Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book 125: Between The World And Me

"You must resist the urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children."

Dates read: February 9-11, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Lists/Awards: National Book Award

Reading has many different purposes. One of the primary ones is entertainment, to take your mind off the things that are weighing on you and activate your imagination. Another is knowledge, the deepen and enrich your understanding about the world around you. And another is to challenge you. To make you see things from a new perspective, to force you to reconsider your assumptions about the way things are. A book doesn't have to fit just one, many get at least two or even all three and more besides. But I think to the extent practicable, it's a good idea to try to make sure your reading touches all of them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer that I find challenging. He's incredibly talented and smart, but he pushes back against the way I'm inclined to view the world left to my own devices. Which are, of course, rooted in my own experience. It's easy to forget that the way you see and interact with the world (and the way it sees and interacts with you) isn't universal. Which is why I was really excited when my book club chose as a selection Coates' lauded Between The World And Me. It's a book I'd been meaning to read and that I was glad I had an excuse to force it upwards on my reading list.

Coates structures the book as a pair of letters addressed to his son. Part memoir and part social commentary, Coates relates his experiences growing up as a black man in America, filtered through the lens of trying to impart the lessons that his son will need to stay safe. Between The World And Me focuses intensely on the body, and the ways that the bodies of black people have been used to fuel the American Dream for white people. It's a startling thing to read about in writing as powerful as Coates' is: what it must feel like to always feel like your body is at the risk of being broken.

As a relatively attractive woman, I'm familiar with the feeling of a body that doesn't quite belong to me alone, that others (and by that, I mean men) feel like belongs to them in a particular way. But it's use, rather than breaking, that's usually at issue there. Coates makes the feeling of constantly knowing that your body, and the bodies of those that you love, are targets for violence and rage simply for existing, visceral and real. Coates' love of and fear for his son, his desperate desire to somehow protect him from a world that will see him as a threat simply by virtue of his existence as a black man, is palpable.

This book has become a must-read for white liberals who want to learn more about race relations, a group into which I myself fall. I read an article before I read the book where Coates himself addressed the way his book has been received and expressed some frustration about being constantly asked about how he feels about the way white people have reacted to it. He wrote the book after a friend was murdered by the police, but the conversation hasn't been about police brutality. It's been about how to help white people better understand race. That should be a wake-up call, fellow Caucasians. It's not the job of people of color to make it easier for us to understand what they go through, especially when there is plenty of literature, like this book, that will help us to that work on our own.

Tell me, blog you think it matters who the author's intended audience is when they write a book?

One year ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Dune

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Audiobooks I Really Liked

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week we have a total freebie, and I couldn't figure out what to write about until it hit me: I actually do a lot of non-fiction and beloved classics re-reading on audio, so I wanted to share some of my all-time favorite audiobooks!

His Dark Materials: Phillip Pullman, the author, narrates the trilogy with a full voice cast and the magic is just as real in your ears as it was on the page.

Sabriel: If you've ever read these books, you know that Tim Curry's voice is PERFECT for them (especially Mogget!).

Harry Potter: I'll admit I'm a little jealous that I can't find the Stephen Fry narration in the US, but honestly Jim Dale does beautiful work telling these wonderful stories.

The Queen Mother: I confess, I'm a royals junkie. The Queen Mum died before I got really into the British Royal Family, but listening to this was a cool way to be introduced to a very interesting woman.

Basque History of the World: Northern Nevada has a significant population of Basque people, who I knew very little about before I listened to this fascinating book about them.

The Princess Diarist: The world lost a skilled, witty voice when we lost Carrie Fisher, and listening to her tell her story in her own voice is a great experience.

Troublemaker: Scientology is super weird, to put it mildly, and while I keep meaning to catch up with her show about leaving the church, Leah Remini's actual warm, authentic voice telling her story about it is a must-listen.

Believe Me: Eddie Izzard's comedy often rests on the strength of his storytelling and his voice, which is delightful and enlightening in this beautiful, funny memoir.

Nixonland: The Nixon presidency, with its paranoia and division-stoking, seems ever more relevant today and I learned a lot listening to this book about it.

Stardust: I love listening to Neil Gaiman read his own amazing work. His voice is so distinctive and evocative.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book 124: Flowertown

"Contamination and containment became the buzzwords, replaced quickly with quarantine and treatment, all to the musical backdrop of international media and outrage as the world demanded to know who was responsible for the poisoning of seven and a half square miles of America's heartland. There were Senate hearings and criminal investigations. Some people died and many more people suffered, but as weeks turned into months, most people outside of the Penn County spill zone went back to their jobs and their newscasts and their horror at the other atrocities available on every continent, on every channel."

Dates read: February 6-9, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When it comes to corporate scandals, there's little that it's hard to believe in this day and age. The Ford Pinto incident seems especially egregious, but even the recent enormous price hikes of life-saving medication like the Epi-Pen should remind us all that for companies, the value of human life often gets lost somewhere in the cost-benefit analysis matrix. For all that mega-corporations try to create brand loyalty and convince us that they do actually care, the bottom line is that the entire point of a publicly-traded company is to maximize value for stockholders. If there is little-to-no impact on their income reports, sure, some companies will do the right thing. But when it comes down to it, nearly all the time they will chose profit over any other factor.

In S.G. Redling's Flowertown, it's a company called Feno Chemical that finds itself mired in controversy after a disastrous pesticide spill in a small town in Iowa. The area is quarantined by the Army as large numbers of residents begin to die from exposure to the toxin, and Feno's pharmaceutical subsidiary develops a drug regime to try to treat them. For those who manage to survive, the drugs have a side effect: a sweet smell that emanates from those who've been dosed, leading to the nickname Flowertown. Even with the drugs, though, the chemicals are excreted from the body through any liquid and prove impossible to remove through filtering, so the people who remain have to stay to avoid infecting anyone else.

Ellie Caulley had just quit her job in advertising and was visiting her boyfriend's hometown before they were to take off on a trip overseas when the accident happened. Her boyfriend and his family died, but Ellie lived, and after seven years of being trapped in the confines of Flowertown, she only manages to keep a lid on her anger by being high all the time and sleeping with one of the Army officers assigned to keep the peace. She has only two friends: her sweet-natured roommate Rachel and the hyper-paranoid Bing, who keeps her in pot. When bombs start going off, though, she finds herself increasingly drawn into the local events: who's setting off the explosions? The local resistance movement? Feno Chemical trying to rid itself of a problem? The Army?

This is a mystery/thriller, but once events are set into motion, it's not too hard to figure out what the deal is (I'm not good at that kind of thing at all, but I still figured it out). The character development is surprisingly decent...Redling's Ellie is a prickly heroine who takes some warming up to but captures your sympathies. It's not hard to imagine how awful it would be to find yourself in the situation she does, how it would drive you almost crazy with loss and regret. With most of the books in this genre that I've read, creating characters doesn't seem like a big priority, but this book is less plot and more character driven, which worked for me. If you're looking for a thriller-style book based in people and personalities, this is a solid (albeit unspectacular) read.

Tell me, blog friends...have any stories about corporate greed come out that you had an especially hard time believing?

One year ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved but Will Never Re-Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that we really liked but will never re-read. I figure for a lot of people this will include the gigantic books like War and Peace and such but I am crazy enough to think that one day I might actually get back around to them.

The Divine Comedy: It's just too much theology and Italian history to wade back into. Glad I read it once, but it's hard to imagine I'll read it again.

My Sister's Keeper: Just tooooo many feelings here. Tear-jerkers are a category I'm generally not particularly into re-reading.

