Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Month In The Life: February 2017

First of all, I'd like to wish my mom a happy birthday today! Now that we're one sixth of the way through 2017, it seems like time is moving both incredibly fast and incredibly slow. February is, of course, a short month, but it really flew by even more than usual, right? You might be wondering why you're seeing this today instead of a Top Ten Tuesday. TTT is actually on hiatus for the next two weeks, which works out fine for me because I am busy busy busy. Let's look at what's happened in the last month, eh?

In Books...
  • Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: Technically, I finished this the last day of January, after my monthly summary went live. But we'll count it in with February. Anyways, this nonfiction book tells the story of American Indians in the West during the Manifest Destiny period. It's a much different take on that period than we got in school, and relentlessly depressing as everyone knows the Indians are going to ultimately lose and get pushed back and back and back. But it's an important and worthwhile read to get some perspective on history from the side of the conquered.
  • Marlena (ARC): This book has gotten a lot of buzz, but I found it to tread very similar ground as Emma Cline's The Girls, and not as effectively. Julie Buntin's language lacks the raw power of Cline's, and even though her story is probably ultimately the stronger one, it suffers in comparison. Which was extra disappointing to me because I've got a soft spot for books set in Michigan, but this one just didn't live up to the hype for me. 
  • Orange Is The New Black: This memoir inspired the TV show, and it's important to remember that they are very different works. The book is, like all memoirs, centered in one person's experience, so although we see some familiar figures in the text, it's all focused on Piper. I enjoyed it for what it was.
  • Flowertown: This is a mystery/thriller type about what becomes of a small Midwestern community after a disasterous chemical spill, and it's better than what I would have expected from an Amazon imprint. Not amazing, but compelling.
  • Between The World And Me: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer who challenges me, and this book pushed me to think in ways outside of my usual lens on the world. This was a book club selection, and I was super bummed that professional obligations meant I couldn't attend this month because I would have relished the opportunity to talk about this book's searing language and powerful ideas in a group.  
  • Zealot: Reza Aslan takes a look at who Jesus actually was, grounded in the reality of his time in history, and it's fascinating to think about one of the most familiar figures in our culture from a more grounded perspective. 
  • Nefertiti: This book tells the story of the legendary queen of Ancient Egypt from the perspective of her younger sister. Hearkens back to The Other Boleyn Girl in many ways, and never really takes off very effectively. I've got more Michelle Moran on my TBR, so I hope she's grown a bit as a writer since this book.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale (ARC): This book, which mashes up a Cinderella story with Russian folklore, created a fantastic character in Vasya and was an engrossing read, delightful enough in many ways to cover up some plotting issues. It's going to be a trilogy, apparently, which has me excited to read the follow-ups.

In Life...
  •  The only real thing to report is that our legislative session has begun! In Nevada, they meet every other year for 120 days (including weekends), so it's 4 very intense months of 10-12 hour days on a regular basis...not to mention a 40 minute commute each way, and even longer days on deadlines. It's always interesting and I love my job but this is a hard grind. It's even worse for the people from Las Vegas who have to be away from their family and friends...I can't imagine how much tougher it would be to not be able to come home to my husband and dog every night!
One Thing...
  • My favorite musical artist, hands down, is Ryan Adams. I've seen him live four times and was really bummed that his touring schedule brings him to my general area (well, the Bay Area anyways, which is about a five hour drive) right before session ends: exactly when I won't be able to go! But he released his latest album, Prisoner, this month, and I'm always happy to take the opportunity to plug Ryan in the hopes that other people might get the same enjoyment out of him that I do!
Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book 65: Zero K

"They would come and take her. They would wheel her into an elevator and take her down to one of the so-called numbered levels. She would die, chemically prompted, in a subzero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception."

