Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book 155: Spook

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

Dates read: June 24-27, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moby Dick tote: Such a cool design!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book 154: The Year of Living Biblically

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

Dates read: June 21-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Book 153: Spoiled

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

Dates read: June 18-21, 2017

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: October 2018

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

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

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

One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Featuring Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book 152: Shattered

"It was hard enough to run against Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, the Republican National Committee, the FBI, the House Benghazi Committee, and the national media—plus slippery-lipped Joe Biden on any given day—without her own team screwing things up. The one person with whom she didn't seem particularly upset: herself. No one who drew a salary from the campaign would tell her that. It was a self-signed death warrant to raise a question about Hilary's competence—to her or anyone else—in loyalty-obsessed Clintonworld."

Dates read: June 14-18, 2017

Rating: 7/10

On November 8, 2016, my husband and I had plans to go to an election party with a colleague of ours. He had actually left work a little early to go help set up, and I was supposed to join him after I got out of the office. Being on the West Coast, polls start to close on the other side of the country at 4 PM our time, and so by the time I got home and took the dog for a walk and made myself a little dinner, results were starting to come in. I watched, stunned, as things started to tip away from what had seemed a certain Clinton victory. Our pug is not the cuddliest little guy (he's almost kind of like a cat in that he likes to be near us but not right on top of us), but he got pulled into emergency snuggle duty that night. After he pleaded with me to come out at least for a bit, I dropped by the party, but we didn't linger. Sometime around 11 we just turned it off. We had to go to work the next day, after all.

And so the world went on, and the thinkpieces about how it had happened, how what seemed like a sure shot had gone south, commenced. Journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes had spent several months in close contact with the campaign, intending to write a book about how we got our first female president of the United States. Instead, they wrote Shattered, about what went wrong. There isn't a single, easy answer. There were a lot of things, none of which alone would likely have doomed her, but they didn't happen alone: Hilary's own decision-making pre-campaign regarding paid speeches, leaving her vulnerable to the primary challenge from the left she got from Senator Bernie Sanders, the decision to employ Robby Mook as campaign manager and tilt towards his preferred analytics instead of traditional tools like polls and persuasive field efforts, the bloated bureaucracy of Clintonland and infighting among the inner circle, the server, the emails, James Comey, Anthony Weiner, all of it and more happened in overlapping waves. And so, much like that other unsinkable ship, the S.S. Clinton went under.

Allen and Parnes were able to get deep access because they spoke to most of their sources as background, which means lot of the information isn't tied to a particular person. Since you know you won't be identified, you feel comfortable speaking more freely without fear of recrimination for divulging sensitive details. And the details Allen and Parnes got tell quite the story: what seemed like an unstoppable behemoth from the outside was very messy from the inside. Although no one forgot their main enemy was outside, the warring power centers within found plenty of time and energy to skirmish among themselves. Healthy competition between allies can be productive, but this variety was decidedly not. The Clintons themselves were not a part of the solution...from the perspective in the book, they seem largely at a remove from the campaign and disinclined to help clear lines of authority be drawn. Hillary's unwillingness to force Huma Abedin to take a step back from her established role as gatekeeper and be in more direct contact with her own campaign, her refusal to either place all her faith in either the data-driven Mook or old-school politico John Podesta, created a situation in which no one was really at the helm to navigate through very tricky waters indeed.

This book was an especially interesting read for me personally because I know people who worked at a relatively high level on the campaign (at least one of whom is called out by name). While the book focuses strongly on upper-level turmoil, they largely had positive individual experiences. Which helped me keep some of the "doom and gloom" tone that the book seemed to set around the campaign in perspective. Campaigns are messy and stressful and hard. And the way this one was run didn't help ameliorate that. At the end of the day, this book left me wishing that it could have turned out better, because the candidate would have served the office well. I'd recommend this book highly, I thought it was interesting and informative.

One year ago, I was reading: The Book Thief (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Three years ago, I was reading: The Nazi Officer's Wife

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Antiheroes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is actually a villain freebie, so I decided to make a list of the best heroes-of-the-book that are actually the villains (which to be honest, usually means they're more interesting).

Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair): Becky is an unapologetic relentless social climber who thinks nothing of manipulating wealthy men to get their affection and is about a billion times more compelling than her sweet-natured friend Amelia.

Amy Dunne (Gone Girl): She and her husband Nick are both awful people, but honestly I'm always glad that Amy gets away with it.

Jaime Lannister (A Storm of Swords): Jaime was a fairly straightforward villain in the first two books, but when we start getting his perspective in the third one...he's still terrible but he's much more sympathetic.

Nick Naylor (Thank You For Smoking): The gleeful amorality with which this tobacco lobbyist/spokeman plies his trade is delightful.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita): He preys on a child and actively seeks to isolate her so he can continue to take advantage of her. But there's something captivating about him, a testament to Nabokov's skill as a writer.

Hannibal Lector (The Silence of the Lambs): He's suave and sophisticated and totally brilliant and eats people. Shame about the last.

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo): Lisbeth is violent and doesn't care about most people. She's amazing and terrifying and enthralling.

Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall): He's basically the male version of Becky Sharp in his eagerness to throw morality aside to climb the ladder and then stay at the top, except he's real and since he's a dude he doesn't have to play the marriage game to get power.

Henry Winter (The Secret History): He's rich, obscenely smart, and dynamic, and it's easy to see him through Richard's enchanted eyes and forget that he killed a person accidentally and then killed his own friend when he thought he might have to face consequences for the first death.

Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange): Alex so enjoys his life of rampaging around fulfilling every cruel urge he has that you almost feel a little sad when he's brainwashed into being unable to do it anymore. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book 151: The Man Without A Face

"Putin loved the Soviet Union, and he loved its KGB, and when he had power of his own, effectively running the financial system of the country's second-largest city, he wanted to build a system just like them. It would be a closed system, a system built on total control—especially control over the flow of information and the flow of money. It would be a system that aimed to exclude dissent and would crush it if it appeared."

Dates read: June 9-14, 2017

Rating: 7/10

There are two kinds of people, in my experience working in politics, who decide to run: people who genuinely care about people and want to be a part of the solution in helping the community run better, and people who like power. These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but there's generally one that seems to be predominant. Thankfully, most of the people I've worked with are in the former rather than the latter category. As hard as it seems to believe in our currently climate of partisan enmity, the solid majority of politicians on both sides are in it because they're trying to do good for their communities, states, and country.

It's the other ones, the ones who are focused on power, who are hard to deal with at best and dangerous at worst. Perhaps the world's most prominent power-oriented politician is President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and The Man Without A Face is Russian writer Masha Gessen's look at how he rose and how he's managed to stay on top.  Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election has been and continues to be a very hot topic, so this book got bumped up on my reading list because I wanted some context for what's going on in the world right now. It proved a very timely, very enlightening read.

Those looking for a straightforward biography of Putin will be disappointed. Although the details of Putin's life, such that they are available, are discussed at significant length, the book is just as focused on explaining the Russia in which he came to power and how he's worked to concentrate and hold that power ever since. The relative comfort in which Putin grew up, the disappointment of a boring posting to East Germany while with the KGB, his good fortune in finding himself attached to then-Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, the way in which he was plucked from obscurity to succeed Boris Yeltsin by political handlers overconfident that he would be moldable clay...and his utter ruthlessness in completely destroying potential foes before they were able to gain any real momentum. All of that's there, but Gessen provides important details about Russia's political history to help understand how it was all able to be executed so effectively.

Speaking of executed...Gessen's book doesn't directly accuse Putin of having them carried out, but she draws damning connections between dissident activity that angered him and then sudden, untimely deaths due to very unlikely causes, like radioactive element poisoning. Documentary proof of this and other clandestine, illegal activity very likely doesn't exist or is deeply buried, so she can't present it to her readers. This is not surprising, but I didn't get the sense that she was scare-mongering or making molehills into mountains. It seemed to me like she picked examples of politically motivated scare tactics/violence where the logical chain was clear, and I have to imagine that for every situation she presents, there are several sketchier ones that required larger conclusory leaps that were left untold. If you're interested in Putin, or Russia, or autocrats, I'd definitely recommend this book. It's worth your time.

Tell me, blog you think politicians are mostly good, or mostly bad?

One year ago, I was reading: Player Piano (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Three years ago, I was reading: Gilded

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookstores/Libraries I’d Love To Visit

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the bookstores and libraries of the world that we'd like to visit. This one was a bit of a stretch for me...I'm much more into reading the books than in where they come from. I do enjoy a good stroll through the shelves, though, so here are ten stores/libraries I'd love to go see!

John K King Used & Rare Books: I am personally embarrassed that I have never been to this gigantic, amazing bookstore despite growing up super close by!

The Strand: Obviously this NYC bookstore is legendary and I would looooove to spend an afternoon here just wandering.

Powell's: Portland is on my must-visit list for a lot of reasons (beer is pretty high up there), but I'd love to while away some time visiting this place!

Parnassus Books: I've enjoyed Ann Patchett's work, and I want to visit her bookstore in Nashville because a bookstore owned by an author sounds amazing.

Magers & Quinn: Now to plan for two trips I'm planning before the end of the year! This is the largest indie bookstore in the Twin Cities, so I'll definitely have to stop by when we're there later this month!

Faulker House Books: I'll admit Faulkner himself doesn't really do it for me, but this rooming-house-turned-bookstore where he once lived looks awesome!

New York Public Library: New York is the center of America's literary scene, and this library is iconic. Those lions!

Los Angeles Central Library: Susan Orlean's The Library Book got me intrigued by the story of this place so now I want to see it for myself!

The Library of Congress: It's the closest thing we have to a national library so I feel like an eventual visit is mandatory.

The British Library: It's the largest national library in the world!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book 150: In The Skin Of A Lion

"How can she who had torn his heart open at the waterworks with her art now lie like a human in his arms? Or stand catatonic in front of bananas on Eastern Avenue deciding which bunch to buy? Does this make her more magical? As if a fabulous heron in flight has fallen dead at his feet and he sees the further wonder if its meticulous construction. How did someone conceive of putting this structure of bones and feathers together, deciding on the weight of beak and skull, and give it the ability to fly?"

Dates read: June 4-9, 2017

Rating: 6/10

What does it mean for a piece of media, like a book or a movie, to be "good"? Does it mean it's artistically accomplished? Excellent on a technical level? And what point does the degree to which you as the audience enjoyed it enter into it? Should it? As someone who loves books and movies, this is a question I find myself struggling with regularly. For example, in what will likely be an unpopular opinion, I did not at all like watching Goodfellas. Objectively, it's a very well-constructed movie and I can understand why it's so admired. But I hated it. I wouldn't watch it again if you paid me. Well, it depends on how much, but it wouldn't be cheap.

I read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient a few years ago, and I felt much the same way about it as I did reading his earlier work, In The Skin of a Lion. It's beautifully written, poetic and lush. It has powerful themes, love and belonging and the building of a major city. But I never connected to either book. In The Skin of a Lion is told in a not-quite-linear format and has a dreamlike quality. When you remember that the story is framed as though it's being told by one person to another during a journey, this makes more sense. Its primary focus is Patrick Lewis, a man who grew up in rural Canada doing ranching and demolition work alongside his father (his mother was long since gone). The father was a solitary, taciturn man, and Patrick grows up to be much the same.

Patrick's adult life is presented to us as the story of his relationships with two women, both actresses: Clara, who he meets when he takes a job looking for her vanished boyfriend, and Alice, a friend of Clara's who he reconnects with after Clara has herself disappeared and after Alice has had a daughter, Hana. There are stories between and around those relationships, and stories about other characters who are more tangential to the plot, all loosely connected through Patrick.

I've said before that I'm a reader who tends to be drawn to character-driven stories, which means this book was sometimes a struggle for me. The sheer beauty of the writing helped me get at least something out of it, but the characters were profoundly underdeveloped. Patrick is the central character, and although he's written as being pretty emotionally closed-off, it's frustrating how opaque he is. The other characters are barely people at all...the women especially seem much more like plot devices than actual humans, but the men aren't much better off. For plot devotees, there's not much here either...what I was left with by the end of the book was less the sense of a story than a series of beautiful, haunting images. Like a Malick film.

I usually try to write my reviews of book club selections before the actual discussion so that my ideas are my ideas, but I didn't quite make it with this one and I think talking about it with other people gave me a new frame of reference for it. There are two epigraphs introducing the book, and the one that I'll focus on is from The Epic of Gilgamesh. When you think about this novel as consciously echoing the style of an epic, some of its shortcomings make more sense: the clunky dialogue, the characters that feel more like archetypes than people, the sense of mystery that hangs over the entire thing. It still wasn't a book for me, but looking at it through that lens made me feel like its flaws were less egregious. If beautiful, almost poetic prose is something you're drawn to, this will be an amazing read for you. If you like a bit more traditional story structure with strongly drawn won't.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite classical epic? I've got to go with The Odyssey, myself.

One year ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Life of the World to Come

Three years ago, I was reading: Unbelievable

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Year 3: An Update (And Giveaway!)

Yesterday was my 33rd birthday! I decided, when I turned 30, that I was going to commit to reading 500 books over the course of the next decade, and started this blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable. So my reading years begin and end on my birthday, and that meant that yesterday marked the end of year three. I like to take my birthday to look back on the year that was, both in terms of numbers and in terms of life, so let's see what happened:

In Reading

Books read (this year): 87! This is obviously more than my yearly goal of 50. And it's up from last year's 84, which I'm excited about because I read some lengthy books this year. But I don't know that I'll ever touch the 95 I read the first year again.

Books read (total): 266. I am currently over 2 years "ahead" of my posting. I'm not sure what to do about this, if there's anything that needs to be done about it. I feel like it's better to have a buffer in case I ever find my pace slowing, and it's not like I feel crazy pressure to read every single second. I'm reading as much as I want, and right now that's more rather than less.

Male/Female Authors: 44 men/43 women. As always, this is just about even despite not making a conscious effort to read equal numbers. It's always something that's interesting to keep track of, especially since I read a lot of "literary fiction", which is a genre that tends to be male-heavy.

Most Read Genres: Speaking of literary fiction, I've stopped tracking it as a sub-genre this year because of that very male-heaviness. Instead, I either list it as historical or contemporary fiction. This year, I read 66 fiction books (most-read subgenres continue to be contemporary fiction and then historical fiction), but only 21 non-fiction books (most-read subgenres here were science and history). That's a 3:1 ratio, while previously I've been more like 2:1. I've actually been buying more non-fiction lately, but I think I was just going through a particularly fiction-heavy portion of my backlog. I will admit this: it's a LOT easier to write about the fictional books, so I'm not bummed on that count.

Kindle/Hard Copy: This year, I read 51 paperback or hardcover books and only 36 on my Kindle. This has been my most inconsistent category I track...the first year I read significantly more on the Kindle than in hard copy, while last year was about even, and now this. I do honestly prefer reading a hard copy, so part of that is doing things like buying the physical book for my book club instead of the Kindle version, even when the e-book would be cheaper.

In Life

Girl's trip to Las Vegas: My annual trip with my best friends was close to home (for me) this year...since Britney Spears was wrapping up her residency at Planet Hollywood, we spent four days in Las Vegas centered around her show! We usually do weekend trips, but it turned out to be much kinder to our pocketbooks to go during the week. And the show was awesome! I was reading: Player Piano (review to come)

Work trip to Seattle: My first-ever trip to Washington! It turns out January may not quite be the best month to experience a coastal was pretty cold and the wind coming up off the water made it even more so. But I wish we'd gotten more time to explore, so we'll certainly be heading back sometime, but probably during a more hospitable time of year! I was reading: An American Marriage (review to come)

My grandfather died: This isn't any sort of highlight, but it was a significant life event. He'd been doing poorly for about a year prior to his death, so it didn't come as an awful surprise, but it was still a rough time and he's missed. I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is (review to come)

Second wedding anniversary: We've been together for six years now, but only married for two. We didn't do anything particularly special, just a dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, but it's nice to celebrate anyways. I was reading: Sloppy Firsts (review to come)

Weekend in San Francisco: We hadn't taken a long weekend in months, so we decided to hop over to the Bay for a few days in early July! We stayed in San Francisco for a few days, and then over to Berkeley, and had an awesome time eating and drinking and walking around. I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Trip to Faribault: When you grow up in a Catholic family, a cousin getting married is a pretty regular occurrence. This time it was my cousin Matt, so Drew and I took a long weekend to go to Faribault, which also happens to be my boss's hometown! It was lovely to be there for Matt and Jessie's celebration and spend some time with my dad's side of the family. I was reading: The Luminaries (review to come)

The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of my favorite book that I've reviewed on the blog over the previous 12 months. This year, there was no contest: I absolutely loved Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie's Americanah. I'm hardly the first person to rave about this book, but I found both the story and the prose really, really compelling. So here's how it works: there's a Rafflecopter link down there, and the instructions from there are pretty easy. I've leave this up for a week, and then use a random number generator to pick a winner! If you win, I'll get in touch to get your information to give you either a Kindle or paperback copy of this wonderful book! Sorry, international friends...this is a US-only giveaway.  a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Longest Books I’ve Ever Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the longest books we've ever read. I know a lot of readers find gigantic books kind of unwieldy, but I actually quite like doorstops! Some of them have been amazing, some less so, but here are ten of the longest ones I've made it through (if one author has multiple entries, I'm going with the longest one for that author)!

A Suitable Boy: This will almost certainly be the longest book I ever read because it's looooong, y'all. I spent weeks reading it during a summer in college. It was really good and I want to read it again but that is a COMMITMENT.

Les Miserables: I know a lot of people complain about the extended digressions into things like the history of the sewer system in Paris, but I actually really liked the whole thing!

War and Peace: It's so long but it's soooo good! The size can be intimidating but once you get started it really draws you in.

A Storm of Swords: The longest of the A Song of Ice and Fire series! All of these books are super long, and this one is actually my favorite but it took me until my second try to actually get all the way through it.

Gone With The Wind: In the ultimate bookish heresy, the movie is better. The subplots that got cut were worth excising for a still-sprawling but more focused narrative.

The Executioner's Song: I still maintain that there's a very good 600 page book inside this 1000+ pager about the first person executed after the death penalty was re-instituted in the United States but as is it's just too bloated to really recommend

Don Quixote: I hated this book so much.

The Cider House Rules: The movie inspired me to pick this one up, and though I haven't read it again in ages I want to someday because it's really good.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra: I read this (and quite a bit of other Margaret George) in high school, and I feel like I liked it? My memories of it are vaguely positive anyways.

Shantaram: I read this fairly recently, and after about page 200 it was hate-reading. For the next 700+ pages.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Book 149: Mrs. Dalloway

"How much she wanted it- that people should look pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was so silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves, but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! she thought, stepping on to the pavement, could have looked even differently!"

Dates read: May 29 - June 4, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/Awards: Time All-Time 100 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Newsweek Top 100 Books

Our lives are the series of hundreds, even thousands of choices that we've made day by day. Sometimes those choices are the obvious, life-changing kind: where to go to school, who to date, the career path we pursue. But sometimes they're little things that we couldn't imagine having big ramifications. Going out instead of staying in one night, or vice versa. Like Sliding Doors. But it's all the choices, taken together, that really make up having a life.

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of just one day, as the titular Clarissa Dalloway prepares for and throws a party, but its scope is really her whole life and the choices she's made. Most importantly, the summer when she rejected the suit of her friend Peter and instead chose to marry Richard Dalloway, a minor politician with whom she has a daughter who's now a young woman herself. Peter is suddenly back in town, in pursuit of a divorce for the younger-but-married woman he's been courting, and comes by Clarissa's home that morning, spurring her to think about that time of her life, when she was more passionate and free-spirited.

There's a parallel story going on as well, that of Septimus Warren Smith. Once an idealistic student studying Shakespeare, he joined up to fight in World War I without really thinking about what he was getting into. He ended up with what we'd probably now diagnose as PTSD, and when he was sent to the villa of an Italian hatmaker to recover from his shellshock, impulsively married Lucrezia, the hatmaker's lively daughter. Although the pair has been married for several years by the time the book takes place, they have not yet had children, much to Rezia's chagrin. Septimus' mental state, always delicate, has taken a turn for the worse and his wife is desperately trying to find him adequate help. Although the stories at first seem disconnected, it becomes obvious that Clarissa and Septimus are foils for each other. Each is reflecting back on their lives and choices and the consequences of decisions long-since made, and teetering between hope and despair.

This is one of those literary classics that I'm glad I came to outside of the typical "high school English" setting. Like The Great Gatsby (which I hated when I read it in high school, but loved once I read as an adult), it's steeped in themes of remembrance and regret and reflecting on the choices made or not made that have shaped your path. And I'm sure I would have been disgusted that Clarissa had decided to marry steady, boring Richard who struggles to even just tell her he loves her because he's so uncomfortable with feelings instead of Peter, who struggles to contain his wellsprings of emotion and with whom she clearly has a more natural chemistry. But adult me understands that sparking passion isn't the same thing as love, and that Peter has not been able to make a steady relationship last, while Richard and Clarissa are still married, indicates that her instincts had merit.

Although it's only about 200 pages long, Mrs. Dalloway is a dense novel that I read at about half of my usual pace. The narration skips around, following mostly Clarissa and Septimus but also Rezia, Richard, Peter, and others. As a book focused on memory, it's presented in a more stream-of-consciousness style and demands close attention. It's one of those books that you read and immediately know you're going to get more out of every time you go back through it because there's a lot there, and I'm sure this is a book I want to revisit. Woolf's writing is lovely, not flowery or excessive but still packed with powerful themes and emotions. Since I wasn't an English major, this is actually the first time I've read her work and I walked away wanting to read more. I'd recommend this book to everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I’d Love To Go To A Reading For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is technically authors I'd like to meet, but honestly, I'm not sure what I would say to most authors besides "I love your work". That's what I said to Jeffrey Eugenides when I met him a reading/book signing in college! Since I've already met him, here are ten other authors I'd like to go to a reading for!

Charlaine Harris: I love her Southern Vampire Mysteries and she seems like someone who'd be super fun to hear talk about her work!

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: She's amazing and having seen her TED talk makes me feel like she'd be amazing to see do a reading!

Neil Gaiman: I always pick up his own readings of his works when I'm buying audiobooks, because he's got a fantastic voice. Seeing him in person doing it would be incredible!

Tamora Pierce: Her Wild Magic series was something I absolutely loved growing up, and I've love to hear her talk about the amazing female heroines she created.

Phillip Pullman: I love His Dark Materials so much, and having listened to him narrate the stories on audio makes me think listening to him read his work in person would be fantastic.

Garth Nix: The Old Kingdom series is one of my favorites, and knowing that Nix has an Australian accent to make the reading even more fun!

Katherine Arden: The Winternight books are some of my favorites I've read in the past few years, and I would just about explode with excitement if she came anywhere near where I am to support the last one coming out in a couple months.

John U. Bacon: This is a pretty specific "me" pick, but Bacon writes a lot about Michigan football and I love Michigan football.

Jeffrey Toobin: His non-fiction work around the judicial system is so well-done and interesting and I think a reading from him would be just fascinating.

Joan Didion: She's not young anymore, but the documentary that came out about her last year shows she's still very sharp and it would be amazing to see her actually read her own words.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: September 2018

After a lazy summer, fall kicked off with a little more action! My husband's work had their annual big event up at the lake, and then the next weekend we went to Minnesota for a family wedding, and then my mom was just in town a few days ago! Lots of stuff going on, but it was a fun month...this fall actually has most of our travel for the year, so it should be busy (in a good way)!

In Books...

  • Paint It Black: I loved Janet Fitch's White Oleander when I read it years ago, so I had high hopes for her follow-up. This book tells the story of Josie Tyrell, whose boyfriend Michael commits suicide, pulling her into the destructive orbit of his beautiful, talented, and arrogant musician mother Meredith. While the writing is filled with beautiful, resonant imagery, the plot just never really took off for me, and the same thematic beats recur over and over again.
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing: This book was good, but at the same time, it was a disappointment. It's about a 13 year-old boy named Jojo, whose white father is in prison for cooking meth and is being raised (along with his toddler sister Kayla) by his black mother, Leonie, in rural Mississippi. Actually, being raised mostly by her parents, since Leonie is a drug addict. There are ghosts, and echoes of Toni Morrison's Beloved, but mostly in a way that made me think about how incredible Beloved is and this just doesn't come close. 
  • Juliet, Naked: Nick Hornby is comfort reading for me. You know there will be emotionally stunted adults, probably obsessive behavior, maybe a winning small child, and dialogue sparkling with wit and charm. This, about a woman stuck in a dead-end relationship with an devoted fan of an obscure musician who finds herself drawn into that musician's life, is not the best of his that I've read. The plot didn't always quite work for me, but it was enjoyable enough that I didn't much mind.
  • The Silence of the Girls: I've always loved Greek mythology, so this Iliad retelling from the perspective of Briseis, the captive slave girl over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarreled, seemed right up my alley. It was interesting to look at this story from another point of view, one traditionally unheard, but while it was well-written I never got emotionally invested in the story and I found my attention wandering. 
  • The Luminaries: This Booker Prize-winner set in gold rush-era New Zealand is a long one at over 800 pages, and its slow start had me fearing a slog. But it's an intricately crafted, zodiac-inspired mystery, and though it takes a bit to get going, once it does, it keeps revealing new twists and angles. I already want to read it again to take it all in knowing how it ends up. Really wonderful. One of the best things I've read this year.
  • Ready Player One: Oof, y'all. I was hoping for a fun adventure romp, what I got was a paint-by-numbers plot so boring I could not force myself to keep reading it except in short bursts and so many 80s pop culture references that even if I was into 80s pop culture it would have been too much. I know some people loved this, but it did not work for me in the slightest. 

In Life...

  • Weekend at Lake Tahoe: My husband has an annual work event up at the lake, which is always fun for me to join him at! I got on a horse for the first time since I was about twelve, and I know Drew loves me because he went riding too. 
  • Trip to Minnesota: I have a cousin who got married in Fairbault, which is actually where one of my colleagues grew up (small world), and it had been over a year since I'd seen that side of my family, so we went to Minnesota for a long weekend. We had a good time exploring the area, the wedding was super fun, and congrats again to Matt and Jessie!
  • My mom was in town: She was heading out west for a professional conference anyways, so she made a couple other stops, including Reno! It was only for about a day and a half, but we spent some time together, got our nails done, and had a lovely dinner with my in-laws!

One Thing:

This list of the top 100 books published since the turn of the century, compiled by book critics, features some things I've read and loved (Middlesex!) and some that leave me scratching my head (Outline). Do "normal" (read: not inside the literary bubble) people read that many poetry or short story collections? But I did add a few new books to my to-be-read list and it provided some interesting food for thought.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book 148: The Panopticon

"It's the same in the nick or the nuthouse: notoriety is respect. Like, if you were in a unit with a total psycho and they said you were sound? Then you'd be a wee bit safer in the next place. If it's a total nut that's vouched for you, the less hassle you'll get. I dinnae need tae worry about any of that. I am the total nut. We're just in training for the proper jail. Nobody talks about it, but it's a statistical fact. That or on the game. Most of us are anyway—but not everybody, some go to the nuthouse. Some just disappear."

Dates read: May 26-29, 2017

Rating: 7/10

In identical twin studies, the incidence of schizophrenia, if one twin has it, is 50% for the other twin. Obviously, the rate of schizophrenia in the general population is much, much lower (only about 1%), so clearly there's a strong genetic link. But at only 50%, there's clearly something else going on as well: ye olde Nature v. Nurture. There are probably thousands of people walking around who have risk factors for this or any number of other mental or physical disorders, but because they've been placed in the right environment, will never develop them. And the inverse is also true...there are probably thousands of people for whom a genetic predisposition might as well have been fate, because their environments are going to make it all but impossible for the disease to NOT take its toll.

If anyone should be damaged, it's Anais Hendricks, the teenage heroine of Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon. Born in a mental hospital to a woman who disappeared soon afterward, she's shuffled through dozens of placements by the time we meet her as a 15 year-old getting shoved into the back of a police car with blood all over her, not able to remember what just happened. What she does know is that a policewoman is in a coma and that she's being blamed for it, and that she's headed toward a group home for wayward youth called the Panopticon. As Anais settles in and gets to know the staff and residents, we learn more and more about her background, about the places that she's lived and the ways (sex and drugs, mostly) that she's tried to escape and find a little happiness for herself. Even as she gets more comfortable, though, there's a constant axe hanging over her head, since she knows if the injured policewoman takes a turn for the worse she'll be sent to a secure facility to be under constant lock and key.

The book takes place in Scotland, and Fagan peppers the dialogue with dialect. It's a little hard to wrap your head around at first if that's not something you're used to, but it's pretty easy to tell what the words mean by context clues and after a while it becomes part of the rhythm of the novel. The plot itself is slightly off-kilter in a way that fits the story being told...there's a pretty clear "peak" near the middle of the plot after which things begin to fall apart, but there's not really a climax per se. And the people it shines a light on, teens that have lived through the kind of horrifying conditions that leave them in a group home, don't really have lives that follow the linear path we might expect either. There's a lot of very dark stuff here: drug abuse, rape, disease, cutting, parental abandonment, death, but it somehow comes together to end on a surprisingly hopeful note.

What really shines in The Panopticon is the characterization, especially of Anais. At first she's an off-putting character, a violent and drug-addled teenager who seems practically feral and certainly dangerous. But as her layers get peeled back, you come to see how her life has necessitated the hard shell she wears around herself and why she acts the way she does. Slowly, you begin to care about her and root for her and by the time there's a court proceeding where she's dismissed as a hopeless case who can never be trusted to live outside of custody you're offended by how smugly they assume they've seen all they need to know about her. Many of the other kids and some of the staff in the Panopticon are given strong personalities despite relatively little "page time", so to speak, but Anais is a bold and surprisingly winning heroine. As long as you can deal with the rough places the book goes, I'd definitely recommend it. Please don't do what I did originally, though, and assume it's YA. It is very much a book for a more mature audience.

Tell me, blog friends...what do you think about reading novels with large portions of dialect?

One year ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Circle

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books By My Favorite Authors That I Still Haven’t Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books by favorite authors we haven't gotten to yet. For me, I've chosen the next book on my list for each, because I have several for most of them!

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Michael Chabon): I've heard this story, about a fictional Jewish community in Alaska in the 50s, is a great read, which doesn't surprise me because Chabon is super talented.

Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood): Social violence between teen girls written by Margaret Atwood? Obviously something I'm going to read.

Uncle Tungsten (Oliver Sacks): This is Sacks' memoir of his boyhood, and how he came to fall in love with science, and with every Sacks book I read I get a little sad that there's now one less I'll experience for the first time and one day I'll run through my entire stash and that'll be it.

How To Be Good (Nick Hornby): I'll read anything Hornby puts out, I love the way he writes...even though this story about a man who suddenly decides to embrace charity after a lifetime of being angry and bitter and the impact it has on his family doesn't sound quite up my alley, it's Hornby so I'll probably like it.

The Cuckoo's Calling (J.K. Rowling): I'm not huge into the mystery genre, but I love Rowling's writing, so I'm looking forward to diving into this one soon!

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro): I like fantasy, and I love Ishiguro, and I am excited for both those things together.

The White Princess (Philippa Gregory): Are Gregory's books high quality literature? No. I enjoy them anyways, so on to Elizabeth of York!

Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen): This is the only one of her adult works I haven't read yet! I've heard it's a little Gothic-y and I'm interested to see what that looks like.

Gulp (Mary Roach): Her curiosity and sense of humor about everything have made her books mist-reads for me!

The Life of Elizabeth I (Alison Weir): I've found her fiction to be slightly disappointing, but that's only because her non-fiction is so very good!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Book 147: Migraine

"But we now encounter a much more fundamental problem, which springs from the fact that migraine cannot be considered simply as an event in the nervous system which occurs spontaneously and without reason: the attack cannot be considered apart from its causes and effects. A physiological statement cannot enlighten us concerning the causes of migraine, or its importance as a reaction or item of behavior. Thus a logical confusion is implicit in the very formulation of such a question as: What is the cause of migraine? For we require not one explanation or one type of explanation, but several types, each in its own logical province. We have to ask two questions: why migraine takes the form(s) that it does, and why it occurs when it does."

Dates read: May 20-26, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I first started getting migraines when I was about 18. I'd gone on the Pill, and suddenly found myself getting these awful headaches. For a couple years, I didn't make the connection, and just thought they were especially bad normal headaches. But when I was driving home from a shift at Blockbuster and literally had to pull off to the side of the road and barf, I finally went to see my doctor. When I told her about the excruciating pain on one side of my head that I got periodically, she diagnosed me with migraines and gave me Imitrex and the first time I took one, it was like magic. Within about an hour, the pain just...stopped. I could go about my life like a normal person. It was like a miracle.

It took me a few more years to figure out that the headaches were tied to my menstrual cycle and there's a whole series of nonsense that's connected to that, but that's not the important part. The important part is that as both a migraine sufferer and a devoted fangirl of Oliver Sacks, I was of course going to pick up his book Migraine. It's a quasi-scientific text, but I think it's still accessible to a popular audience. It just needs be an informed popular audience, or at least one willing to get their Google on when he starts talking about neurotransmitters.

Sacks takes a comprehensive look at migraines, beginning with setting them into historical context (they've been around at least as long as recorded history) and then describing the two basic types of migraines: with aura ("classical migraine") and without aura ("common migraine"). He goes into detail about the symptoms of the two, beginning with the common migraine, which is distinguished primarily by an intense, usually one-sided headache and some degree of nausea, and then proceeding to classical migraine, which is similar but also very different. The classical migraine has a visual component known as the "aura", which often takes the form of  bright colors or patterns clouding the visual field. He then discusses possible causes, triggers, and treatment options.

In my experience (which is admittedly as a person with a psychology degree), Oliver Sacks' writing style, which bursts with curiosity and enthusiasm, tends to override concerns about technicality. That being said, of the many books I've read of his, this the most textbook-like. Assuming that the primary audience to which this book will appeal will be migraine-sufferers who already have some background information about their condition, I think it's fine. Even as a fairly savvy consumer, I learned things about migraines that I didn't know before. Since I'm the type of person who doesn't have aura, I was surprised to learn that it's actually fairly common for people who do get aura to get just the aura, without any headache component. Migraine sufferers will also be able to see how many of their symptoms are more common than they thought. I also found myself very grateful that my migraines debuted after the use of triptan drugs to treat migraines became standard, since I know my Imitrex is a lifesaver and previous drugs sound like they were generally less effective with more side effects. I'd definitely recommend this book to people curious about migraines, since I think it distills a lot of research and thought into one volume. Unless you're otherwise interested or a Sacks completist, though, it's probably not worth your time.

Tell me, blog many of you also suffer from migraines?

One year ago, I was reading: Stay With Me (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're revealing our fall to-be-read lists! Here are the next ten books that are up for me on my schedule (as always, there will be book club books that get added into the lineup).

Ready Player One: There was the hype. Then there was the backlash. So I'm going into this expecting something more enjoyable than not, but not anything extraordinary.

The Things They Carried: I've read a lot of books rooted in World War II, but I haven't actually read much literature based on the Vietnam War and this is a classic.

Flip: I think I found this on a list of underrated YA novels, and then found it on sale for the Kindle.

The Library Book: I am really excited for Susan Orlean's look at a historic library fire, and libraries in general!

Prep: I've never read Curtis Sittenfeld before, and I have a soft spot for coming-of-age stories, so this seems like a good place to start.

We Are Not Ourselves: This book got a bunch of praise a few years back, and a family drama does tend to appeal to me.

Detroit: An American Autopsy: The rise and fall and rebirth of Detroit is in my blood (my mom is a native Detroiter and I actually lived there for the first couple years of my life) so I'm always interested in reading about the city.

Bringing Down The House: They made this into a movie, which I never saw, but the real life tale of a bunch of nerds fleecing Vegas sounds entertaining!

Seduction: Karina Longworth's podcast is one of my very favorites so I am really looking forward to reading her book about Howard Hughes' Hollywood story.

In Defense Of Food: Michael Pollan has some bad takes, but I've always been interested in reading a book of his to get more of a sense of his work.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book 146: If We Were Villains

"Ten years of trying to explain Dellecher, in all its misguided magnificence, to men in beige jumpsuits who never went to college or never even finished high school has made me realize what I as a student was willfully blind to: that Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some strange fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses."

Dates read: May 15-20, 2017

Rating: 7/10

For someone who's been dead for over 500 years, William Shakespeare's still pretty damn popular. It seems like there's at least one major screen adaptation every year. And everyone reads at least one of his plays at some point in high school, right? They're probably the only plays which most people have actually read all the way through in their lives (I include myself in this number, I don't particularly care for reading plays). While some people hate his stuff and most feel more-or-less indifferent, there are also some people who REALLY love it. I'm not one of those people, but I do have a favorite of his works (Much Ado About Nothing) and still regret that I didn't get a chance to take a course focused on Shakespeare in college from a legendary professor.

It's a group of people who are super duper into Shakespeare that is the focus of M. L. Rio's If We Were Villains. The book mostly follows seven Shakespearean acting students in their senior year at an exclusive arts college. We know something big and bad happened, because the book opens with one of the seven (Oliver, our protagonist) being released from prison after a decade. He agrees to return to his alma mater and speak to the detective who put him behind bars to finally reveal the true story of what happened all those years ago.

Based on the length of sentence alone, it shouldn't be surprising that what happened was that someone died. The who and the how I'll leave for the reading of it, because the bigger issue is what happened after that person died. The way the remaining members of the group deal with the death, and how it changes their relationships with each other, both on and off the stage. They'd each developed a little niche over their years together (the king, the femme fatale, the good guy, the ingenue, the villain, etc), and the removal of one of the spokes of the wheel renders the structure unstable.

If you've read The Secret History, a lot of that will sound pretty familiar to you. Indeed, it's pretty obvious that Donna Tartt's debut novel was a significant source of inspiration for Rio for her own. And that's fine, Tartt doesn't own the concept of a tight-knit group of students studying an obscure subject at an exclusive private college dealing with the fallout from the death of one of their own. But here's the thing: if you're going to write a book with strong parallels to a novel that's been consistently popular since it was published 25 years ago, you have do it at least as well or better. And although I want to make it clear that I did enjoy reading If We Were Villains (I did love The Secret History, after all), Rio didn't quite hit that mark.

The characters fall a little too neatly into the roles they fill onstage: Richard, the king-type, really is a raging egomaniac; Meredith the femme fatale really is a sexpot; Wren the ingenue really is demure and sweet, etc etc. Where this fails most problematically is that the "background player" types are kind of underdeveloped, and that's Oliver and Filippa. Oliver, you'll remember, is the main character and while it's not unusual for a reader-insert-character protagonist to be kind of bland, Oliver never really captured or held interest for me. Filippa is the only other member of the group that doesn't come from privilege and the small peeks we get at who she is make her easily the most potentially interesting character, and it's frustrating that she's given the short shrift. The plot developments, too, weren't handled especially deftly. I'm generally not good at anticipating plot twists, but I called nearly all of the major ones easily. Rio's prose is solid, though, and I'd definitely be open to reading more from her in the future. I'd recommend this to people who loved The Secret History and want to read something similar, but if you haven't read that book yet, it's better than this one.

Tell me, blog friends...are there "if you liked that, you'll love this" books that you feel pulled off being better than the inspiration?

One year ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Smoke