Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book 92: David and Goliath

"We think of underdog victories as improbable events: that's why the story of David and Goliath has resonated so strongly all these years. But [the] point is that they aren't at all. Underdogs win all the time. Why, then, are we so shocked every time a David beats a Goliath? Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?"

Dates read: September 22-24, 2016

Rating: 7/10

I am a short, hourglassy, relatively attractive lady with long hair. I love to dress myself in styles that are hyper-feminine: florals and bright colors and the kind of 50s-style fit and flare silhouette that tends to flatter my figure. I am also a woman who has worked in male-dominated industries (the law and politics) for my adult professional career. A lot of dudes don't take me seriously because I'm a bubbly little thing that dresses like a cupcake. Professionally outmaneuvering and coming out ahead of these dudes is one of my great pleasures in life.

You see, me being the whole way that I am tends to not fit in with ideas, particularly men's ideas, about what kind of person should be taken seriously. And how our brains fail us in our perceptions and value judgments is what Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath is all about. Gladwell takes us through a variety of situations, from the titular story to classroom sizes to policing tactics and everything in between, to show us how our preconceived notions, particularly of weakness or strength, often fail us.

My interest in psychology has always tended towards mental illness and treatment, but cognitive psychology is fascinating in its own right. Our brains take in so much information constantly that we simply have to derive shortcuts in order to be at all efficient in processing it. Most of the time, these shortcuts work...but not all the time. My favorite portion of the book might actually be the opening section about the title pair. Gladwell walks us through how what we think of a young man with a slingshot against an enormous armored warrior is very different than how that same scenario would have played out in its own time and context. But our brains hear "young man with slingshot" and "enormous armored warrior" and create a whole picture, and while that will usually be close enough to the truth, it won't always be. It wasn't for David.

This was my first experience with Malcolm Gladwell's books, but before I read it I burned through the first season of his podcast "Revisionist History" on recommendation from my husband (which I also recommend to all of you, it's great). This sort of thing seems like it's his wheelhouse: cognition and perception and their quirks. He's got a distinctive and enjoyable authorial voice: I could "hear" him and his cadences in my head as I was reading the words on the page, which was odd but neat. If you like reading about how you might not know what you think you know, I'd recommend this book. It's a quick, interesting, and enjoyable read!

Tell me, blog friends: what's your favorite podcast?

One year ago, I was reading: Life Itself

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Month In The Life: August 2017

It's funny how the school year still feels so relevant even years after graduating from law school and with no kids. Like, there's no reason that the beginning of September (Friday!) should still have that feeling of anticipation and something new about to start. Of course, these are my own personal rhythms that I still feel the pull of: our local school district started classes about three weeks ago! But having grown up with the post-Labor Day starts, it's always this time of the year that I find myself thinking about the possibilities of what's ahead. Anyways, now that I've rambled on, here's what happened in August.

In Books...

