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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Hidden Gems

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that are great that don't get as much love as they should. I used Goodreads to get a sense of what's less rather than more popular, so here are ten books you may not have heard of that are pretty great!

The Big Rewind: I loved this debut light-hearted murder mystery with a romantic twist. It was delightful and I will continue to talk about how much I enjoyed it forever!

Valley of the Moon: Time-travely romantic drama does not sound like the kind of thing I would like at all, but I found it charming and a very pleasant read!

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: Like so many other lady people, I've been fascinated for years by Anne Boleyn and this nonfiction examination of the stories told about her was really interesting!

City of Thieves: This coming-of-age buddy adventure story set during the siege of Leningrad from one of the Game of Thrones showrunners is short and in many ways predictable but so well-told it packs a powerful punch anyways.

The Guineveres: I thought this novel about the lives of four young women, all named Guinevere, that end up in Catholic convent for different reasons was lyrical and powerful and was disappointed that it never took off the way I thought it would because it's great!

A Leg To Stand On: I am always here for Oliver Sacks, and this book, about his own experience of suffering an alienation from his leg after a horrible hiking accident, has the kind of wisdom and compassion that are a hallmark of his writing.

The Man Without A Face: This nonfiction work by Masha Gessen about the rise of Vladimir Putin feels incredibly prescient and relevant to our times.

So Big: Giant is Edna Ferber's novel that got made into the big splashy Hollywood movie (I haven't read it yet, but I have a copy waiting!), but this one won the Pulitzer and its testament to inner strength and finding the joy in life is beautiful and powerful.

The Butcher's Daughter: If you like Tudor-era historical fiction but want to get out of the palaces and into the villages, this smart, insightful book about a young woman who becomes a nun and then has to figure out what's next after the Reformation would be an excellent choice.

Stay With Me: You read the back, about a woman in Nigeria whose traditional in-laws push her husband to take a second wife when she fails to get pregnant, and think you know where this is going. But it twists and turns far deeper than ever expected.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Book 145: The Skies Belong To Us

"In struggling to make sense of this madness, pundits and politicians often invoked the term epidemic to describe the skyjacking crisis. They spoke more truly than they knew, for one of the best ways to understand the Golden Age of Hijacking is through the lens of public health. The phenomenon spread in strict accordance with the laws of epidemiology: skyjackings always occurred in clusters that traced back to a single incident that had turned contagious."

Dates read: May 12-15, 2017

Rating: 6/10

September 11, 2001, happened when I was in high school, at the beginning of my junior year. I remember being in Mrs. Brehm's Public Speaking class, chatting with a classmate about something in Spanish class, when the loudspeaker announced that there had been an attack in New York. We turned on the TV after the first plane struck, obviously, but before the second one did. It's a day burned in my memory, for which there is a very definite "before" and "after". The most noticeable hallmark of the after, of course, is the airport security regime that's been in place ever since.

I knew there had been domestic airplane hijackings (like everyone else, I'd heard of D.B. Cooper), but I'd had no idea how numerous they were until I read Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong To Us. In the late 60s/early 70s, they were happening all the time! Sometimes even twice in one day! Koerner tells the general story of the brief skyjacking "craze", but also focuses on a particular instance to tell the story writ both large and small. The crime he chooses to highlight was a hijacking to Algeria, committed by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow.

Holder and Kerkow were a deeply odd couple, united mostly by their love of drugs. Holder used them to salve the psychic wounds of a life scarred by systemic racism and the Vietnam War, Cathy used them because they were fun. A one-time small-town Oregon good girl (she was track teammates with Jeff Prefontaine), she grew up to become a party girl in hippie San Francisco. Through much more luck than planning or skill (they were almost thwarted by their own idiocy), they managed to pull off stealing an airplane and get $500,000 hard currency to take with them. Although their original plan was to head to southeast Asia, when that got derailed, Holder chose to head to Algeria. From there, the couple headed to France, where Holder fell deeper into long-brewing mental illness and Kerkow propelled herself into the most exclusive social circles she could find. While the pair eventually split and Holder returned to the US, Kerkow is still living the life of an international fugitive from justice to this day.

Although I certainly recall life before the TSA, I don't recall life before any sort of airport security at all. Which is apparently how it used to be for a long time, even after all this constant hijacking nonsense! The airlines pitched a fit about even the most minor screening measures because they didn't want to inconvenience their customers! Which, coming from a time in which little girls are bounced from flights because they're wearing leggings and ticketed customers are dragged off flights and beaten, seems literally crazy. I mean, there are definitely things about that time that I 100% don't want to go back to, but given what we hear about the actual efficiency of TSA at actually finding any sort of dangerous material, it seems like maybe considering the idea of lighter security (like PreCheck, but for everyone!) should be on the list of things to do.

Koerner does a very solid job of balancing all of the elements in his book: the state of the country as a whole at the time, the prime hijacking era and highlighting some illustrative vignettes (including one set right here in Reno where the banks were already closed after the money demand was made so the casinos ponied up the cash), and the story of Roger and Cathy. No one story thread feels irritatingly dominant, and Koerner's treatment of hijacking never feels like cheap drama being played up for shock value. The frequency of hijacking in that era was shocking enough and he's assured enough to let it speak for itself. That he was able to interview Roger before his death definitely helps in creating portraits of the central hijacker and his long-ago girlfriend as actual people and not caricatures. It's a very readable, enjoyable look at a phenomenon that happened not actually that long ago that I'd had NO idea about.

Tell me, blog friends...can you imagine the airlines pushing back on additional screen nowadays?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Other Side of the River

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Like To See As Miniseries

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I've done a little twist on the topic this week...we're supposed to be talking about TV shows we're excited to see start new seasons now that it's fall. Not to be one of those people, but I don't actually watch a ton of TV lately. So instead, I'm talking about books that could be turned into prestige miniseries that I would watch the crap out of!

The Secret History: This would work well as a movie, too, but a miniseries would give it room to breathe and really get the atmospherics right. It starts off in medias res with a murder (like Big Little Lies!), so there's your hook, and then into the dark and twisty story.

The Interestings: This lifetime-spanning story of a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for creative kids and continue to interact as they grow up and find themselves and settle down could really explore the shifts in their dynamics over time if it was given several hours in which to tell its tale.