The Hobbit: I really enjoyed this book, but I prefer the LOTR trilogy and when I want to revisit Middle Earth, I turn to them rather than the prequel.

Number The Stars: This is a very good book, and I re-read it several times as a kid, but I think it would lose some of the magic now as an adult reader. Middle grade is hard to get back into now when I want so much more from my reading.

Eat Pray Love: I quite liked this book when I first read it, but with the strong criticism of it I've absorbed over the years, I'm hesitant to go back to it and have it fall apart for me.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This book meant so much to me in high school and I'd happily recommend it to high schoolers, I just feel like I'm past the point in my life where it's going to have that kind of impact on me and I want to keep it as it is in my memory.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: I loved this book as a teenager, but now that I've actually lived in the South, I think the stereotypes of southern womanhood would bother me.

Ella Enchanted: Charming, delightful middle grade that I just don't think would hold 32 year-old me's attention anymore.

The Pianist: A harrowing, powerful story that's good to read once but I can't think about reading again.

The Chaneysville Incident: This book packs a punch, but it's pretty bleak. I'm glad I experienced it but don't feel any need to do so again.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Book 123: Orange Is The New Black

"It was a weird place, the all-female society with a handful of strange men, the military-style living, the predominant 'ghetto' vibe (both urban and rural) through a female lens, the mix of every age, from silly young girls to old grandmas, all thrown together with varying levels of tolerance. Crazy concentrations of people inspire crazy behavior."

Dates read: February 2-6, 2017

Rating: 7/10

My mother is a pharmacist, but she was also a single parent to my sister and I. Most retail pharmacy jobs require nights and weekends, which were a no-go, so she worked for the State. Which meant working mostly in prisons and psychiatric facilities. Pharmacists have relatively little interaction with the prisoner population, but she still had interesting stories about what it was like to work on the inside. Now that I'm an adult, I can't imagine how weird it must have been to go to jail every day, Monday through Friday, as her job.

But of course, there's a world of difference between working at a prison and living inside of one. Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is The New Black, chronicles the latter: just about a year of doing time at a minimum security women's prison in New England. This book was the basis of the Netflix show of the same name, but it's a very different piece of media. Like any memoir, it's rooted in the author's personal experience. So while many of the characters, and even some of the incidents, will be familiar to those who watch the show, the book is really all about Piper.

Which, for me at least, worked just fine. She doesn't spend much time dwelling on her crime, but rather focuses her attention on what it actually means to be a prisoner. What comes through the most strongly is the dehumanization, going from being a person with autonomy to a number at the mercy of the system. There's virtually no privacy, there are strip searches required for every visit with someone from the outside world, the smallest concessions are subject to the capricious whims of prison officials. While many of the women are due to be released relatively soon, there's no meaningful rehabilitation or real preparation to be re-integrated into the outside world.

It really makes you think about what the point of prison actually is. Kerman's case, in particular, was a crime that was nearly a decade behind her by the time she actually saw the inside of a cell. She had long since ceased to be a threat to society, so protecting the world from her by putting her away clearly wasn't the point. The near-total neglect of actual education or career prep that might enable women to be able to quickly secure a job that might keep them out of the kinds of situations that landed them in prison in the first place shows that rehabilitation isn't what's going on. Our ever-growing prison population shows that deterrence isn't working. So it's just punitive then. And what point does that actually serve? Do most people feel like it's a moral victory to imprison low-level drug offenders, with all the costs that it entails?

Kerman is a good writer, and is more sympathetic than her television portrayal would suggest. She accepts her guilt for her crime, and while she's certainly surprised and upset that her brief stint with crime comes back to haunt her years later, once she's gotten used to the idea, she's mostly regretful about the impact it has on her family and loved ones. She takes the reader inside a world that most of us won't ever experience, and renders it with empathy and humor. This is a solid read, and as long as you're not expecting it to be just like the show, I'd definitely recommend it.

Tell me, blog you anyone that's ever been incarcerated?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I Liked In Books I Didn't

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Not every book is amazing, obviously, but sometimes the most frustrating books that don't really connect is that the characters in them feel like they deserve better. So here are ten characters that stole my heart, even if the rest of the book didn't.

Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath): I hated this book so so much after reading it in AP English in high school, but Ma Joad reminds me of Ma Ingalls...ladies who had to deal with a whole lot of bullshit and kept their families together as well as they could through it all. I found literally no one else in this book at all worth my time or attention.

Lucifer (Paradise Lost): I'm convinced that it's meant to be a joke that the devil is by far the most compelling character in this epic poem. But also proof that the villain is usually a better role than the hero.

Jakob (The Hangman's Daughter): The actual hangman's daughter, Magdalena, didn't particularly interest me, but the hangman himself, Jakob, was knowledgeable and thoughtful and enjoyable to read about in this otherwise completely unremarkable book.

Freida Mintz (Charity Girl): This book, about women who were held against their will because they contracted venereal disease, was very uneven, but I rooted for headstrong, independent Freida, who refused to just accept the circumstances that were handed to her.

Hannah Chase (The Sisters Chase): I found Mary, the older sister and the center of the narrative, boring and cliche, but Hannah, first as a sweet kid and then going through the regular rebellion of a teenage girl, was the only thing that got me through this legitimately bad book.

Florence (The Highest Tide): This book did absolutely nothing for me, but Florence, the old lady who takes an awkward, lonely preteen boy under her wing while stubbornly resisting her increasingly obvious need to leave her home, tugged at my heart strings.

Anna O'Donnell (The Wonder): I hated this book, but I loved the sweet, high-spirited girl at the center of a maybe-hoax miracle in rural Ireland in the early 20th century.

The Old Turk (Boys and Girls Together): Almost everyone in this book about five young people whose lives end up converging in New York is awful and the experience of reading it was unpleasant, but the relationship between young Rudy (who becomes such a martyr that he's boring) and his grandfather, the Old Turk, is the lone bright spot. He's so kind and warm-hearted that he seems to be from another universe entirely.

Bernadette Fox (Where'd You Go Bernadette): Bernadette was super smart and completely unwilling to go along with the bullshit in pretty much every aspect of her life. Too bad her garbage husband didn't bother to notice the way his centering of his own needs was slowly destroying her and the book made a joke out of her deterioration.

Venus Black (My Name Is Venus Black): I found Venus herself compelling, but the book as a whole fell very flat for me. Venus deserved a better book.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: March 2018

And the year is officially one quarter over! Compared to the first couple months of the year, March was pretty calm. My mom's visit wrapped up early in the month, and my husband was out of town a little, but otherwise not much besides celebrating my in-laws' birthdays (like my husband and I, they share a birthday month). A laid-back schedule meant a banner month for me on the reading front, which felt great! I keep acquiring new books to read, so I need to get through the ones I already have.  

