Friday, June 30, 2017

A Month In The Life: June 2017

And just like that, the year is halfway over! I've been glad for the dramatic slowdown of my work obligations...I took on significantly more responsibility in this past session, which was my third, which was rewarding but also exhausting. Since we adjourned at the end of the day on June 5, my life has been much more boring but that is 100% fine by me.

In Life...
  • Like I noted above, legislative session is over! Which is always a mixed much as it means very long days and high stress levels, I do love the community of session. I get to see more of our Las Vegas-based team, who I really enjoy getting to spend time with, and I get to reconnect with my session friends that live outside of Reno, who I miss when it's all over. But it's been a long 120 days and I am ready to take it a little easier for a while.
  • We celebrated our first wedding anniversary! It fell on Father's Day, so we didn't really do anything special besides dinner the night before and then had a Father's Day dinner with my in-laws and friends, but my husband is my favorite person to just hang out with so I was perfectly happy. Our cake topper was surprisingly decent after a year in the freezer, and we got a sweet ice cream cake from my in-laws just in case the topper had gone bad.
  • I went to my first rodeo! My husband's company does a box at the annual Reno Rodeo, so I got to experience my first official cowboy event. I enjoyed what I got to see...but that was only about 45 minutes worth, because I turned out to be deeply and profoundly allergic to the rodeo. I want to go back sometime, but with Claritin onboard. 

In Books...
  • Mrs. Dalloway: This was my first-ever Virginia Woolf, and I really enjoyed reading it. It took me nearly a week even though it's less than 200 pages because the text was so dense, but it was a rich and rewarding experience.
  • In The Skin of a Lion: I felt about this book club pick much like I felt about Michael Ondaatje's more famous The English Patient- it was very beautiful and I could not connect with it at all.
  • The Man Without A Face: A recounting from an actual Russian journalist of the rise and power consolidation of Vladimir Putin seemed very timely. There's necessarily a lot of speculation because no one would confirm on the record the kinds of things that are going on, but it's informed speculation and this is a book well worth reading. 
  • Shattered: Journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes had been working on a book that they expected to be about how Hillary Clinton was elected as the first female president, and then when things went the other way, wrote this book about how the campaign played out from the inside. I know a lot of people who worked on the Hillary campaign and so I take some of this with a grain of salt, but it was definitely an interesting read. 
  • Spoiled: After two serious, information-heavy non-fiction books in a row, this frothy YA novel hit the spot perfectly. From the bloggers behind Go Fug Yourself, a longtime favorite of mine, this book was kind of like a Twinkie: light, tasty, and insubstantial. 
  • The Year of Living Biblically: This memoir from a secular Jewish man who decides to spend a year living according to the many (700+!) rules of the Old and New Testaments is amusing and fairly interesting, but not anything particularly special. 
  • Spook: This was my first Mary Roach, and if her style is dry, sardonic humor combined with genuine curiosity, sign me up for literally all of the rest of them. This book, in particular, featured her traveling around to try to look at one of the most persistent questions of there life after death? I definitely enjoyed reading this. 

One Thing:

In our just-finished session, Nevada's legislature was 40% women: one of the highest proportions in the country! So why don't more women in the country at large run for office? This piece from Politico looks at this very question, noting that although there's not much of a gender gap in political aspirations in high school, there starts to be one in college when ambitious men are encouraged to run someday, while women don't get that kind of feedback. As a woman working in politics (I'll admit here I'm part of the problem in that I have zero interest in running), I'd love to see Nevada's legislature make it to gender equality...and the rest of the country catch up!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book 83: Bel Canto

"He made what he felt to be wild presumptions in handing over his suggestions, but what did it matter? He was a vice president in a giant corporation, a numbers man, suddenly elevated to be the accompanist. He was not himself. He was no one he had ever imagined."

Dates read: August 25-27, 2016

Rating: 8/10

As I've become an adult, I've realized how hard it is to make friends outside of school. Groundbreaking stuff, I know. But there's something about being regularly a part of the same group of people all the time that gives you the chance to get to know each other, and get past the initial niceties and get to be friends. There's obviously people that you're never going to bond with, but there are people who you just need to see often enough to start realizing that you enjoy each other's company. And the experiences you share give you something to naturally bond over.

The unexpected bonds that can grow between people is at the heart of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. Katsumi Hokosawa, a Japanese industrialist, is having his 53rd birthday party in an unnamed South American country. The country has invited him to this party, to be held at the Vice President's mansion, in the hopes that he will invest there. He has no intention of doing so and declines...until he finds out that they have secured the performance of Roxane Coss for the party. Hokosawa is an opera devotee, and Coss is the world's foremost soprano. So he and his translator, Gen Watanabe, make the trip. No sooner, though, has Coss finished her performance than all the lights go out. Suddenly, the partygoers find themselves surrounded by young men bearing arms. They've come to abduct the president, and when they find out he's not there, they're not quite sure what to do but take the 200+ guests hostage.

The hostages are winnowed down over time to the 39 most important men, including the vice president, ambassadors, businessmen, and of course Hokosawa himself (along with his translator) and Roxane Coss. Days go by, then weeks. Gen the translator finds himself very busy indeed as the guests and the soldiers get to know each other inside the mansion. Relationships of all kinds form: one of ringleaders and Hokosawa become chess partners and teach one of the young soldiers, another soldier with a beautiful voice becomes Roxane's student, romantic entanglements form (it turns out not all those soldiers are boys, after all). Always the question looms: how will this all end?

This is the first time I've read Patchett, and she's a gifted writer: her prose is sensitive, deeply felt, lyrical. She has a strong sense of character, and besides the ending, no action the people she creates on the page (and she creates people, complete with their own emotional truth, rather than just "characters") feels false. Even the people she spends less time with feel complete and real. The novel is well-paced and plotted...after the initial high drama of the home invasion, little else happens in terms of events and the action unfolds naturally from the unveiling of personalities and the growing bonds between the people at hand.

What keeps this as a very good book rather than great one, for me, is the very end. The action that two people take is...jarring. Trying to contextualize it in terms of what those two have gone through, you can understand that a rash decision might be made, but it still feels off. And it bugged me a lot, because I'd so loved everything that came before and to close on that sour note didn't feel right. It's 98% of a great book, but it could have been 100% of one and that is frustrating.

Tell me, blog friends...does a wonky ending ruin a book for you?

One year ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I've Read In 2017 So Far

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Now that we're about halfway through 2017, this week we're looking back at the reading year so far and picking out the highlights. I've read some really great books this are my ten faves for now and looking forward to even more in the next six months!

Americanah: This is a book I've had on my shelf for a long time and expected to love and once I read it, I did love it. It's so nice when a book meets expectations that have been set very high from years of praise. 

Between The World and Me: This was a book club pick (it was on my own TBR but got scooted up the list) and it's a searing indictment of race relations in the US. I found it occasionally difficult to read but all the more important for it. Extremely powerful. 

The Bear and the Nightingale: This debut novel, set in a fantasy version of medieval Russia where the creatures of Slavic folklore are real, was something I read early in the year that I just loved. Fantastic world, awesome heroine, solid writing. And the sequel comes out in December!

City of Thieves: Another Russian-set book, this one takes place during the siege of Leningrad. A Jewish teenager and a young Cossack army officer, both in trouble for reasons of their own, are sent on a seemingly impossible quest for food in the starving city. Adventure ensues. Man-quests don't tend to be my happy place but this is very charming. 

Chemistry: Another debut, this book's nameless narrator is a Ph.D. student at a top tier university when she has a mental breakdown that forces her to really think about her life and what she wants from it for the first time instead of just following the path set out for her. It's easy to read, but packs a punch.

Moonglow: My first-ever Michael Chabon novel and I loved it and want to read more of his work. I've heard that Kavalier and Clay is his best and that just so happens to be coming up reallllly soon on my TBR!

Big Little Lies: I still haven't watched the show, but it seemed interesting enough that I snagged a copy of the book. This genre tends to be not my deal, but I did enjoy the mommy wars with surprisingly dark themes. 

If We Were Villains: This was clearly inspired by The Secret History and while it didn't live up to that book's greatness, this was an enjoyable read nonetheless. 

Mrs. Dalloway: You know those books that you read and enjoy and can already anticipate reading again and getting more out of every time you do? This is one of those.

The Man Without A Face: More Russia, but this time non-fiction, about the rise of Vladimir Putin. Topical and timely and fascinating. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Book 82: Yesternight

"I had tried to be a good girl. Oh, my Lord, after hopping into boys' beds, how I worked until my brain ached; how diligently I had played by the rules. I had stopped seeing men altogether, dressed in skirts that fell well past my knees, and wed myself to the 'female-appropriate' stratum of a male career."

Dates read: August 23-25, 2016

Rating: 3/10

Like most people, I hold some irrational beliefs. I've always had a soft spot for astrology (which I know is making my husband shake his head as he reads this), and I've made a visit or two to palm readers/psychics (neither of which told me anything that was particularly true). When you acknowledge your own irrational beliefs, it's hard to draw a line and say that yours are truer than any other. If the position of the stars in sky when I was born has an influence on my life, why couldn't ghosts be real? If my crooked little fingers are significant to who I am as a person, why couldn't someone have a guardian angel that watches over them?

At the beginning of Cat Winters' Yesternight, Alice Lind doesn't believe in anything irrational at all. A female psychologist in the 1920s, she's been shoved into the pink ghetto of school (and by extension, child) psychology rather than the doctoral research she desperately wants to conduct. She mostly administers intelligence tests, but has dealt with a few significantly disturbed children who were thought to be supernaturally influenced and revealed their troubles to be the product of entirely mundane phenomena. Her own childhood had a mysterious event of its own: at age four, she violently assaulted a group of neighborhood children. Her family refuses to provide her with more information regarding the incident, and it would seem it precipitated her interest "solving" the mystery behind the troubled children she encounters. When she steps off the train in Gordon Bay, Oregon, though, she soon finds herself confronted with her most perplexing case ever.

The seven year-old niece of the local school teacher, Janie O'Daire is a math prodigy, able to perform complex calculations in her head and working on college-level proofs. More than that, though, she's claimed since the time she could talk to be a young woman from Kansas named Violet, who drowned. With a set of acrimoniously divorced parents (which would have been very rare in that time period), it would seem she is ripe for the kind of emotional issues that might provide a prosaic explanation for her claims. But as Alice digs deeper, it becomes more and more probable that this might, in fact, be a genuine case of reincarnation. As she becomes convinced that Janie is telling the truth about her past life, Alice finds herself wondering if her violent outbursts might be the product of her own previous existence as a notorious murderess. 

So I know my policy around here with regard to spoilers has been to avoid them as much as possible without compromising my ability to fully discuss the book, which usually means no or minimal spoilers. While they don't ruin a book for me personally, I know other people feel differently and I do my best to respect that. However, the ending of this book had a substantial impact on how I ended up feeling about it, so if spoilers bother you, please close this window and come back when you've read it (or don't, I guess, I'm not the boss of you, but I hope you do!). 

It turns out that Janie is in fact a reincarnated spirit, and a visit to Kansas to see Violet's sister proves it. Alice has convinced herself that her childhood outburst, as well as an experience in college when she attacked a classmate who impregnated and then dismissed her, is the result of her own past life as the homicidal owner of an old hotel not too far away. No sooner has she convinced herself (and her new lover, Janie's father) that it's true, then Alice's sister reveals that the details Alice recalls about the murderess in question were actually told to her by that sister when she was very young. She's not expressing the violence of a vengeful presence inside her, she just has anger issues. Soon thereafter, Alice and her lover have a fight that becomes physical and he ends up dead. We're treated to an epilogue in which Alice is now raising her young son, the product of that relationship, and he's revealed to be...the reincarnation of his own father. Which, no. That's stupid and terrible. Until the end, the book hums along pretty well. It's nothing particularly special, but the plot moves quickly and it's entertaining to read (I'd have rated it at a 6). The end, though, just completely ruins it. It's awful. I'd had some quibbles with the book previously (Alice doesn't make much of an effort besides taking people at their word to determine whether Janie has ever experienced any abuse and the unlikelihood of an actual divorce at that point in would have been much more realistic to have Janie's parents estranged than divorced) that were enough to keep me from finding it anything more than slightly above average, but that ending just torpedoed it. I would not recommend this book to anyone.

Tell me, blog you have any irrational beliefs?

One year ago, I was reading: The Song of Achilles

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Series I've Been Meaning To Start But Haven't

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're looking at series...more specifically, ones we've been thinking about starting to read but haven't quite gotten to yet. I don't tend to be much of a series reader, but there are definitely some beginning volumes of series on my bookshelf that I just haven't read yet. 

In The Woods: I've been told that these are only loosely connected and that this first one is actually one of the weaker entries. But I'm a sucker for reading books in order because I feel like that's the "right" way to read them, and this one is actually up to be read fairly soon.

Red Rising: This YA (I think?) sci-fi series has gotten great reviews everywhere I've seen them, and sci-fi is a genre I've enjoyed, so I need to start reading them.

The Passage: This is a post-pandemic and vampire story kind of blend, or so I've been told, and since both of those are stories I'm usually interested in and this trilogy is supposed to be great, I've snagged the first on for my Kindle.

Throne of Glass: This series is always super buzzy around the YA blogosphere, which has made me curious enough that I want to see what all the fuss is about.

Oryx and Crake: Margaret Atwood is a must-read.

The Cuckoo's Calling: Same for J.K. Rowling.

Annihiliation: This is the first in a trilogy about a team of scientists who venture into a strange area that has wreaked havoc on previous explorers. It's supposed to be mysterious and twisty and really really good.

Queen of the Tearling: My sister actually really likes this series, so I'm taking her word for it that I should read these ones.

The Grace of Kings: I think I originally heard this series described as Game of Thrones based in the Eastern rather than Western world, and that's a high bar (I love ASOIF), but this has won prizes so color me intrigued.

The Magicians: This series has been described as Harry Potter for grown-ups, which I am here for.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book 81: The Last One

"The production team tries to get everyone out, but they're on Solo Challenges and widespread. There were contingency plans in place, but not for this. It's a spiral like that child's toy: a pen on paper, guided by plastic. A pattern, then something slips and- madness. Incompetency and panic collide. Good intentions give way to self-preservation. No one knows for sure what happened, small scale or large. No one knows precisely what went wrong. But before he dies, the producer will know this much: Something went wrong." 

Dates Read: August 22-23, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Someone I went to high school with was on Survivor while I was in law school. Watching it to watch him was the first time I'd seen the show, which has been on since I was in high school. I didn't know the guy in question very well...I'd been in the advanced math class with his brother, but the contestant himself was a year or two behind me. Before watching it, I couldn't understand what drew people to it...a hotel without TV is about as close to wilderness survival as I want to find myself. But as I watched it until the guy I knew got voted off (which was quite late in the process), I started to get it a little. Proving yourself against physical and mental odds has driven human achievements like climbing mountains and running marathons and exploring new worlds from time immemorial.

The reality show at the center of Alexandra Oliva's The Last One promises to make Survivor look like child's play. The producers have a summer-blockbuster-sized budget and are planning to get three episodes per week on the air. There's no set end point...once all contestants but one utter a quit phrase to be taken out of play, it will be over, with the final person standing winning $1 million. Since it's the first season, no one knows what to expect. After a series of intense group challenges complete with expensive props and head games to thin the heard a little, the contestants are broken up and sent on solo challenges. They've been told to expect to not see even camera people (the production has drones and hidden cameras), so when one of the contestants, known as Zoo, finds herself wandering alone for a long while, she's not too disturbed. What she and the other contestants don't know is that as they're out there, a global pandemic is decimating the population of the country and the world.

In an interesting and perceptive technique, in the chapters that are presented in the third person, the contestants on the show are referred to by nicknames, like Engineer and Air Force and Asian Chick. Our protagonist, Zoo, is so called because she works at a wildlife center. We come into her story in media res, as she discovers an abandoned supermarket and scavenges for supplies. She steps over what she assumes are very well-made prop bodies. The reader knows that people are dying in large numbers and those bodies are almost certainly real, but out of touch with the outside world, what can Zoo think but to assume that it's all part of the game? Which is exactly what she does think, in the chapters that are told from her perspective. Knowing that the point of the show is to push her to her limits and drive her to quit, she pushes through a bout of severe illness and an attack by a wild coyote, among other things, by rationalizing them as just tricks by the producers.

The obstacles she faces and the turns her journey takes are best left to discovery by the reader. If you're anything like me, you'll get to them quickly. This is the first book I've read in a long time (even of ones I've really enjoyed) that's honest-to-goodness kept me up at night to read more. Most of the time, books I blow through really fast have a lower rating, because when I don't like I book I'm more inclined to push through it as rapidly as I can so I can move on to something I might like better. This book I raced through because I genuinely didn't want to put it down. I read it at lunch, while I got my oil changed on my car, while I was waiting for a meeting to start. The power of the human mind to convince itself of whatever it wants to is not to be underestimated, and the suspense of waiting to see when it would be that Zoo would finally see that the world around her was in real trouble keeps the narrative tension low but constant (her inability to see is literal as well as figurative...early in the book, her glasses are damaged and that helps the suspension of disbelief that the actual magnitude of events doesn't impress itself upon her sooner). I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it!

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever known anyone on a reality show?

One year ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Interesting Father-Child Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! Much like a month back when we looked at mother relationships for Mother's Day, now we're looking at father relationships for Father's Day. I broadened it out to general father-child relationships for this one because I immediately thought of books I wanted to include that had relationships with both genders as children. Some of these are good relationships, some bad, but all of them compelling (to me anyways). 

To Kill A Mockingbird: Can you make a list on this subject without highlighting Atticus and Scout? I haven't read Go Set a Watchman so I'm pretending it doesn't exist and that Atticus can go on being the A+ human I learned about in sophomore English.

The Descendants: I enjoyed the movie and decided to pick up the book, which I enjoyed even more. When his estranged wife ends up comatose after an accident, Matthew finds himself suddenly solely responsible for the two daughters he's been only partially involved with during their childhoods and the way the three begin to actually bond, with wariness and scars but also hope, is really lovely.

The Shining: The movie, while a favorite of mine, skimps on the complicated father-son dynamic between Jack and Danny. Raised by a brutal man, Jack struggles to bring up Danny with more tenderness without really knowing how to go about doing that, and his feelings about his alcoholism are much more explicitly tied to the injury he inflicted on his toddler in a drunken rage than they are in the movie.

The Cider House Rules: This is a surrogate rather than biological relationship, but the bond between Wilbur and Homer is beautifully drawn, and Homer's struggle to define himself against his paternal figure is one of the central narrative threads.

The Namesake: When an Indian immigrant to America names his son Gogol after his favorite author, it comes to symbolize all the conflicts and tension between a father and son who love each other but don't really understand each other.

The Other Boleyn Girl: A very different look at parenthood, Thomas Boleyn sees his daughters Mary and Anne as pawns in his power games rather than people with thoughts and feelings. Of the two, Anne takes most after his ruthlessness and we all know how things ended up for her.

Sabriel: The first book in this series focuses on the love between a father and his daughter, the titular heroine, whose search for him drives the action and leads her to her destiny.

A Feast For Crows: Tywin Lannister is a pretty awful parent to all of his children, really: marrying off Cersei to Drunken Lout Robert Baratheon despite her pleas to not, trying to manipulate son Jaime into giving up his chosen profession so he can come be the heir, and refusing to see that second son Tyrion is the smartest of all of his children. I picked this particular entry because the way Tywin goes out is AMAZING.

The Return of the King: Even though it's only a side story, Faramir's desire to prove himself to his father, and his father's idolization of the fallen Boromir and refusal to see the better man that Faramir is, is heartbreaking.

The Little House on the Prairie: Here's the thing about this whole series, really. Laura hero-worships the shit out of her dad, and so when you're reading them as a kid you just buy into that, but when you think about it as an adult, Pa was the WORST. Ma does like 1000% of the work and Pa gets all the glory and that is definitely a very real parental dynamic.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Book 80: Lights Out In The Reptile House

"He turned from the sill, and his father sighed and eased up and down in his chair. He had a hernia, which had been aggravated when he'd been taken into custody. He refused to say how. He had disappeared for three days and then had been returned. He refused to talk about any of it. One of the policemen had jingled coins in his trouser pockets while waiting for him to get dressed. It occurred to Karel, standing there, that his father was always intentionally and unintentionally creating absences or leaving them behind him."

Rating: 4/10

Dates Read: August 20-22, 2016

Growing up, I loved dystopian stories. Nowadays, with the YA boom and the runaway popularity of The Hunger Games, you can't swing a stick without hitting a dystopian story written for teenagers. Back when I was that age, though, I lost myself in books like 1984 and A Brave New World. I still to this day reference 1984 what feels like at least once a month.

For the most part, though, the books I read focused on adults, even if they were on the younger end of adulthood. Childhood in a dystopian-esque environment wasn't really touched on in these classics of the genre, but Jim Shepard's Lights Out In The Reptile House puts young teenagers front and center. Set in an unnamed country, it's less of an active dystopia than a totalitarian state, but there are definite parallels with the world of 1984. There's a single Party that controls everything, there's a love story, there are sudden disappearances, there's a close relationship that springs up between the protagonist and a Party official. The protagonist in question is Karel Roeder, a shy loner who's about 14 or 15 years old. His mother has long since been gone, so he's being raised by his perpetually unemployed father. He works at the local zoo, at the reptile house, and nurses a desperate crush on his neighbor and classmate, Lina.

Karel wants nothing more than to be left alone, outside of politics and the machinations of the real world, to work with lizards and long for Lina. But the world won't let him be: his father disappears, he's there when a neighbor is dragged away by the secret police, both his crush and his boss at the reptile house are involved in the resistance, and then suddenly a mysterious party official, Kehr, takes over Karel's home. From there, it's a battle for Karel's metaphorical soul between Kehr and the resistance forces, and a destructive fire at the zoo pushes Karel towards his fate.

As difficult as I imagine it would be to exist as an adult in a highly-surveilled police state, I don't know that I'd ever thought of what it might be like to grow up like that. To know no other normal but the one where your neighbors or even your own family members vanish and don't return, where you're afraid almost in equal measure to inform or to not inform, knowing that if it were to be known that you didn't inform when you should have, there could be consequences for you and your loved ones. It's not hard to imagine that it would create teenagers like Karel, who keep their heads down and try to escape unnoticed. But it's also understandable that it would create teenagers like Lina, whose natural rebellious instinct and high spirits draw her inexorably towards the resistance movement. And who is right? Is it better to keep to yourself and try to stay safe or to fight back, potentially risking the lives of your loved ones as well as your own?

Despite the interesting thoughts and questions the book raises, though, it ultimately just wasn't anything special in and of itself. The prose and characterizations were adequate but nothing more than that, and the plot moved in fits and starts, with long periods of time waiting for something to happen, and then it would pick up, and then slow back down. This may apply especially for the squeamish, like me, but the graphic depiction of torture, especially at the end, was just stomach-turning. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of reading it, and although I think it's supposed to be pitched to the YA market, I wouldn't recommend it to a teenager, either. Just not worth the time. Read 1984 instead.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your most-referenced book?

One year ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Non-Fiction Books That I've Recently Added To My TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're looking at books in a particular genre we've recently added to our TBR. Since I read fairly widely across genres, the best one I could think of to highlight is non-fiction, which I love. 

Prince Charles: The first of many "British royalty" titles in my list. I've actually gotten more and more interested in Charles, who will have to be one of the oldest guys ever to inherit the throne when he does, right? He's spent his whole life in waiting to be king.

Hitler Ascent: WWII, on the other hand, is not one of my preferred reading topics. It's just never especially drawn me in. But in an age of creeping authoritarianism, the life of one of the most ruthless dictators to ever come to power is something I find myself wanting to explore.

The King Who Had To Go: I wrote about this one last week because it's both a recent addition and coming out later this year! It's about the British abdication crisis in the early 20th century.

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: Ann Helen Peterson's work for Buzzfeed is amazing (as is her TinyLetter), so I can't wait to read her book about being a woman.

The Hospital Always Wins: This is a memoir from a man who developed mental illness and was committed to a mental institution, and then tried to get out. The way civil commitment works (and just as often, doesn't work) is totally fascinating as an intersection of law and psychology.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes: As a native Michigander, I love the Great Lakes with my whole heart. It's 1/5th of the fresh water in the entire world, so we should ALL love the Great Lakes. They're a delicate and vital ecosystem and need to be protected.

A Magnificent Obsession: More British royalty! This about the love affair between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and how she and the country were impacted by his death.

Word By Word: I'm an avowed word nerd...I love language, and dictionaries are fascinating. We treat them as gatekeepers and guardians of purity, but they're not really meant to be that at all. They're meant to be reflections of language as it is used, so this look inside how a dictionary functions looks amazing.

Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: Analyzing data is a powerful tool, but I think sometimes gets treated too much like it's infallible. Data can be and often is manipulated to support predetermined conclusions (pay attention to the research methods portion of any study you read!). That being said, it can do some neat tricks, so this analytics take on literature sounds super interesting.

White Trash: Back into the Serious category, America prides itself on being a country of easy social movement (as opposed to the hereditary aristocracy of the Old World). But social class has a great deal of power and resonance here as well, even if we'd rather it didn't, and this book looks at how it's played out since the US started to exist.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book 79: Will Bill Donovan

 "Colorful stories about 'Wild Bill' became chitchat fare at Washington parties. To show off what his unit could do, he had agents steal secret documents from the office of an admiral he was having drinks with at one social event, then bring the papers to him to give them to the astounded officer before the party broke up."

Dates read: August 15-20, 2016

Rating: 3/10

One TV show I keep meaning to watch (but haven't gotten to yet) is The Americans. The story of Russian spies living undercover in the US during the days of the Cold War, it's supposed to be amazing. Spy stories have a natural appeal: the constant tension of trying to discover without being discovered is inherently compelling. Gadgets, cloak-and-dagger mechanations, disguises and false identities, double and triple's ready made drama for screens big and small.

Reality, of course, is always less glamorous, and Douglas C. Waller's Wild Bill Donovan tells the story of America's first real spymaster. Bill Donovan headed up the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor body for the Central Intelligence Agency. The book bills itself as a biography, but that's not strictly's as much a story about the OSS as it is about Donovan himself. A Medal of Honor and Purple Heart winner for his military service in World War I, the Republican Donovan was tapped by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Coordinator Of Information in the buildup to World War II to make sure that the various military intelligence services and the FBI were sharing information. Eventually Donovan expanded that role into his own agency, the OSS, that engaged in espionage and spy missions across Europe and Asia during the war years. It was briefly shuttered after the war, but a proposal Donovan had made beforehand to keep it running afterwards as the Cold War loomed eventually resulted in the CIA, which Donovan (much to his displeasure) was not chosen to run.

As you can tell by the low rating, I had significant issues with the book. I'm not all that into spy stories on the page (although I do enjoy them on the screen), and a large portion of the book deals with the spy missions that made up the early days of the OSS. It recounts these missions in what I found to be tedious detail, including agents and their code names and intricate ins-and-outs of how specific missions played out without there ever being much payoff for that kind of information dump. What I was interested in reading was a biography of a person, which only showed up at the beginning and the end. We get through Donovan's first 50 or so years (including a pretty scandalous social life that saw him marry a socialite above his class only to be relentlessly much so he was accused of having an affair with his own daughter in law!) in about 60 pages. There are some intriguing tidbits about his longtime feud with J. Edgar Hoover, but it's never developed. Then there's the endless boring espionage stuff, and finally we get more insight into Donovan's actual life after the OSS is disbanded, which focused mainly on a final diplomatic posting and then decline into dementia. Through it all, I never got a sense of an actual person. He's constantly described as charismatic and dashing, and while there's definitely a sense of a dynamic person created, I don't feel like I know anything about who Bill Donovan was as a human being. If you have any interest in an actual biography of the man, this is a pass. If you're interested in espionage during World War II, though, you will probably enjoy this book more than I did.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite spy show or movie?

One year ago, I was reading: Spinster