Vanity Fair: This book ends up feeling rushed as a movie because there's a lot of plot there (it's long, y'all), but Becky Sharp is a rare compelling female antihero and her scheming and machinations deserve multiple episodes.

The Queen of the Night: The framing device of this book is that an opera singer is offered the opportunity to be the first to sing a new role...only to find out that the opera is based on her truly insane life story (there's too much there for just a movie). Only a handful of people could have done so, and cutting between her attempts to find the source and the actual events would work perfectly onscreen!

Helter Skelter: I know there's allegedly a Tarantino movie on the Manson murders coming, but I'd like to see Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story series take on this case using this book, written by the prosecutor who put Manson away, as the source material.

The Corrections: This has been bandied about for a series adaptation before, if I recall correctly, and I'm not sure why it never went anywhere, but I think the high drama of this family dysfunction story would work well given the room to sprawl out over several episodes.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: This book about cousins who create a best-selling comic-book hero series in World War II era New York has a lot of flashbacks and a lot of intricate storytelling and cutting any of it would be a travesty so a miniseries is the way to go.

Possession: They did make a movie out of this (which I haven't seen), but it's so textually rich that I can't imagine it did justice to it in less than 2 hours. The dual storylines of a modern-day set of academics studying fairly obscure Victorian-era poets who discover a hidden bond between them really needs several hours to do justice to both of them.

Middlesex: A truly epic family saga stretching from the conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s to modern-day Detroit and an intersex person's journey of self-discovery has a lot of story to tell, and would be an engrossing show.

The Lords of Discipline: Pat Conroy's military school drama could probably be squished down into a movie, but why do that when you can go full Southern Gothic and let the story sink in slowly?

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: August 2018

The end of August always makes me think about back-to-school time. Growing up in Michigan, I never went back before Labor Day...but here in Reno, they've already been back for nearly a month! And anyways, it still feels like summer since August temperatures were mostly stuck in the 90s. A record-setting 56 days in a row this summer above 90, actually, which honestly was pretty gross. But it's finally trending downward a bit and I am READY for sweater-and-boots season.

In Books...

  • Shantaram: There are two kinds of books that climb to 900+ pages: actual epics or overstuffed vanity projects. While this giant novel is not without merit, it's definitely the latter rather than the former. Based on the author's own experiences, this book is about an Australian man who escapes from prison and flees to India, where he gets involved with a wide variety of people, from a kind-hearted tourist guide to a prominent crime lord. It could have lost 300 pages through just editing out the purple prose and pseudo-philosophical rambling and would have been better for it. 
  • Less: Book club picks have been inconsistent for me, but this one I really enjoyed. I would not have thought that the concerns of an aging gay writer would particularly speak to me, but this tale about an only somewhat successful novelist staring down both his 50th birthday and his longtime sort-of-boyfriend's impending wedding to another man who decides the only way to deal is to accept a bunch of ignored invitations to make a trip around the globe was funny and touching and sweet. 
  • The Informant: The so-strange-it-has-to-be-true story of a corporate executive who exposes an international, multimillion dollar price fixing scandal...all while embezzling millions of dollars from the company and pathologically lying every time nearly every time he opens his mouth. They made a movie out of this, a comedy even (which I haven't seen), but on the page it's very dry and flat and I never really got into it.
  • The Butcher's Daughter: I'd grabbed a review copy of this on a whim and was so glad I did! This historical fiction tells the story of Agnes, a young woman in Tudor England who falls pregnant out of wedlock and is sent to an abbey, where she finds some real satisfaction in her place as a nun. But the religious turmoil of Henry VIII's England is not a good time to be of a religious house, and so as the abbey is closed down, she needs to find a new place for herself. Agnes is a great character and I found her story very compelling indeed. 
  • Life After Life: I wish I'd read this without the hype that set sky-high expectations for me. It's an imaginative, entertaining book that takes the unusual tack of presenting a female character for whom familial rather than romantic bonds are paramount, which was refreshing. As Ursula Todd's life begins over and over again after she dies in a variety of ways, she's always deeply connected to her older sister Pamela and younger brother Teddy, and Atkinson skillfully explores the bombing campaigns of World War 2 from many perspectives and with a poignant humanity. It's a very good book, but I was expecting a great one and for me, it wasn't quite there. 
  • Oryx and Crake: I love Margaret Atwood, and am generally interested in post-apocalyptic stories, so this was a natural fit for me. Though there are some things that make it really obvious this book was written over 15 years ago now (the emphasis on email and disc-based storage feel anachronistic), for the most part it feels frighteningly prescient. I wish the main female character had been better-developed, and I'm always annoyed at a book that ends in a clear cliffhanger for the next in the series, so it didn't blow me away but I very much liked it and intend to continue the series! 

In Life...

  • Tried not to melt and/or die of smoke inhalation: It was hot, and it was smoky. The wildfires that raged in California sent their smoke right on over into northern Nevada, where it settled in the valleys and choked us all for weeks. Add in those long 90+ degree days and it was miserable. It's been a smidge cooler lately thank goodness.
  • Veterinary drama: The gratuitous pug I like to show you every month has been a frequent flier at the vet lately! We started out with a significant number of tooth extractions, and no sooner was he on the mend from those than he gave himself a hot spot on his face from scratching and had to get dragged back to get antibiotic ointment and a week in the cone of shame. He's totally fine now, but here's hoping we can skip the vet's office for the rest of the year.

One Thing:

One of my guilty pleasures (honestly I don't feel that guilty about it) is reading about royal families, particularly the British one. What can I say? I'm basic. I'd heard about a failed attempt to kidnap Princess Anne in the 70s, but didn't know that much about it until I read this truly delightful short piece from Oh No They Didn't. Some of the dialogue is profoundly hilariously English and Anne is a BOSS.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book 144: Friday Night Lights

"Considering the circumstances of their lives, how could they be expected to accept the harsh reality of studies showing that of the 30 million children taking part in youth sports in the United States, only about 200 go on to become professionals in any given year?”

Dates read: May 5-12, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: The New York Times bestseller

Graduating from law school in 2010, it turns out, was one of the worst things I could have done for myself. There are articles about it and everything. After I moved back to Michigan and took (and passed) the bar, I started carpet-bombing the Ann Arbor area with resumes. Crickets. I came close a few times, getting to second interviews, but it wasn't until February, a full nine months after I graduated and five months after I passed the bar, that I got a job. Which meant I had a LOT of downtime. I did do useful things, but I also watched the entire run of a TV show that has become a barometer of true excellence in storytelling for me: Friday Night Lights.

I knew there'd been a book, and then a movie, and that the show wasn't especially closely related to either except in broad strokes. But I'd always harbored a curiosity about the book that had inspired one of my favorite shows of all time, so I picked up H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights to finally experience the source material. In it, Bissinger tells the story of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, in the late 80s. But he doesn't just tell the story of the the subtitle ("A Town, A Team, And A Dream") suggests, he places them in context. He tells the story of Odessa, of the boom-and-bust oil economy in Texas with which Odessa lives and dies, the racial tensions that are ever-simmering, and the way that a community needing something to cheer for and feel good about can place so much hope and feeling into a sports team.

That enormity of public emotional investment into the team has real ramifications for the people who make it up: the coach and his family, of course, but also the players. The coach (only very vaguely reminiscent of the beloved Coach Taylor) is at least a well-compensated professional, but the players are just teenagers. You can see the loose outlines of some of the characters who would make up the core of the show: the hot-shot, big-talking running back, the reserved, wary quarterback, the trouble-making, fast-living halfback. But the players themselves are kind of inconsequential: they are merely the bodies inside the uniforms that have such symbolic meaning. It's Permian that the crowd roots for year after year, even as the names on the jerseys come and go.

Reading this after seeing the show is the opposite of the usual reaction: the screen adaptation is so rich and beautifully realized that the book has a hard time living up to the comparison. Part of that is because they're telling similar stories in two very different ways. The book is more interested in looking at the broader social picture and the way that team fits into that picture as a whole, and only then in its component parts, while the show takes the opposite storytelling tack and focuses on the people and their relationships making up the team, filling in the charged atmosphere around them but leaving it as mostly background. So by nature the book is more impersonal, more clinical and removed. The show, on the other hand, focused on realistic character development in a way that even many authors I've read could benefit from learning from. Of the two versions, I'd recommend that literally everyone watch the show, but the book is good-not-great. If you like stories about football and/or small town life, you'll likely enjoy it. If not, it's skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite TV shows?

One year ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Life Itself

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Assigned Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a back-to-school freebie! I know the phrase "assigned reading" makes some people break out in hives (there's something that immediately turns us off about being forced to read a book instead of choosing it ourselves, isn't there?), but a lot of the books they make us read are actually pretty good! Here are ten books that were required that I actually really loved.

Number the Stars: This book, which I read in middle school, about a young Danish girl whose family works to protect her Jewish best friend during the Holocaust is a well-told, engaging story.

The Giver: Another middle school read. I'd actually already read it before it was assigned in class, and even though it's pitched towards and able to be understood at that level, I still found it very solid when I re-read it as an adult.

Lord of the Flies: I think this one, about a group of British schoolboys marooned on an island who descend into chaos, was part of our tenth grade curriculum. I recently revisited it on audio and found its message about power and group dynamics still relevant and interesting.

The Great Gatsby: I hated this when I read it as a high school junior, finding it overly simplistic and boring. It wasn't until I got a little older and had more life experience under my belt that I recognized its elegance and genius.

The Awakening: I think I read this senior year in AP English, but it might have been at the end of junior year? Anyways, it's a story about a privileged Southern woman who becomes disenchanted with her life and the expectations foisted upon her as a wife and mother and it's excellent.

Cry, The Beloved Country: My AP English class led me to many wonderful books, including this powerful and poignant story of apartheid South Africa.

The Color Purple: Another AP English gem, this book about a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South coming into her own and finding happiness despite often miserable circumstances won a Pulitzer for a reason.

The Scarlet Letter: Guilt is a theme that gets explored in a lot of books, but I really did like what Hawthorne did with this one, which is much more interesting than you'd probably expect. Read this one in AP English too!

The Secret History: I've known almost no one who has failed to enjoy this twisty story of a group of Classics students who kill one of their own. It has something for everyone: it's well-written, has a suspenseful plot, and does solid character work. And it's yet another AP English selection.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: This I read in my honors Introduction to Psychology class and was so taken with it that I changed my major and got a degree in Psych instead of Political Science.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Book 143: The Highest Tide

"Olympia rain rarely calls for hats, much less umbrellas, but this was a waterfall. And by one forty-five in the morning I saw the auras of the remaining biologists, or maybe it was just backlit mist. What I do know is that I saw a blue light around every one of their heads. And Florence had taught me that people with blue auras are relaxed and ready for anything, which suited these people perfectly."

Dates read: May 1-5, 2017

Rating: 4/10

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dogs. OBSESSED. Like, I bought a copy of the AKC breed manual and read it like a book, cover to cover, over and over. I also went through a phase of intense obsession with mythology, even writing a letter to The Detroit News when they published a piece that misgendered Osiris. It seems like that's something we lose in adulthood, the ability to become passionately wrapped up in a single topic like that. We have so many other things to think about, it makes sense, but it still feels like kind of a loss, realizing those days of throwing myself wholeheartedly into something new are behind me.

In Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide, 13 year-old Miles O'Malley is a budding marine biologist. Not in the way of like, teenagers who think that means getting to play with dolphins all day for a job. But in the way where he reads and re-reads Rachel Carson's works on oceans, cares about the ecosystem, and regularly sneaks outside to kayak along the Puget Sound beach he lives on to explore what the animals who live in the water are up to. On one such adventure, early in the summer before he begins high school, he discovers a giant squid washed up on the shore. And so begins a season that will change his life forever.

Like so many adolescents, everything is changing for Miles. His parents seem headed toward an end of their long-shaky marriage, he nurses a desperate crush on Angie, the older, bipolar girl next door who used to babysit him, he becomes a figure of devotion for a local cult-type group, he feels queasy about the older man he sells aquarium specimens to, and he faces the increasing deterioration of his best friend, the old lady who lives next door. Miles is confused about virtually all of the above, not quite knowing how to handle any of it. On top of it all, he's extremely self-conscious about his diminutive stature and has very few friends his own age.

This is a fairly slim book (only about 250 pages), and the feeling I was left with at the end was that it tried to take on too much without doing any of it particularly well. There are too many plot threads and none of them are developed properly. Lynch sketches Miles as a sensitive, observant boy, and I wish he'd dropped some of elements he piled on (the shady animal dealer and the cult group in particular don't resonate well) and given the rest some room to breathe. In particular, I felt like Angie got the short shrift...I can see what the appeal of her would be to Miles, but I never got much of a sense of what the appeal of Miles would be to her. She's given an interesting story: daughter of a prominent local judge with not-adequately-treated mental health issues and a wild streak, but she's never realized as an actual character. Lynch's prose is adequate, but doesn't do anything in terms of making up for the plot issues.

Reading books like this, though, makes me reflect on the enduring popularity of the coming-of-age genre. I think the appetite for books in this sphere explains a lot of the appeal of the YA boom: people really like stories about growing up. In part, I think this is because even the culturally-recognized "growing-up" period has gotten extended...just look at how much later my generation is doing things like getting married and buying houses, in large part, that our parents' generation or even Gen X. And even now, firmly in undisputed adult territory, I still feel like I'm not done growing and changing yet. Maturing is a process that feels like it'll never really be done, and stories that reflect the sometimes-painful but always-necessary movement forward are very appealing. I wish The Highest Tide were a better example of the type, but not every book does it for every one. There's good stuff in this one, it's more frustrating than bad, but I still wouldn't recommend it when there are so many in this category that do it better.

Tell me, blog friends...what were your childhood obsessions?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Last One

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Pull You Out of a Reading Slump

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at reading slumps, and the books that will pull you out of one! This is honestly kind of tricky for me, because I don't really get into reading slumps, so I don't really know what I would look for to pull me out of one. But these are books that I think are enjoyable in a way that could work for someone who just can't get hyped to read anything else.

The Hunger Games: These books are compelling without being especially challenging...there's enough narrative tension here that you get sucked in, without having too many characters or excessive world-building to slog through.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: If you're still looking for something tense but are actually in search of something a little more complex that demands more of your focus, you can't go wrong with this trilogy.

Bridget Jones' Diary: But what if you're thinking you want something breezy? This book is very light and very funny. Since it's literally structured like a diary, there's not a sense of interrupting the plot if you want to put it down for any reason, which makes it an easy read.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Another funny one (the kind that makes you laugh out loud in public), structured as vignettes so easy to pick up and put down as necessary, and it's nonfiction if that appeals!

Stardust: If you do want to find yourself drawn into another world, this book feels like a fairy tale for adults...there's darkness here, but fundamentally it's sweet and often gently humorous.

Station Eleven: Post-apocalyptic stories are done to death, but this take, which flashes back and forth between our present and 15 years after a global pandemic, is slower and more meditative than most. It gives you characters to get invested in and big questions to ponder.

The Girl With All The Gifts: Still in the general fantasy realm but much grittier and with more momentum, this take on a zombie story is hard to put down even if you don't think you're that into zombie stories. There's a good balance of characterization and plot.

City of Thieves: How about some historical fiction? This book, set during the siege of Leningrad, is short but still full, with a strong coming-of-age story that develops a friendship you find yourself caring about. There's nothing "new" here but it's very well-executed.

Moonglow: World War II plays into the story here, but there's also a family saga told with warmth and humor likely to please readers who enjoy character-based stories.

Spook: Just to close out with something completely different, this book about ghosts/the soul/what happens to the not-body parts of "us" after we die takes on various beliefs about the afterlife with charming, infectious curiosity.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book 142: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

"Beth and I are still thinking it's too early to leave Toph with anyone but family, that to do otherwise would cause him to feel unwanted and alone, leading to the warping of his fragile psyche, then to experimentation with inhalants, to the joining of some River's Edge kind of gang, too much flannel and too little remorse, the cutting of his own tats, the drinking of lamb's blood, the inevitable initiation-fulfilling murder of Beth and me in our sleep. So when I go out, once a week, on a day Beth and I have chosen together, Toph gets his things together, stuffs them into his backpack, uses both straps, and walks over to her house and spends the night on half of her futon." 

Date read: April 24- May 1, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: New York Times Bestseller

By the time she was my age, my mom had already lost both of her parents. My grandmother died when my mom was just 25, and my grandfather had a massive heart attack in his sleep when she was in her early 30s. My dad, on the other hand, didn't lose his first parent until he was just about 50 and his second only earlier this year. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to lose two parents by my age like my mom did. My parents are still a big part of my life and there's so much more still to share with them.

Dave Eggers, though, had it worse than anyone I personally know. He lost both of his parents, to cancer, one just about a month after the other, when he was only a senior in college. In his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers recounts those deaths and his subsequent guardianship of his 8 year-old brother, Toph. The Eggers brothers leave their Illinois home behind and move to the Bay Area, in part to stay close to their older sister Beth, and in part for career opportunities for Dave as he tries to get a new magazine, Might, off the ground while also trying to figure out how to raise a child.

Before I even picked this book up, I was aware that it seems to inspire strong feelings. Some people HATE it and some people think it's magnificent. How you will receive this book depends entirely on how you feel about Eggers' writing. If you think his stream-of-consciousness, wildly tangential, constantly-on-the-verge-of-a-panic-attack style of narrative is great, you'll think this book is amazing. If, however, you want a straightforward, relatively linear narrative, you will think this is the worst thing you've ever read.

It feels beside the point to talk about story structure, because there isn't really any (it's very hard to tell how fast time is passing and there aren't really narrative beats to speak of), or character development, because there isn't really any of that either. Even for a memoir, a sense of story and character tend to be important, but neither is a priority for Eggers. While I'm usually fairly open to nontraditional narrative, this book is 100% style over substance. The most compelling part, for me, was the relationship between Dave and Toph, and Dave wrestling with both his fierce love and concern for his brother and his acknowledged resentment of being prematurely thrust into a parental role. However, I mostly found it tiresome. It held my attention inconsistently at best, I was usually bored long before a particular side riff was over. Eggers' flaw isn't that he's wildly self-absorbed (I think memoir is an inherently self-absorbed form since it's literally assuming that your own life is so compelling that other people want to read about it), but that he's not nearly as interesting as he thinks he is. I wouldn't recommend this book, but I wouldn't tear it out of anyone's hands and I can understand why some people really respond to it. I just didn't.

Tell me, blog you think your life is interesting enough to write a book about?

One year ago, I was reading: Mildred Pierce (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Websites and Blogs

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting some of our favorite bookish places on the internet! I've split my list into half websites, half blogs. I follow a few dozen book blogs, all of which I really enjoy (or else I wouldn't follow them), but the ones I've listed are the ones I tend to pull recommendations from most often because my personal reading taste falls most in line with theirs.

Goodreads: There are certainly flaws to it, but I love keeping track of what I'm reading, seeing what other people whose opinions matter to me are reading and loving (or not!), and being able to create tons of shelves to keep things organized. People who have beef with it because it allows the plebes to have opinions about books that they can share widely (which I've seen a bit of lately) can step off with their gatekeeping nonsense.

LibraryThing: This is a great book cataloging site if you use it that way, though the interface hasn't really done it for me. It's also a great source of information about the books you read (it's where I pull the lists/awards section of my posts from!).

Libib: My preferred way to catalog my physical library. Super easy to use and tag your collections!

Thriftbooks: This is where I get nearly all of my books, because the prices are amazing and I've been able to get my hands on things I would have had to spend ages digging for at local thrift/secondhand stores. I have embedded a referral link for this one, so avoid clicking on it if you don't want to do that (you'll get 15% off your first order if you do, though).

Book Riot: SO much bookish content every day! I do scroll through a significant number of posts without reading them, but it feels like at least once a day I find myself adding something to my TBR because of a recommendation or list they post!

Sarah's Book Shelves: Sarah is like my book blogger role model! Great recommendations and lists, and when she reviews books she does such a great job of hitting the highlights and giving a sense of whether or not it would be something you're into. Our reading taste has significant overlap (lots of "literary fiction", with occasional forays into other genres) and I always appreciate hearing what she thinks!

Read All The Things!: I post at the most three times a week, but usually two, because that's about as much as I have creativity for. AJ, though, posts several times a week with interesting content and a great sense of humor. She's also primarily focused on literary fiction with a lot of backlist, so we read similar things.

So Obsessed With: Hannah reads more YA than I do, but she reads adult fiction regularly as well. Her voice is great, peppy and fun but not sugary sweet. What makes her blog go-to reading for me is that I appreciate the way she ventures outside the strictly bookish to post some lifestyle-type content that I enjoy reading because her voice is so relatable!

Sophisticated Dorkiness: Kim sometimes posts more and sometimes less, but it's always worth waiting for! Her reading mix is literary fiction, with a decent amount of backlist, and one of the few bloggers I follow who reads non-memoir nonfiction fairly regularly so she's a great source for recommendations for me in my favorite genres!

Broke By Books: A second Sarah on my list! This Sarah doesn't post much in the way of straightforward reviews, but she posts lists I don't see elsewhere and some really interesting discussion-type posts. She doesn't post super-frequently, but when she does I always look forward to it because her perspective is different than a lot of what's out there.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book 141: The Leavers

"What a relief it had been to find him, to have someone to come home to, letting the everyday concerns take over: lesson planning at World Top English and where to go to dinner, filling myself up with tasks and conversation and possessions until there was no longer space to think about you. This is what could happen in a city like this. A woman could come from nowhere and become a new person. A woman could be arranged like a bouquet of fake flowers, bent this way and that, scrutinized from a distance, rearranged."

Dates read: April 21-24, 2017

Rating: 5/10

A few years ago, I did 23 And Me. America is, by and large, a nation of people who came from somewhere else, and I was curious where my family came from. My dad's side of the family, especially my grandmother's line, has been in the country for a long time and they've kept good records tracing our family back to the old country. But my grandfather on that same side was the son of a Polish immigrant who had no records of his family, and my mom's side is a big question mark since she was adopted as an infant.

In Lisa Ko's The Leavers, Deming Guo doesn't need any help to know where he came from. Born in the United States to Polly Guo, who had herself smuggled to America to escape a dead-end life in China, Deming was actually sent back to his mother's home village for a few years to live with his grandfather while Polly worked endlessly to try to make some headway on her debts to the loan sharks that got her to New York City in the first place. When we meet Deming, he's in elementary school, living with his mother, her boyfriend, the boyfriend's sister, and her son, Michael, who's about the same age as Deming himself. Then, suddenly, after Polly starts talking about maybe moving to Florida for a job in a restaurant instead of the crushing grind of the nail salon she's been working in for years, she disappears. Already economically strapped, Polly's boyfriend and his sister can't afford to keep Deming with them for long, and he's soon adopted by a pair of white upstate professors, where his new parents dub him "Daniel", ostensibly to help him get along easier in the overwhelmingly white town he finds himself in.

We next catch up with Daniel in his early 20s, back in NYC and doing musician gigs after he dropped out of college because of an online poker problem. He's crashing with his bandmate, Roland, the only other person of color that he went to school with, and trying to figure out how to avoid going back to school like his parents want him to. He's never found out what happened to his mother, but after a chance reconnection with Michael, his curiosity is reawakened. As he starts to pursue the issue, the perspective changes and we get Polly's and why she came to have Deming, how and why she came to America, and what actually did happen when she disappeared.

I never DNF (do not finish) books, but if I did, I would have dropped this one after about the first 50 or so pages. While the way his childhood played out would give anyone emotional scars, Daniel himself is not an enjoyable character to spend time with. He's whiny, he steals money from his friends, he's a coward. I really did not enjoy reading about him. But when the story switched to his mother, the book took off. Polly is a dynamic, interesting character who practically springs off the page, and her story is easy to get emotionally invested in. I wish Ko had either started with more of Polly or just made her the primary focus of the book overall...starting with Daniel seems like asking to lose a decent chunk of your audience straight out the gate.

And to miss this book entirely would be a shame. Although it's uneven, there's really solid stuff here. Like I said, Polly's story is a great one: she's a fantastic character and her struggles to make it are compelling. Ko also had me cringing in recognition at the way she painted Daniel's adoptive parents and their friends, who adopted a baby girl from China...the self-satisfied pats on their own backs for helping their children "connect with their culture" through food and dance classes, the way Deming is renamed like he's a puppy they picked up at the pound instead of a person. By the end, Ko has developed Daniel into a more understandable character and I came around to appreciating the book, but it really makes you slog through some bad (not even just like challenging, but bad) content to get there.

Tell me, blog friends...does a bad beginning turn you off a book entirely?

One year ago, I was reading: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books To Read Together

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I'm taking a slightly different tack on this week's topic. We're supposed to be writing about books we'd like to mash together to make an epic story, but honestly I had no idea what I'd do with that. I don't read a lot of fantasy, and I know you could do it with other kinds of books but I wasn't feeling creative so here's what I came up with instead: books that complement each other when read together. Each of them portrays a "side" of a story, so putting them together makes for a more well-rounded look at it.

Gone with the Wind and Beloved: Margaret Mitchell's classic of the antebellum South did bring us the incredible character of Scarlett O'Hara, but made no attempt to critically examine the machine on which that society was built: chattel slavery. Toni Morrison's Beloved, the story of a slave who escaped to the north at a great price, makes the horrors of it viscerally real. We often romanticize the plantation lifestyle, and we need to reckon with the terrible cost, too.

Little House on the Prairie and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: I used to get in trouble in school for reading books while I was in class, and when I was a kid, Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories about her family's journey across the country were ones I tucked inside my textbooks to read again and again. But the westward drive of white settlers had a devastating impact on the people who'd lived there for hundreds of years, so Dee Brown's nonfiction recounting of the desperate, doomed fight of the Native Americans to retain their land and traditions is necessary to understand what the Ingalls family was actually a part of.

To Kill A Mockingbird and Native Son: That poor Tom is innocent of the charges against him is, of course, a critical part of the injustice Harper Lee's novel asks us to understand. But while Lee wraps it in a soft, white-savior narrative, Richard Wright's searing book is much less comfortable in its story of a young black man who does assault a white woman. It examines the social conditions of the Jim Crow era that perpetuated criminality in a very up-front way, really forcing us to consider our own complicity in the system.

Lolita and Speak: Don't get me wrong, I consider Vladimir Nabakov's tale of Humbert Humbert's obsession with the vulnerable Delores one of my all-time favorites. It's an incredible book and not nearly as salacious as most people expect. But it's the story of the predator, and for a story about the impact of being the very young prey of a rapist, it's hard to beat Laurie Halse Anderson's incredible YA novel about a teenage girl ostracized after she calls the police when she's assaulted at a party. Anderson makes her nightmare real, and she's not even dependent on her rapist as Lolita is on hers.

The Great Gatsby and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: I actually didn't love it when I first read it in high school, but F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece has come to be The Great American Novel in my eyes. It's come to symbolize the grandeur and excess of early 20th century New York City so thoroughly that people don't talk about having Roaring 20s parties, they talk about Great Gatsby parties. But for all that excess and wealth, there was also poverty and want, and Betty Smith's beautifully rendered coming-of-age story shows the struggle beneath the glitter.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book 140: The Children of Henry VIII

"There remained, however, the problem of what to do with the body. The Duke had hoped for a fortnight in which to gather his resources, but, since the weather was warm and the corpse already beginning to decay, this proved untenable. He could not leave the body in the King's chamber, yet nor could he risk an autopsy - which, in view of the current rumors, his colleagues might suggests which might reveal the arsenic in Edward's body."

Dates read: April 13-21, 2017

Rating: 7/10

The more I read about Henry VIII and the world into which he came, the more understandable he becomes. Instead of reading his serial marriages as the behavior of a man who refused to control his desires, it becomes obvious that, in significant part, the desire for a male heir to ensure the security of his bloodline was all-consuming and not unreasonable. After decades of brutal warfare between the Lancaster and York family lines, Henry was the product of a fragile new dynasty, and his failure to produce a viable heir could plunge England back into active hostilities. He needed a son, or better yet two, so that in the event that the first one didn't survive to produce heirs of his own (like Henry's own older brother Arthur), there would be someone to carry on the line.

These fears turned out to be both founded and unfounded. While he was absolutely correct to be worried about producing a son that would survive to adulthood, his failure to do so led directly to one of the most successful reigns in English history. In The Children of Henry VIII, Alison Weir focuses on the period between Henry's death and the beginning of Elizabeth's rule. This 11-year timespan saw three monarchs and a significant amount of instability, much of it driven by the religious schism between English Catholics longing to return to the old faith and Protestants wanting to protect their gains. With this book, Weir explores how Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey (Henry's grandneice), Mary I, and Elizabeth I interacted with each other, with the nobility, and with the levers of power.

In popular culture, there's a tendency to focus on Henry and then Elizabeth, with little if any thought to what happened in between. But there was a LOT of drama...Elizabeth's teenage sex scandal with her stepmother's husband, Edward's slow death from tuberculosis, complete with an artificial prolonging of his life to give courtiers more time to scheme to get another Protestant on the throne, Jane Grey's 19-day queenship, in which she was mostly a pawn to her parents and their co-conspirators, Mary's romantic obsession with her largely uninterested husband and her extended phantom pregnancy which everyone just apparently pretended never happened. Seriously! She went into confinement to have her baby and stayed there for months and then just disbanded it long after it should have been obvious that there wasn't going to be a baby.

As always, Weir has a keen sense of who her subjects are as people and gives them life rather than just dryly recounting the events of their life. We see Edward's haughty remove and strong religious conviction, Jane's helplessness as a pawn in a game she's not a player in, Mary's desperation to have a family of her own to love and fervent Catholic faith, and Elizabeth's intelligence and caution, constantly trying to balance on a wire. It's easy to see why Weir was inspired to write about Jane for her first stab at fiction, as her sympathy for the doomed teenager shines through brightly. She's clearly done her research and the book feels satisfying both as reading for information and reading for entertainment. I'd definitely recommend this book!

Tell me, blog friends...did you know that Elizabeth got into hot water with Katherine Parr's husband?

One year ago, I was reading: Butterfly Boy (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The White Tiger

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Popular Books that Lived Up to the Hype

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! If you've ever read a book everyone told you was really good, and thought "really?" when you finally finished it, you've been bitten by the hype bug. I think a lot of us have gotten a little gun-shy over the years about the next hyped release! So here are ten books that (at least for me, everyone has different tastes) actually lived up to high expectations!

Jane Eyre: Classics, especially "beloved" classics, have literally hundreds of years of hype. I thought this book was going to be a straightforward romance and was delighted to find a story about a young woman coming into her own that happened to end with marriage. It's really good, y'all!

War and Peace: I tell everyone I've read War and Peace both because it's a gigantic classic and half the point of reading it is to brag about it but ALSO because it's honestly an incredible book that people think is intimidating and likely serious and boring and it is long but it is wonderful.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I resisted this one for a long time because mystery/thriller is not a genre I've had particular luck with and I figured that its bestseller status confirmed that it was dumb. Joke's on me for being snobby, once I read it I raced to get the sequels because I looooved it.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: I remember a list I read several years back that said this was the best book since the turn of the century, which made me raise my eyebrows because it's a book about dudes writing comic books. How good could it be? The answer is: phenomenal.

The Hunger Games: I don't read a ton of YA. I'm not trying to sound like I'm hating on it, but I usually find that I'm looking for books with more complex characters/plots and more elegant prose styling for my personally most enjoyable reading experiences. So when this series got a ton of buzz, I kind of wrote it off as not for me and then I raced through all three of them because they're so good.

Gone Girl: A missing wife. A husband with a secret. Sounds like something you pick up at the airport to read on the plane and immediately forget. But I found myself staying up late and reading while I ate because I didn't want to put it down and that Cool Girl breakdown is a masterpiece.

Americanah: I read this just recently and there have been years of continually low-level hype about it that made me almost sure it would inevitably disappoint. Nope, turns out it really is that good.

A Game of Thrones: I actually watched the first season of the show before I picked up the books. Though I love The Lord of the Rings, I'd tried reading some other fantasy epics before and they'd just never clicked, but these books are so damn good and I re-read one over the holidays every year and I just want the sixth one nowwwwwwww.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: People love David Sedaris, which had always made me a little wary. Humor can be tricky on the page, and I've often found myself reading things that are supposed to be funny and being completely flummoxed. But happily, this book kept me laughing and I've picked up several of his other works to read.

Big Little Lies: I literally just posted my review of this last week, so I won't belabor the point. I read it as the miniseries (which I STILL haven't watched) was airing and getting raves so I read it at Peak Hype and still really liked it.

Monday, July 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: July 2018

We're at the point in summer where it feels like it'll never be over. Though it's nowhere nearly as bad as Las Vegas, Reno gets very toasty in the summer, and our swamp cooler is one of the best things we've bought ourselves for our apartment! And thankfully, we were able to escape the heat a bit with a little weekend vacation mid-month!

In Books...

  • Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: This is an extremely comprehensive account of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. If you're already very familiar with the facts, this likely won't do much for you, but since my own memories of the coverage of the case were fuzzy, I found it informative. It doesn't have the kind of narrative flow that distinguishes the best true crime, but it's very competently written and is a solid foundation on what happened...even if the question of who did it remains frustratingly beyond reach.  
  • Disgrace: It's quite short, less than 250 pages, but this novel about a college professor in South Africa whose fling with a student lands him out of academia and into the countryside with his only daughter is rich with meaning and deeply layered. It's not an easy book or enjoyable in the traditional sense, but it's powerful and very good.
  • The Looming Tower: I'll admit I was a little concerned about reading this just six months after Ghost Wars since it seemed like it would have a lot of the same information, but I needn't have worried. This book focuses less on Afghanistan and more on Osama Bin Laden and the development of al-Queda, and for my money was the better of the two. Despite containing a lot of information, it was clearly told and resisted diverging too far from its central narrative. 
  • My Own Words: This collection of pieces of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's writings and speeches, dating from middle school all the way through her long and continuing career on the Supreme Court is a solid work. An enjoyable portrait of a keen-minded lady, though I'll confess I'm more looking forward to the biography that's on the way from the same writers. 
  • Olive Kitteridge: I feel like I've read a lot of books lately in that "interconnected vignettes" style, so I was dreading picking up this set of loosely intertwined short stories. But there's a reason Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer...each story is a full story and Olive was a character I found myself interested in reading about. She's a mess of contradictions in such a human way. There are some stronger stories and some weaker ones, of course, but it's a very solid collection.
  • The Romanov Empress: I used to read a lot more historical fiction and enjoyed it, so I was intrigued by this story of the life of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. She was the mother of Tsar Nicholas II and outlived not only him, but three of her other children as well. The book was competent but not exemplary...she lived such a long, full life that it ended up being more of a highlight reel than a story that I could really get into. I do want to read an actual biography of her now, though!
  • The Pleasing Hour: This novel about a young American woman who goes to France to work as an au pair has some truly lovely writing and does some good work with characters at points, but never really finds a compelling plot or comes completely together. It's a debut, though, so I'm looking forward to read more of Lily King's work. 

In Life...

  • Weekend in San Francisco: There was a motive behind this one that I'll let you all know about if it develops into anything, but honestly any excuse to go enjoy the Bay Area is good enough! I flew in on a Wednesday night and Drew drove over to join on a Thursday, and after a brief obligation Thursday, we had the rest of the weekend to explore the city and Berkeley, where we stayed on the spendier weekend nights to save some money. We ate, we drank, I made TWO bookstore stops. It was really fun, San Francisco is a great city.

One Thing:

Every once in a while there's a big Reddit thread about the best phone apps you've never heard of. The last time I browsed one, I downloaded TripIt! for my phone and this weekend's trip to the Bay was the first time I used it and I really liked it! You can either sign up to let them have access to your emails so it will scan them for things like confirmation numbers, or forward your emails directly (I did the former) and it'll organize them by trip so you have all your information together in one place. Maybe more naturally organized people have a system that works for them, but for me I found it really helpful to have and I recommend trying it out if that sounds like something that would work for you!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Book 139: Big Little Lies

"It was stupid for them to be fighting about this. A rational part of her mind knew this. She knew that Ed didn't really blame Jane. She knew her husband was actually a better, nicer person than she was, and yet she couldn't forgive him for that 'silly girl' comment. It somehow represented a terrible wrong. As a woman, Madeline was obliged to be angry at Ed on Jane's behalf, and for every other 'silly girl', and for herself, because after all, it could have happened to her too, and even a soft little word like 'silly' felt like a slap."

Dates read: April 9-13, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/Awards: New York Times Bestseller

I'm a lobbyist, and my sister is a nurse. We're both "high achievers", so to speak. Part of that is because of who we are, but part of that is because my mom pushed both of us to be academically successful too. On the one hand, she wanted us to always be able to support ourselves...being able to take care of not only herself but two little girls enabled her to escape a bad marriage. On the other hand, she was one of very few single mothers in the small town I grew up in and she didn't want to have to face the patronizing pity of the stay-at-home moms who would have judged her for it if we turned out anything less than model students.

Mommy wars are hardly anything new, of course. They've probably been going on as long as there have been moms (i.e. forever). Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies has its roots in drama between mothers, but there's a bigger story here. It begins on the first day of kindergarten in a small seaside Australian town, drawing together a group of women who all have children starting school that day: hotheaded Madeline, her ex-husband's serene yoga instructor wife Bonnie, her beautiful best friend Celeste, and the new arrival in town, young and insecure single mother Jane. Of these women, only Madeline is much like she seems to be on the surface.

It seems frothy, this story about the bonds between women, and in some ways it is, but there's a lot of darkness behind the surface veneer of fun. I hope enough people have seen the HBO show or read the book by now that this won't be considered much of a spoiler, but lovely Celeste with her perfect life and doting husband is hiding years of domestic abuse, Jane's sweet little boy is the product of a one-night stand with a sadistic jerk, and Bonnie's secrets are too much a part of the suspense to give away. All we know when we begin the book is that there was a death a school function, and interviews with the police frame the chapters, dropping little hints about what might have happened and to whom.

I'll be honest...this is a genre of book that I tend to see on airport bookstore shelves and walk right past. But Big Little Lies is a great example of why it's often a fruitful exercise to get outside my comfort zone every once in a while. I found the story of the relationships that grew (and frayed, sometimes) between the women to be well-told and emotionally resonant, which meant that by the time all is revealed at the end, the payoff was earned and carried weight. The mystery of what happened keeps the plot moving forward through character-building beats, resulting in a book that's well-balanced between the story and the people who populate it (in other words, both plot and character lovers will find something to enjoy here).

After I finished this book, I found myself wondering why domestic drama stories are so often relegated to the pile of "chick lit" and treated as insubstantial. A book like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is entirely the story of a family and their relationships, but it's treated as Serious Literature while something like Big Little Lies, which actually wrestles with weightier topics, is considered to be Women's Literature, For Women Only. There's still a great deal of institutional bias against books written by women about women: Liane Moriarty is very successful, but her work is treated as niche interest instead of relevant to everyone. If stories about men engaging in self-discovery, exploring the world around them and finding their places in it are marketed widely, why shouldn't stories about women doing the same be given the same treatment?

Tell me, blog you turn up your nose a bit at "women's books"?

One year ago, I was reading: Station Eleven

Two years ago, I was reading: Behave

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Vivid Reading Memories

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books for which we have particularly vivid and detailed reading memories. I don't often have super strong recollections of where I was and who I was with when I read (even if I really like the book!), but for some books, I do, and here are ten of them.

Fifty Shades of Grey: I KNOW, okay? I have very vivid memories of reading these blissfully brain-engagement free books on the boat at my mom's house when I was studying for the bar exam. I raced through them, because goodness knows I needed something easy on the gray matter that summer.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Another memory very tied to the boat...years after their big popularity boom, I read them over the summer after my first year of law school. That year in particular was not great for me in a lot of ways, so I relished getting lost in these twisty, propulsive books.

Never Let Me Go: I can still picture the little purple bookcase in my room my senior year of college that this book sat on after I read it for the first time...and the couch in our living room that I read it on.

The Virgin Suicides: I remember picking this up at the bookstore and starting to read it while sitting in the backseat on the way home with my mom and sister and getting really excited about seeing Bon Secours Hospital, where I was born, turn up in the text.

A Wrinkle In Time: This is very unglamorous, but in the interests of honesty, this book was always sitting in a basket in the bathroom with reading material growing up and so I read and re-read it over and over again in there in little bits at a time.

Bridget Jones' Diary: I remember getting this book in high school and staying up late to read it (my light dim so I could turn it off quickly if my mom came to tell me to go to sleep), trying desperately to stifle the sound of my laughter.

Zodiac: This isn't really honeymoon reading, but that's when I read it. There was one night we were in Chicago that we had a just crazy thunderstorm (the night we were going to go down to the fireworks at the Navy Pier, in fact) and I remember sitting on the little loveseat by the window and just hearing the thunder crash while I read.

A Suitable Boy: This isn't just one memory, because this book is crazy long, but I remember very much living at home after my sophomore year of college and reading this book when I wasn't working my very short-lived stint as a checkout clerk at the local grocery store. I would stay up in my room for hours because it was so absorbing.

The Awakening: We read this book late my senior year of high school in AP English and got these really cheap paperbacks, and I remember very much freaking out because I'd managed to rip off a big chunk of the cover accidentally. Thankfully it was only like $5 to replace it.

Gone With The Wind: My mom once dated a guy who had a cottage in northern Michigan on Torch Lake and I remember that we went up there for a long weekend one summer to open it and this is what I was's forever linked in my mind with the slightly musty smell of a house that's been shut up all winter.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Dreamcasting: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

It's time for another round of Dreamcasting, my ongoing series about the books I love and the movies I'd want to see made of them! This time around, I'm looking at a classic that I think could actually do well with modern audiences, because the themes around sexual coercion, slut-shaming, and both secretly and not-so-secretly garbage dudes that put you on a pedestal still resonate in today's world. So who would I cast in the lead roles?

Tess Durbeyfield: Sophie Turner

I've tried not to just reflexively go for the Game of Thrones "kids" (they aren't kids anymore really but they're still the kids in my head) when looking for British actors, but sometimes they're right. I don't know if her red or blonde hair is her natural look, but I'd love to see her in the red for this role. I've been impressed with her range over the years on Thrones, and I think she can pull of Tess's fundamental goodness throughout hardship and she's such a classic English rose.

Alec d'Urberville: Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is an interesting actor, and I really liked him as Vronsky in what was honestly not an especially great version of Anna Karenina a few years back. He's got the kind of intensity I think works for Alec and I think he could play a sort of simmering malice well.

Angel Clare: Nicholas Hoult

Angel seems like a good dude at first but turns out to be pretty damn problematic (intentionally). Hoult's big blue eyes lend him an innocence that works for his initial presentation, he's both good looking and seems sweet so the appeal for Tess makes sense, and he's got enough edge for the turn Angel's character takes later in the book.

Liza-Lu: Maisie Williams

Liza-Lu's not a huge part, so this feels like a waste of Maisie Williams, but she and Sophie Turner already play sisters on Thrones, so having them play sisters again here just feels right.