In Books...
  • Henry and Cato: Ever since I saw the movie Iris, I wanted to read one of Iris Murdoch's books. This one went on sale for the Kindle, so that's what I went for. It was good, with interesting parallels and themes and well-crafted prose, but it didn't blow my mind. It was good enough to make me want to pick up other things she's written, but it isn't something I'll need a copy of for my own shelf. 
  • Good Omens: I've come to be a big Neil Gaiman fan and this was actually somehow my first encounter with Terry Pratchett, and this has gotten a lot of raves so I went in with high expectations. Which were mostly met! This book is delightfully witty and fun to read. It's not perfect, but it's damn good. 
  • The Martian: I actually think this worked better as a movie? It's solid, don't get me wrong, but on the page the formulaic-ness of the plot (a problem arises, is solved, and then another problem arises, is solved, etc combined with a rescue mission) becomes very obvious. It doesn't mean I didn't like it, but it wasn't outstanding either.
  • Exit West: This was the book club pick for this month, which worked out perfectly because I'd gotten it as my Book of the Month a year ago but hadn't had a chance to read it yet. I was a little wary because magical realism is not something I particularly enjoy, but this was just gorgeously written and strongly rooted in a beautifully portrayed relationship between two young people in a city that's descending into violence. It's a stunning book.
  • Court Justice: As a college football fan (and someone whose husband loved the NCAA football video games), I've been interested in the O'Bannon lawsuit and the ongoing debate about the idea of paying college players, so this book seemed right up my alley. It didn't work, though, for me. The writing was clunky, and it felt like there was more information about O'Bannon's life and career than there was about the lawsuit. I'm sure there's a good book to be written about it all, but this isn't it. 
  • Stiff: I read Roach's Spook last year and enjoyed it, so I went back to read her first book! I learned a lot of really fascinating things about dead people and what happens to them, and my inclination towards organ donation was re-affirmed. 
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: I've been hearing good things about this book for years now, and happily, my recommenders were right! This is a fascinating book, exploring the life of the titular lady (whose cancer cells were the beginning of one of the most widely-used cell lines in the world), medical ethics, and what's become of the children Henrietta left behind when she died at only 31. It's a little uneven in the pacing, but definitely worth reading. 
  • Possession: This book is so dense and rich I'm sure it takes a second or even third reading to really fully appreciate it, but I enjoyed it enough that I'll be happy to return to it someday. Compelling characters and an interesting, nerdy mystery that requires them to find and follow literary clues to solve it? Sold. 
  • Of Human Bondage: Books like this are why I continue to refuse to DNF. About halfway through, I was not really enjoying this character study of a shy, sensitive young man who can't figure out what he wants to do with himself. But by the end, I was glad I stuck by to watch him struggle and grow and change and finally find a kind of happiness. 

In Life...
  • I bought a car: It's actually less exciting than it lease was ending, so I decided to keep the car I've been driving for three years already. But this is the first car I've actually bought and I'm excited that it's mine (well, it's my credit union's, but it's basically mine). 
  • Campaign season begins: Our filing period for candidates for political office opened on March 5 and closed March 16, which meant a lot of time for me with elections offices websites and spreadsheets. Now that who's running for what is all set, primary campaigns begin (including one that my colleagues and I are working on)!

One Thing:

As a lifelong devotee of University of Michigan sports, there is no better place on the internet to read about football, hockey, and this time of year, basketball than MGoBlog! It's been a long time since I was an active commenter, but Brian Cook and his team are the first ones I turn to for analysis and commentary about the Maize and Blue! 

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Book 122: Marlena

"I've never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don't touch anything doesn't mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being just fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you're irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena's case, the person you'll never have the chance to be. The world doesn't care that you're just a girl."

Dates read: January 30- February 2, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When you think about it, we usually meet our friends for the most stupidly mundane reasons. A girl who was a friend of mine in high school was someone I'd made friends with in first grade because we were always at the end of the tallest-to-shortest line together. My friend Kailey and I became friends because I just happened to be one of the first people she met when she moved to my school district in fifth grade. One of my closest friends in college was someone who'd become close to my then-boyfriend through the Greek system and we just all started hanging out together. It's strange to think that people who have been huge parts of my life are people I very well would never have known if not for mere accidents of geography and chance.

In Julie Buntin's Marlena, fifteen year-old Catherine encounters the friend who will change her world forever, the titular Marlena, because she happens to move next door to Marlena's family. A year earlier she'd been known as Cathy, a motivated student at a private high school outside of Detroit, but then her parents divorced and her mother, short on resources, moves her and her brother Jimmy to the northern Lower Peninsula to start over. Catherine decides to become Cat, and her seventeen year-old neighbor becomes her best friend. Marlena is what could be delicately described as a troubled young woman: her mother has long since vanished and her father cooks meth in the woods, she's the closest thing her decade-younger brother has to a parent, she's hooked on opiates and has a squicky relationship with the older man who provides her pills to her. The intense friendship that springs up between the girls draws Cat into a new world: drugs and booze and sex and cutting class. But after a year, Cat tells us, Marlena will be dead, found drowned in a shallow stream in the woods.

The story is told on two tracks: mostly the story of the year in which Marlena was a part of Cat's life, but also Cat all grown up, working at a library in New York City, long past that time in her life. Or is she? The unhealthy relationship she developed as a teenager with alcohol is still with her, threatening to unwind her relationship and career. This is not as successful a framing mechanism as it could be: the portions in Michigan are dominant and the underdevelopment of the portions in New York render them almost superfluous. I think with some editing to balance out the narratives better, the book would have been more powerful. As it is, it's good: the friendship between the girls rings true, and Buntin draws them and the supporting characters in ways that make them complex and interesting.

Although I am in no way trying to imply any kind of impropriety, there's no denying that this book has distinct similarities to Emma Cline's The Girls and it's interesting that both came out around the same time. Both are books about young, relatively sheltered teenage girls who find themselves drawn into an intense bond with an older girl. The older girl in question in both stories draws the younger into "dark" situations: drinking, drugs, sex. Both books intersperse the story of the one-time friendship with flash-forwards to the girl all grown up, looking back on that time of her life. And since the comparison is obvious, it has to be said that for me, Cline's is better. Buntin's makes me excited to see how she follows up this debut, but it falls short of greatness and lacks the raw power of The Girls. I'd still recommend it, though, especially for those that enjoy stories about strong female friendships and coming-of-age stories. 

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever have a super close friendship as a teenager?

One year ago, I was reading: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Yes Please

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Take Place In Other Countries

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! While I read mostly books set in the country in which I was born and live (which I imagine many of us do), my reading goes all over the world! And that's something I love about reading, how I can travel anywhere I want from my chair/bed/reading locale of the moment. Here are ten mostly recent-ish reads that take place outside of the US that I really enjoyed!

The Bear and the Nightingale (Russia): I've written about this Slavic folklored-based young adult book before to tell you how much I loved it but I LOVED it! The first two books in this series are both great, honestly, and I can't wait for the third to come this summer!

Stay With Me (Nigeria): You think you know where this book might be headed when a couple's interfering, traditional in-laws get the husband a second wife because his first one hasn't gotten pregnant yet...but you have no idea. And the plot continues to twist on and on in ways that are completely unexpected.

Rebecca (England): This Gothic suspense novel has lots of repression, largely takes place on a countryside estate, and features a head housekeeper as the main antagonist, so it's very English indeed.

The Blind Assassin (Canada): Margaret Atwood is Canadian after all, so it's only reasonable that she sets this incredible, rich story in her homeland.

The Book Thief (Germany): Bring all the tissues for this World War 2 story about a young orphaned girl who loves to read.

Big Little Lies (Australia): I still haven't managed to sit down and watch the TV show (which was set in California), but the book was super entertaining and it just goes to show that rich lady competitive mommy-ing is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

The Queen of the Night (France): There's a little bit at the beginning that's in America, and another bit in Germany, but this is mostly in Napoleonic France and it has the best kind of truly insane plot and I love it so much.

The God of Small Things (India): This is one of my two "cheats", because I first read this book quite some time ago, but it's so good and basically anything I know about Kerala at all comes from this book.