  • Notes on a Scandal: This book features a Mary Kay Letournou-esque affair between a female teacher, Sheba, and her high school student, but that's only a secondary story. It's really about the way that an older teacher, Barbara, preys on Sheba in turn in a desperate attempt to ease her own loneliness. It's well-written and hard to put down.
  • Butterfly Boy: This memoir was a book club selection, and it was definitely a book I'd never have known about but for it being picked for us to read. Which turned out to be a good thing, because it's about growing up poor and Latino and gay and although there's some brutal stuff here, it's written beautifully. It definitely reminded me that I need to make it more of a point to read intersectionally.
  • Party Monster: This is kind of a memoir/true crime mash-up, given that it recounts author James St. James' experience as a part of the Club Kid scene in late 80s/early 90s NYC, and also the brutal murder of a drug dealer that brought it all crashing down. Turns out it's in large part a book about doing lots of drugs, which isn't actually all that interesting to read about, but St. James' voice is catty and witty enough to give it verve. 
  • Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?: This book has been pitched as "imagine that your funny, smart older sister was the Deputy Chief of Staff to Obama and was giving you life lessons" and that is an extremely accurate pitch. It's charming and smart and insightful and I really enjoyed it.
  • The Sense of an Ending: I tend to have relatively good luck with Booker Prize winners, and this book was more confirmation of that. A deeply average older English man is forced to look back into an emotionally charged period of his life (a breaking in a college relationship, followed relatively shortly by the suicide of a close friend) when he receives a mysterious bequest. I had issues with how the major female character was written, but the writing was incredible and the story is the kind that makes you want to turn right back to the beginning and start to read it again.
  • Charity Girl: This book was both interesting and not very good. It follows a young woman in the WWI era who sleeps with a soldier, contracts STDs from him, and then is forced by the government into a kind of detention facility for treatment and indoctrination, where she's held without charges for months. Her paramour is just treated and goes on with his life. WHICH IS AN ACTUAL THING THAT HAPPENED, which I had no idea about. 
  • Mildred Pierce: I'd seen the Joan Crawford movie a few years ago, but the book is a little different. The major themes, though, are the same. Mildred herself is a great character but the book is kind of meh, to be honest. It's fine but nothing special.
  • Stoner: This decades-old book got trendy a few years ago, but it was before I started book blogging so I was only aware of it after the fact. I can see why it has staying power,'s really a well-constructed, tightly edited, beautifully sad story of a deeply ordinary life. It was profoundly moving to me.  
  • The Idiot: This book was exceptionally well-written (I highlighted so many passages!), but I had a hard time getting into it. It follows Selin, a Turkish-American Harvard student during her freshman year as she has tries to figure out who she is, what she wants to do with herself, and how to talk to the senior she has a crush on. That makes it sound light and frivolous but it's not, there's a real depth to it. It gets stronger as it goes and by the end I was really invested in it.

In Life...

  • My mom came out to Nevada: My mom has been doing open water swims since I was in middle or high school, and so she came out to do one at Lake Tahoe last weekend! Living on the other side of the country from your family means not seeing them as much as you would like, but between our trip to Michigan at the end of July and her trip out here I've gotten lots of quality Mom time, which has been great. She finished first in her five-year age group and second in her ten-year one, which is pretty awesome if you ask me!  

One Thing:

I have always been a been proponent of the "if you find clothing you love, buy it in all the colors" line of thought. Even though it's still summer and still really really hot, fall/winter are right around the corner. This sweater from LL Bean is amazing...perfect to wear with leggings and cozy and now I own it in all the colors. That's not an affiliate link and I'll make no money if you click through, I just love the sweater.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Hidden Gems in Coming of Age Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: hidden gems in a genre of our choice. This is a bit of a struggle for me, since I my reading tends towards things that are fairly popular and I don't tend to read heavily in any particular genre. My most-read subgenre is probably coming-of-age stories, so I tried to pick ones that aren't super trendy, at least?

The Lords of Discipline: I know this was on my list last week as well but I don't care because it fits both topics. This was a relatively unusual novel, for my own reading, because it takes place at a military academy and is very heavy in the kind of boys-becoming-men narrative that I find mostly boring. But Conroy is a fantastic writer and this book is full of emotional truth.

The Marriage Plot: This is the least acclaimed (and honestly, the least good) of Eugenides's novels, but honestly even not that great for him is still a really good book. This one leaves the Detroit setting of his first two and traces the relationships/loose love triangle between three university students and has interesting things to say about figuring out who you are.

About A Boy: There are two parallel growing-up narratives an actual young teenager and one an overgrown teenager, and Nick Hornby has a wonderful touch for these kind of stories (he also wrote the screenplay for An Education, a favorite movie of mine).

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: This book about a Justin Bieber-esque preteen idol trying to figure out who he actually is and what he actually wants creates a voice that pulls at your heartstrings, because he's simultaneously so naive in some ways and jaded in others.

City of Thieves: This is a buddy road-trip book pairing up a dorky teenager and an older, suave solider in a decidedly grim setting (the siege of Leningrad), which keeps it from getting either too light or too serious, and even though it's not hard to see the end coming it still has a big impact.

The Panopticon: Anais is just a teenager, but she's already a hardened vet of "the system" by the time we meet her, and we both explore her past to see how she came to be who she is and watch her decide how she's going to go forward as she balances between being the worst version of herself or trying for something better.

The Big Rewind: This one is a bit of a stretch for coming-of-age, but our Brooklyn hipster heroine Jett's revisiting of her past relationships and efforts to get past her own damage and grow put it there for me. This book is charming.

Many Waters: This least-known chapter of Madeline L'Engle's Time Quartet focuses on the "normal" twin brothers Sandy and Dennys and how they're impacted by their own adventure: getting sent back into a Biblical story. I love all these books but have a special fondness for this one.

The Guineveres: Four young women, all named Guinevere, spend their teenage years "with the church" being raised by nuns. Each of them is there for a different reason, and each of them has a different response to the stress of the situation. A really lovely book.

Green Girl: This is a book with an odd, non-traditional structure, but the story it tells about a young American woman who recently lost her mother trying to make her way in London has a visceral impact if you can get into it.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Book 91: The Professor and the Madman

"Defining words properly is a fine and peculiar craft. There are rules—a word (to take a noun as an example) must first be defined according to the class of things to which it belongs (mammal, quadruped), and then differentiated from other members of that class (bovine, female). There must be no words in the definition that are more complicated or less likely to be known than the word being defined. The definition must say what something is, and not what it is not."

Dates read: September 19-22, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Awards/Lists: New York Times Bestseller

The term "mentally ill" gets tossed around all the time in political debates. Whether the mentally ill should be permitted to have access to guns, or how to deal with mental illness among homeless or incarcerated populations. Sometimes it feels like people forget how actually broad the term is: someone who's mentally ill can be anorexic, or depressed, or have uncontrollable compulsions to wash their hands. One in five people will experience an episode of mental illness (usually related to depression or anxiety) throughout their lifetime. I personally have a history of major depressive disorder. To be mentally ill is so much more than being "crazy", and no matter what form it takes, people who are mentally ill are first and foremost, well, people. It's just one facet of who a person is.

Dr. W. C. Minor, whose story is at the center of Simon Winchester's The Professor and The Madman, does have the kind of mental illness that most people think of when they hear the term. From the symptoms that are described in the book, he would most likely today be classified as a paranoid schizophrenic. An intelligent and sophisticated man, he was a surgeon and a member of the Union Army during the Civil War before he moved to the UK and his delusions of being tormented in his sleep led him to fatally shoot an innocent man. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a British asylum for most of the rest of his life. But he didn't stop being an educated man solely by virtue of his condition, and with his endless spare time he got himself involved in a one-of-a-kind project: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Winchester weaves together the tale of Dr. Minor and the history of dictionaries leading up to the creation of the OED. English is a language quite different than many of the other European ones in the way it has grown explosively and liberally borrowed from others, and for quite a long time there was no real attempt to catalog it: a few volumes that sought to define the most unusual words existed, but an actual dictionary of ALL the words with ALL their meanings didn't really happen until the OED. It took decades of work and thousands of volunteers to develop the dictionary, and Minor's contribution thereto was significant indeed...enough to merit a dedication in the finished product even.

Dr. Minor was seriously ill and a criminal at that, but we should know by now that these things do not per se mean that someone is incapable of being a productive member of society. That being said, there is a shock value there: we don't usually think of murderers as the kind of people who wind up knee-deep in dictionary development. Winchester chooses to emphasize Minor's humanity rather than sensationalize his crime, taking us through his life as the son of missionaries in Sri Lanka (there's an odd bit of colonialism where Winchester is weirdly attached to the British name of Ceylon) through the horrors he would have seen as a medical professional in the Civil War and his subsequent mental decline, leading down to his crime and its punishment, and then wrapping up with his long years in institutional care. Even though because of the time in history, that care consisted mostly of a relatively gentle confinement rather than actual treatment, it still should be enough to remind us that there are probably plenty of people in jail or psychiatric hospitals today who do have something to offer the world.

The book itself is solid but not really exceptional in any way. It's an interesting story and well-told, but it wasn't an especially memorable or special read. For non-fiction readers or people interested in dictionary development, it's definitely a good choice, but I don't know that I'd recommend going out of one's way to read it if this sort of thing doesn't usually do it for you.

Tell me, blog often do you use the dictionary?

One year ago today, I was reading: Yesternight

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Set In/Around School

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! It's Back To School week, and so this week we're picking a school-themed list of our own choosing to share. I decided to highlight some books that are set at school, whether that be high school or college. It also made me think about my own last first day of school and that was somehow eight years ago and I'm really old, guys.

Speak: I first read this book when I was a high school freshman and I think every high schooler, boys and girls alike, should read it. Smart and insightful and makes a big impact.

The Secret History: An all-time favorite (sorry not sorry that this book is on like a million of my lists), this book focuses on a small clique of Classics students at a little liberal arts college in the Northeast and the murder they commit and it's amazing.

The Serpent King: Three high-school outcasts bond together to get through their senior year in rural Tennessee and this takes you right back to the loneliness and confusion and hope of that time of life.

The Lords of Discipline: Author Pat Conroy's own experiences at The Citadel, the military academy, inform this incredible, heartbreaking book about a recruit's reflections on his past and experiences during the year he's about to graduate.

Chemistry: The sole grad school book on this list, this recent release is about a young woman working on her Ph.D. who finds herself questioning whether it, and the rest of the life she's arranged for herself, is what she actually wants. A great book for college and grad students.

Spoiled: Back to high school for this frothy, fun book about two sisters at a snooty L.A. private school trying to figure out who they are, and want to be, in the public eye. It's packed with high-school-movie tropes in the best possible way.

Friday Night Lights: This nonfiction book looks at high school through the lens of high-visibility this case, football in Texas. Unflinching look at the incredible pressure that these teenagers exist under while trying to do the same school stuff everyone else is doing too.

The Last Picture Show: This book also features sports as a motif, but it's more about the relationships between high school seniors, and growing up in a dying town, and wanting to escape but being afraid of escaping at the same time. It's really heartwrenching, honestly.

Harry Potter: Okay, this isn't American schooling, but how could I leave out the Harry Potter series? They all take place in and around the wizarding school of Hogwarts and they're the best.

Daughters of Eve: I was recently reminded of this Lois Duncan book that I loved in high school, which is campy delight. It's about a teacher getting together a group of female students to be a sisterhood support club...or are they actually just out to destroy men? Well, not men so much as garbage people who happen to be male. SO over the top and ridiculous.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Book 90: Neon Green

"It was his birthday after all, and this was who he was- a committed environmentalist. The very idea filled him with energy. His life was a fight. He was a fighter, no apologies and no breaks for inconvenience. Of course he knew that mopping up the spill would probably do nothing, that it was an infinitesimal smidgen in the grand scheme of things, but his fight was no less important when it was symbolic. Symbols added up to something." 

Dates read: September 17-19, 2016

Rating: 5/10

What is history? Specifically, what is historical fiction? I've been trying to wrestle my head around it for a while. If a book was written as contemporary literature 100 years ago, is it now historical fiction? On a related note, I think we'd all agree that a book set 50 years ago is historical fiction...but what about 40? 30? 20? 10? Or is it based on set events? Is a pre-9/11 book set in America historical fiction, since there was a significant cultural shift that occurred after that point? Is it within a lifetime? Whose? As an almost-32-year-old, I don't like to think about my own lifetime as encompassing history, but to a 14 year-old, a childhood before smart phones may well be.

Set two decades ago, before widespread home computing/internet access and cell phones, Margaret Wappler's Neon Green seems like it can be considered historical fiction relatively safely. Well, maybe, because there's an important difference: in Wappler's world, Earth has been visited by alien life from Jupiter since the early period of the Reagan administration. While the details are kept carefully shrouded (a time before Wikileaks!), it's become normalized enough that you can send in an application to be visited by an alien ship. No lifeforms will emerge, but it looks really cool on your lawn for several months. You have to be at least 16 to apply, which means that Gabe Allen is just old enough to secure a ship for his family's yard. The problem is that his parents, especially his father, are definitely not on board with it.

Parents Ernest and Cynthia Allen are both staunch environmentalists: Cynthia has channeled her passion into an environmental law-focused career, while Ernest does freelance environmental consulting. They're the early-90s-crunchy-granola kind of people that do most of their shopping at the food co-op and brought their own bags long before it was trendy. They live a cozy little life, mostly pretty happy, in a cozy little neighborhood outside Chicago until two things happen in fairly close succession: the spaceship arrives, and Cynthia's advanced brain cancer is discovered. The confluence of these events sends Ernest over the deep edge.

Despite the aliens, this isn't really a science fiction story. It's a story about a family in particular, about a man in crisis, because Ernest is really at the heart of the narrative. The social changes around families and gender roles that took place throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s eroded a lot of markers of traditional masculinity, and not even hippy-dippy types like Ernest are immune from the angst that can bring. It's easy to see that his reaction to the spaceship is rooted mostly in his inability to control what he thinks of as his home turf, and the ways in which he tries to cope with his wife's health situation only further demonstrate that he's spinning out. Both son Gabe and daughter Alison deal with their grief about their mother's grim prognosis in their own different ways, and before long the once mostly happy family is unrecognizable from what it used to be.

It's well-written enough, but for me, there wasn't enough "there" there. It's the kind of character-driven family drama that I tend to enjoy, but crucial to these kinds of books is a connection built to the characters. The story suffers for its focus on Ernest, whose masculinity-based identity crisis isn't particularly compelling. I thought Alison's story was much more interesting but incredibly underdeveloped, and Gabe and Cynthia herself could have also done with more attention paid to them. This didn't "feel" like a book written by a woman, to me: thinking that a middle-aged guy's largely self-inflicted sufferings are worth a preponderance of the reader's time and energy doesn't usually tend to be a mistake female writers make. I enjoyed the 90s throwback nostalgia, but otherwise found this pretty skippable.

Tell me, blog you think we'll make contact with aliens within your lifetime?

One year ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Recommendations For Feminists

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! I am so excited that Top Ten Tuesday is back, y'all! Putting these lists together is honestly so fun, both to do for my own blog and reading what other people have come up with. Anyways, today's topic is recommendations for a particular group of people, and I thought I'd put together some recommendations for feminists. I've tried to mix it up with both fiction and nonfiction so no matter what you read, you can find something here.

Bossypants: Tina Fey's book is one of the few comedian-writes-collection-of-amusing-essays that I thought actually lived up to the hype. It's not 100% on, but it's funny and insightful and a must-read for being an ambitious female in the world.

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: This recently-published collection of essays from Buzzfeed's peerless Anne Helen Petersen profiles the ways in which famous women exemplify culture prohibitions against being too much, and how they've escaped (or in some cases, haven't) from the consequences for violation. Anyone interested in both pop culture and feminism should get their paws on this.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: She was Queen of England for only about 1000 days hundreds of years ago but she's been a subject of fascination ever since. Susan Bordo chronicles the ways that the perception of this long-ago royal have changed over time, reflecting overall shifts in how women are treated.

Under The Banner of Heaven: I considered adding Reading Lolita in Tehran instead of this book here, in the "religious fundamentalism leading to oppression of women" slot. But I think it's easy for white people in the Western world to look at a Muslim country in the Middle East and point the finger at them for oppressing women. It happens right here in the US, too. This is the best Krakauer, for my money.

My Horizontal Life: Sure, it's easy to respect "good" women, like Tina Fey, who for all her genuine feminist bona fides is still quite traditional in many ways. It's more challenging to look at a woman like Chelsea Handler, who is perceived as having slept her way into her E! show that she did before her current Netflix gig. But feminism includes women who don't necessarily do things the way other women approve of, and Handler's stories about being drunk and on drugs and sleeping with who she wanted when she wanted are pretty funny in her first memoir.

The Handmaid's Tale: This feminist classic has been recently revitalized by the Hulu production of it, and none too soon because it's just as relevant as when it was first published. Most chilling is the way that not only men control women, but the ways in which other women's cooperation is necessary and so easily given.

Americanah: Being a woman in the world is one thing, but we can't forget the necessity of considering how other identities intersect with femaleness. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel focuses on an African female experience, both in Africa and America, and her protagonist Ifemelu is as rich and complicated and ambiguous a character as any ever written, regardless of gender.

So Big: A recent book club exploration of a Willa Cather novel reminded me of how much I liked this book, which won Edna Ferber a Pulitzer Prize. She crafts a story of a woman who faces long odds and disappointments and changes in fate with good humor and cheer, without being saccharine about it, and it's a testament to women's perseverance.

The Group: For better or worse, many women I know are as much defined by their friendships as they are by their romantic relationships. It's not really a progressive view of femaleness in that the women involved are often catty, but it's worth reminding ourselves that the struggles we face (work or family life, breast or bottle) are ones that have been around for generations.

Wild Magic: For a younger reader wanting to explore female-driven adventures, any Tamora Pierce series will do. But for me, the series kicked off by this book was my favorite...I've always loved animals, so Daine's brand of nature-based power was right up my alley.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book 89: The Wolf In The Attic

"I'm getting too big for Pie, Pa says. I like it when he tells me I'm growing up, but I won't let her go. She's my best friend, if a friend is someone you can tell things to, and sit quiet with, and hug in the dark of the night. He doesn't like her. She still has the burn marks on her from that last terrible day, when we were hemmed in between the fire and the sea. The day mama died."

Dates read: September 14-17, 2016

Rating: 5/10

As I'm writing this (late September 2016), there's still a lot of rhetoric around refugees...whether they should be resettled here, what kind of security controls there should be, that kind of thing. Allowing anyone to enter the country necessarily comes with some measure of risk and in a world where terrorism is increasingly present in areas where it hasn't been, I understand the knee-jerk impulse towards fear. But once you start thinking about what it might be like to be a refugee, to be so traumatized and at-risk that you need to leave behind everything you've ever known and loved...I personally can't even imagine going through that. Refugees deserve our sympathy and support.

The refugee experience is a major thread in Paul Kearney's The Wolf In The Attic. Young Anna Francis left behind her home, her language, whatever might remain of her family, and even her original name behind when she and her father fled Smyrna. They anglicized their name and fled to England, and although Anna's father has a hard time completely leaving Greece behind, he tries his best to raise Anna like an English girl. We get glimpses at what used to be, a happy and prosperous family of four living by the sea, making the reality of what is seem even harsher in comparison: eating nothing but bread and butter for days at a time to try to scrimp up enough money to stay current on rent, unable to afford properly fitting shoes for Anna, hardly able to keep the fireplace lit for heat in the winter.

Anna is about to become a teenager, but she's still clinging to childhood (symbolized in the form of a beloved doll, a gift from her long-gone brother, which she keeps close all the time). For me, this is a characterization that works...the experiences she's suffered through would definitely make one leery of change, of adulthood in all of its complexity. But thrown into adulthood she is when her father dies and she has nowhere to go but the workhouse. Nowhere, that is, but to a band of travelers (they're not exactly Romani, but a similar kind of idea) that she'd previously met when exploring the woods near her home. This is where the story veers away from a refugee tale and into magical realism, because Anna finds herself drawn into the centuries-long skirmish between her new friends (who are hiding some secrets) and a sect descended from the Druids. There's even the devil hisownself in the mix for her soul. Where Anna ends up with, and how, make up the balance of the story.

The back half of the story, honestly, was where it lost me. Kearney creates a compelling world for Anna in Oxford...some familiar literary giants even show up, but in a way that I thought was organic and worked naturally within the narrative. The story of Anna and her father and how they got into the circumstances they're in is well-crafted and heartfelt, and Anna is an easy character to connect with: a pre-teen who is bold and curious but not indomitable, and who finds herself just wrenchingly alone when her father is gone. Her first few encounters with the travelers set the stage well for her to flee to them in her time of need. I actually loved the way her encounters with the Devil were written...eerie and unsettling and emphasizing just how vulnerable she is. But the greater war between the travelers and the Druids, how it all plays just fell totally flat for me. It felt like Kearney didn't have a great idea for his own backstory and so provided only minimal details in the hopes that the reader would infer a richer background than is there. It's a promising premise and has merit but is torpedoed by its own last third.

Tell me, blog do you feel about "famous person" cameos in literature?

One year ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book 88: Smoke

"The laws of Smoke are complex. Not every lie will trigger it. A fleeting thought of evil may pass unseen; a fib, an excuse, a piece of flattery. Sometimes you can lie quite outrageously and find yourself spared. Everyone knows the feeling, knows it from childhood: of being questioned by your mother, or your governess, by the house tutor; of articulating a lie, pushing it carefully past the threshold of your lips, your palms sweaty, your guts coiled into knots, your chin raised in false confidence; and then, the sweet balm of relief when the Smoke does not come."

Dates read: September 10-14, 2016

Rating: 5/10

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one there whose trust in a person that seemed well-founded turned around and bit them straight in the tuchus. Thankfully, it hasn't happened to me in a while, but I'm sure we've all been burned a time or two by someone who turned out to be not what they seemed. If high school alone doesn't teach you that nice-seeming people can be actually pretty awful (some of us ourselves had our moments of being pretty awful in high school), life always seems to get around to that one at some point. Wouldn't it be nice if there was an easy way to tell who was a good person and who wasn't?

Dan Vyleta's Smoke presents us with an alternative reality historical fiction. In the novel's world, during the Middle Ages, humans evolved a gland inside our livers that produces Smoke...actual, literal smoke that escapes the body (mostly through the pores, as well as the mouth and nose) when someone sins. Well, it's more complicated than that, but that's how we're introduced to it anyways. Aristocrats send their offspring to exclusive schools to learn to control their thoughts and feelings and the resultant Smoke, but the cities, like London (in and around which this book is set), are just thick with it.

At first it seems like an English boarding school book: we're introduced to best friends Charlie and Thomas and resident bully Julius. Thomas and Charlie are a bit of an odd couple: while Charlie is fundamentally decent and well-liked for his openness and good nature, Thomas is proud and defensive, a permanent outsider who can't get his head around the idea that letting well enough alone might be a virtue. We're introduced to their professors and other school leadership, and get a sense of the politics of this world, so similar but different than our own. But when the boys go to visit a relative of Thomas's for Christmas, they find themselves (and Thomas' cousin, Livia) much, much deeper in complicated moral and theological debates than they ever could have imagined.

Up until about three quarters of the way through the book, I was really liking it. Vyleta builds an intricate world and creates characters who hold our interest (the fact that he rotates perspectives fairly frequently helps keep it fresh and give us new information about the world they live in). But feels like he's really trying to raise the stakes super high to give us a big dramatic finale, but he raises them so high that it becomes completely over-the-top and any actual emotional impact it might make is blunted. The book has some similarities in concept to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series (a longtime favorite of mine), and the ending feels reminiscent in a way, but instead of three books worth of storytelling to get us really invested in the outcome, he tries to shove it all into one. It doesn't work.

And since I was pulled out of the story at the end by the ridiculous quality it took on, it made me see other plot issues that I'd had issues with. One of the most glaring, to me, was that while there were several references made to Smoke differing in color and quality according to the underlying emotion that produced it, it was never actually laid out what corresponded to what. I had an e-ARC (electronic advanced reader's copy) so maybe that was changed in the final printing, but I found that personally bothersome. At the end of the day, this is about 75% of a good book but 25% of a pretty bad one. I wouldn't recommend it, but I wouldn't warn anyone away from it either.

Tell me, blog friends...does an iffy ending derail a book for you, too?

One year ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita In Tehran