Dates read: June 25-27, 2016

Rating: 5/10

I can't remember the first time I really thought about what happens to us after we die, but I do remember that it kept me up all night. My very first existential crisis. I started wondering where "I" go when my body stops. Do I just disappear? Does some aspect of me survive somehow? How do I know how it all ends (the story of the people I love, the story of the world)? Religion answers most of those anxiety-producing questions for people of faith, but I'm not religious. So I just have anxiety.

Life, and death, and life after death are at the heart of Don DeLillo's Zero K. I'd never read DeLillo before, but his reputation proceeds him so I was excited to finally do so. The novel focuses on Jeffery Lockhart, who we first meet as he's entering a mysterious facility somewhere in Central Asia called the Convergence. His stepmother Artis is dying, and is choosing to have herself cryogenically frozen so that she can be revived when her body's ills can be cured and her consciousness can be restored. The Convergence is a cult-like space for the super-rich to shuffle off this mortal coil, with art installations, like mannequins in discomfiting poses and banks of TV screens that play footage of disasters on mute, among a maze of smoothly paneled identical rooms. Artis is there thanks to the incredible wealth of Ross Lockhart, Jeffrey's father, with whom he has had a difficult relationship even since Ross walked out on Jeffrey and his mother. Jeffrey is disturbed by his time at the Convergence, and it resonates after he returns to his native New York and tries to resume his normal life, where he's made a practice of detachment: temporary jobs, long-distance girlfriends. We get peeks at Jeffrey's childhood, dominated by memories of his father's departure and the fallout that had on his mother, whose own lonely death also looms large in Jeffrey's psyche. It's left to the reader to try to figure out how much it was his time at Convergence, or his childhood, or a mixture of the two, that plays into Jeffrey's movements towards actually getting closer to his latest girlfriend and her troubled son when he gets back to New York.

I'm a big movie-watching as well as a book-reader (I actually think the latter has supplanted the former these days since I'm reading so much more than I used to), and this book reminded me of a literary version of a mash-up of The Tree of Life and the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a dream-like meditation on mortality, without much actual plot or even real character development. It feels like abstract art in a way...it's got a tone and a theme, but making connections and fleshing it out and figuring out how to feel about it are on the person taking it in (in this case, the reader). It's a book to read slowly and contemplate. For me, personally, I found it alienating. Like the end of 2001, it made me think about things and have feelings, but I didn't really feel like I understood it. And not in the way that makes you want to go back and mine deeper in the layers of it to find new gems, but in the way where I felt like it was written specifically to be distant and aloof. If you're in a mood to contemplate the deeper questions of life, this will be a solid read but otherwise the supple prose is about the only selling point.

Tell me, blog friends...what books did you feel like you just didn't quite get?

One year ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved Less/More Than I Thought I Would

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: book that we loved more or less than we thought we would. I decided to divvy it up: five books I liked less than I would have thought, and five I liked more! Expectations are a tricky thing...a beloved author, or favorite topic, can get you thinking that you'll really appreciate something going in, while genre preferences can give you an idea that you might not like it at all. Which is part of why I try to read broadly, because I've been both disappointed and unexpectedly delighted!


Yes Please: I should have known better, because I've tended to find "comedian memoir in essays" to be very hit-and-miss. But I had high hopes for Amy Poehler's book, because I really enjoy her on screen. Sadly, though, this one was MUCH more miss than hit for me.

The Marriage Plot: Jeffrey Eugenides is my favorite author, both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex are incredible. But his most recent book, The Marriage Plot, was more interesting than enjoyable for me. There are some thought-provoking themes here, but it was wildly uneven.

Pride and Prejudice: I love most of Jane Austen's work, but this, which seems to be most everyone's favorite Austen, didn't do it for me the way I was hoping. I found both Lizzie and Darcy pretty irritating, and while there are things to enjoy here, it didn't do as much for me as her other books have.

The Circle: Dave Eggers' novel is really interesting conceptually, with a Facebook-esque company drastically eroding the idea of privacy feeling very resonant in the modern world. But the writing is clunky and the characters are awful and I hated reading it.