In The Woods (Ireland): I don't read a lot of mystery, because I find it gets formulaic and often is plot-over-character when I prefer the other way around. But this book has inspired me to collect the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad series because it was so well-told and I want to read mooooore.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Sweden): My second cheat, because I read these books during the summer of my first year in law school, but I did really love this trilogy, the first book especially. I've got no interest in the continuing series with a new author, though.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Book 121: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

"As soon as the dancing was finished, many of the young men rode off to Texas to hunt  buffalo and raid the Texans who had taken their lands. They were especially angry against white hunters who were coming down from Kansas to kill thousands of buffalo; the hunters took only the skins, leaving the bloody carcasses to rot on the Plains. To the Kiowas and Comanches the white men seemed to hate everything in nature."

Dates read: January 26-30, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: New York Times bestseller

History is written by the victors. Growing up in the north, I learned about the Civil War the way I thought everyone did: it was fought over slavery and the Union Army were the good guys. But when I moved to Alabama for law school, I knew people who would, tongue only halfway in cheek, refer to it as the War of Northern Aggression, and who insisted passionately that it was fought over federalism and states' rights. It makes you wonder how many more of the things we learn about have a completely different narrative from the other side.

Like Manifest Destiny, for example. From what I recall from my K-12 history classes, this was a largely positive event, stretching the US from sea to shining sea. There's some token acknowledgment that it meant "resettling" the Native Americans, but it's not dwelled upon. Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, though, tells the story of the settling of the American continent from the people who were there first.

Since he focuses on the era of Manifest Destiny (there's some information about how European arrival in the Americas played out, but it's a small portion of the book), Brown confines his focus to the West. It's heartwrenching to read about from the perspective of now, because you know that each chief that tries to negotiate in good faith with the white people will eventually be cheated and that each warrior who tries to fight back against the people who were eroding their way of life will eventually lose. Brown uses as many Native American sources as possible to show how the westward march of white settlers progressed from the point of view of the people who were pushed away from the land and lifestyle they'd always known in order to make room. With each passing year, restrictions on their territory become tighter and tighter, but their inability to safeguard even the small promises that they were able to extract is just relentlessly sad to read about.

I think it's important to wrestle with all parts of American history, and remember that many of what we think of as gains come from losses by someone else. As such, I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone who's interested in how this country has treated its original residents.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever read any books about the less pleasant side of American history? 

One year ago, I was reading: Stranger In A Strange Land (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: On The Edge of Gone

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at our current TBR, so here are the next ten books I'm planning on reading this spring! As always, book club selections will be added in here, but here's what's on the horizon as I know it so far.

Possession: Booker Prize winner! This is a prize I've had a pretty good history with, so I'm gradually trying to get through all of them.

Of Human Bondage: Although my big bulk of classics reading happened a few years ago (before I started the blog), I've still got ones I'm working through. I'm expecting this to take a while because it's quite long.

Sophia of Silicon Valley: I'm hoping this tale of Bay Area workplace b.s. is more like The Devil Wears Prada (which I really liked) and less like The Nanny Diaries (which I didn't really care for), but I'll have to read it to see!

Freedom: Obligatory Franzen? Honestly, I thought The Corrections was really good and am interested in his follow up. It's gotten recommended to me a couple times too.

Silent Spring: As far as I've been told, this book made an actual difference when it came to public awareness of the dangers of pollution, so I've been wanting to read it.

The Color of Water: I've seen this pop up on a couple of lists about interesting writing about race in America, and I haven't read a lot from a bi-racial perspective, so this seemed like a solid choice.

Sex at Dawn: I really enjoy (and recommend!) a podcast called The Psychology of Attractiveness, which is about, well, attractiveness and mating behavior. This book deals with similar issues and it's been well-reviewed.

Chosen Country: Ever since I moved out west, I've found myself more interested in the kind of regional mindset that plays out here, which shouldn't come as a surprise. This is about the standoff at the wildlife refuge in Oregon a few years back, and the factors that played into it, so it's right up my alley.

The Kingmaker's Daughter: The next book in Phillipa Gregory's The Cousin's War series. After a weak initial volume, I've mostly enjoyed these. Nothing wrong with a little fluff.

Rosemary's Baby: Horror classic! I really liked The Stepford Wives, and I liked the movie, so I'm hoping this book works as well for me.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book 120: Helter Skelter

"Did Charlie teach you this? I asked, genuinely curious. Charlie did not need to teach them, they said. Charlie only turned them around so they could look at themselves and see the love within. Did they believe Charlie was Jesus Christ? They only smiled enigmatically, as if sharing a secret no one else could possibly understand."

Dates read: January 22-26, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: New York Times bestseller

I think there's a basic human inclination to be fascinated by evil. Why else the popularity of the true crime genre? Why else so many biographies of Adolf Hitler? Why else was HBO's The Jinx so fascinating to so many (myself included)? The depths of human depravity, people who seem to operate outside the social contract to which the rest of us are can be hard to look away. And one of the most enduringly popular cultural atrocities that illustrate the heinousness we can't look away from are the Tate-LaBianca murders, masterminded by Charles Manson.

The definitive account of these crimes is Helter Skelter, written by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry. It's hard to imagine a more knowledgeable source: Bugliosi was the prosecutor who successfully convicted Manson and his girls (some of them, anyways) for the murders and sentenced to death, later commuted by the California Supreme Court to life in prison. While most of us are familiar with the broad outlines of the case (particularly the parts that concerned Sharon Tate, the extremely pregnant wife of Roman Polanski), Bugliosi fills in all the details: the people at the Polanski/Tate residence besides Sharon who were murdered, and the LaBiancas, and the grisly details, and a general idea of why. He can't give us exactly why, because only Manson knows and he never told before he died.

The book takes us through the process from start to finish: the discovery of the bodies, the investigations, the eventual linkage of the two sets of murders, how the Manson Family's involvement was discovered, how the motive was unearthed, the charges, the trial, the sentencing, and the aftermath. If you're looking for a narrative perspective from the perspectives of the killers, that's not what you'll find here. It never really gets in the heads of Manson or his girls, and it couldn't, because they never really opened up to the prosecution team. There are still questions by the end of it, but they aren't questions that can be answered from the outside.

Helter Skelter is a big book, over 600 pages, but it reads fairly quickly. The writing is nimble, and though it doesn't scrimp from talking about some details of blood type analysis or fingerprinting as it applies to the case, it doesn't get bogged down in technicality. The biggest single flaw of the book is Bugliosi's self-aggrandizement. He clearly did a phenomenal amount of work and won a case that could have easily gone the other way if Manson hadn't been a difficult client for his lawyer to work with, but he definitely spends more time than is really necessary bemoaning the investigative deficits of the police and making sure the reader knows how much of the case was 100% a result of his own handiwork. By the end I'd started literally rolling my eyes whenever Bugliosi gave himself a big pat on the back. At the end of the day, it's an incredibly detailed account of the crime for anyone who's interested in reading one, though if your interest is in true crime generally rather than this crime specifically it might not be the best investment of reading time.

Tell me, blog friends...what's an evil person/event that fascinates you?

One year ago, I was reading: Green Girl (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: To Die For

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Surprised Me

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're going through books that surprised us. I'm going to split mine up, and highlight first five books that surprised me by how good they were, and then five that I was surprised to find I did not enjoy.

Happy Surprised

Anna Karenina: Never having really read Russian lit, I thought I didn't like it because it was too long and boring. And then I read this book and discovered that I really did love Tolstoy. Both this and War & Peace are a million pages long and amazing.

Moby-Dick: Again, a book with a reputation of over-long snoozer, this time about some dude obsessed with a whale that ends up killing him, the end. But this book is actually delightful and has a ton of information about whales and whaling, religion, seafaring life, and so much more, as well as creating some truly unforgettable characters.

Jane Eyre: I thought this was just a gothic romance, which has never held that much appeal for me, because all you ever hear about is Mr. Rochester and his crazy wife in the attic and the looooove story. I was happy to find out that this is much more a book about a young woman discovering herself and making her own place in the world and very much liked it.

The Rosie Project: I usually shy away from romances (no offense to those of you who love them, they're just generally not for me), but I'd read such good things about this one and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really did enjoy reading it! It's just incredibly charming and a breezy, pleasant book.

So Big: I never would have picked this up but for its Pulitzer Prize (I'd never even heard of it before), because a story about a young woman being widowed with a baby son and scraping out an existence in midwestern farm country doesn't sound like something I'd really like. But Selina DeJong is an incredible character and I got totally sucked in and this book is really really good, y'all.

Not Happy Surprised

Don Quixote: I've gone on a classics kick over the past several years, and found that I actually liked a lot more of them than I thought I would. And then I got to Don Quixote and words cannot adequately describe how much I hated it and it was so long and reading it was like torture.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Everyone I knew who'd read this book described it as super funny and really good. And then I read it, and found its cavalier treatment of mental instability horrifying. I know they're making a movie of it and I think it might work onscreen, but it fell so very flat on the page for me.

Crazy Rich Asians: This is kind of along the same lines...rave reviews for a frothy fun romp and I mostly wondered if Kevin Kwan had ever been in a relationship before, because the one at the center of the book was deeply unrealistic and not in a good way.

Fahrenheit 451: I loved many of the dystopian classics I read in high school, and I wanted to love this one (it's about book burning! how could I not love it?) and I found it so boring I honestly can barely remember it.

Yes Please: This pains me, because I love Amy Poehler so much and wanted to just love every second of her book but it did absolutely nothing for me at all. It was neither interesting nor funny nor insightful. It was just kind of there.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Book 119: Snow

"It wasn't the poverty or the helplessness that disturbed him; it was the thing he would see again and again during the days to come- in the empty windows of photography shops, in the frozen windows of the crowded teahouses where the city's unemployed passed the time playing cards, and in the city's empty snow-covered squares. These sights spoke of a strange and powerful loneliness. It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world."

Dates read: January 18-22, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

When someone asks me if I like the movie Goodfellas, I never know what to say. It's a well-directed, well-acted, well-told story, so I think it's a laudatory work of film and I admire its accomplishments. But I didn't actually enjoy watching it and I have no desire to do so again. It's one of those weird things that happens sometimes for media in all forms, for me. I'll find something to be a significant piece and worthy of praise, but that doesn't mean I always actually like it.

Orhan Pamuk's Snow falls into that weird, middle-ground territory for me. It's a well-crafted tale, rich with context and layers of meaning. But I didn't actually enjoy reading it all that much. From a third-person narrator point of view (we'll get to that later), Snow tells the story of Ka, a Turkish poet who has spent much of his adult life in political exile in Germany, newly returned to his home country for his mother's funeral. When he hears from an acquaintance that a beautiful former college classmate, Ipek, is freshly divorced, living in a border town called Kars, he finds himself a pretext to visit there to see her. The pretext is that there's been a recent wave of suicides among devout Muslim young women, who have been forbidden by government policy to wear their headscarves, and he's there to investigate.

The snow is already falling thickly when Ka arrives in Kars, and it ends up closing off the community over one long, turbulent weekend in which there are assassinations, coups, and police brutality. There are several storylines, all interwoven tightly: the community debate over headscarves, Ka's courtship of Ipek, Ka's suddenly rediscovered inspiration to write poetry, Ipek's relationship with her sister Kadife, both of their ties to a wanted terrorist, the poverty and desperation of the men in Kars, the hope and idealism of the boys at the Muslim high school. The theme of the tension between the West/secularism and the East/religion is pervasive, coloring all of the events of the novel.

Which turns out to be a story within a story, as we find out that the tale of Ka's time in Kars is being told by his friend "Orhan", based on Ka's own written recollections. It's a little bothersome that although the conceit is that the story is being told by a third party, the narrator seems omniscient more often than not, but it's not a dealbreaker. What is more bothersome is that there is none of the characters is particularly well-developed, or to me, identifiable. Ipek is the embodiment of the virgin/whore dichitomy, either idealized or compared to a porn star. The terrorist, Blue, is constantly described as compelling without much in the story to make the reader understand why. Even Ka, though he is the center of the narrative, remains at a frustrating remove. Like Turkey itself, he's neither completely Eastern nor completely Western and vacillates between the two. He doesn't know his own mind, and it makes him hard to get a hold of as a character.

But the writing and structure is lovely. It's a little snowglobe of a story, and effectively creates the air of emotional claustrophobia that anyone who's been stranded (by snow or flooding or ice) for a few days can understand. I'm not sure that the third-party narrator is as effective a device as it could be, but I got a wry, frustrated smile out of plot machinations that mean that we never actually get to read one of Ka's inspired lets us just imagine how great the poems must have been without putting Pamuk under pressure to write something magnificent. This was a book club selection, and proved divisive for the most part: there were several people who loved it and just as many who completely hated it, with only very few (like me) falling in between. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it based on my own experience of it, but maybe you'll completely love it like some of my book club friends?

Tell me, blog you read literature in translation often?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: American Gods

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Quotes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting our favorite quotes from books. I love highlighting/dog-earing my books to remind me of pieces of writing I found particularly meaningful, so I enjoyed going back through some of my favorites and pulling out words I especially loved to share with y'all!

"Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." (Lolita)

This book is FULL of gorgeous writing. Hands-down the most beautifully written book I've ever read. But this part of the intro has always stuck with me.

"Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our music, our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had. Mr. Hedlie mentioned that fin-de-sicle Vienna witnessed a similar outbreak of suicides on the part of the young, and put the whole thing down to the misfortune of living in a dying empire. It had to do with the way the mail wasn't delivered on time, and how potholes never got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots, or the 801 fires set around the city on Devil's night." (The Virgin Suicides)

I re-read this book, one of my all-time favorites, recently for my book club, and this passage has always struck me as both representative of the quality of writing in this book as a whole as well as capturing something real about the downswing Detroit experienced.

"Midway through the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the true way was lost." (Inferno)

This line has been translated many different ways, but I've always loved the way the copy I studied in college did it.

"All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina)

Obviously this one is a classic. It's not exactly true, but has the ring and spirit of truth, which counts for as much anyways.

"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." (1984)

This book was so prescient in so many ways and this is one of the truest things in it.

"'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo. 'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'" (The Fellowship of the Ring)

Basically my personal motto when I start feeling like life's unfair. In many ways, our circumstances are beyond our control and all you can do about it is figure out how to make the best of it.

"Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring." (Breakfast at Tiffany's)

I'm one of those people who's never quite been able to let go of that sense of the new school year starting as the real beginning of the year, though my last school year started in 2009.

"And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (The Great Gatsby)

This is my literal favorite line in all of literature. The only thing that rivals its perfection as an ending is the end of Six Feet Under (don't @ me).

"Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win." (The Shining)

If you've only ever seen the movie (which I love), I'd recommend reading the book as well. The latter tells a story not about a haunted hotel, but a haunted man and how his internal demons are played upon until he loses the battle to keep them at bay and it's really really good.

"The unhappy person resents it when you try to cheer him up, because that means he has to stop dwelling on himself and start paying attention to the universe. Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence. When you're unhappy, you get to pay a lot of attention to yourself. You get to take yourself oh so very seriously." (Jitterbug Perfume)

This is one of my favorite books, and while Tom Robbins isn't always an author that it's easy to pull a quote from (it's more about the writing as a whole), I love this one and it's something I think about when I start feeling down.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Book 118: The Wars of the Roses

"From 1399 to 1499 the crown became the object of feuds, wars, and conspiracies, not because of a dearth of heirs, but because there were too many powerful magnates with a claim to the throne. During this period a new and disturbing element became involved in determining the royal succession: the prevalence of might over right. This brought a new awareness of the lack of statute law governing the succession and a debate as to whether the rights of a senior heir general, with a claim transmitted through a female, could take precedence over the rights of a junior heir male. But in the final analysis strength and success were what counted: an effective ruler was more likely to remain on the throne, however dubious his title. Weak or tyrannical rulers met with disaster."

Dates read: January 14-18, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Historical fiction is a genre I tend to enjoy, and one of the reasons why is that it introduces you to worlds you might have only known about through brief mentions in the classroom. I'm coming to enjoy non-fiction history a lot more as I get older, but I still really like my Phillipa Gregory (sorry not sorry). When getting introduced to a historical figure and period, I've usually just turned to old reliable Wikipedia. But even the most in-depth Wikipedia article can only tell you so much.

Ever since I first read her, Alison Weir has become one of my go-to historians. And as much as I enjoy the soap opera-esque The Cousin's War series (which I've read the first three of so far), Gregory is a fiction writer, and I know better than to trust her to teach me history. While I'd always been aware of the so-called Wars of the Roses in British history (I knew it was the Yorks and the Lancasters and it finally ended for good when the two houses intermarried and formed the House of Tudor), it doesn't tend to be taught in American schools. Which is why it's perfect that Weir has a whole book just about that period in English history: The Wars of the Roses.

It's a confusing story, to be sure: it seems like virtually every man in it is named Edward, Richard, or Henry, and they're all related to each other, besides. But Weir does her best to distinguish each of them, and she traces the conflicts not just from the point that they formally began, but from the point where they are rooted. The fighting doesn't get started until about halfway through, but it would be well nigh impossible to understand without all the preamble. She sets her stage carefully, and, much to my relief, when the fighting begins, it doesn't turn into a straight blow-by-blow battle narrative. I find descriptions of war maneuvers to be boring beyond measure, but Weir tells us enough to give us a sense of the battles but not make us feel like we're sitting through a military history lecture.

As always in Weir's work, it's well-sourced (she uses sources contemporary to the events being described, and traces language use back to ensure that she's giving the proper context to what was being reported) and well-written, with a definite sense of narrative and not just fact-dumping. One minor quibble, though, with this book is that it doesn't quite see the Wars through to what I thought to be their end: the ascension of Henry VII and his marriage to Princess Elizabeth of York. While I was hoping to get a bit more information about the end stages of the Wars, I definitely enjoyed getting Weir's take on the period she covered, and would recommend the book to others curious about this period of English history.

One year ago, I was reading: A Leg To Stand On (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Without You, There Is No Us

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Month In The Life: February 2018

And we've officially reached the point in the year when I've mostly stopped writing the wrong date on everything! This month started out improbably balmy (in the 60s!), but it's now properly cold and snowy, which we do need to have but also I hate. And while things were a little calmer here than they were last month, we did go see a comedy show and have a visit from an out-of-towner to keep us busy!

In Books...
  • Lost Horizon: This book, about four people in the 1930s who wind up stranded in a Tibetan monastery called Shangri-La, was...fine? It's well-written enough (with the exception of the casual racism that probably was unremarkable at the time but is definitely remarkable now), but didn't really grab my imagination or make much of an impression on me. 
  • Thank You For Smoking: I watched the movie version of this when it came out when I was in college, so of course I wanted to read the book. It's a delightfully witty satire, and will ring especially true if you've ever worked in the corporate communications/lobbying world. 
  • The Sellout: I'm always extra excited when a book club selection is a book I already had on my TBR! For this book, I don't know if it was that I read it directly after another satire that hit closer to home for me personally, but this one didn't blow me away. It's insightful, witty, and well-crafted, though, so definitely worth the read.
  • Wonder Boys: I think the movie version of this book is criminally under-rated, and honestly, it's better than the book. Chabon has rapidly become one of my favorite writers (this is the third of his books I've read in about a year), and his writing is as wonderful as ever, but the overgrown man-child at the center of this novel was not someone I ever rooted for. 
  • My Name Is Venus Black: This book had an intriguing premise, about a girl who kills her stepfather when she's 13 and then gets out of jail at 19 and has to figure out how to live in the world...and tries to find the autistic little brother who disappeared while she was inside. But the plot didn't hold up and the writing is super flat. 
  • The Selfish Gene: This book is remarkable mostly in how it renders sophisticated concepts in understandable language...including the first time I've ever felt like I had a decent grasp of game theory! Also a lot to think about in regards to genetics and how life not only continues but evolves. 

In Life...
  • The Olympics!: I LOVE the Olympics. Especially the winter ones, because figure skating is my jam, but I also like to watch downhill skiing, hockey, and curling, so basically I spent two weeks watching obscure sports and loved every minute of it. 
  • We went to see Tiffany Haddish: I'd heard great things about her, and Drew and I are always trying to get out and do more things, so we snagged tickets when they went on sale a few months ago. It was a good thing I did, because they totally sold out! She was indeed super funny and I definitely recommend going to her show if her tour hits your city!
  • My mom is in town: Today is my mom's birthday, and she came to visit to spend time with me! I haven't seen her since last summer so I've taken the day off of work and we're spending the day together!

One Thing:

As a frequent LL Bean shopper, I have mixed feelings about their new returns policy. While I understand that there were people abusing it to the degree that it was becoming unsustainable (people were picking up their products secondhand at thrift stores and returning them for a full refund or just treating it as a way to get new snowboots for their kids every year as their feet kept growing), it seems like there should be some sort of intermediary step between return-it-forever and returns-only-for-one-year. After all, many of their products, like their adult duck boots, are MEANT to last for years. I've been willing to spend a little bit more for their products with the understanding that if they didn't hold up, I'd be made whole, but I think I'll be more selective before buying there in the future.

Gratuitous Pug Photo:

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Could Re-Read Forever

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that we could re-read again and again. I LOVE a good re-read, so here are books that have really held up for me the second (and third, and fourth, etc) time through.

Lolita: There's so much to this novel that every time I read it I notice a new brilliant bit of wordplay or layer to the story. If you've let its subject matter keep you away, please don't. It's really an amazing book.

The Secret History: I first read this book in my AP English class my senior year of high school and though I've long since known how it all turns out, it sucks me in all over again every time I pick it up.

A Game of Thrones (series): This is cheating (there's another cheat down the list), but I re-read one of these books every year over the holidays and they're so dense and rich and the amount of foreshadowing is just incredible.

The Virgin Suicides: I first read this book at least 15 years ago and re-read it just late last year for my book club and countless times in between and it never fails to give me that very real, very powerful feeling of place that it did on the first time through.

Gone Girl: This is the book on this list I've re-read the least often, only twice. But Flynn's sharp-as-nails evisceration of the ways the world is bullshit to women is so insightful and hard-hitting that it's just as good when you come back to it.

In Cold Blood: Truman Capote's storytelling skills are really top-notch, which is why the pleasure of reading along as he tells the tale of the men who murdered the Clutter family doesn't diminish over time.

A Wrinkle In Time: I read this whole series over and over again as a young teen, but the first one most of all. For such a slim volume, L'Engle really packs it full of not just plot, but themes that resonate for kids and adults too.

Harry Potter (series): My second cheat, because picking just one of these books feels impossible. It's really all together, as the story of Harry (and Ron and Hermione), that they're best and so, so, re-readable.

1984: My sister still has the copy I got when I was like 12 on her bookshelf and it is a book I constantly reference and go back to because it is so prescient and smart.

Bridget Jones' Diary: Pretty much all of these are serious books, so I needed to throw in something funny. This is one of those books that literally makes you laugh out loud reading it and its cleverness is undiminished over time.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book 117: Americanah

"Ifemulu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was."

Dates read: January 10-14, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Every so often, a thread pops up on Reddit asking people who've come to the United States from elsewhere what surprised them most about this country when they got here. The answers are usually fairly similar: our obsession with germs and our "personal space", our loudness, how big the country really actually is, tipping. I always enjoy reading these kinds of things because I'm always curious about how what seems very natural to us can seem bizarre to people who grew up elsewhere and I try to keep it in mind when I myself travel elsewhere: what seems odd to me probably seems perfectly normal to them. Just because I think of something as "the way things are" doesn't mean it's the way things are everywhere.

Ifemelu, the Nigerian-born-and-raised protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, experiences this kind of cultural whiplash twice: once, when she transfers from her university in Nigeria to a small college in Pennsylvania and then the second time, fifteen years later when she decides to return to Lagos. That Ifemelu is black and only really experiences what it's like to be black in a predominantly white world once she gets to the United States, as well as the gap between African-Americans and Africans in America inspires her to start a blog about race, which becomes a major source of income for her and helps earn her a fellowship at Princeton. Once the fellowship is over, she shuts down her blog, leaves her longtime boyfriend, and prepares to go back to Nigeria.

She's nervous about going back, not so much because she doesn't have anything lined up there but because it means she'll be back in the same place as Obinze, the man she loved in high school and college but is no longer in touch with. Adichie uses one of my favorite framing devices to structure her novel: she begins with Ifemelu just before she leaves the US, shows us how she got there through flashbacks, and then proceeds forward. I love getting some information but not all of it right up front: it makes me intensely curious to find out how the situation we first encountered came to be. I hate mystery-style books where all the "answers" are makes the rest of the book feel like it's treading water before the payoff at the end. Those just leave me annoyed by the time I get to the end, but unwrapping the narrative layers one by one keeps me hooked. And Americanah had me like a fish on a hook.

Not only is her story structure one that I personally respond well to, but Adichie's writing is absolutely magnificent. I marked what feels like half of the book because she has a such a knack for taking feelings that you have or you recognize and phrasing it in a way that hits you right in the gut because it's so dead on and perfect and you never thought about it like that before. And I loved the way she wrote Ifemelu and Obinze's relationship, from their charmed young love to the reason for their separation and that Adichie isn't afraid to give them new partners, partners they experience happiness with even. There's context and nuance, not just to their relationship, but to their lives. The whole book explores shades of gray, no one is either a saint or a villain. They're people, trying hard and messing up and trying again. I think one of the most important things about reading is its potential to increase empathy, to see people outside of the ones like you as having the same kinds of hopes and dreams and fears as you even if their experiences don't look exactly the same. This book is a beautifully written examplar of that exact principle. It's completely fantastic and I totally loved every second of reading it and I recommend it highly.

One year ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Twentieth Wife

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’ve Decided I’m No Longer Interested In Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This topic, about books we meant to read at one point, but are no longer interested in, is a hard one for me. I rarely change my mind on reading something once it's made my list. But these are ten that I've decided to let go on.

My Absolute Darling: Bad reviews, particularly from Queen Roxane Gay, turned me off.

Heather the Totality: A trusted reviewer (Jessica Woodbury) said that it wasn't only bad, it was offensively bad and very reductive about its central female character. The book turned out to be a massive flop so this was apparently the right call.

I Am Charlotte Simmons: My rule is that I give authors two tries. If I don't like one book, it just might have been that particular book, or the time that I read it. Twice, though, almost certainly means that author isn't for me. Tom Wolfe has two strikes.

Nutshell: I'm usually here for Ian McEwan, but I heard this novel is very weird and not in a good a "fetus judges the crap out of his mother" way. Which doesn't sound like anything I'd particularly enjoy.

Portnoy's Complaint: There are several other Roths on my TBR, but given that I've heard this book is basically about one guy obsessing over sex for a couple hundred pages...unless I start to read him and turn into a completionist, I think I'm good.

My Sister's Grave: This was a book I got from the Kindle First program, but realized I don't actually want to read and I don't have to.

The Killing Kind: Pretty much exactly the same as above. I don't really like mystery-thrillers, so no reason to force myself to read mediocre ones just because I got them for free.

Younger: Same.

(R)evolution: Same.

King of Taksim Square: I thought I should keep this on my list just to get some more exposure to Turkish literature, but honestly, the not-great Goodreads reviews turned me off. I'm sure there is much better Turkish work out there (I've read some of it!).

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book 116: American Heiress

"What made the moment even more extraordinary was that it took place because of something else that had never happened before in the United States: a political kidnapping. The nation had always prided itself on the nature of its civic discourse; lone gunmen might assassinate our leaders, but this was not a place, like Europe or South America, where political outlaws kidnapped their adversaries or robbed banks. So the Hearst kidnapping and its aftermath suited the hallucinogenic moment, where America looked less like itself and more like a foreign country."

Dates read: January 6-10, 2017

Rating: 6/10

The way that the brain reacts to trauma is unpredictable. I've been fortunate enough that I haven't experienced much in the way of major trauma in my adult life, but it's not uncommon to remain oddly calm in the face of the actual event only to break down later. As we've come to understand more and more about post-traumatic stress disorder, it's become more obvious that difficult experiences can have actual biological effects on the brain and its processes. Neuroscience is weird and fascinating, y'all.

So if you look at a case like Patricia Hearst, the heiress who was kidnapped from the Bay Area apartment she shared with her fiance in the early 70s by a radical leftist group that called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), could it be possible that she would have professed to join them of her own free will? Author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin's American Heiress examines the Hearst case, from the formation of the SLA, through Hearst's kidnapping, her year and a half with the SLA, the trial, and the aftermath. The trial brought the concept of "Stockholm syndrome", although that term was not yet coined and was never used, into the pop culture consciousness. And Toobin presents the story, as fully as he can, to try to answer the question I posed above: did she join the SLA for real, of her own volition, or was her behavior a result of her trauma?

Hearst herself didn't cooperate with the writing of the book, and one wonders if that's what leads to Toobin's all-but-stated conclusion that her claim of duress was made in bad faith. I had been only vaguely aware of the entire situation before I read this book...I knew that she'd been kidnapped, and seen the pictures from her bank robbery, and that she'd been tried for her role in it, but I honestly didn't even know if she'd been acquitted or convicted. I'd been vaguely under the impression that her time with the SLA was relatively short and that after the bank robbery, she and the SLA had been quickly apprehended. Turns out, that wasn't the case at all: she was with the SLA for a year and a half, and the bank robbery that produced the pictures we've all seen was just one of the crimes she was involved in the commission of on their behalf. And, as Toobin points out, she had multiple opportunities to flee her situation or reach out for help, even being encouraged to go home on occasion, and she refused to do. But why? That question is never satisfactorily answered.

It's Hearst's time with the SLA that makes up the substantial majority of the book. Since his prior books that I've read have been focused on the courts, I went in expecting a greater focus on the trial, but that makes up maybe a quarter of the narrative or less. I didn't enjoy this book as much as I've enjoyed Toobin's other books, in part because of his bias against Hearst (one of his primary sources were the records of another member of the SLA, which may well explain this tilt), but one thing this book does really well is setting the events in the context of their time and place. The Bay Area, where most of it transpired, had seen the hope and promise of the late 60s counterculture sour into the suspicion and paranoia and politically-motivated bombings of the 70s, mirroring the larger national climate in the same direction. I think I've mentioned it before, but I feel like US history in the 1900s outside of World War II is a sizable gap in my knowledge, and I really liked getting perspective on a time in the recent past that I was less aware of than I realized. It's a well-constructed book as his always are, but it's not as good as some of his others that I've read. If you're interested in the case, it's worth a read, but it's not worth an unqualified recommendation.

Tell me, blog friends...what pop culture event are you only vaguely aware of?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Couples I Did NOT Root For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we've got a "love freebie" in honor of Valentine's Day coming up tomorrow. I'm going to twist this a bit to talk about the couples that a book tried to make happen but I never really bought.

Anna Steele and Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey): Yes, I read these books. Yes, all three of them. And I never quite figured out what was supposed to be especially romantically compelling about them. I think most of us have had enough good sex with bad partners to know that just banging alone doesn't make a relationship.

Tess Durbeyfield and Angel Clare (Tess of the d'Urbervilles): It's supposed to be tragic when he learns about her past, and instead of understanding because his own past isn't spotless, ditches her. But he basically never saw her as an actual person in the first place. She was always an object. Not romantic.

Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet): Two teenagers who've known each other for like a second and a half but then of course they get married and then kill themselves over each other. That's not love it's hormones.

Madeline and Leonard (The Marriage Plot): The love triangle in this book has a weak third leg, but honestly even the central relationship didn't really work for me. They never seem suited to each other at all...I know that early-20s-mistaking-drama-for-passion but I couldn't understand what either of them thought they were getting out of their relationship.

Sookie Stackhouse and Quinn (All Together Dead): Sookie has plenty of boyfriends over the course of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, but Quinn was my least favorite. Maybe because their relationship never really gets off the ground? I'm not sure, it just never really worked for me.

Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility): I love this book for the relationship between the sisters, but it felt kind of crappy for the lively, intense Marianne to end up with this much-older, buttoned-up dude. It felt like he was a better match for Elinor, actually.

Rachel Chu and Nick Young (Crazy Rich Asians): For two people super-in-love, they barely seemed to talk about anything important. How can you be dating someone seriously enough to be living together and just never really talked about your family?

Elise Perez and Jamey Hyde (White Fur): Despite some good quality prose, this book fell flat for me because I never really bought into the desperate, crazy, take-no-prisoners love affair that's supposed to hold everything together.

Anne Welles and Lyon Burke (The Valley of the Dolls): These two just want such different things out of life. Also they're both pretty boring.

Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov (War and Peace): Pierre is such a nerd and Natasha is such a delight and she can do so much better than him I hate that they end up together.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book 115: The King Must Die

"Man born of woman cannot outrun his fate. Better then not to question the Immortals, nor when they have spoken to grieve one's heart in vain. A bound is set to our knowing, and wisdom is not to search beyond it."

Dates read: January 2-6, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

Every society has rules. There's usually quite a lot of similarity on the major points: no murder, no stealing, that kind of thing, but outside of that there's a lot of variation. Making sure everyone knows and understands and (for the most part) plays by those rules is one of the most important roles a society has. We can learn a lot about a place by learning about their rules: what they chose to forbid or allow and how they enforce it.

Mary Renault's The King Must Die takes place in a world where the rules are in flux. We're in Ancient Greece, and a matriarchal society with an earth-based religion is in the process of changing to a patriarchal one that worships sky gods. She uses this background to re-tell the Greek myth of Theseus. Briefly-ish, the myth version goes as such: King Minos of Crete angered Poseidon by refusing to sacrifice a particular bull. To punish him, his queen, Pasiphae, is made to be overwhelmed by lust for that bull. She engages Daedelus, the legendary craftsman, to build a cow she can fit inside to, er, consumate her love. What results is a half-bull half-man monster that eats human flesh: the Minotaur. Daedalus is commissioned again, to build a maze, the Labyrinth, in which the beast can be hidden. Crete is a powerful city-state and demands tribute from other Greeks: seven young men and seven young women to be given to the Minotaur every year. Theseus is the son of the King of Athens, and is one of the youths sent to Crete. When he arrives, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, falls wildly in love with him and gives him a ball of yarn that he can tie near the entrance of the maze so he can find his way back out. She also gives him a sword, which he uses to kill the Minotaur. He flees with Ariadne, but abandons her on an island on his way back home. Theseus forgets to change the color of his sails when arriving back in Athens to signal his father that he's returning home safely, and his father commits suicide in despair over his "death". There's more, but that's the portion covered in this book.

Renault takes that structure and constructs a story that could have been the basis for the myth. In her tale, Theseus is raised by his mother, a priestess devoted to the earth goddess, and her family outside of Athens. As a teenager, he starts to return to Athens to be reunited with his father, who nearly kills him accidentally. He does volunteer to be sent to Crete, but for different reasons: in this version of the story, based on something more like actual history, the young people are sent to Crete to become "bull dancers", a team-based sort of sacred ritual bullfight. The labyrinth is the enormous palace of Minos, Ariadne is a priestess. Although the Olympians are mostly taken out, Theseus is gifted with an ability to sense pending earthquakes, kind of big deal in a seismically active region.

Reading this book actually reminded me a lot of my slog through The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, a series which details the development of religions all over the world. Campbell traces the same transition in Western religious belief that Renault highlights, with earlier people just starting to form groups based around farming often believing in an earth goddess, who required human sacrifice in order to produce agricultural bounty, while later societies with more stratification turned to worship mostly-male sky gods. Renault portrays a Greece which is dealing with this exact movement, with Theseus himself working to convert a city where he finds himself from the latter to the former. The story is entertaining enough and Renault's prose is solid, but Theseus is a bit of a Mary Sue. He always has the right answers, for the right reasons (in his mind anyways), always does the correct thing. It made him kind of boring as a character...I wanted him to face more conflict from within, struggle against forces internal as well as external.

Theseus is motivated strongly by devotion to his religious beliefs, especially his sense of moira, or fate. This got to me thinking about the role of religion in public life. In Theseus' world, religion is a constantly part of daily life, both inside and outside the home. Today's Western world, on the other hand, is becoming progressively less and less religious. This is often treated as a reason for some sort of moral decline, which I find obnoxious as a non-religious but perfectly moral person. But it does have me wondering about something else that comes up often in The Masks of God: ritual, and its purpose of enforcing social structure and rules. We have some secular rites of passage: drivers licenses, high school graduation, college graduation, but these lack the solemnity of religious ceremonies. I certainly don't think that secular culture is incapable of creating meaningful rites to acknowledge maturation, but I don't think it's necessarily done so effectively yet. Anyways, to close out with the book itself: it's a decent read, but not a can't miss, and I don't feel any compulsion to seek out the sequel.

Tell me, blog you think our cultural markers of maturity are as significant as they could be?

One year ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Two years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology