat/Drink While Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about food! Specifically, the food we like to eat or drink while reading. For better or worse, I am not at all precious about my books. This is one of the reasons I usually buy secondhand instead of borrowing from the library! So while I read, I eat...whatever I want to.

Water: Let's start with the most boring basic thing! But honestly I drink a ton of water, well over 100 oz per day, so I'm pretty much always drinking it, including when I'm reading.

Coffee: I am a caffeine junkie, so I have coffee twice per day. I'm not usually reading first thing in the morning when I drink it, but my afternoon coffee pairs well with reading: I get through some pages while I wait for it to cool and then consume both book and mug contents at the same time.

Kombucha: I've only recently started drinking this stuff, but it has done a lot to help regulate my digestive system after I had my gallbladder removed. Tea people, this is as close as I get to your favorite!

Beer: I'm not trying to get tipsy while I read (I need to be able to remember it later for blogging purposes!), but on a warm summer afternoon nursing a sour while I get my lit on is lovely.

Popsicles: This is why I'm a bad book owner, because these things definitely melt and drip and then I have purple spots on pages but hey, this is also why I just own my books.

String Cheese: One of my all-time favorite snacks!

Pretzels: Also a fave snack, though I have to be careful with these because I always want to get up to get more and that interrupts my reading flow.

White Rice: I am a weirdo, because I will eat this in sufficient quantities that I'm not even looking for anything else to make a meal. Just plain. Delicious!

Apples: I had to have one healthy thing in here, right? I do love apples.

Pasta: Definitely not an ideal thing to eat while reading because it's high in staining potential, but as long as I know that the red spot in my books is sauce and not blood, it's all good.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Book 198: Rebecca

"Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there."

Dates read: December 24-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

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

We've all felt like an imposter at some point, right? Like, I don't think "imposter syndrome" is even a thing, I think it's so commonplace as to be just a part of the human experience. It's an ugly, scary feeling, to be so full of doubt about yourself. It feels especially endemic in that late teens-early 20s time of life, when everyone even five years older seems impossibly glamorous and adult and you still feel like a kid. You just were a kid, after all, and now you're expected to set your own alarm and remember to take your vitamins and schedule your own haircuts. "Adult" feels so far away even though you're already there.

I've never read a book that feels as steeped in that feeling of being an imposter as Daphne DuMarier's Rebecca. Our heroine is a never-named middle-class young English woman, in her early 20s, who's earning her living as a traveling companion to an crude older woman. On a stop in Monaco, she meets Maxim deWinter, who her employer is all too happy to repeat gossip about and try to kiss up to: he's the owner of the famous and magnificent country estate of Manderly, and his beautiful, stylish wife Rebecca recently died tragically. The young lady and Maxim have a whirlwind courtship, and before she knows it, she's married and honeymooned and off to her new home and new life as the mistress of a great house.

But when they get to Manderly, things go quickly south. Being middle-class, she's barely been in a place like this, and hasn't the slightest idea how to make it her own. Her husband is suddenly distant and moody. Her only real friend is the spaniel dog that she takes her walks with. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, all but openly sneers at her and constantly reminds her that she's not anything like the charming and passionate Rebecca. And it's not just Mrs. Danvers...even the locals she goes to visit tell her over and over again how exciting things were when Rebecca was around, how beautiful she was, how delightful. The shy, quiet second Mrs. deWinter begins to despair of ever being good enough for the role she's been handed, and is talked into putting on a costume ball (like the ones Rebecca used to have!) that changes everything.

If you've ever heard about super fast marriages Back In The Day and wondered if people even really knew each other when they go married, Rebecca answers that question with a resounding no. A major part of the drama comes from the fact that the young wife can't understand why Maxim married her and is afraid to share her fears and feelings of inadequacy because, well, she barely knows him. She tortures herself by imagining that he's constantly comparing her to Rebecca, and she's sure she comes up short. She can't even hide from the imposter syndrome that's consuming her...the very place she lives reminds her of the ways in which she feels inadequate. This book is often billed as a gothic romance, and while the former is accurate, the latter isn't really, in my opinion: there's a marriage at the center of it, but not really a romance per se.

Instead, I'd call this a psychological suspense novel. We know from the beginning that the deWinters no longer live at Manderly, that something bad happened there. How exactly this happens unwinds over the course of the book, with the inner lives of the characters and their relationships with each other being driving the action. And the story is well-told and well-paced, but it's still a classic rather than a modern-day thriller, so while it's certainly gripping it's not really a page-turner that'll keep you up all night. And for me, that's preferable anyways. I really enjoyed reading it and plan to add more duMaurier to my list of books to read. I'd recommend Rebecca to just about anybody, it's a tightly crafted and engaging story that'll appeal to anyone who's ever felt like they were playacting at being a grown-up.

One year ago, I was reading: The Silence of the Girls (review to come)

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Smoke

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR I’m Worried Won't Live Up To The Hype

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books on our TBR that we're avoiding reading. The way I read (on more-or-less a schedule system) means that I actually don't avoid reading anything...if it's up next, it's up next. That being said, there are books that I'm a little worried to read, because the hype has been huge and it's so hard for a book to live up to it.

My Brilliant Friend: This is the first in a series that got such glowing praise from people I look to for recommendations that I went and bought all four of them. So I better like the first one...

Throne of Glass: I'm not super into YA series, but Sarah Maas's devoted fanbase has convinced me this is one that will get and keep my attention.

Cinder: Same kind of deal here, and I've always liked stories based on folklore/fairy tales, so this one especially seems like something I'd enjoy but my expectations have been set really high!

The Golem and the Jinni: The second of three here in the "based on folklore" realm. As soon as you say you like this kind of thing, this is a story that pops up as a recommendation immediately. I can only hope it's as great as everyone says!

Uprooted: Besides all the good things I've read about it, this book just seems so up my alley as a reader that I'll be crushed if it's not amazing.

Fangirl: I wasn't especially into the one Rainbow Rowell I've already read (Landline), but I've heard over and over that her books that are more YA-targeted are her best ones. This is supposed to be wonderful, so hopefully the hype is real.

The Stand: This book is looooong but so many people love it. Since I never put a book down, it better be amazing or I'm going to be mad I spent so long on it.

Bad Feminist: I love Roxane Gay's social media presence, and I enjoyed her novel An Untamed State, but this essay collection got such amazing reviews that it's got me thinking it's her best work so I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Parable of the Sower: I've heard amazing things about Octavia Butler, and I'm really looking forward to reading her work, so if it's not great I'll be super bummed.

Pachinko: I don't think I've heard more than one or two people say it didn't work for them, and heaps and heaps of praise otherwise. Basically everyone can't be wrong, right?

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Book 197: The Power

"Women and men who were willing to sell him food or fuel for his little camping stove became fewer and farther between. He started to develop a sense for those who might be friendly. Older men, sitting outside a house playing cards—they'd have something for him, might even find him a bed for the night. Young men tended to be too frightened. There was no point talking to women at all; even meeting their eyes felt too dangerous."

Dates read: December 19-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

About a year and a half ago, I was out walking the dog on a Friday around 8 P.M. I noticed someone get dropped off by a car a couple blocks down, who then started walking towards me. I registered this as odd, since most people get dropped off in front of their house or reasonably close to it. I kept walking the dog down the road, and looked back to notice the person (almost certainly a man, by build) continuing to walk towards me. Now I was really unsettled. I pulled my headphones out and began to hurry the dog up. I rounded a corner, and about halfway down the block he started to resist and pull back, and since it was a well-lit section of sidewalk I let him sniff. I looked back the way I'd come and the guy was standing there on the corner, standing partially obscured by a light pole. I practically dragged the dog the rest of the way down the block until I got to a busy road. The guy never re-appeared, but I was afraid.

As a small woman, I can't remember the last time I was out in public without at least some baseline level of apprehension for my safety. I'm not walking around constantly terrified by any means, but I am just always aware that there's the possibility that I could be anything from verbally harassed to followed to grabbed. Most of my female friends feel the same way. It's just what it means to be a woman in the world. Naomi Alderman's The Power, though, imagines a different world entirely. It begins in the world as it exists, but there's a sudden change: women have developed an organ that generates electricity inside them, electricity they can shoot out through their hands. In a matter of weeks, the world goes from one in which men are the most powerful, physically and otherwise, to one where that balance isn't the same anymore. The Power changes everything.

Alderman explores this new world through four people: Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss, whose Power is exceptionally strong; Allie, an abused teenage foster child who turns the voice she hears in her head into a new religious movement; Margot, an ambitious politician; and Tunde, the only man, a Nigerian journalist chronicling the changes in the world since the Power emerged. There's chaos, initially. No one knows what to do, what it all means. But things change quickly, all the way from men needing to learn how to protect themselves against violent women, to women dominating the military, to women toppling oppressive regimes. Eventually the storylines all converge in a fictional Eastern bloc country, now ruled by a woman as a dictator, that's the center of a proxy war between the powers-that-be in the old world against those of the new.

This is a fascinating idea to consider, how the world would change if something like what Alderman describes happens. And I think the failure of the book (as you can see from my rating, I didn't think it was especially good) comes from trying to capture too much. Roxy and Allie's perspectives dominate the book, and while I understand why Alderman included Tunde, to give an idea of what it would be like to come of age as a man in the world as we know it and live through the way it changes, I think Margot's storyline was weak and could have been cut to develop Tunde better. There's some good characterization going on with Roxy and Allie (particularly the former), but it's inconsistent, and it seems almost like Alderman was so excited to really dig into what she thought might happen in her new world that she didn't really think about the people who would be living in it beyond broad strokes.

That being said, it's an effective exploration of the way that power corrupts. At first, many women lash out at men in revenge for the ways they themselves have been hurt, which is an understandable reaction. The reader expects it to settle down after a while, after some wrongs have been righted, but it doesn't. Women begin to objectify the men around them, use their superior position to commit emotional and physical violence against them. While it's easy, living in the world we do live in, to imagine that women would wield large-scale power more effectively and humanely than men have and do, Alderman punches through that fantasy by remembering that women are, after all, human, and human beings do not have a great track record when it comes to the way we mistreat each other when given the opportunity to do so. I do think that as a novel, there are significant weaknesses, but as a piece to engage with intellectually, there's a lot to think and talk about here.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about venturing outside our literary comfort zones to discover that sometimes, the kinds of things we think we don't read turn out to be pretty delightful after all! I struggled with this subject, because while I think my reading comfort zone is mostly "highbrow" contemporary fiction, I do tend to read pretty broadly across styles. But here are ten that I put together that I was maybe not super comfortable with the idea of before I started that I actually had a good time with!

The Rosie Project (romance): I usually feel like love stories are mostly interesting to the people inside them, and feel too manipulated by romances to get into them. But even though I could see the strings being pulled on my heart as I read this, I didn't care. It was a treat!

The Hate U Give (young adult): I know plenty of adults read and enjoy YA, but I generally find it too straightforward to really engage me. This story about a black teenager who watches her friend get murdered by a cop, though, really grabbed me.

Battleborn (short stories): I am by and large not into short stories (I read way more of them for my book club than I would ever pick up on my own). I like sinking into a full-length narrative! And maybe it's because I live in Nevada, but this collection set in and around the Silver State are truly excellent.

The Nazi Officer's Wife (WWII memoir): I'll be honest, I tend to steer away from World War II memoirs, finding them emotionally taxing but often treading very similar territory to work already available. This one, though, had a perspective that was new to me and was very well-told.

The Lords of Discipline (military fiction): War stories are a big snore for me. This book is set in a military academy, but it's a beautifully rendered coming-of-age story that I'm so glad I took a chance on, because I love it.