The Catcher In The Rye: This is a book that I think you have to find at the right point in your life to connect with. For a budding adult, feeling lost and alienated from the world, this probably hits home hard. But for an actual adult (which is what I was when I read it), J.D. Salinger's novel about a teenager's existential crisis can be just deeply annoying.


Jane Eyre: I wouldn't consider "gothic romance" a genre that I tend to super enjoy, and Mr. Rochester is kind of the worst, but Jane herself is an incredible heroine and I really loved the way she grew throughout the narrative.

The Rosie Project: I actually wouldn't consider any time of romance my preferred genre, now that I think about it. But this story of an autistic professor looking for love and the so-wrong-she's-right woman that turns up in his life and was funny and charming and sweet and I really liked reading it.

Blindness: I'd seen the relentlessly depressing movie version, so I can't imagine what spurred me to take the source novel off the shelves at the local secondhand store, but I'm glad that I did. It's a difficult book to read, both in subject matter and presentation, but it was really powerful and I had a hard time putting it down.

Lords of Discipline: As a woman raised in a three-person family that consisted of me, my mother, and my sister, I often struggle to connect with material that's strongly rooted in masculinity. And what's more masculine than an all-boys military academy? But this coming-of-age story is written beautifully by Pat Conroy and is rooted in a very human sympathy that will appeal to any reader.

Anna Karenina: Russian literature has a reputation for being boring and a dreadful slog. And while perhaps Dostoevsky might deserve that reputation, Leo Tolstoy does not. Anna Karenina is a the story of a woman trapped inside the strictures of a society that can't and won't allow her to live as she wants and even though it's a million pages long I finished it in less than a week because I couldn't put it down.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book 64: The Relic Master

"He noted with amusement two adjoining booths, each advertising thorns from the Crown of Thorns. Unfortunate placement. But there were so many exhibitors these days. Space was tight. Placards and banners flapped in the late afternoon breeze. One advertised a Mandylion, another a sudarium, another a foot (whole) of the Magdalene. There was always a surcharge for an entire appendage."

Dates read: June 23-25, 2016

Rating: 5/10

As I've mentioned before, I'm not religious, but I did grow up Catholic. If I were ever to again become religious, I don't think I'd move around my allegiance: I think I'd just go back to being Catholic. Though I've been out of the Church for more than half my life, I still find it appealing: the rosaries, the incense, the stained glass, the saints. I still have a Saint Christopher's medal in my car, and I sometimes find myself invoking Saint Anthony when I've misplaced something. I think the saints are my favorite thing about Catholicism.

But there's a dark side to Catholicism. The Inquisitions. The long succession of shady popes in the Middle Ages. And the practice of selling indulgences, which was part of pushing Martin Luther over the edge enough to nail his 95 theses to the door of the church and kicked off the development of Protestantism. It is in those tumultuous times, literally right before immediately after Luther's action, where Christopher Buckley sets his The Relic Master. Indeed, Buckley places his protagonist, Dismis in the church where it happens as it happens. But this is not another The Name of the Rose, full of heady theological musings. It mines some similar territory about the nature of the Church, but it's at heart a comedy.

Dismis manages to find himself in that fateful church at that fateful time because he is a relic hunter: he scours fairs where bits of bodies and artifacts whose owners claim that they're connected to the saints are for sale to the highest bidder. Many, many of them are obvious fakery, but for the ones that seem to have some shred of authenticity, Dismas buys them for his patrons. Those patrons then use the relics to raise money for the church. Or more like "for the church", as at least some of that funding gets diverted into the coffers of the church leaders themselves. This was a time when poverty as a godly virtue wasn't really a thing.

When Dismas finally decides it's time to get his life savings back from the banker he's been storing it with and retire, it's just in time to find out that banker has been arrested and put on trial for stealing his clients' money. Desperate, he and his good friend, the painter Albrecht Durer, conspire to forge perhaps the most famous relic in the world: the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Dismas had long thought the shroud of Turin (known then as the shroud of Chambery because it lived in Chambery) was a fake, so he pretends to discover a new one, purporting to believe it is genuine. But the forgery is quickly discovered and Dismas' penance for his attempt to deceive is set: he has to go steal (or rather, relocate) the shroud of Chambery.

Accompanied by Durer, a handful of mercenary knights meant to keep him in line, and eventually Magda, a beautiful young woman they save from being tried as a witch, Dismas sets out for Chambery without much hope, or even a plan. From there there's a predictable romance and assorted hi-jinks, with lots of witty reparte and another set of potential thieves after the shroud to contend with. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but for me, it didn't have that spark that I need to be charmed by a comedy. Despite being humorous, I wouldn't call it an easy read: the plot is very twisty and the large cast of characters can be hard to keep track of. It requires enough concentration that it's not an easy plane/vacation read, but it's too light to be Serious Literature. It's an awkward in-betweeny space.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite funny novels?

One year ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: All-Time Favorite Couples

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Today is Valentine's Day, y'all, so this week's topic is All About Romance. Since I've actually never done just a straightforward list of my favorite couples in the books I've read, I figure that's a great thing to highlight on the holiday of loooooooove.

Anne and Captain Wentworth (Persuasion): Persuasion was actually my first Austen, and I've never lost my fondness for this tale of love found, and lost, and then found again. Anne and Wentworth are a lovely couple and that they come together again after they've lived enough to really appreciate each other makes it sweeter.

Scarlett and Rhett (Gone With The Wind): Both bold and brash and so perfect for each other, although by the time Scarlett realizes how perfect he is for her, she's already pushed him away. I admit, the onscreen portrayals of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable bias me towards them because they're so amazing.

Jay and Daisy (The Great Gatsby): The kind of all-consuming love that makes someone devote themselves to becoming the kind of person they'd need to be to win the object of their desire is hard to argue with.

Elphaba and Fiyero (Wicked): This incredible take on The Wizard of Oz gives the green woman a full backstory, including a sweet and powerful love story.

Henry and Clare (The Time Traveler's Wife): I'm not big into "chick lit", but this story about a woman and man who love each other through a unique blend of space and time was powerful enough to overcome my biases.

Lyra and Will (The Amber Spyglass): I just finished going through this trilogy again on audiobook (which I highly recommend, Pullman narrates his own novels beautifully) and the scenes where they have to part broke my heart all over again.

Sabriel and Touchstone (Sabriel): I've always loved the way that Nix wrote Sabriel, so strong and independent, and that her love story feels like what love is in the real world: an addition, not the end-all-be-all of either person's existence.

Daine and Numair (The Realms of the Gods): I loved this series as a teen, and even though I now look a little more askance at the age difference between the young woman and her teacher, I like the way Pierce paces it. No insta-love here, rather a changing and deepening relationship between two people, which makes the payoff even better.

Alobar and Kudra (Jitterbug Perfume): I really enjoy Robbins, and the centuries-long love that he draws between a Bohemian king and an Indian widow is just one part of an epic about the power of smell and the quest to live forever.

Bridget and Mark (Bridget Jones' Diary): It feels like sacrilege to say that I didn't have especially strong feelings about Pride and Prejudice, but this modern take on it gets me much more invested in the relationship between our Lizzie stand-in and her Darcy.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book 63: Song of Achilles

"The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death."

Dates read: June 20-23, 2016

Rating: 7/10

If you've been to school in the Western world, you've probably at some point read (or at least been assigned to read) parts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I've "read" them (some actual reading supplemented by SparkNoting) and I honestly don't get the hype. The Odyssey is the better of the two for me, and I can understand better its enduring appeal: an adventure story with a charming and quick-witted hero. The Iliad though...war stories don't traditionally move me, and this one just bored me to tears.

But for better or for worse, the Homeric epics are a bedrock part of the Western literary canon. Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles looks at The Iliad from a fresh perspective: that of Patroclus, Achilles' closest companion. Since this is a retelling of a classic story (a genre to which I am predisposed), we already know how it's going to play out: Agamemnon will steal a slave girl claimed by Achilles, leading to the hero refusing to fight for the Greeks, leading to Patroclus donning his armor and being slain by Hector of Troy, leading to Achilles killing Hector and dragging him around the walls of his city, only to be killed himself by an arrow from Hector's brother Paris. What's different is what comes before and between.

As most of us know, it was not uncommon in Ancient Greek life for older men to have sexual relationships with younger men. Homosexual relationships between men of the same age, however, were rarer. When I was taught The Iliad, even in college, the bond between Patroclus and Achilles was usually described as just a deep friendship (lip service was paid to the idea they could have been lovers but it was never taught as being the more persuasive interpretation). Miller's novel, however, roots itself in the alternate interpretation: she presents us with Achilles, the most gifted warrior in Greece, as a man in a loving and stable lifelong relationship with Patroclus.

It would actually be more accurate to say she presents us with Patroclus as the romantic partner of Achilles: the story belongs to Patroclus, it is told through his eyes. Patroclus as created by Miller is a gentle soul, a disappointment to his aggressive father, who is banished when he kills another child purely by accident. He is sent to Peleus, father of Achilles, to be fostered, and is chosen by Achilles of all the young men at court to be his companion. Their relationship only gradually becomes romantic, much to the disgust of Achilles' river goddess mother, Thetis. She conspires more than once to break the couple apart, but their love is too strong and they remain together until the end. Miller explains Achilles' rage over the theft of his slave girl as being not about being deprived of a lover, but as being disrespected as the greatest soldier in the army by having his rightfully-claimed prize taken away.

I found it a much more enjoyable take on the story than the original. Miller really gets the time to develop Patroclus and Achilles as characters in depicting them from boyhood all the way through adulthood. She paints a very devoted relationship between them: though both briefly experiment with sex with women, they never stray from each other and Achilles refuses to leave Patroclus despite strong maternal pressure to do so. Since Miller's Patroclus isn't a skilled or enthusiastic warrior and instead serves the Greek contingent at Troy as a healer, most of the battlefield scenes that I find so boring to read are left out entirely. This is a solid read for fans of historical fiction and/or classical retellings.

Tell me, blog friends...did you have to read the Homeric poems in school at any point? Did you like them more than I did?

One year ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish Didn't Have Love Triangles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic are books we wish had more or less of...something. Love triangles can be well-executed (Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence both come to mind), but often don't add anything interesting or special to the story, rather padding it with extra drama that doesn't serve the underlying narrative very well. Here are ten books I wish I could read again without the love triangle element.

The Hunger Games: This is the start of an amazing trilogy about a young woman who conquers tremendous odds to become to be both a freedom fighter and a symbol of the resistance. Her relationship with Peeta is built slowly and organically, but the silly love triangle with Gale? Not even remotely necessary.

New Moon: Bella and Edward have plenty of obstacles in their romance without the artificial hurdle of stupid Jacob. This is the book where he's the most real as a third leg of the triangle, but mostly he's just sulking in the corner. Laaaaaame.

Water for Elephants: I loved this book about a young man who finds himself traveling along with a circus and working with an elephant, but the love triangle with Marlena and Jacob and August? Doesn't add that much to the story, really.

The Interestings: While Jules and Ethan have a connection (and Ethan has a crush) when they're teenagers, I never understood why it persists past the point when Ethan marries Ash and they have children. Jules is happily coupled, Ethan is happily coupled...why the need to add the *~drama~* of a long-burning love triangle?

Gone With The Wind: Has anyone who's ever read this book or seen the movie ever understood why Scarlett gets so hung up on Ashley?

The Circle: Every single person involved in the Mae-Francis-Kalden triangle sucks. Mae is a selfish asshole, Francis is the worst kind of "she friendzoned me" bro, and Kalden only ever wants to bang in weird places. There's no tension here.

From Dead To Worse: Most of the love triangles that make up Sookie Stackhouse's romantic life are well-rendered and entertaining, but Quinn is my least favorite of her partners and when it comes to either him or Eric Northman, it's hardly even imaginable why she might consider the other side.

Return Of The King: This is less of a love triangle than an ill-advised crush, but the half-heartedness of Eowyn-Aragorn-Arwen is just

The Marriage Plot: Being in a relationship with someone with a serious mental health issue is a topic that doesn't get explored very often, and Eugenides handles that issue really thoughtfully. But inserting Mitchell's crush on Madeleine like it's a viable spoiler to that romance? Falls totally flat.

Sophie's Choice: While Sophie's love affair with Nathan is a beautifully tragic, Stingo's desperate crush on her leads to one of the single most cringeworthy scenes I've ever read and it just feels so pointless.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Book 62: Zodiac

"The writing of the next two Zodiac letters, I speculated, went like this: the stocky man began to write with a frenzy. Crouched in the silence of his basement, he donned his gloves and took up his felt-tip pen. Outside the day was bright; here, he was cloaked in gloom, a blackness that clung to every corner of his work area punctuated only by one strange light."

Dates read: June 13-20, 2016

Rating: 5/10

There's nothing like an unsolved mystery. When I was a kid I would sometimes sneak downstairs and watch reruns of Unsolved Mysteries when they were on some cable channel or another at midnight. Maybe you can help solve a mystery, you know? Which underlies the enduring appeal of another serial killer: the Zodiac. The case was never cracked. We're not even really sure how many victims he had. There are clues, not in the least the cryptograms he spent out, but not that many, even, really. We'll almost certainly never know, and that's the kind of thing that gets beneath people's skins and drives them crazy.

Robert Graysmith was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when those cryptograms started coming in, and his book Zodiac details the case and how it sucked him in. He developed friendships and relationships with the reporters and police working the case and couldn't stop himself from doing a bit of his own investigating on the side. The book describes the crimes police are certain were committed by the Zodiac and then goes on to crimes they think he committed, and their befuddlement as his claimed body count in his letters goes up and up without real certainty as to which disappearances and murders actually belong to him. It could be a handful. It could be a few dozen. It could be hundreds. There's really no way to be sure.

For me, the strongest part of the book was the first half or so, the crimes we can definitely connect to the Zodiac. Graysmith narrates the last hours in the lives of the victims, tension building as the reader knows that the grisly and terrifying end is coming up just around the corner. He narrates the confusion of the police, left with bloody crime scenes with no apparent motive and no clues. And then the cryptograms and taunting letters start coming, rubbing their faces in it, threatening school buses of children with bombs, forcing them to take him seriously even as they got nowhere trying to figure out who he was.

But it falls apart a bit as the letters keep coming but it gets harder to tie the boasts they contain to actual crimes. There are unsolved murders, but they fall outside his usual M.O. Did he switch things up to throw them off? Or are these entirely different perpetrators? And as the letters themselves became less and less frequent, Graysmith starts chasing his own leads. The book is less and less sure of the story it's trying to tell. Is it true crime? Is it a murder mystery? Is it a story about men who can't let go of a puzzle that got the best of them? It just kind of meanders around without much of a point. And Graysmith wasn't really a writer, and it shows: his prose isn't particularly great. We don't really get a handle on anything: the Zodiac killer, the personalities of the police hunting him, even the suspects Graysmith tracks down. It's just a pretty rote recitation of increasingly disjointed facts. If you're a devotee of true crime stories, especially about serial killers, or are interested in the Zodiac case, you might like this. I was hoping to like it more than I actually did.

Tell me, blog friends...is there a serial killer that you find especially interesting?

One year ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology