Monday, December 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: December 2018

And just like that, 2019 starts tomorrow! It's been a full year, both in life and books, and as always I'm so grateful that you've followed along with me. Starting a book blog and getting immersed in this part of the internet is up there with my better decisions, and I'm looking forward to continuing to connect with the wonderful people who make being a book nerd online so fun in the coming year!

In Books...

  • Messy: This is the sequel to a book I read last year, Spoiled, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. While we return to the Hollywood world of the first book, the focus shifts from Molly to her sister, wannabe actress Brooke, and best friend, aspiring writer Max. When Brooke hires Max to ghostwrite a dishy blog to give her career some buzz, the longtime high-school enemies gain a new understanding of each other...and then a boy gets in the middle. It's got the same breezy, fun, light tone as the first book, without the weird tonal issues. Not a lot to it, but an enjoyable easy read.
  • Once Upon A River: On a dark winter solstice night, a strange man and a little girl who seems to be dead burst into the door of a riverfront tavern renowned for its storytellers. When the little girl turns out to be alive, she's claimed by three families who each have a reason to believe she could be their own disappeared loved one. The girl herself never says a word, while each of the three try to figure out if she belongs to them...and if she does, how to keep her, while other local figures dig into the mystery of her arrival. Deeply focused on the art of storytelling, this wonderful book draws together pastiches of familiar tales, tells love stories, references folklore, and knows exactly when and how to get the reader emotionally invested in its fantastic characters. I loved it. 
  • Interpreter of Maladies: I've had this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories on my shelf for ages, but it was chosen for my book club so I finally got around to reading it! While I absolutely loved Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, this book suffered from the usual ailment of short stories- it was very uneven. Focused on stories about Indians, usually immigrants or going through some other state of transition, the opening and closing bits are gems but there were some that seemed well-written but ultimately pointless. 
  • The Goldfinch: Donna Tartt's The Secret History has been a favorite of mine ever since I read it in high school. This, her most recent work, got a ton of critical praise and a Pulitzer to boot! While I did really like this sprawling epic about a boy who steals a painting from a museum after a bombing that kills his mother and the way his life is forever effected by that day, I didn't love it. I thought it was a trifle long and sometimes overindulgent, though Tartt's prose kept me hooked.
  • The Prince of Tides: I was excited to get back to Pat Conroy after how much I loved The Lords of Discipline when I read it a few years ago. But this one, although it had its merits, was much more flawed for me. There were some writing tics that got really old really fast, and switching back and forth between the past and present didn't always work as well as Conroy thought/hoped. His writing about the South is powerful, though, and it came around to being a solid read.
  • The Island of the Colorblind: Neurologist Oliver Sacks travels to islands in the Pacific to explore groups with a high incidence of total colorblindness and a unique neurological condition, as well as explore some rare plant life. Unlike he usually does, Sacks never quite settles into a groove, and the extensive footnotes interrupt the narrative. 

In Life...

  • BFF2K18: My yearly trip with my high school besties took us to New Orleans this year! We had a great time exploring the city, partaking in the signature beverages, and eating food that was honestly amazing across the board. My fave might have been the Middle Eastern place inside a little corner market. Such good falafel. 

One Thing:

With the temperatures dropping, it's officially cozy season. Hands down the comfiest sweatpants I have ever put on my body are these pile-lined ones from Uniqlo. Thirty bucks seems a little on the high end for sweatpants but watch for sales, they are 100% worth your money even at full price! I love them so much I have them in three colors.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Bonus Reading Stats!

I've been keeping track of some basic stats on my own (which I put in my annual update post in October and am not going to replicate here) since I started this blog. From using Sarah's Rock Your Reading Tracker this year, though, I discovered some things about my reading that I'd never really considered and wanted to highlight some!

I read a lot of debuts: I have honestly never even considered this metric before, so it was interesting to see! If I'd had to venture a guess, I think I would have thought I didn't read many because I think of myself as preferring established authors, but it turns out they made up almost a third of my reading!

I need to up my diversity: I don't think of myself as someone super focused on white authors and/or white experiences in my reading; in fact, I'd like to think I made an effort to include own voices. But I am not nearly as good at this as I should be! Less than twenty percent of my reading this past year was by diverse authors.

I think most of the books I read are decent-to-good: I set my "successful book" standard at 7/10, and over 50% of the books I read get there (58% at that)! If you add in books I read that I rated 6/10, though, it goes up to over 75%, so the vast majority of my reading is on the good side of average.

I'm pretty good at picking books for myself by browsing and going for trusted authors: When I look at my top recommendation sources, trusted authors (ones whose work I've read and loved before) feature highly (nearly 25% of my successful books!), as do things I've picked up just while browsing the Kindle sale or a secondhand bookstore collection.

My favorite reads are likely to come from Penguin Random House: No other publisher came close to publishing as many of my successful books...just under one third came out of one their imprints! Only Harper Collins and Knopf Doubleday had over 10% from the remaining publishing houses.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Book 161: Valley of the Moon

"It is naive, I know, but you never think the unspeakable thing will happen to you. That is something that happens to other people. That is the accident you watch from the side of the road, unable to tear your eyes away from the mangled body in the street, a stranger, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, somebody's sister, somebody's wife. Somebody's beloved, but not yours. Never yours."  

Dates read: July 17-20, 2017

Rating: 7/10

What is "women's fiction"? It seems to mean mostly books written by women with a primarily female audience in mind. It concerns things like relationships and marriage, family and friendships. Basically, it treats women and the things that are important to many of us as serious topics worthy of literary output. But there's an undeniable prejudice against women's lit: books by and about women are considered books for women, while books by and about men are considered books for everyone. Women are asked to think critically and empathize with the viewpoints of men, and that's great, but why isn't the reverse true?

I started thinking about my own bias about female-driven books when I read Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud a while back, and I resolved to do better. And so I picked up Melanie Gideon's Valley of the Moon, a book about time travel with a romance element. The story is told in alternating viewpoint chapters: that of Joseph, living at the turn of the 20th century in Greengage, a kind of commune in the Bay Area, and that of Lux, a single mother of a biracial child living in 1975 San Francisco and working as a waitress to make ends meet. Joseph's community in the Valley of the Moon experiences the earthquake that rocked San Francisco in 1906, but in a very different way: they find themselves surrounded by a thick, poisonous fog, cutting them off completely from the outside world. Until one day, when Lux walks out of the fog and into their lives.

Lux, for her part, has just reluctantly shipped off her young son Benno to visit her estranged parents in New England for a month. She decides to go camp in the Valley of the Moon one night, and awakens to find herself surrounded by fog. She walks through, and meets Joseph, his wife Martha, his sister Fancy, and the rest of the people who make up Greengage. Joseph left his wealthy life in Europe and founded the community based on the principles his warm-hearted, egalitarian mother lived by: everyone works, and everyone's work is valued. Lux finds herself enjoying her time in the past, and develops a rough estimate of how time passes in Greengage relative to the real world, allowing her to make periodic visits without being missed.

Well, mostly. Two major developments in the book stem from time working differently than it was "supposed" to. If you're a reader who wants a logical explanation for the events of the books you read, this will likely be bothersome. But for me, I found it kind of refreshing that there was never any real attempt at an explanation of how or why the time travel happened or worked. It's a device that can cause many a plot hole if there's too strong an attempt to get into the mechanics of it, and I think that for all practical intents and purposes, you either have to buy into time travel in a story or put it down. Besides, Valley of the Moon isn't trying to tell a story about particle physics or whatever it might be that would make time travel possible. It's a story about two people, from two different times, building a connection.

The immediate comparison to be made for any time travel relationship story is The Time Traveler's Wife. Which is a high bar to clear, because many people (myself included) really liked that book. And while this one isn't as good, I was still surprised at how much I did enjoy it. It's not the type of book I'm usually drawn to, but Gideon paints interesting, complex characters (particularly Lux) and tells a compelling story about them. I liked the way she handled the romance, neatly sidestepping the insta-love that drives me up the wall about a lot of books in the genre and instead giving it time to develop organically. I also liked that it wasn't the most important element of the narrative: Lux's relationships with her family, friends and co-workers, and her own personal development, are all given plenty of space to grow. This novel isn't going to change anyone's world, but it's easy and pleasurable to read, and that's what counts at the end of the day. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...which genres do you shy away from that you think you should give another chance?

One year ago, I was reading: Rebecca

Two years ago, I was reading: The Guineveres

Three years ago, I was reading: Hood

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Classics You Shouldn't Be Intimidated By

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Since I shuffled a bunch of December topics, here's the freebie I was supposed to do like two weeks ago! Since today is Christmas and some of you may have gotten gift cards, and next week is New Years and some of you may be resolving to "read more classics" (a resolution I made for years before I actually started reading them), here are ten that aren't nearly as intimidating as you might think!

Emma: If you've seen Clueless, you know the basic gist of Emma. A wealthy, pretty, smart young woman decides to play matchmaker for a less fortunate friend, and experiences her own romantic complications. It's a great way to get introduced to Austen's sharp satire and wit.

Anna Karenina: Yes, it's super duper long. And yes, there are some boring parts about farming in rural Russia. But this book has a love rhombus that rivals any in a modern-day YA book and tells an absolutely fantastic story.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A modern feminist audience will recognize the slut-shaming, madonna/whore complex, and double standards that Thomas Hardy presents as the nonsense they are.

Great Expectations: Dickens was paid by the word, and it shows in all his work. But this, for me, is his best, and once you read it you'll recognize it as the source for a lot of other literature. It is funny and smart and full of incredible characters.

The Picture of Dorian Grey: This story about the rot that can fester beneath a perfectly curated facade and how people often mistake visual appeal for moral goodness is definitely relevant to our time.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Anyone who was a bookish child will likely recognize themselves in Francie Nolan, and her journey towards maturity is a deeply affecting one.

Jane Eyre: I'm not big into Gothic lit, so I avoided this one for a long time, but it turns out it's an amazing story about a young woman determined to make her way in the world despite many obstacles...and there is a truly WTF plot point that's fun to talk about!

1984: There's a reason this one gets referenced all the time a world where "alternate facts" are trumpeted, this has very real lessons for us all.

Vanity Fair: This book is lengthy and there are some boring-ish bits, but Becky Sharp's scheming her way up the social ladder is entertaining. The OG scammer.

The Age of Innocence: This is truly A+ drama about super rich people in Old New York having romantical problems.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Book 160: Crazy Rich Asians

"Annabel knew at that moment she had made all the right decisions for her daughter- enrolling her at Far Eastern Kindergarten, choosing Methodist Girls' School over Singapore American School, forcing her to go to Youth Fellowship at First Methodist even though they were Buddhists, and whisking her away to Cheltenham Ladies' College in England for proper finishing. Her daughter had grown up as one of these people- people of breeding and taste. There wasn't a single diamond over fifteen carats in this crowd, not a single Louis Vuitton anything, no one looking over your shoulder for bigger fish. This was a family gathering, not a networking opportunity. These people were so completely at ease, so well-mannered."

Dates read: July 14-17, 2017

Rating: 5/10

Meeting the parents for the first time is always a little unnerving. I remember being crushed when my first serious boyfriend's parents didn't really like me. In retrospect I think it was less about me and more about the fact that I was the first girl he'd really brought home and his mom was a little overprotective, but either way I felt the sting of disapproval. Other parent-meetings went generally better, and my in-laws I've gotten along with since I first met them, so it all turned out fine in the end. But that moment you're knocking at the door, holding your boyfriend's hand, waiting to see if the people on the other side are going to think you're good enough for their kid or not is pretty scary.

Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians takes that scenario and turns it up to 11. Rachel Chu and Nick Young, both professors in New York, have been dating for about two years when Nick's best friend invites him home to be the best man in his wedding, and he decides to bring Rachel along. Rachel knows that home for Nick is Singapore, but knows precious little else about what she's getting herself into. You see, Nick isn't just another guy from Singapore. He's the scion of an incredibly, obscenely rich family, and when you combine that with his good looks, he's one of the most eligible bachelors in Asia. And his mother's plans for him don't really feature a future with an Chinese-born but American-raised daughter of a middle-class single mother.

The focus of the book is Rachel living a deeply fish-out-of-water scenario among the jet set elites of the island, but it's structured in an alternating-chapter format, so we see the perspectives of Nick, his mother Eleanor scheming, and his best friend/cousin Astrid struggling with the decline of her own marriage to someone outside their class, and other players in the drama as well. There are twists and turns and more designer name-dropping than you can shake a stick at as the action propels toward the central wedding and its aftermath. While this does keep the plot moving forward and keeps any one storyline from getting too bogged down, it also makes it hard for there to be much character development, especially of our leads Nick and Rachel.

While this novel, with its satire and fluff, was a great palate-cleanser from the deep and meaningful Kavalier & Clay, it indulged far too much in one of my least favorite plot devices: relying on people not talking to each other to fuel the drama. In order to buy into the entire premise of the book, you have to believe that Rachel knew virtually nothing at all about Nick's family before she landed in Singapore...which means you'd have to believe that after two years in a serious, committed relationship, they've never actually discussed his family once despite the fact that he'd met her mother long before. And while I could buy that someone coming from a rich, private family wouldn't have splashed out all the details to his latest weekend fling, the idea that he wouldn't tell (and she wouldn't push, frankly) doesn't really hold up. There's another giant plot hole where we're meant to believe that even though Rachel has been bullied by a group of girls at a weekend retreat INCLUDING SOMEONE LEAVING A SLICED OPEN DEAD FISH IN HER ROOM AND THREATENING HER, that she never told her boyfriend because they were boning and she didn't want to "spoil the mood". That is not a healthy relationship and I do not want those people to end up together.

I know that this trope doesn't necessarily bother everyone though, and besides my own personal beef, it's a fun, sharp, biting satire about the lifestyles of extravagantly wealthy people. And as much money as those people have, they're still at the end of the day dealing with the same problems anyone is: figuring out family, wrestling with love and heartbreak, trying to find happiness. They're just doing it in outfits that cost more than most of us make in a year. I actually found Nick and Rachel's story pretty boring (which is why I doubt I'll pick up any of the sequels) but did really enjoy Astrid's parts of the narrative. The movie version of this got great reviews over the summer and even though I did not love the book, I'm interested in seeing it! It sounds like the virtues of the book translated well to the screen. While it didn't work for me, this would be a great book for someone that wants something fluffy that does hit some emotional points but never too hard.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your plot pet peeve?

One year ago, I was reading: The Power

Two years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Three years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Hope I Find Under My Christmas Tree

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Like last week, I've taken this TTT topic slightly out of order. But this week, I'm highlighting some of the books that have been on my to-purchase list a little long and would be a delight to find under the tree for me next week!

The Queen's Diamonds: I'll be real, this one has been on my to-buy list so long because it's expensive. But I looooove jewelry books, especially royal jewelry.

Ida Lupino: I've been interested in reading about this early female director since hearing about her on the You Must Remember This podcast, so this bio seems like a perfect place to start.

Poland, The First Thousand Years: I've gotten super into Eastern European history lately, and my great-grandpa came over from Poland, so this would be a great book to learn about my heritage!

Dominion: I have the first four parts of this comprehensive British history, so I'd like to add part five!

Call Them By Their True Names: I love Rebecca Solnit's clear, incisive writing.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Anne Helen Petersen is one of my very favorite pop culture writers...and classic Hollywood had drama to spare!

Waiting To Derail: Ryan Adams is my favorite musician and was a true mess during his early years, which this book chronicles.

The Female Persuasion: I enjoy Wolitzer's writing, and her latest got rave reviews from some of my most trusted bookish voices!

Gated: This YA fiction about a girl who grows up in a cult seems right up my alley, honestly.

Becoming: I listened to this on audio and it's soooooo good and I want it for my shelves!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book 159: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

"The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits could be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place."

Dates read: July 6-14, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Awards/Lists: Pulitzer Prize, New York Times bestseller

I hate plenty of pieces of beloved literature. I had a whole post on it quite soon after I started my blog, but to save you the effort of going and finding it and myself the cringing I'd surely do if I went back and read it (I like to think that I'm getting better at writing this thing as I go along), I'll give you some of the highlights. I got nothing from Gone With The Wind. I LOATHED The Catcher In The Rye. I find Pride & Prejudice the least compelling of the Austen I've read so far. I did not at all care for The Great Gatsby when I first read it (thankfully, I re-read it after high school and now it's a favorite). Part of it is that everyone has different tastes, and part of it is the hype that comes from reading something that so many people have told you is amazing. It creates expectations that are really hard to live up to.

When you have a novel that tops many critical lists as one of the best of the 21st century, is considered a modern Great American Novel, and has won the Pulitzer, that's a lot of hype. So I have to admit I was a little nervous to start Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. What if all the hype was just, well, hype and I'd be slogging through like 600 pages of something I couldn't connect with? But starting on like page 50, I turned to my husband and announced "this is a really good book that I'm reading". I proceeded to announce this to just about everyone who might possibly care and probably several people who didn't. The hype is real, guys. This book is amazing.

It begins with the arrival of 19 year-old Josef Kavalier in Brooklyn, where his 17 year-old cousin Sammy Klayman is startled to find that he has a Czechoslovakian cousin, much less one with whom he's suddenly expected to share a room. Joe has just been smuggled out of Prague, where it's becoming more and more dangerous to be a Jewish person as Hitler's power begins to rise, and he's determined to make the most from the sacrifices his family undertook on his behalf and get them out, too. When he notices his cousin's talent for drawing, along with his own knack for a catchy story, Sammy has an idea: comic books. Superman has enraptured American youth, and soon the team that dubs itself Kavalier and Clay has a hero of their own: The Escapist, who cannot be contained by lock or key. The book then follows the players through time, as their comics become quite popular indeed: the bond that grows between them, Joe's struggle to get his family back, both men falling in love for the first time, and the fallout from major losses that rock them.

The quality of the writing is so, so good. I'd read Chabon's more recent Moonglow several months prior to this, so I was prepared for a well-told, wide-ranging tale, but this blows that one out of the water. I've added several other of his works to my TBR, but I'd be shocked if they could measure up to this one. Not that he's not extremely talented, but this has the feel of a masterpiece. It's detailed and rich and involving...I moved through it at a pace significantly slower than I usually read because there was so much there and I didn't want to miss a single turn of phrase. There are several situations in the book that are fantastical to the point of almost being preposterous, but Chabon lays so much groundwork and is so sensitive to the emotional truth of his deeply-realized characters that he's earned the trust of the readers to go there and they very much work. It's an incredible book and I would recommend it to any human that enjoys reading.

Tell me, blog friends, what super-hyped books let you down?

One year ago, I was reading: The Girl in the Tower

Two years ago, I was reading: The Wonder

Three years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Winter 2018 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I'm actually switching up some of the December prompts, so technically this one isn't supposed to be until next week, but I want to do it now so I will! Anyways, without further ado, here's my upcoming reading schedule!

The Prince of Tides: Ever since I loved my first Conroy, I've been looking forward to reading more!

The Island of the Colorblind: I'm working my way through Oliver Sacks' backlist!

Margaret Beaufort: Ever since reading Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen, I've been super interested in the actual historical Margaret.

The Cuckoo's Calling: I love J.K. Rowling, and this crime novel got very good reviews even before it came out that she was writing it!

Astonish Me: I didn't love Maggie Shipstead's first novel, but I am a sucker for a ballet book, so here we are.

The Winter of the Witch: This final piece of the trilogy was supposed to come out earlier this year, but it got pushed back! Even if my ARC request doesn't get approved, I have this preordered.

Say Nothing: The Troubles are a historical era I know about mostly because of U2, not anything I learned in school, so trying to rectify that.

A Tale for the Time Being: I've heard great things about this novel dealing with the 2011 tsunami.

Hausfrau: This was a buzzy book several years ago, and I'm just now getting around to reading it!

The Mind's Eye: More Sacks backlog catch-up!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Book 158: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

"There's a highly circumscribed performance of femininity expected at each stage of a woman's life—a certain way her face and body should look. All of these ideals are some form of striving for youthfulness, but only to the extent that it's 'appropriate', and with any part of the body that fails its duty hidden from sight."

Dates read: July 4-6, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Like most girls of my age, when I was little, I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be. And for a while, I (and I assume most everyone else) believed it. But as you grow up, you realize that no matter what you are, girls are expected to not be "too much". Don't be too smart, that intimidates the boys. Don't be too ambitious, set goals that are high but not too high. Don't be too capable, guys like being the ones to "rescue" you from spiders and leaky faucets. Don't be too direct, people won't think you're very nice. Look how big this box is, you have all the room you need in here. Don't get out of it.

I've long-since looked forward to Anne Helen Petersen's work on Buzzfeed. She's so good at not just really looking under the surface of our cultural climate, especially in how we perceive and treat women, but explaining it in a compelling, understandable way. If you haven't read her Cool Girl essay, go read it right now because it's phenomenal. And so of course I was psyched when I found out she was writing a book, Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud, about women who transgress our social norms. Who among us hasn't stepped outside the lines, peeked out from inside the box and felt blowback for it? Who hasn't looked at the women who do get out there and live out there and regarded them with a curious mixture of revulsion and envy? Petersen highlights nine (well, ten technically) "unruly" women, focusing on how each in turn has challenged the expectations we place on lady people. Many of these challenges focus on the body, from Serena Williams' "too strong" frame to Madonna's refusal to cover up because she's "too old" to Caitlyn Jenner's "too queer" gender confirmation surgery. There are also women who make other choices they're not supposed to: Hilary Clinton might be smart and ambitious, but she's "too shrill", and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (the Broad City team) make us uncomfortable because they're "too gross".   

I wanted this book to be amazing and mind-blowing and incredible. And it was good! Petersen's writing is lively and insightful and serious without being ponderous. But I think maybe it would have worked better if it had been split into two volumes, one focusing on body and one focusing on personality. The essays felt like they skimmed the surface, taking a shallow dive into concepts that deserve deeper thought and analysis that I would have loved to read Petersen's take on. In writing about how Nicki Minaj is "too slutty", for example, Petersen refers to and gives some brief background on how black female bodies are sexualized and fetishized. But there's so much there that because the book needed to be a reasonable length and there are eight other subjects, she doesn't really have space to really give it the full context it deserves. I felt the same way, perhaps even more strongly, about the chapter on Jenner and trans issues. It would have felt problematic to leave the gender binary untouched entirely, but to only briefly interact with it doesn't feel quite right either. 

One essay, though, that really made me think was the piece about "too loud" Jennifer Weiner, who won't just quietly accept the judgment of her writing about women and their lives (which, to be perfectly honest, I don't personally much care for) as mere "chick lit" not to be taken seriously. I know I fall into that trap with my own reading, disdaining titles with pastel covers or shoes and shopping bags prominently displayed. It's snobbish, but if I'm being transparent here, I will say that it takes a lot to get me to take a second look at a title deemed "women's fiction". Which is actually pretty bullshit of me. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is just as good as Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, so why is the former a "girl book" and the latter a book for everyone? There's not a good reason why we treat stories about women's lives and problems, written by women, as lesser than books written by and about men. I love Nick Hornby, but he writes lighter fare that would probably be shrugged off if he and his protagonists were ladies. I need to do some work to think about my own internalized misogyny, especially when it comes to my reading choices.

Tell me, blog you think of books by and about women as less important than books by and about men?

One year ago, I was reading: The Games 
Two years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Three years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Wintry Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Now that it's December, it's basically wintertime (I know it's not like "official" winter for another couple weeks but it's cold already). So as the weather outside starts to get are some books where the weather is also frightful!

The Bear and the Nightingale: The first of the four books on this list that are set in Russia, where I basically assume it's always winter. I've picked books where the wintery-ness is an actual real part of the plot and not just assumed! A frost demon plays a central role here, so winter is very much present.

War and Peace: So much of this book happens during the winter, because...Russia.

City of Thieves: That this book, and its central search for eggs, takes place during the winter. The Siege of Leningrad winter, at that, so a bad one even by Russian standards.

Child 44: I read this several years ago now, so maybe it doesn't mostly take place during the winter? But I feel like I remember a lot of winter-ness and snow.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: All the Harry Potter books have Christmas scenes, but the Yule Ball in this one really makes the winter-ness of it memorable!

Lirael: Like to rest of the Clayr, Lirael lives in a glacier, in a world carved entirely from ice.

The Shining: The Torrances head to the Overlook to take care of the hotel during the long winter off-season, and anyone who's lived in an area where snow is real knows how isolating winter can be when you're snowed in.

In Cold Blood: The murder takes place on November 15th, which is technically fall rather than winter, but we all know mid-November is basically winter and there's something about this true crime classic that feels wintry to me.

Snow Falling On Cedars: The snow's right there in the title, and the image of the island community buried, even isolated under its weight, is resonant.

The Golden Compass: The portions of the book that take place at Svalbard, northern and wintry, are the ones that stick out the most in my memory.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: November 2018

What a month! When you work in politics, Novembers in even years are always big ones because of Election Day, and then there's the beginning of the holidays, and I'm actually on my way to my annual girls' trip with my high school besties right now! Busy end to the year around here.

In Books...

  • Seduction: I've been a longtime fan of Karina Longworth's podcast, You Must Remember This, so her book on Howard Hughes was one of my most-anticipated for the year. And it didn't disappoint, I totally loved it! The usual reliable research, insightful analysis, and solid storytelling...a must for fans of Old Hollywood!
  • In Defense of Food: I'm always skeptical when the premise for an argument is that the science in the given field is very conveniently means that you never have to prove your assertions. So while I do think there are some good ideas in here to consider, as a whole, I never quite bought in. 
  • The Gathering: The quality of the prose in this book, about a large Irish family coming together for the funeral of one of the siblings, is exquisite. But it's so busy being gorgeously-written that it forgets to tell a compelling story, and the whole thing feels very self-conciously "literary" in a way that I found off-putting.
  • Everything Under: This debut novel was written by the youngest-ever author to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And while the modern-day take on the Oedipus legend is solidly good, lushly atmospheric, and clearly the product of a very talented writer...I never got hooked into it the way I hoped I would. There were a couple of things that didn't quite come together for me, and kept it from greatness. 
  • Uncle Tungsten: This memoir focuses mainly on author Oliver Sacks' deep love for chemistry during his childhood, and honestly I hated chemistry in high school (sorry, Mom). But because it's Oliver Sacks, it's written with such warmth and humor and understanding that I rather enjoyed it. 
  • Dark Places: This novel explores a woman deeply damaged by the murder of her entire family when she was just seven...a crime for which her brother was convicted mostly on the strength of her testimony against him. When she becomes hard up for money, though, and agrees to investigate that night further for a local true crime enthusiast group, it throws everything she thought she knew into doubt. Bad people abound, including our protagonist, but they're interestingly bad and the novel is compelling.
  • The Possibilities: At first I was a little worried that this novel about a mother mourning the loss of her son, who connects with the girl her son was dating shortly after his death, would be too similar to Paint It Black, which I read only a couple months ago. Turns out, it's mostly similar to Kaui Hart Hemmings' own The Descendants, which shares its themes of families processing grief but does it better. It's fine, it just wasn't any more than that. 

In Life...

  • Election Day: When you do campaigns, this is a big deal. Months and months of stress and planning and work go in behind the scenes...and this year was a great one, because all our candidates won! I truly believe in our candidates and am thrilled they'll be in office!
  • The holidays began: Started off the holiday season with a nice long weekend, trying out a new dessert recipe for pumpkin bars, and a tasty dinner hosted by my in-laws. Thanksgiving weekend wasn't all good news though...both my husband and I watched our favorite football teams lose their rivalry games so that was a bummer. 

One Thing:

I'd seen both the masterpiece Judy Garland version and the kind-of-terrible Barbra Streisand version, so I had to round it out by finally seeing the Lady Gaga version of A Star Is Born this month. It's a familiar story, and Bradley Cooper's never been my favorite actor, so I was a little skeptical, but I really liked it! Cooper's never been better, Gaga was winning, and the songs were legitimately solid. I'm glad that I actually managed to see an awards contender before Christmas, and I'd honestly recommend it, it's very enjoyable!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book 157: My Antonia

"Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

Dates read: July 1-4, 2017

Rating: 5/10

There's something very powerful about childhood friendships. My best friends are still two girls that I've been friends with since elementary school, even though I live on the other side of the country from them...there's a special-ness to having history that's shared from the time you were really young, the way you got to know each other's parents at sleepovers, the field trips and dances and first relationships you were there for each other for. I feel like I know them, and they know me, in a way that would be almost impossible to replicate for people we've met later in our lives. We've been there with each other as we became adult people, through the fits and starts and steps backward and forward and sideways. It's a strong bond.

In Willa Cather's novel My Antonia, Jim Burden recounts his memories of Antonia Schimerda, the dearest friend of his youth. They arrive in rural Nebraska on the same train: orphaned ten year-old Jim going to live with his grandparents, fourteen year-old Antonia as part of her immigrant Bohemian (Czech) family. They tread similar but not identical tracks...while Jim's family is prosperous and steady, the Schimerdas quickly find themselves mired in poverty and struggle to make ends meet. But they live close to each other (by pioneer standards, anyways) and the two become close. Even when the Burdens move into town, Antonia's there before long, as a "hired girl" to do housekeeping. When Jim goes off to college, Antonia stays, and even so they easily pick up where they left off when they reconnect almost a decade later.

There's not much of a traditional story structure here. It's presented as an adult Jim's recollections of his friend, so it takes a loose and kind of winding way of presenting its narrative. I didn't take much issue with that, since the book is pretty short, honestly, and not super textually rich so it's not like it gets bogged down for the lack of standard-issue "rising action". Where I found myself losing interest was in the last third or so of the book, in which the lively Antonia largely vanishes and we're left mostly with Jim, who is pretty boring and whose straightforward path doesn't have any real tension. We see the world of the novel through Jim's eyes, but it's Antonia who gives it its animating force. I'd argue that Cather's strength isn't so much her prose, which didn't do much for me, but her characterizations. She imbues even relatively minor characters, like Otto the hired farmhand, or Antonia's mother, or fellow young immigrant woman Lena with a verve that makes them memorable. Too bad she couldn't do the same for her ostensible main character.

I will say that I'm glad this book was something I read as an adult instead of in high school. Teenage me would have HATED it because it's kind of boring, and while adult me would agree on the boring part, I was able to bring more life experience to bear that improved the reading of it, for me. I'm able to appreciate the way a significant friendship can loom large in your nostalgic reflections of childhood, and the hesitancy you can feel about reaching out even when you really want to reconnect. And one thing I did really enjoy and think still is criminally underrepresented in literature is the depiction of a genuine mixed gender friendship. As someone who's had strong, completely nonromantic friendships with men that I've really cherished, I feel like so often you only see those depicted as part of a family relationship or one of the two parties is gay, like there has to be some obstacle to "explain" why a man and a woman who enjoy spending time with each other would not want to sleep together. To see an actual friendship between a boy and a girl depicted as just that, in a novel published literally a century ago, is refreshing.

Tell me, blog you believe that men and women can be just friends?

One year ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth

Two years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Three years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Platonic Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! While romances may get the swoons, some of my favorite relationships between characters in books are families and friends. So without further ado, here are ten of my favorite platonic relationships I've read on the page!

Vasya and Dunya (The Bear and the Nightingale): The bond between the old nurse and her wild young charge is so warm and loving that it makes the horror of what happens near the end even worse.

Lyra and Iorek (The Golden Compass): The strange, sober bear king and the clever, high-spirited girl make a great team and develop a geniune closeness.

Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility): As the older sister myself, I identify with the steady Elinor, and I love her connection with her open-hearted little sister.

Mariam and Laila (A Thousand Splendid Suns): These "sister wives" suffer through an awful husband together and become each other's rock.

Siskel and Ebert (Life Itself): The real love Ebert felt for the co-anchor who was in many ways his opposite and with whom he sparred regularly just shines through the pages of his memoir.

Madeline, Celeste, and Jane (Big Little Lies): The way the friendships between the main women are built, the realism underlying even the more over-the-top aspects of the plot, really make this book work.

Sabriel and Mogget (Sabriel): The tension between these uneasy allies, the way they vacillate between mistrust and fondness, is an enjoyable aspect of this book and its sequels.

Meg and Charles Wallace (A Wrinkle in Time): The fierce, protective love Meg has for her otherworldly little brother, and his love for her, are the emotional core of this whole series.

Matilda and Miss Honey (Matilda): Obviously this book is wonderful, and this relationship is what makes it so great. Two kind-hearted, cruelly treated people who find in each other someone to care for!

Wilbur and Homer (The Cider House Rules): If this surrogate father and son relationship doesn't get you in the feels, you don't have any.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book 156: The Good German

"Clean. Hardworking. Just like us. Then they'd seen the camps, or at least the newsreels. How could they do it? The answer, the only one that made sense to them, was that they hadn't—somebody else had. But there wasn't anybody else. So they stopped asking."

Dates read: June 27- July 1, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Black and white thinking about the world is tempting. It would be easier that way, to separate it into good and bad without overlap or complication. But the world is a complication, and nearly everyone lives inside a shade of gray. Like most people, I like to think about myself as a good person, but of course (also like most people), I've been rude and thoughtless and even occasionally cruel. I mean girled a close friend in high school and made her cry. I stole a sweater that fell off of someone's laundry pile in college. I've said vicious things to my sister. Those aren't things a "good person" does, and the guilt I feel when I think about them inspires me to try to be better moving forward, to try to at least be on the lighter side of gray.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies found themselves trying to figure out how to deal with a whole mess of dark-gray-but-not-quite-black. There were a few obvious evildoers that were put on trial and executed, but what to do with the vast majority of German people who were on some level complicit with Nazi rule but didn't really do anything? And what about people who might have been more directly involved with the machinery of the Nazi state but have something valuable to offer? Joseph Kanon's The Good German is deeply steeped in these hard, serious questions, which serve as background to a complicated romance and a twisty thriller, both centering on American journalist Jake Geismar.

Geismar arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, but he's not new to the city. He lived and worked there for years, including the early years of the Nazi regime, before the war. His assignment might be to cover Potsdam, but he's really there to find Lena, the beautiful married woman with whom he was having a passionate affair before he left. But before he can find her, he finds something else: a young American soldier, floating dead in a lake with a bullethole through him and thousands of dollars still on him. His investigation of the dead man leads him back to Lena, but along with Lena come questions about her husband, Emil. Emil, a literal rocket scientist, has vanished and both the Americans and the Russians are very, very interested in what might have happened to him.

I've always enjoyed books that go right for the kind of moral relativity that can be very uncomfortable to contemplate, and The Good German is rife with it. Who is the titular good German anyways? Is it Lena and the thousands of others like her who tried to live their lives as normally as possible, pretending they didn't know what was happening, not speaking out or acting out against the regime but not really having done anything affirmatively to participate in it either? Is it someone like Emil, who did have more active participation but has skills that can help the victors achieve great things? Is it Emil's father, an academic who dropped out of public life with the rise of the Nazis but didn't do anything to actively resist? What about the former detective, very much a part of the Nazi state, but who helped his Jewish wife survive until she was spotted by someone else, and providing testimony against the woman who betrayed his wife to her death?

That the betrayer was, in this case, herself Jewish led me down a disturbing Wikipedia deep dive. I knew there was some level of individual Jewish cooperation with the Nazi state in situations like ghetto leadership, but I never knew there were Jewish people who helped "out" Jews that were in hiding to the Nazis. The novel's character seems to be loosely based on Stella Kubler, who initially began her work in order to protect her parents and husband, as well as herself. But even after they were deported to death camps, she continued to catch other Jews for two years! After serving time in Russia, she converted to Christianity and eventually ended up committing suicide but not until the 1990s. So I learned something completely new, which is always interesting.

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. It sounds like kind of a "dad book" (WWII-era, thriller, older male protagonist) but it's quite good. Kanon draws interesting characters and puts them into difficult situations, and with the thriller elements there's a nice balance of plot and character. I did get a little confused near the end trying to keep track of who was on what side and who was double crossing who, but on the whole the book was involving and prompted a lot of thought. I tend to be a little wary of World War II books because I feel like a lot of them go over the same territory again and again, but this one was a new take (for me, anyways), and is very much worth a read.

Tell me, blog you believe in moral relativity or is it more black and white for you?

One year ago, I was reading: In The Woods

Two years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Families I Would Not Want To Spend Thanksgiving With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Thanksgiving coming up this week, we're doing a turkey-day inspired freebie! So here's my spin on it...ten families I absolutely would not want to spend Thanksgiving with!

The Torrances (The Shining): The head of household is a violent alcoholic and/or possessed by an evil hotel, so...pass.

The Magnussons (White Oleander): Astrid's got a good heart, but Ingrid...I wouldn't trust anything she'd put on the table.

The Bertrams (Mansfield Park): Dad's kind of a doofus, Mom's useless, the girls are brats, the older brother's a dimwit, and Mrs. Norris is the wooooorst.

The Lamberts (The Corrections): Literally everyone in this book/family is a monster of selfishness.

The van Meters (Seating Arrangements): The family patriarch, Winn, seems like exactly the kind of dad who would get sulky if you didn't compliment his job cooking the turkey lavishly enough.

The Foxes (Where'd You Go Bernadette): Bee is a sweet kid, but Elgin and Bernadette are both so preoccupied with themselves and their own unhappiness that it would be a miserable experience.

The Kitteridges (Olive Kitteridge): Nothing about Olive's trip to New York to see her son made me think that there would be anything worthwhile about spending time around that.

The Chases (The Sisters Chase): Mary is a straight-up sociopath and no one needs that in their house to make the holidays more stressful.

The O'Malleys (The Highest Tide): The parents are like, Exhibit A in why staying together "for the kids" is not necessarily a good idea.

The Battistas (Vinegar Girl): The baby sister is deeply stupid, the older sister is a jerk, and the father is the type that would trade away his daughter in marriage to someone she hardly knows because it would make his own life easier. Yuck.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book 155: Spook

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

Dates read: June 24-27, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Two years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moby Dick tote: Such a cool design!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book 154: The Year of Living Biblically

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

Dates read: June 21-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: The Underground Railroad

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Book 153: Spoiled

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

Dates read: June 18-21, 2017

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: October 2018

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

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

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

One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Featuring Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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