Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book 155: Spook

"If you do a web search on the initials EVP, you'll find dozens of sites with hundreds of audio files of these recordings. Though some sound like clearly articulated words or whispers, many are garbled and echoey and mechanical-sounding. It's hard to imagine them coming from dead souls without significantly altering one's image of the hereafter. Heaven is supposed to have clouds and white cloth and other excellent sound-absorbing materials. The heaven of these voices sounds like an airship hangar. They're very odd."

Dates read: June 24-27, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I think I've mentioned this before, but if I ever want to send myself into existential-crisis-land, I start wondering what exactly happens when we die. I get the biological piece, but what about the "me" part? Where does it go? Is there a soul, or am I just the sum of various electrical and chemical reactions in my brain? Of all the many thousands of years that there have been and will be humans on this planet, do I really only get to see these decades that I'm allotted in this life? Or is there another life where I get to see how it all plays out?

I've given myself anxiety just writing about it! Much like me, Mary Roach is a skeptic about life after death, and so decided to turn her science-oriented eye towards the various theories out there about what happens when we're gone. In Spook, she travels to India to meet people who claim to be reincarnated, she meets mediums and goes to a class to learn how to channel the dead herself, she goes to England to see Cambridge's preserved sample of what was alleged to be "ectoplasm", and she looks at the so-called research behind the popular theory that people lose 21 grams of weight at death when the soul departs the body.

In every instance, she's confronted with the gulf between what the heart wants to believe and what the scientifically-validated research says is real. Hindus frequently claim to know someone who is reincarnated, but their belief system encompasses this and reincarnations usually seem to occur in close proximity (i.e. the person who is now dead and their "new" body are usually within less than 100 miles of each other). On the other hand, the motives that one might suspect behind a dubious claim, like the desire for financial support, aren't usually present. There are frequent reports, in the United States, of people who have had near-death experiences feeling like they're floating away from their body and can see it recede below them as they go towards the light. But only in a very, very few of them did they report seeing anything that they wouldn't have been able to see from within their body before. Every attempt to replicate the 21 grams experiment has failed, including several of that researcher's own.

Much like A.J. Jacobs in last week's post, Mary Roach manages the tricky art of tone-setting for a work exploring an issue that tends to elicit strong and often irrational feelings. It comes clearly through that, like most of the audience that would be inclined to pick up this book, she's primarily fact-oriented but in her heart, hopes she'll find something there. The idea that when our bodies die, the person that we are inside that body just stops along with us is a harsh one, and the fact that virtually every belief system includes some sort of continued life demonstrates that people really don't want to believe it. The way she structures the book, too, into short chapters focusing on one theory each, helps keep it moving along and away from getting bogged down into tiny intricacies. In a subject area that can be heavy, this helps keep it light.

I will say that this might not be the book for the deeply reverent. Roach refuses to hold back from having a sense of humor about any of it and some may think she treats the sacred too cavalierly. But for anyone who has questions and wants a peek into what science tells us about the various and sundry ways that the dead have been said to interact with the living, this is a witty, enjoyable read.

Tell me, blog you let yourself go down the rabbit hole on this issue or do you manage to not think about it (if the latter, please tell me your secret in the comments)?

One year ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Items/Merchandise I’d Like to Own

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the book-inspired stuff we covet! I'll admit that I'm not much of a reading-accessories person, generally speaking, but no one is completely immune to the siren song of merch. Here are ten book-related things I'd like to have!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone t-shirt: It's not my favorite of the series (that's Goblet of Fire), but this cover is iconic!

The Great Gatsby closing line print: The last line of Gatsby is one of my favorite lines I've ever read, so having it to hang on a wall and admire would be delightful!

The Warrior Achilles candle: Inspired by The Iliad, this candle sounds like it would smell delicious.

A pug bookmark: One can never have too many bookmarks. Nor too many pug-themed items.

Charter symbol throw blanket: The Old Kingdom series is one of my favorites, and this fuzzy blanket covered in the symbols of its magic system would be perfect to get cozy under!

Custom bookplates: If you're going to lend your books out (which I sometimes do), you should probably make sure no one can forget which ones are yours!

Stack of book earrings: I do love wearing fun earrings, and these are so little and cute!

You Can't Read All Day... mug: I have probably more coffee mugs than I need, but I neeeeeeeeed it.

Reading is t-rexcellent sweatshirt: I can't help it, I love dinosaurs, and I love this sweater.

Moby Dick tote: Such a cool design!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book 154: The Year of Living Biblically

"The Bible says thou shalt not steal; I stole my neighbor's wireless signal. And now I'm limping around the house with a bum knee."

Dates read: June 21-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a senior in high school and remember being shocked at how many n-bombs there were. I'd heard the word used by white people maybe a handful of times in my life to that point (not that there weren't racists in my very white town, there were plenty, but they kept that kind of talk out of the public sphere) and here it was just all over this work of classic literature. The book tends to inspire challenges and protests for this very reason, and I'm definitely speaking from a place of privilege here, but I don't agree with campaigns to produce a version that has it censored out. All historical documents are a product of their time and place and working with that context is an important part of thinking critically about the world.

The Bible, for instance, is a historical document. The Old Testament dates back to hundreds of years before Christ, and the New Testament to within 100 years after his death. It's a holy book, but it's also the product of two distinct time periods, both very long ago. It's filled with rules, both specific and vague, that reflect the world of nomadic, desert-dwelling herding people rather than the world in which most Judeo-Christian people live today. Writer A.J. Jacobs decided to see what it would be like to actually try to live by these rules in the modern world in his book, The Year of Living Biblically. As Jacobs is a secular Jewish husband and father in New York City, wackiness ensues.

He's no stranger to offbeat projects...he'd previously written a book about his experience of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. But when he was doing prep work for this book and realized that the Bible contains over 700 rules, ranging from very specific things like fiber-mixing and beard trimming prohibitions to very general things like restraining from covetousness, he decided to focus on the Ten Commandments first and tackle as many of the others as he could, because he knew he couldn't do all of them every day. He also seeks out people who are devoted to their religious beliefs in their own ways, leading to a visit to Amish Country, the Creation Museum, to see snakehandling Pentecostals, and even an overseas trip to Jerusalem. This on top of a regular job writing for Esquire, parenting a small son, and being a partner to his pregnant wife.

Jacobs is witty without being snarky, which is a good tone for this book. There's sometimes a tendency among secular types to get condescending about matters of religious faith and belief, which is counter-productive at best. He admits that since he's deeply agnostic, one of the hardest rules for him to follow is regular prayer, but he gamely tries anyways and is honest about both his initial discomfort and the ease that grows after months of practice. After having a hard time, in a hyperconnected world, retreating into the quiet of the Sabbath, he comes to look forward to that time to unwind and recharge. While he can't quite get into the harshness of parenting his son from a "spare the rod, spoil the child" perspective, he knows he needs to be better about discipline and he starts taking steps in the right direction.

I found this book enjoyable, if a little on the lightweight side. Although it's necessarily from Jacobs' perspective, I found myself really curious about how his wife felt about this particular experiment and what it was like to live with someone doing this. It's pretty clear from what Jacobs writes that his wife was often irritated by the project, and his frequent absences while leaving her with their son to handle while she was pregnant with twins had to be absolutely infuriating. Then again, that Jacobs seemed to simply expect her to shoulder the mental and emotional burden of dealing with his choices isn't really out of line with the very patriarchal culture in which the Bible was steeped. Recommended for people curious about religion and/or with a sense of humor about their own.

Tell me, blog you think it's valuable to look at books through their cultural context?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Backlist Books I've Added To My TBR Lately

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is technically about books we want to read that were released more than a year ago. But since that's well over 80% of my reading, I thought I'd narrow it down to the older books I've added to my to-read list the most recently.

Natasha: I've gotten more into classic Hollywood lately, so there have been several bios of major stars that have made my list. This one, about Natalie Wood, I haven't gotten yet but have my eye on.

The Opium Wars: The recent opioid crisis is just the latest in a long series of crises related to the poppy, so I picked up a secondhand copy of this book about the Opium Wars to get some perspective. 

Bluebeard's Egg: I am not usually a short story person, but Margaret Atwood can do little wrong in my eyes, so this is one of her collections I'm looking to add to my shelf. 

Call Me By Your Name: I really liked the movie version of this, and I've heard the book is different but still wonderful, so I'm going to pick this up one of these days. 

The Emissary: This was recommended on the book thread of one of my favorite subreddits and sounds fascinating, so it's on my list to acquire. 

The End of the Affair: I read recently that this is one of Reese Witherspoon's favorite books, and she's someone who's got pretty good taste in reading, so I'm happy to take her recommendation and grab it soon at the bookstore!

The Book of Salt: This was on that list I linked a while back of critics choosing the best books published since the turn of the century, and it's a Kindle Monthly Deal for November so I got it super cheap!

The Boys from Brazil: I enjoy Ira Levin, and this sounds like an interesting concept, so I added to a recent order of secondhand books!

The Wife: They're making a movie out of this, and Sarah at Sarah's Book Shelves has raved about it, so it's the one I bought at the bookstore during my recent trip to St. Paul!

Gated: Ever since my husband and I watched Wild Wild Country, I've been on a cult kick, and this YA novel on the subject has been well-reviewed, so I'm planning to buy it. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Book 153: Spoiled

"Brooke closed her eyes and exhaled. It was bad enough that Ginevra's pleasantly nasty little shoe-related blind item had been canceled out by Molly's popular appearance in the latest issue of Hey! Between the fact that her actors were operating at straight-to-DVD levels and all the gushy comments she'd heard lately about Molly's eyes, or her clothes, or that heinous backpack, Brooke's nerves were as frayed as a pair of tights on Taylor Momsen. She'd even been seen eating chips in public. Like a commoner."

Dates read: June 18-21, 2017

Rating: 6/10

My sister is one of my best friends. But it wasn't always that way. When I first found out I was getting a sister, I was...not excited. As a pathological attention seeker from the very beginning, I was perfectly happy to be an only child thank you very much. Not too long after she was born, my mom saw me carrying my sister toward the kitchen. When she asked me where I was going, I told her I was going to throw Amelia in the garbage can because she cried too much. Informed that this was not an option, I argued for a return to the hospital. The presiding judge/my mom ruled against me. It didn't get a lot better until I went to college and we were out of each other's hair and then we realized we actually rather liked each other and though of course we still fight because we're sisters and I've never been one to let someone be wrong without making sure they know they are, she's a deeply important part of my life.

If normal circumstances like mine lead to sibling rivalry, finding out when you're already 16 that you have a sister you never knew about, who's the same age as you, would be rough. In Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan's debut novel, Spoiled, they introduce us to Brooke Berlin, only daughter of Hollywood mega-star Brick Berlin. Brooke longs to be an actor and see her face in all the magazines like her dad and is gleefully planning the Sweet 16 party that will be her social debut...when she finds out that she's not actually Brick's only daughter. Right before he met and married Brooke's mother, Kelly, he had a fling with Laurel, a costume designer on a movie set, and only found out about her pregnancy after Kelly was pregnant too. Laurel went back to Indiana and raised her daughter, Molly, to believe that her father was a military man who died before she was born. But Molly finds out the truth just before Laurel passes away, and finds herself on her way to Los Angeles to live the father and sister she never knew.

That all probably makes this sound kind of heavy, but it's really not. What transpires from there is straight out of 90s/00s high school movie mashup heaven...Brooke and Molly squabble, and Molly finds herself in the middle of a long-standing rivalry between her spoiled brat of a sister and Shelby, the daughter of a tabloid king. She also finds herself torn between her long-time, on-again-off-again hometown boyfriend and the cute boy at her tony new prep school. All this set against the sisters being forced to work together on a production of My Fair Lady. The drama!

I've been a longtime reader and fan of Cocks and Morgan, who write one of my favorite blogs on the internet: Go Fug Yourself. They're very steeped in Hollywood and fashion, given that they write about those things literally every day, and have developed an irreverent, snarky-without-being-mean tone that worked perfectly for this little snack of a YA novel. There are all kinds of little details that are delightful: that Brooke's best friend is named Arugula, Brick's dim-bulb bon mots, a daft football player and his perky blonde girlfriend that are obviously heavily inspired by Kevin and Brittany from Daria. Coming off of reading two heavily-fact-based nonfiction books about Serious Issues, the breeziness of Spoiled really hit the spot. It's kind of like a candy bar: tasty and gone quickly and not especially memorable.

I know they were trying to ground their story in real emotions, but that the whole story takes off from Molly's mother's relatively sudden death from cancer doesn't really work. That this is very much a secondary plot point kind of strains credulity. A 16 year-old just mostly moving on from the death of her only parent without much in the way of emotional trauma? Although it's their feelings about their missing mothers (Brooke's mother has had no contact with her daughter at all in the years since her divorce from Brick) that ultimately forms the glue that bonds Molly and Brooke together in the end (spoiler, but not really because if you can see their reunification coming right from the beginning of their feud), I wish they'd found another way to force Molly out to California because it's jarring every time you're reminded of it. It's a significant false note in what's otherwise a catchy little ditty. Otherwise, this is a fun, silly, light book perfect for when you need an easy read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: October 2018

October has always been my favorite's peak college football season, the weather is usually delightfully crisp, and it's my birthday month! Besides celebrating both mine and my husband's 33rd birthdays this month, we also just got back from a trip, so it's been a pretty fantastic October around here.

In Books...
  • The Things They Carried: This book of interconnected short stories follows a platoon of Vietnam War soldiers before, during, and after the conflict. It's fairly short but very powerful and the writing is incredibly good.
  • Flip: The first half of this book was very solid...Alex, a 14 year-old boy in England, suddenly wakes up one morning with 6 months missing and in an entirely different body: that of another English teen called Phillip, or "Flip" for short. The confusion and terror Alex feels is well-rendered and compelling, but then when the second half rolls around and it gets into the explanation for what happened and Alex's attempts to "fix" it, it all falls apart. 
  • The Fly Trap: I'll admit, I was not excited when my book club's pick this month was a memoir from a guy who lives on a Swedish island and collects flies. But it was charming and delightful, even if it didn't really go anywhere. An easy, enjoyable read. 
  • The Library Book: This nonfiction book about libraries, focusing on the Los Angeles Public Library and a fire there in the 80s, was a little meandering and unfocused. But Susan Orlean's writing is wonderful, and her genuine fondness for libraries and books so clear throughout, that it's an enjoyable reading experience overall.
  • Prep: This book about an Indiana teen who goes to a fancy east coast boarding school was well-written, but also difficult to sit down and read for any long period of time, because Sittenfeld so perfectly captures the experience of being an agonizingly self-conscious adolescent girl that it made me anxious to spend too much time in her head.  
  • We Are Not Ourselves: This is the kind of character-based family saga that should be right up my alley. It traces the life of Eileen Tumulty from her hardscrabble childhood through her marriage to the handsome, smart Ed Leary, the birth of their son Connell, and her determined chase of the American dream...only for that dream to come crashing down when Ed becomes seriously ill. Unfortunately, Eileen is deeply unpleasant to spend time with, so a whole book's worth is way too much. She's not even unlikable in an interesting way, just a garden-variety social-climbing racist asshole. Some lovely prose, but not at all a good book. 
  • Detroit: As the daughter of a woman who lived in Detroit until the late 80s (we moved out when I was about three), I was really interested in reading about the city's downfall, but this book wasn't quite what I expected to be. It's as much about author Charlie LeDuff's personal relationship to the city as it is the decline of the city itself, and while it's good, it's not great.
  • Bringing Down the House: This book about the MIT blackjack team card-counting in Vegas is an entertaining enough story, but fails to really go anywhere or say anything. The kind of thing that makes for great airplane reading, but doesn't hold up under any real thought. 

In Life...
  • Birthdays!: Both my husband and I celebrated our 33rd this month (we're exactly two weeks apart). Given that we had a trip coming up, we decided to forgo our usual dinners so we could do a nice one when we traveled, but we did do some presents and I gave away a copy of Americanah (my favorite book I've reviewed on the blog over the past 12 months) to celebrate! Congrats to AJ for winning!
  • Trip to Minneapolis: My husband has always wanted to see a home Vikings game, so we made it happen this year! We spent five days in the Twin Cities and saw dinosaurs, drank a bunch of great beer, and I wish we could have seen the team win, but it didn't work out that way. It was super fun!

One Thing:

I love this kind of thing, and do honestly wonder what music will stand the test of time. Many of their choices make all kinds of sense ("Hey Ya!" is beyond obvious, and "Wonderwall" also has that kind of timelessness that makes me think kids will be asking what a wonderwall is decades from now), but I don't know about "Hotline Bling" and think it'll be Rihanna's "Umbrella" that will make it, not "We Found Love". What recent music do you think will be the golden oldies 25 years down the road?

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Featuring Ghosts

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Halloween tomorrow, this week is a holiday freebie! I did witches last year, so this year I'm going with books that have ghosts!

Beloved: This book is a masterpiece and the way Morrison uses the ghost character is incredible and if you haven't read it already you should immediately.

Sing, Unburied, Sing: This felt very much like it was positioning itself as "in the tradition of" Beloved, for me, but without quite the skill or level of success. It's a good book, and goes into some different places, but a comparison to Morrison's masterpiece is unlikely to be flattering to anyone. 

The Inferno: They're not quite "ghosts" per se, but Virgil as Dante's guide and the shades the two encounter in hell are a huge part of this amazing work.

Lincoln in the Bardo: I felt definitely echoes of Dante in this deeply weird but very good book, especially in the contrapasso-esque disfigurements the spirits were saddled with.

The Shining: I'm not big into horror as a genre usually because I am easily frightened and have a vivid imagination but this book managed to keep the scares relatively low-impact (even the very malevolent ghosts) and told a compelling story about addiction to boot. 

The Lovely Bones: Susie isn't really a ghost, but she's a disembodied spirit and at one point possesses someone so I think that's close enough.

Stardust: The growing collection of ghostly princes of Stormhold are kind of a side plot in this fantasy adventure, but the way the brothers come up with to murder each other are honestly kind of delightful.

Rebecca: The titular first wife of Maxim deWinter does not literally appear during the story, but the way her influence continues to haunt her widower, his home of Manderly, and his new wife is so pervasive as to be effectively present. 

Harry Potter: For something a little more lighthearted, the house ghosts and Peeves the poltergeist and Moaning Myrtle are a vital part of this beloved series.

Spook: And a nonfiction take on ghosties! I love Mary Roach and this exploration of whether there's any scientific evidence for communication with the afterlife has her trademark curiosity and humor.