Book 99: The Executioner's Song

"Once, she was running around the place and he called to her. Something in his voice made her tear all the way down, and she couldn't stop and banged into him, hitting her knee so hard it really hurt. Gary picked her up then. She had her legs wrapped around his waist, and her arms over his neck. With her eyes closed, she had the odd feeling of an evil presence near her that came from Gary. She found it kind of half agreeable. Said to herself, Well, if he is the devil, maybe I want to get closer."

Dates read: October 15-28, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Awards/Lists: Pulitzer Prize, New York Times Bestseller

The death penalty is one of those political issues that people seem to have a gut-level, strong response to. You're either horrified by the idea of the state taking the lives of its citizens, or you see it as a powerful, necessary statement of the state's ability to punish those that have violated its most fundamental laws in the most profound way possible. It's one of those issues it's pointless to argue about...the reaction to it is visceral rather than logical. As it stands now, the United States is on the verge of having to have a broad conversation about it again, as one of the drugs that make up the judicially-approved "cocktail" for lethal injection is effectively no longer available for executions. Will there be a replacement developed, will we go back to the gas chamber, nooses, and firing squads, or will it be abolished? Only time will tell.

The death penalty has, of course, been abolished once before. In Furman v. Georgia, in 1972, the Supreme Court in a very divided opinion struck down death penalty statutes all over the country, citing arbitrariness and racism in determining which defendants were subjected to it. Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court reversed itself and allowed the death penalty to resume. The first person to be executed after Gregg was a man in Utah named Gary Gilmore. In The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer tells the story of how that came to be.

It's not actually all that complicated. Although he was quite bright, Gary had an unstable childhood and started getting into trouble young, stealing cars and getting sent first to juvie and then real jail. At 22, he was imprisoned for armed robbery and after spending 14 years on the inside, he was eventually paroled and went to Utah to live with a cousin. Although his family and new community genuinely tried to help him, Gary had a hard time adjusting to life in the real world...until he met Nicole Baker. Nicole had a troubled history of her own, including commitment to a mental health facility and two divorces (along with two children) at the age of 19. Their relationship was intense but turbulent, and their breakup left Gary spiraling out of control. He shot and killed both a gas station attendant and a hotel clerk, and was caught, tried, and sentenced to death in relatively short order. When the sentence was pronounced, Gary decided not to fight it...he went through lawyers until he found one that would honor his decision to not appeal and let the penalty be carried out. Although a few appeals were undertaken on his behalf, much to his fury, he was ultimately executed by firing squad on January 17, 1977.

Out of this, Mailer spins a 1000+ page epic. And there's probably an incredible 500-600 page book inside of it somewhere, but boy howdy was this in screaming need of a firm editor. The book is divided into two roughly equal sections...the first ends with Gary's sentence, and the second not too long after his execution. Both portions drag for extended periods. Although Mailer's prose style is interesting and engaging, his determination to include everything he uncovered in his clearly very extensive research weighs down the narrative. The book takes a couple hundred pages to get to the point where the murders happen...which are then over, along with the trial, in about fifty. The back half of the book is dedicated as much to the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood players trying to get the rights to Gary's story as it is to Gary's actual story, and though there's a statement in there about how Gary pretty much stopped being a person and started being a commodity from that point forward, it's honestly just not that compelling. I never had any emotional investment in the relationship between Lawrence Schilling and his girlfriend, although from the attention Mailer paid to it you would think it's an important component of the proceedings. The book finishes strong by recounting Gary's last hours, death, and the immediate fallout on his loved ones, but there had been so many bumps in the road along the way that I was mostly just glad it was over. You have to admire its ambition and scope, but the actual product is very uneven. It's worth reading, if you're interested in this kind of thing, but not a must-read by any stretch.

Tell me, blog you get into political arguments?

One year ago, I was reading: this book!

Two years ago, I was reading: Gilded

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Cookbooks/Food Blogs

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! It's pumpkin spice everything season, which makes it perfect that this week we're talking about food! I don't tend to read a lot of books that are food-centric, so I've decided to list some of my favorite sources for recipes, both cookbooks and food blogs!

How To Cook Everything Vegetarian: Mark Bittman has several variations on the theme of "how to cook everything", but this longtime vegetarian gets the most out of the veggie version, of course.

Sally's Baking Addiction: I think I mentioned this in one of my monthly wrap-up posts, but I've made several recipes from her blog/cookbook and they've always come out not just alright, but amazing.

The Southern Vegetarian: There's a perception that "down home cooking" can't be made without meat, and this cookbook has some great recipes proving otherwise!

Cookies for Christmas: I will confess to have only tried a couple of the cookie recipes in this book, but it's the book that my all-time favorite cookie recipe (their gingersnaps!) comes out of.

365 Easy Vegetarian Recipes: I'll be for me is a means to an end, not a process I get a ton of fulfillment out of. I want recipes that get me tasty food painlesslessly, and this book provides!

Budget Bytes: Beth's blog features recipes that are simple, straightforward, and don't break the bank to put together!

Penzey's Catalog: This catalog is mostly to sell their really good spices, but they do have recipes scattered throughout and I've torn out and collected many of them...the ones I've made have turned out delicious!

Thug Kitchen: I know, they've gotten a lot of blowback for the faux street talk, but they also show that vegan food can be fun and doesn't just have to be salad.

Smitten Kitchen: I don't have either of her cookbooks, but Deb's blog has provided me with recipes that stand the test of time.

The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook: Can't go wrong with America's Test Kitchen! Because they've literally tested all these recipes to make sure they work the way they're supposed to. 

Book 98: Border Child

"But this third pregnancy felt similar to her first, with daily morning vomiting, and the constant taste of bile lingering in her throat. Perhaps this baby, like Lilia's first, would be a girl child. Little Alejandra would be almost four now. Is almost four now. She is almost four, Lilia told herself. Is, not would be."

Dates read: October 12-15, 2016

Rating: 3/10

Like pretty much everyone else in America, I'm descended from immigrants. On my mom's side of the family, the most recent immigrant was my grandmother, from Austria. On my dad's, it's my great-grandfather, from Poland. I have my whole family tree mapped out on Ancestry, I like digging into it and finding passenger lists and marriage certificates and thinking about how many people through history making certain moves at certain times that it took to end up with me, here and now. It's kind of miraculous, when you think about it.

But the historic, boats coming into Ellis Island type of immigration that white people tend to think about isn't the reality of immigration as it exists today. There's a whole complicated series of visas, or, for some people from south of the border, there's a fraught experience of smuggling oneself across the Rio Grande in the desperate hope for a better life. It's the same reason our grandparents and great grandparents came, but it's a different way of trying to make it happen. And it's a tragedy during such a border crossing which underlies Michel Stone's Border Child.

Hector and Lilia are a young couple in a small village in Mexico, the parents of a toddler son and an as-yet unborn baby. But they'd once had another: their firstborn, a daughter named Alejandra. Both Hector and Lilia had wanted more than what their rural town had to offer, and so Hector had himself smuggled to the US. Lonely and impatient, Lilia took Alejandra and attempted to cross herself. She was separated from the girl, and while Lilia made it, Alejandra vanished. They lived in the US a while anyways, ultimately being deported after a few years. They have their son and Lilia becomes pregnant again, and they try to move on, but a chance encounter with the one person who might be able to help them find out what happened to Alejandra leads Hector on a dangerous journey across the country to find out.

One of the reasons I read is to explore worlds outside of the one I experience as a married middle-class white lady in the US in this day and age. I picked up this book hoping for insight into the situation that drives people to try to cross the border, why they risk so much just to get into the country and try to stay. What I got was...not that. While it does get a little bit into what drove Hector and Lilia north in the first place, the book as a whole is just not very good, honestly. Neither of the main characters is given much depth, and the prose is flat. I've always understood one of the fundamental principals behind good storytelling to be to show rather than tell. Stone does exactly the opposite...he never lets a moment breathe, always has to put what should be subtext directly into text. There's no subtlety or artistry to it, and it's never more than a workmanlike reading experience. I was disappointed in this book, and wouldn't recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...which of your ancestors was the most recent to come into the country where you live?

One year ago, I was reading: The Life of the World To Come

Two years ago, I was reading: Unbelievable

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Autumnal Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Early October is like peak fall, for me...the leaves are changing and colorful, the weather is usually crispy but not yet cold. It's my favorite time of year, and I'm celebrating it with this week's topic, which is books with fall-seeming covers. These books all have the purples and oranges and yellows and reds and browns that fit in with the loveliness outside! I usually have an explanation for my picks, but this week I'm going to let the visuals do the talking and just list my selections below.

Jane Eyre

To Kill A Mockingbird

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Where The Heart Is

The Help

The Cider House Rules

Ella Enchanted

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Catching Fire


Year 2: An Update (And Giveaway!)

Today is my 32nd birthday! Instead of doing yearly wrap-ups at the end of the year, like most people, since I started the whole "read 500 books in the next decade" thing that is the entire theme of my blog on my 30th, I use my birthday as the beginning and end of my reading years. Without further ado, during the past twelve months:

In Reading

  • Books read (this year): 84! This is well above my yearly goal of 50, but still below last year's total of 95. I actually was on pace to come close to last year but the last book I finished before my birthday took longer than expected, and then the book that I'm very close to finishing also has taken me a while, so 84 it is. 
  • Books read (total): 179. This is over three years "worth" of reading, and closing in on four. I don't know what the future holds, so I'm pretty comfortable having this buffer in place in case I find myself with fewer opportunities to read as much in the coming years. This does mean that my reviews on the blog are lagging significantly behind my actual'll notice I'm still posting about books I was reading in 2016! I do write my reviews shortly after I finish the books, though, and I write at least a little bit about what I'm currently reading in my A Month In The Life posts, so while I toyed with the idea of doing more than one review post per week, I decided against it. I like the pattern I've got going on here, and hopefully you do too!
  • Male/Female Authors: 44 women/40 men. Last year was almost exactly equal, and this year is pretty close, too. I don't make a concerted effort to read in gender balance (I just pick up the books that look interesting to me), but I do like to be conscious of whether I'm reading drastically more of one than the other.
  • Most Read Genres: This year, I read 56 fiction books (most read subgenres: contemporary fiction and then historical fiction) and 28 non-fiction books (most read subgenres: memoir and history). The pattern I began last year held fairly true this year as well...I tend to read about 2/3 fiction, 1/3 nonfiction, which seems like a good balance to me. 
  • Kindle/Hard Copy: This year, I read 44 books in either hardcover or paperback and 40 on my Kindle. This is much different than last year, when Kindle books made up nearly 2/3 of my reading. I've cut back dramatically on ARCs this year because they're such an inconsistent (in terms of quality) part of my reading experience, and I think I've had an overall more enjoyable reading year for it. 

In Life

I like to look back on major events of the year and see what I was reading during those times. Books are kind of the soundtrack to my life these days.
  • Girl's trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: My annual trip with my best friends to do something fun is probably my most-anticipated event every year. I miss these two girls so much so I really cherish getting to see them. Last year's trip was Universal Studios in Orlando to visit the Harry Potter stuff, and it was super fun (especially since it was right after the election when I needed a pick-me-up). I was reading: Invisible Man (review pending)
  • Beginning of my third legislative session: The two months before session and then the four months of it going on are the busy season for me. The first day is the official beginning of the end of my life outside Carson City until June. I was reading: Flowertown (review pending)
  • End of my third legislative session: I never appreciate how much I enjoy not having a commute to work like I do at the end of the time when I have one that's forty minutes each way. It was a snowy, stressful session, but I did learn a lot, so all's well that ends well, eh? I was reading: In The Skin of a Lion (review pending)
  • First wedding anniversary: One down, forever to go, eh? The first year of being married was honestly not really a big change because our lives are very much like they were before, only I have a different last name. Which I now usually am able to give without having to think about it or starting to say my maiden name first. I was reading: Spoiled (review pending)
  • Michigan trip to visit family: This was, I think, the longest I've been in Michigan continuously since I left in 2012, a little over a week. We spent four days in my hometown with my mom and saw friends there, and then we drove up to the Upper Peninsula with my dad to visit his hometown of Ontonagon for the annual reunion for that side of the family. It was my husband's first time in the UP and I'm really glad he got the chance to see it and meet my relatives, who mostly weren't able to come to the wedding last year. I was reading: Station Eleven (review pending)
  • Mom's trip to Lake Tahoe: This was my mom's third trip to Reno since I moved out here, and she both spent time with us and family and did a half-mile open water swim in the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe (which were less frigid than usual because of our roasty summer) and it was really fun to have her visit! I was reading: The Idiot (review pending)
And, in honor of my second year of reading and blogging, I'm giving away a copy my favorite book that I reviewed on the blog over the past year! I read a bunch of fantastic stuff, but one book definitely sticks out as the best one: We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. So here's how it's going to work: if you'd like to be entered to win a copy of this book, please use the Rafflecopter below sometime in the next week (through October 16). I'll randomly select a winner and then reach out to you for your contact info, which I'll only use to send you your book from Amazon (either paperback or Kindle, depending on your preference). Sorry international friends, this one is US-only. Thanks for reading along this year!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Book 97: The Life of the World to Come

"Fiona and I kept talking, kept living in this way, long after our friends had grown comfortably into their older, smaller lives. We claimed every experience for only ourselves: the first snow, the last rays of the day, every star we gazed at was ripped from the public domain- property of Fiona and Leo's New Life Together, copyright and patent pending and no squatters allowed."

Dates read: October 10-12, 2016

Rating: 5/10

We've all gone to pieces over a bad breakup, haven't we? Tell me I'm not the only one. I had two rough breakups before I met my husband: one with the guy I dated off-and-on for three years in college, and one with the guy I dated off-and-on for a year in law school. I'm friendly with the both of them now, but holy smokes did I lose my brain then (sorry, everyone who had to deal with me). But I think a brutal heartbreak can, in the long run, be a net positive: it certainly helped me reflect on my own behavior in relationships, and think about what I actually wanted out of a partner, and somehow I ended up with the best husband in the world.

In Dan Cluchey's The Life of the World To Come, Leo Brice is a anxiety-ridden pre-law senior in college when he meets Fiona Haeberle. Fiona is quirky, outgoing, mercurial, an aspiring actress, and she and Leo quickly become a couple. They move to New York for Leo's legal education, she gets a job on a cheesy soap opera that films locally, and they're happy. Or so he thinks. Right after he finishes the bar exam, though, she suddenly leaves him in the middle of the night for her co-star.

Leo is completely devastated, and while he tries to put himself back together, he begins a job with a small firm focusing on death penalty appeals. Leo recovers from his breakup as he gets involved in his case, defending a religious man convicted of an out-of-character murder many years prior...with a young, pretty co-counsel who makes Leo feel like there might actually be a life after Fiona maybe. The client is only a half-hearted participant in his own appeal, and his philosophizing helps Leo get his own life back together.

So when I was in college, Garden State was a super-hyped movie. I like it, but it hasn't aged especially well...a lot of the self-conscious quirk on display has come to feel artificial. And it is, of course, the poster child for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trend that was a big thing around that time. I actually think Natalie Portman's Sam is one of the better-done examples of it, but it got a little irritating for a while there. This is relevant here because this totally feels like a screenplay that was written to be one of those Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies and then became a novel. Despite being so central to the plot, Fiona doesn't really have much of a character. Any insight into who she actually is and what drives her is left for a cringeworthy conversation Leo and Fiona have years after their breakup, in which the now-famous Fiona calls her ex to ask if she was a good girlfriend and he gets the chance to take her down a peg (of course he takes that opportunity). It's not presented as a gross moment for him, but rather as a moment of triumph, and that's just one of the issues with this book.

Besides Leo not really being all that interesting on his own (tightly-wound lawyer gets dumped, gets sad, tries to rebound with a coworker...snore), the book doesn't really seem to have a lot of direction or any real idea of what it's trying to say. Breakups suck? Working on a death penalty case can improve your mental health? It's cool to bang your coworkers if your boss eggs you into it? I'm not necessarily opposed to reading white-dude-navel-gazing if it's done well, but this isn't done well. If reading about a 20something dude mourn the loss of his girlfriend who's more concept than person is something that sounds interesting to you, you might enjoy this book. If not, move along.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever had a terrible breakup?

One year ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Crushes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic is book boyfriends/ know, when you're reading a book and get all swoony about one of the characters. This is a bit of a tough one, for me, because I don't read a ton of books with a central romance (which tend to be the type of books that make you all swoony over characters), so I'm splitting it up: five boy crushes, and five girl crushes!

The Dudes:

Captain Wentworth (Persuasion): This was the first Austen I read, and the hero remains my favorite. He's loyal and good-natured and big enough to forgive a foolish spurning means that even though she's an "old maid" (at 27!), the love he and Anne have for each other is just delayed rather than denied and this book is great and so is he.

Kolya (City of Thieves): Rakish and high-spirited, Kolya tends to win over everyone he meets with his charm. Especially women, and it's not hard to understand why: young and handsome and endearing tends to be an easy sell.

Charles O'Keefe (A Wrinkle In Time): This series is so amazing because it has such great characters: prickly Meg, self-possessed Charles Wallace, and brave, kind Charles, who is able to maintain his own stable goodness despite adverse circumstances. It's easy to understand why Meg loves him and it's hard not to love him a bit yourself.

Eric Northman (Dead To The World): This whole series has a rotating cast of love interests for Louisiana waitress Sookie Stackhouse, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone whose favorite isn't Eric, particularly in the fourth book, where he's lost his memory and imperiousness and he's just a tall, handsome sweetheart.

Jean Valjean (Les Miserables): A man who recovers from some previous missteps to live virtuously and devote himself to the loving raising of a child who isn't his? If that's not dreamy to you, we have different ideas of what dreamy is.

The Ladies:

Sabriel (Sabriel): Smart and brave and with powerful magic, Sabriel is enchanting and one of those characters who you can never forget once you've experienced.

Yvaine (Stardust): An actual star, kidnapped by a young man named Tristan to be a present for the girl he pines for, Yvaine is sarcastic and witty and it is no surprise that Tristan eventually realizes that he's actually in love with her after all, because she's great.

Natasha Rostova (War and Peace): If you can read this book and not fall a little bit in love with Natasha, you've got a heart of stone. Her spirit is what holds this enormous epic together, and the way she ends up still doesn't sit quite right with me.

Ellen Cherry Charles (Skinny Legs and All): Tom Robbins is a love-him-or-hate-him writer, and I tend to be in the former group. Ellen is a waitress who wants to be an artist, and her struggle to figure out her relationship with her husband and the world and herself and her pride and vulnerability make her a winning heroine.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): Bridget drinks too much, can't stick to a diet and exercise plan, and speaks before she thinks. She is a delight and I want to be best friends.