The Girl With All The Gifts (horror): Usually telling me something has zombies in it is a ticket to a quick "no thanks". I heard this recommended so often that I decided to pick it up, and really enjoyed the tale it told about the relationship between a zombified girl and her teacher.

The Sky Is Yours (science fiction): This book is bananas. There are dragons, there's genetic engineering, there's all kinds of bizarre stuff. On paper, it seemed like something that would not at all do it for me but I couldn't put it down.

The Bear and the Nightingale (fantasy): I'm actually fairly amenable to fantasy if it's done well, and this whole series was a magical romp through Russian folklore.  

In The Woods (mystery): I love books that are character-focused, and most mysteries are plot-focused, so that tends to leave me out of them. I appreciated that some things were left unresolved, but I mostly really enjoyed reading about the people.

Lincoln in the Bardo (experimental fiction): This is written like a play rather than a novel, and initially I found it off-putting but once I got past about halfway through, I was suddenly all in and wound up loving it.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: August 2019

August always has that feeling of being The End of Summer. In Michigan, we always started school after Labor Day, which meant that the end of August was (basically) the end of our break. I actually liked going back to school because I was a nerd, but that feeling of August being the last hurrah has never quite left me.

In Books...
  • Money Rock: Journalist Pam Kelley tells the story of the titular North Carolina drug dealer...and through it, the story of Charlotte, drug policy, housing policy, and the consequences of incarceration. Smart, insightful, and very accessible.  
  • Marie Antoinette: There's a reason this is subtitled "The Journey", because Antonia Fraser skillfully traces the path the young Austrian archduchess took to become at first one of the most fashionable women of her time and eventually the subject of hatred so violent it culminated in her execution. The depth of research on display, without forgetting storytelling, is very impressive.
  • Calypso: I always enjoy David Sedaris's work. This collection was generally less funny and more poignant than I typically expect, but as with any essay collection, there were ups and downs. 
  • Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: You Must Remember This is one of my favorite podcasts, so when host Karina Longworth mentioned this book as a source for her excellent episode on Lena Horne, I was curious. It paid off! This book is as much about the social environment of Black Hollywood back in the day as it is about the movies, and it's a fascinating look at a time and place that still has relevance to the way our own world works.
  • Gilead: This is one of those books that makes me glad I don't DNF books, because it took until about 1/3-1/4 of the way into this for it to really grab me. But once it did, I was hooked. I was worried that this story of a minister looking back on his life would be a little more religious than I was comfortable with, but it was as much philosophical as anything and the beauty of Marilynn Robinson's language kept me rapt. 
  • The Forgotten Sister: My second straight month with an Austen retelling! This one is more traditional, focusing on the life of the middle Bennett sister, Mary. Sandwiched between two pairs of tightly bonded siblings, Mary often comes off as a bit of a prig in Pride & Prejudice. While Jennifer Paynter's tale doesn't erase those schoolmarmish tendencies, she gives context for why Mary turned out that way...and gives her a compelling love story of her own.
  • Death Prefers Blondes: It's been described as a heist movie meets RuPaul's Drag Race, and that's not inaccurate! Teenage heiress Margo Manning steals fantastic treasures along with her best friends...four drag queens. But when she experiences a personal tragedy, it's no longer for fun and profit, it's for revenge. It's silly, light, and enjoyable, perfect for a vacation or the beach, but don't expect anything special.

In Life...
  • Girls trip to the Bay: This year, I got to pick the location, and I chose to beat the heat of northern Nevada by heading over the hill to San Francisco. We got to do some things that I'd never done before (like the Alcatraz tour!), and just hang out in a super-cool city. I love getting to spend time with my best friends and had a blast!

One Thing:

If you've never heard the phrase "Imma let you finish...", you probably have very little interaction with anyone hip to pop culture. It's taken on a life of its own, surpassing the moment at MTV's Video Music Awards a decade ago that launched it into the world. But the impact of that actual moment has spiraled beyond what anyone might have expected, and this deep dive about it at The Washington Post is fantastic.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: