Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book 138: Moonglow

"My grandfather never would have lied to exonerate himself, make himself look good, or evade responsibility. Unlike my grandmother, he did not seem to find pleasure or release in telling lies. But while he was a family man and loved us all in his wordless way, he was also, to the core, a solitary. If there was suffering to be endured, he preferred to withstand it alone. If he made a mess, he would clean it up himself. Unlike his wife, he was uncomfortable with make-believe, but his fetish for self-reliance made him secretive. So while it was true that psychiatrists, who got paid to know such things, had instructed him over the years to keep upsetting news away from my grandmother, it was also true that this advice suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand."

Dates read: April 4-9, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Humans love to tell each other stories. It's a tradition that dates back thousands of years. One of our favorite subjects, of course, is ourselves...we're constantly shaping the narrative arc of our lives by telling our stories to other people. Our family, our friends, our lovers...they're all supporting characters in the book of our lives, fading into and out of importance around our central protagonist. Sometimes I wonder how I show up in other people's stories: am I a villain? A small but important recurring player? Or just an offhand reference at the bottom of page 147?

I've always been attracted to stories that are fundamentally about mostly ordinary people and their lives. Michael Chabon's Moonglow, based in part on the actual recollections of his great uncle, is exactly that kind of story. It's semi-autobiographical in form as well as function: the main character is a professional writer named Michael Chabon. In the book, Michael is spending time with his dying grandfather while he tells him the story of his life, which took him from the Jewish neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, to a military academy, to Nazi engineer-hunting in Europe, back to the US, to prison, and eventually to a Florida retirement community, where his life finally ended.

But the real main event of his life was his marriage to a beautiful French concentration camp survivor. By the time they met, she'd already had Michael's mother, then just a small girl, who he raised as his own. That isn't all that she brought into the marriage, though...she also brought mental instability, haunted by periodic breaks with reality in which she was haunted by a being she called the Skinless Horse. Presented with the opportunity to learn the truth about her life after a bout of hospitalization, Michael's grandfather chooses to not, and instead goes on loving his wife the way he's always known her until her premature death.

As might be expected from a book called Moonglow, the moon is a constant reference point and  plays a dominant symbolic role. For Michael's grandfather, obsessed with rockets, it has a traditionally masculine meaning: he wants to explore and conquer it. But the moon is tied throughout history to the feminine, from Greece's Artemis to China's Chang'e. It's also tied to madness, like that which haunts Michael's grandmother. Like the fortunes of both parts of our central couple, it constantly waxes and wanes.

This was my first experience with Chabon, a writer I'd heard great things about, and this was a wonderful introduction to him. He created characters that felt real, especially with the grandma and grandpa (the modern-day characters who frame the story, though, Michael and his mother, feel a bit underdeveloped) and created a relationship that felt honest and lived-in. That these two would come together and stay together and have the impact on each other that they did made sense. I've always been a fan of the character-driven story, and this is exactly that. But there's a decent amount of plot in there for those who prefer that, and I enjoyed the way Chabon developed his story. It's a small detail, but I especially liked the way he left Augenbaugh's lighter unresolved. Tying everything up with a nice little bow isn't how life works, closure doesn't always happen, and I liked that he left that little mystery hanging. I'll definitely be reading more of his work, and would highly recommend this book.

Tell me, blog you like full resolution to a story or do you not mind some ambiguity?

One year ago, I was reading: Valley of the Moon

Two years ago, I was reading: The White Queen

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Short Story Collections/Short Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is meant to highlight short stories, but here's the problem...I don't actually read much in the way of short stories. I have included one collection I enjoyed, but I chose to highlight mostly quite short books I've read that have packed a punch.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: My token short story collection...I don't usually read short stories because I tend to find them uneven and this book was no different, but these stories centering on keys and possession were powerful and still pop back up in my head sometimes when I least expect it.

Animal Farm: Absolute classic based on the Russian Revolution, except with barnyard animals. I reference that "some are more equal than others" line at least once a month.

Anthem: This is a solid little dystopian novella about a world in which individuality itself has been stamped out. Yes, it's Ayn Rand so you've got that whole thing going on but it's a good book.

12 Years A Slave: The memoir from a free black man in the antebellum north who's kidnapped and sold into slavery and held for over a decade is very eye-opening and very good.

Siddhartha: This book is quite short but I found it profoundly moving, both in message and in style.

The Alchemist: I loved this book when I read it in high school and am honestly a little bit afraid to re-read it because I'm worried it will have lost some of the magic.

The Stepford Wives: If you've ever used the phrase but haven't read the book, it's a very quick read and very good.

Between the World and Me: What this book lacks in page count, it makes up for in power. As a white lady, I sometimes felt uncomfortable reading this...which was the entire point.

The Prince: I work in politics, of course I've read this. If all you know about it is a general idea of what people mean when they say "Machiavellian", it's worth it to read it for yourself. Very interesting insights into leadership.

I Am Legend: The Will Smith movie they made out of this completely changes the ending of the book and therefore completely subverts its very real message. Read the book instead!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book 137: Innocent Traitor

"When I open my eyes, I am still lying there. I realize, aghast, that not one person, not even my mother or my husband, has stirred to help me. Is that what being a queen will mean? I am alone, utterly alone, and will be so for the rest of my life. This realization is just too much to bear, and my composure breaks. Lying on the floor, I bury my head in my arms and fall to weeping piteously, great racking sobs tearing at my body. This is wrong, I know it! We must surely be damned to hell for all eternity, I along with them, even though I am forced to be their accomplice in this evil."

Dates read: March 30- April 4, 2017

Rating: 5/10

When I was in high school, I was on the mock trial team for three years. So when I became a lawyer, I went back and worked with them a bit. I was struck by how young they were, these 15 and 16 year olds. When I was that age, I was sure I was basically an adult, but coming from the perspective of actual adulthood, even less than a decade later, they were definitely not adults yet. But of course, cultural definitions of adulthood have shifted and changed over time. A couple hundred years ago, people of the same age would have been considered perfectly old enough to have jobs and be starting families.

Noble children in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance, especially, were placed in a double bind: from the time they were old enough to appear in public, they were dressed as and expected to behave like tiny adults, but they were simultaneously completely at the mercy of their parents. Historian Alison Weir's first fictional novel, Innocent Traitor, illustrates the way this played out, by looking at the life of Lady Jane Grey. Known as the "Nine-Day Queen" when she's remembered at all, she was briefly crowned after the death of Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII. She was deposed quickly by Mary I and less than a year later, she was executed.

Weir tells Jane's story from several perspectives: her mother's, her cousins', her governess', and of course, her own, throughout her 19 year life. Weir depicts Jane's parents, Henry and Frances (herself the niece of King Henry VIII), as grasping social climbers deeply disappointed in Jane's gender. The couple are Protestants who raise their daughter (and later, her younger sisters) to follow in their religious footsteps. They are harsh parents, even by the standards of their time, but Jane herself grows into a quiet, obedient, and devout teenager (she is given a top-quality education and has the love of a devoted caretaker, Mrs. Ellen, which certainly helps). While it is hoped that she'll be considered a suitable bride for her cousin Edward VI, she is eventually married off to Guildford Dudley to form a political alliance. When the king finally succumbs to tuberculosis, her family, as well as her husband's and their allies, proclaim her queen on the grounds that Edward's sisters are bastards and therefore ineligible to inherit...and also to ensure that a Protestant monarch takes the throne rather than the rabidly Catholic Mary. When Mary musters troops, Jane is rapidly deposed and imprisoned. While Mary is initially inclined to show mercy, she eventually realizes that Jane makes too attractive a figurehead for Protestant foes and has her beheaded.

I love Alison Weir's histories...she has a light, lively touch with her subjects, creating a real sense of the person behind the recorded deeds. So I had high hopes for her fictional debut. But those hopes were disappointed. It's honestly not very good. Her characters are, for the most part, very one-dimensional: Jane and Mrs. Ellen are good, her parents and husband are bad. I found it jarringly anachronistic that Jane's wedding night rape is conceived as such by "rape" even a word that would have been in common use then for someone of Jane's class? Especially to describe nonconsensual-but-within-wedlock sex (which was perfectly legal in many states in the US well into the 1900s)? Weir does not handle her multiple perspectives with particular skill and it often feels like just when you're getting into the groove of one character that it shifts to another.

Weir clearly feels a great deal of sympathy for her subject, and paints a picture of a life that seems cruelly harsh to a modern eye: abused and manipulated and finally killed. But from my own reading, it seems different more in degree than in kind for noble childhoods of the era: distant, uninvolved parents who expected their offspring to be seen and not heard and made plans for their future in order to create or cement alliances with other families. Jane's short life is certainly a tragedy and her father's continued scheming around her even after her imprisonment, without seeming consideration about putting her life in very real danger, certainly evinced an unusually high level of disregard for his child. But the book creates no real tension or interest in the interplay between's just waiting for the historical events to play out as you know they will. I have a few of her later novels still on my TBR because I think some of these issues are simply mistakes by a rookie novelist, but I can't affirmatively recommend this book.

One year ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I’ve Read In 2018 (So Far)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at our top ten reads of the year so far now that the year is a little over halfway over. I usually try to restrict my year-end list to year-of releases, but for this one (since I haven't even read ten 2018 releases yet), I'm just going to talk about the best things I've read this year without including the 2018 releases, only a couple of which would have made my list anyways.

Exit West: I chose this as a Book of the Month selection last year, but hadn't gotten around to reading it by the time my book club moderator chose it for us a couple months ago and holy smokes did I love it. Spare, lyrical, and powerful (and I didn't even hate the magical realism).

Good Omens: If you enjoy British humor, this tale of two angels (one fallen, one not) trying to deal with the pending rise of the Antichrist and associated end of the world will delight you. Both funny and clever.

Stiff: Mary Roach examines some of less conventional ways to deal with dead bodies with her trademark warm curiosity and it's fascinating.

The Girl With All The Gifts: I don't usually read heavily in the horror genre, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really did enjoy this twist on a zombie story.

Possession: I can already tell that I'm going to want to read this deeply-layered, parallel-storylined book again to appreciate more of its subtleties and richness.

An Untamed State: I'd never actually read one of Roxane Gay's books before this year, despite knowing I liked her Twitter presence and editorial pieces and the raw power of her talent and skill, despite an extremely difficult subject matter, blew me away.

Thank You For Smoking: I watched the (excellent) movie version of this in college, but now that I myself work in the general public affairs arena, the sharpness of the satire was something I appreciated even more.

Far From The Madding Crowd: I'll be honest, I thought Tess of the d'Urbervilles was a stronger work from Hardy. But this beautifully told tale of romantic misadventure in the countryside is still a very good book with an indelible heroine.

The Color of Water: I'm not always big into memoirs, but when they're done right they can be profoundly moving and this one about a mother told by her son is definitely done right.

Mansfield Park: Fanny Price isn't the lively, spunky heroine many of us expect from Jane Austen, but that doesn't mean Austen's sharp wit and keen observations are any less enjoyable.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Book 136: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

"Even if I was way more famous, Lisa acted like she was twice my age, and I should've known from the beginning she'd say no to going out. It'd be like me dating a six-year-old. She'd make it as an actress and singer, because she wasn't a normal kid. She was an adult in a kid's body. If you were just a kid in a kid's body, you might make it, too, as long as you had good management."

Dates read: March 27-30, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Drew Barrymore. Miley Cyrus. Lindsay Lohan. For as long as there have been child stars, it seems, there have been child stars gone awry. How could they not? While most of us are playing and making mistakes and learning under no harsher gaze than those of school bullies, famous kids are working, oftentimes supporting at least some of their family members. So when they start to push at the boundaries and rebel like most teenagers eventually do, they've got further to fall...and a much more public stage to do it on.

Speaking of child stars gone awry, there's always one of our most recent examples: Justin Bieber. And it's not hard to see who was the inspiration behind the protagonist of Teddy Wayne's The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. A preteen singer with a trendy haircut, discovered on social media, with a mother who manages his career, Jonny is on his second nationwide tour when we meet him. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that for all his stardom, Jonny is actually very lonely: besides his mother (whose "momager" position means that her monetary interests are bound up in what's best for Jonny's career, not necessarily what's best for Jonny, and who he refers to by her first name, Jane), his closest confidants are his tutor and his bodyguard.

Jane keeps a very close eye on Jonny's access to the internet, and it's this that kicks off the action: one night when she's out, he sneaks into her hotel room to read about himself. And it's there that he finds a message from a man claiming to be his long-lost father. As his tour continues, Jonny tries to figure out if the commenter is really his father (and what to do if he is), watches his mother struggle personally and professionally, has his own professional struggles, negotiates a fake date with a fellow preteen star, and breaks out of his cloistered bubble a little when a 20something rock band becomes his new opening act.

This sounds like a lot of plot, especially when you're talking about a 300 page book, but Wayne handles it well. Part of the reason he's successful is the way he structures his book: with sections for each day of each stop on the tour, it keeps a constant sense of propulsive motion forward, building naturally towards the climax, the final show. A bigger part of the reason the book works is the voice he creates for Jonny. Simultaneously hopelessly naive in the way that 11 year-olds should be, and cynically jaded about his career and the industry in which he works, there's a tricky balance Wayne pulls off, making Jonny neither a complete sap nor completely bitter.

Some of the themes are handled in a way that's a little too on-the-nose: Jonny's coming-of-age is symbolized by his attempts to figure out how to successfully jack off, and his tutor assigns him a unit on slavery in a clear attempt to draw the parallels with Jonny's situation to both the singer himself and, of course, the reader. And while the story is about Jonny, from his own perspective, I actually found Jane the most interesting character and wish I'd gotten more about her. But having too many interesting and well-rounded characters is a good problem for a book to have. I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it!

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever wish you were famous when you were younger? Do you still?

One year ago, I was reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Red, White, And Blue Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting books with red, white, and blue covers because tomorrow is Independence Day! Or as my very British brother-in-law calls it, Unruly Colonists Day. Since this is a cover-focused list, I'm not going to write about my choices, but I will note for the record that all of these books take place in the USA!

The Great Gatsby

Into The Wild

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

From Dead to Worse


Fahrenheit 451

We Need To Talk About Kevin


All The King's Men

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: June 2018

And as of today, we're halfway through 2018! These first six months have had their challenges, but for the most part it's been a positive year and I'm really looking forward to the rest of it. Especially since we'll finally be doing more of the "getting out of town" bit...we've been squirreling away our vacation days and we've got some trips coming up that'll hopefully be fun! This month, though, was mostly pretty calm.

In Books...

  • The Sky Is Yours: First of all, this book is intensely weird. Dragons are only the beginning of it in this story of a far-future New York City menaced by the scaly beasts that's been winnowed down to the very rich and the very poor holding out. Weird is usually alienating to me, and indeed I never quite bought all the way into it, but damn if it wasn't well-written, entertaining, and compulsively readable. A very promising debut.
  • Boy, Snow, Bird: A fresh and powerful take on the classic Snow White fairy tale, Oyeyemi plays with race, surface appearances, identity, and mirrors. Up until the end, I found it compelling and thought-provoking, but there's a twist that, and kind of derailed the whole thing. 
  • Motherless Brooklyn: I was intrigued when this was selected for book club, since I'd had it on my TBR a while ago and then actually taken it off later because I decided I probably wouldn't like it. Was I right to add it or delete it then? The latter. I hated it. I never got involved in the mystery or cared about anyone involved. 
  • The Girl With All The Gifts: I bought this on a Kindle sale whim and was unsure about it before I started reading it...horror can be very hit or miss for me. But it's really good, twisting the zombie story to give us a tale about an unexpected bond and what it really means to be human after all.
  • Love Medicine: This book is more like intertwined short stories than a novel, but it's beautifully written and an interesting look at the lives of modern Native Americans and explores the rich variety of complications that love and family bring. I'm definitely interested in continuing the series!
  • Sloppy Firsts: I don't know how I missed this series when I was a teenager myself, because I would eaten it up. As it is, even 32 year-old me really enjoyed this story of a misanthropic high school girl trying to make it through the endless sea of high school b.s., which took me back in the best possible way. This is another series I'll be continuing. 
  • The Completionist: Feminist dystopian fiction is having a bit of a moment, but to be honest this was not a shining example of the genre. It's set in a future where there's been disaster resulting in a virtual vanishing of water and a growing crisis of fertility, leading to increasing restrictions on women who've managed to get pregnant. A young ex-Marine and his older, pregnant sister search for their other sister, a Completionist (basically a midwife) who's gone missing. I loved the character of the pregnant sister, but the book as a whole fell apart under scrutiny.
  • The Feast of Love: This Ann Arbor-set book had seeds of greatness (the prose is amazing, and the characters are vivid) but I couldn't get over how falsely the portions of the book written from the perspective of a young woman rang. It completely undermined the book for me. 

In Life...

  • Primary elections: Our client that had a primary made it through, so now we've got that race and a couple other to get ready for in November! Campaigns are hard work but they're always interesting and I'm fortunate in that I've gotten to work with amazing candidates that I really believe in. Anyone who doesn't think their votes count should be there as local candidates watch numbers come in, every one matters!
  • Our second wedding anniversary: Two years of married life down, forever to go! We celebrated with an ice cream cake (an annual tradition now!) on Father's Day, and then our favorite Italian place for the day-of, and I am a very lucky lady. 

One Thing:

That some people have made blogging a lucrative full-time career should no longer be a surprise. We've all heard about the thousands of dollars a Kardashian can command for a single Instagram post, and the reality is that there are people whose reach and dedicated following in their fields (travel, fashion, parenting, etc) are valuable enough to be worth a substantial amount to marketers. But by and large, this doesn't extend to book bloggers. Laura at What's Hot? has a very interesting piece about why the bookternet should be getting paid. My own following and engagement is small enough that I'd never be able to turn pro at this, but for those who do have it and whose work leads to sales for publishers, they should be compensated!

Gratuitous Pug Photo:

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book 135: Stranger In A Strange Land

"She had not thought about it at the time, as she had not believed that anything could happen to Ben. Now she thought about it. There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk 'his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor' on an outcome dubious. Jill Boardman encountered her challenge and accepted it at 3:47 that afternoon."

Dates read: March 21-27, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: Hugo Award, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Growing up, it's easy to believe that almost everyone lives more or less the way you do. It's only as you get older that you start to realize that's not true. But it's hard to resist the urge to think of the way you grew up as the right way. But what if it wasn't just the people in your neighborhood or town that you were comparing yourself to? What if it wasn't even the same state or country? What if it was a person who came from an entirely different world?

Valentine Michael Smith, the central character of Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, is an entirely unique person: the son of two space explorers on Mars who died shortly after his birth, he was raised by Martians in Martian culture. As an adult, Mike returns to Earth to explore his "home" planet. Initially hidden away in a hospital by the government, which is trying to figure out what to do with him, he's discovered by a reporter and smuggled out by a nurse. That nurse, Jill, becomes his constant companion, sheltering and protecting him as he learns about the world and becoming something of a disciple as he comes into his own and begins teaching Martian ways to his friends and, eventually, the world.

Jill and Mike are taken in, after their initial flight from authorities, by author/lawyer/doctor Jubal Harshaw, an older, cynical man who lives in a sprawling compound with three young women he employs as on-call stenographers for his writing and a handyman to keep things in good repair. This group forms the core of what becomes the Church of All Worlds, a religious movement centered on Mike and the teachings he espouses, including the deep significance ascribed to the sharing of water, the concept of "grokking", and (of course!), non-monogamous sexual relationships. The rise of this church upsets the established power structure of this future Earth, with predictable results for the figure at the center of this upset.

Smith is both human and profoundly non-human, which raises interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a person, a fairly common theme in the science fiction genre. Perhaps because it had been done before, or perhaps because he was disinclined to explore the issue, this is not the route that Heinlein chooses to go. Rather, he uses the story to explore the "Martian" philosophy on life. Which is interesting, for a while. But since the portions of the book that are effectively espousals of this philosophy actually make up a solid majority of the book, with relatively little character development, I found myself getting bored pretty quickly.

The plot is pretty straightforward: it's a messiah tale, with the kind of story progression you'd expect for this kind of tale. The prose is...not fluid. It's clunky, and the long passages of expository dialogue aren't handled with any particular deftness. While it raised some thought-provoking ideas, it never captured me as a piece of literature. I don't think there's any reason genre fiction can't be successful from a literary standpoint, but I never got wrapped up in the story this book was trying to tell me. It may be a sci-fi classic, but it didn't do it for me. I wouldn't recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite genre fiction books?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Series I Have Given Up On

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking to series we've tasted and decided not to go back for a second helping of. I don't do a ton of series reading, to be honest, but here are ten books that didn't do it well enough for me to pick up sequels.

Crazy Rich Asians: This series is usually pitched as a frothy delight, and for me, it was a little too frothy. I didn't care enough about any of the characters to feel compelled to continue to follow them.

The Hangman's Daughter: I'm convinced it must have been poor translation that made this book such a dud, because it's got a bunch of sequels and there was nothing I read that made me feel like even one was necessary.

The Paper Magician: This book was fine and made good airplane reading (engaging enough to keep you reading along, but not threatening to make you actually think) but it didn't have the spark that made me want to re-immerse myself in its world.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: I read and loved the original trilogy, but I'm generally not into the idea of a new writer picking up where another left off...and nothing I've read about the quality of the continuation makes me feel any particular regret about this.

Divergent: I thought the first one was alright, but the second one was definitely not good. The final entry was widely panned, so I will be a-okay if I never read it.

The Giver: One of my favorite books as a teenager, I think it told such a good story that the idea of continuing on doesn't feel remotely necessary.

Eragon: I read and really liked the first one when it came out, and then when the second one came out I read like 100 pages and never picked it back up again and can't muster up an interest in getting back into it.

Dune: I know there are people who just can't get enough of this world since there are approximately a billion sequels, but the first one was more than enough for me.

Wicked: I've re-read this book probably a dozen times, I like it that much, and I've liked other work by Maguire, but the idea of reading the sequels has like zero appeal.

Uglies: I read the first and second one and enjoyed them both and then just lost interest entirely.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book 134: Chemistry

"Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can't be the chemicals' fault, you think. They have no souls."

Dates read: March 18-21, 2017

Rating: 7/10

When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I had always been the kind of kid for whom "bad behavior" most directly translated into "mouthing off", and I loved to play devil's advocate, and I was stubborn like an ox. I was captain of the mock trial team in high school, and I really thought being a lawyer was exactly what I wanted. Until I got to law school, which I hated. And then started practicing, which I hated even more. Figuring out that I needed to go another way is a decision I'm constantly thankful I made.

Coming from an adult perspective, I think it's silly that we expect 16 year olds to have any idea what they might want to do for the rest of their lives. I think of myself as being pretty smart, but it turned out what I was sure I wanted to do at 16 was incredibly wrong for me. And the protagonist (never named) of Weike Wang's Chemistry is in kind of a similar boat. Pursuing a Ph.D. in, of course, chemistry at a prestigious New England university, she has a bit of a meltdown as her experiment fails to produce results. Although she does love the field, she begins to question her choices about everything in life as she takes time off of her program.

There's not a lot of "plot" in this book, really. The protagonist is trying to decide what to do about her long-term relationship with a fellow chemist who has proposed to her but she's not sure she wants to marry, trying to figure out how to support herself without her graduate student stipend, being there for her best friend through pregnancy and early motherhood and marriage crises, and figuring out when and how and if to tell her Chinese immigrant parents that she's not in school anymore. It is this last matter that most preoccupies her, and much of the book is made up of her recollections of her childhood, of her parents' relationships with each other and with her, of the pressure she feels to succeed in the ways that they value in order to validate their sacrifices.

Stories like these illustrate the power of "own voices": an Asian-American woman telling the story of an Asian-American woman. A lot of non-Asians look to them as a so-called "model minority", hard workers somehow naturally gifted at math and science. Of course the reality behind that is more complicated (it's as much a result of the kinds of immigrants that tend to leave Asia behind to travel to America as much as anything else), and Wang pulls back the curtain on what might seem like a neat little family of a scientist, a housewife, and their scientist daughter to show the internal workings that are just as messy as anyone's home life.

That being said, evaluating Chemistry on its novelistic merits reveals a book that is good but not great, and quite obviously a debut, though a promising one. Our nameless narrator is at times rather formless, and mostly reacts to the events around her rather than being proactive. She's very unsure of herself after breaking out a track that she found herself in more than chose, and while that's understandable, it makes her hard to really get enough of a feel for to connect with much. But Wang's writing is sure and emotionally true, and I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, especially to 20somethings that are wondering if they're on the right track.

Tell me, blog friends...did you end up doing what you thought you would at 16?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Song of Achilles

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I've always maintained that I'm awful at compiling lists of beach reads, so I'm taking this week's topic about summer books to literally share with you the books I'm planning on reading over the next few months!

The Completionist: It seems like dystopian stories with a feminist bent are pretty popular these days, but something about this one caught my eye and I've got a review copy to read!

The Feast of Love: I'm a sucker for stories set in places familiar to me, and Baxter's supposed a great writer, so this Ann Arbor-based book about the love people share in various types of relationships seems like a good place to start with him.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: Jon Benet Ramsey's murder seems unlikely to ever be solved, but I'm definitely interested in reading the foremost true crime account of what happened.

The Looming Tower: I'm a little worried this is going to be substantially similar to Ghost Wars, which I read in January, but I'm curious to read it anyways.

My Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a role model and a national treasure and my husband bought me this book quite a while ago so it's time to actually read it.

Olive Kitteridge: I'm always here for prize winners, and this one got the Pulitzer in 2009. I've also never read Strout before, so here's hoping I enjoy her work as much as others have!

The Romanov Empress: Ah, self-indulgence in the form of historical fiction about royalty. This book follows the mother of Nicholas II, which will be a new perspective for me to read from!

The Pleasing Hour: I've actually read some mixed reviews of this debut, but it's short and it was cheap for the Kindle when I bought it so I'll try it out.

Shantaram: I do love a gigantic sprawling novel.

The Informant: Another huge book, this one is about a federal investigation of price-fixing by a major worldwide corporation and the sometimes dicey control the FBI had over its prize witness and sounds fascinating.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Book 133: Green Girl

"She is such a trainwreck. But that's why we like to watch. The spectacle of the unstable girl-woman. Look at her losing it in public."

Dates read: March 15-18, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I'm a mostly pretty together person these days. I'm married to the person with whom I've been in a long-term relationship for years now, we have a dog, we have steady white-collar jobs. We enjoy our wine and beer, but I can count the number of hangovers I've had in the past year on one hand. I write a book blog, that's how cozily normal I am. It wasn't always so. My 32 year-old self is a much, much different person than my 22 year-old self. At 22, I was a mess. I partied often, drank more than anyone would consider reasonable, and I made some questionable decisions about who I chose to invest my energy in. I never got into any sort of actual trouble, but things were a little sloppy there for a while.

I think a lot of young women go through unanchored periods like this (and young men, for that matter). Stumbling around trying to figure out who and what we are, what we want, where we belong. Kate Zambreno's Green Girl focuses on this exact time of life. Ruth, an American in her early 20s, is living in London and working at Harrod's, which she's nicknamed Horrid's, selling perfume. Ruth's insecurities about herself and her place in the world are reflected even in what kind of wares she hocks. She's not assigned to the fancy prestige brands, but rather the celebrity scent of a teenage American pop star.

Ruth is recovering from the dual shocks of losing her mother and the end of an intense, damaging relationship, and is desperately lonely. She's "friends" of sorts with a young Australian woman who lives down the hall in the rooming house she lives in. There's little real connection between them, but at least it's another person to spend time with. Ruth makes some hesitant stabs at new relationships, but between the two men who both treat her as an object in their own way (one by putting her on a worshipful pedestal, and the other as a muse for his own artistic ambition), she can't actually bond with anyone. She knows she's stuck, but has no idea how to free herself.

Green Girl is relatively simple in terms of plot, but I found it challenging in its own way. It's not structured like a typical novel: each section (there are many, I don't believe any are longer than 10 or so pages) is prefaced by a quotation from another author writing about young womanhood. Zambreno's own writing is almost like prose poetry, short interlinked paragraphs that are about as much about the feeling they capture as moving the story forward. It's not even as much a portrait of Ruth as a character as it is a portrait of what it is to be struggling into womanhood in one's early 20s, feeling the openness of one's potential future to be as much threat as promise.

I was initially put off by it and was glad that at least it was short so I wouldn't be spending undue amounts of time on something I found alienating, but eventually I got used to its rhythm and once I got there it was hard to put down. Although she's not a strongly drawn character, Ruth's aching sadness comes across so vividly that watching her stumble and make mistakes is heart-wrenching. It's an odd little book, and its flaws (the lack of character development and story structure) are real, but it has power. I'd recommend it if you're down for something a little less conventional or had a messy time of it in your 20s.

Tell me, blog you prefer novels that play with form or are you a traditionalist?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Awaken the Travel Bug In Me

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books that make us want to go see another piece of our big beautiful world. I've been fortunate enough to travel both domestically and internationally, but there are still so many places to go and/or explore further! These are books that make me want to go to there.

Far From The Madding Crowd (rural England): The descriptions of the lush countryside sound so peaceful and beautiful.

Memoirs of a Geisha (Kyoto): There is a lot of fair criticism to be leveled at this book, but it's definitely driven Western tourist interest in the geisha districts. I want to see the Shirakawa stream!

The White Tiger (India): I know, this book does not paint modern India in a flattering light or highlight anything that's appealing for a tourist, but he paints such a vivid picture of such excitement and life that it makes me want to see it for myself.

Crazy Rich Asians (Singapore): The book makes Singapore sound like a gorgeous place full of gorgeous homes and gorgeous people wearing gorgeous clothes. Besides the fear of being the ugly sore thumb, it sounds amazing.

Enchanted Islands (the Galapagos): The jungle, the wildlife, the blue water...I wouldn't want to be sent there to live like in the book, but I'd love to travel there!

Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil (Savannah): Majestic homes and tree-lined streets hiding dark secrets? Yes please.

The Descendants (Hawaii): Come on, who doesn't want to spend time in Hawaii?

The Secret History (New England college campuses): The ivy-covered grounds are made all the more lovely for seeing them through the eyes of our industrial California-transplant protagonist.

Snow Falling on Cedars (Washington state coast): The images painted of the lingering ocean fog, the trees, the peace of it all with the falling snow make it sound magical.

The Lords of Discipline (Charleston): Conroy's love for the aristocratic, secretive city makes it practically another principal character in the drama.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Book 132: City of Thieves

"That is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk. You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war."

Dates read: March 10-15, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Friendships that form under intense circumstances can be especially enduring. Most of us are or at least know someone that's still friends with someone they met at college orientation, just because you find yourselves thrown together at a vulnerable time. It quite often has little to do with what you actually have in common, but something about sharing new and interesting experiences with a person bonds you in a way that's hard to compare. I think of some of my law school classmates almost as war buddies. 

In David Benioff's City of Thieves, Lev Beniov is an introverted Jewish teenager living through the siege of Leningrad during WWII. One night, watching for air strikes on the roof of his apartment building with his friends, they spot a paratrooper and race through the streets (well after curfew, of course) and run after him. The man is dead, and the teenagers steal whatever they can off his body, with Lev in particular snagging a knife. The police spot them and the kids run...but Lev is caught. Thrown in the notorious local jail, he thinks he's dead. Then his cell opens in the night to admit Kolya, a bold 20something in a military uniform who claims that he was snagged after going AWOL to defend his thesis. Instead of being executed in the morning as Lev fears, he and Kolya are given a task: to collect two dozen eggs in a starving city for a wedding cake.

What emerges from there is a fairly predictable quest narrative. Lev and Kolya journey within the city and eventually outside of it to find the eggs they need to get their ration cards (i.e. their only link to the extremely limited supply of food) back, and as they encounter characters and obstacles and characters who are obstacles, they grow closer. We know that Lev survives into the present day because of the framing device Benioff uses, in which he presents Lev as his own grandfather relating the story to him, but exactly how he does, and what will become of the people around him are unknowns that propel the plot forward. Both Kolya and Lev are well-written characters, and although the structure of their journey is a familiar one, Benioff's prose is lively and entertaining and a pleasure to read.

I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I picked it up because Benioff is a producer of Game of Thrones, one of my favorite TV shows, and I'd heard it was pretty decent, but I usually have a hard time connecting with stories that feel decidedly "masculine". But this was a coming-of-age story that wasn't overly steeped in gendered notions of what that means. It's still more masculine than feminine, but not to the point where I felt alienated from it as I often do with stories that posit violence and/or emotional repression as what it means to become a man. It's as much as anything a story about a brief, intense friendship that forever changed a teenage boy, and who can't relate to that narrative? I definitely recommend this book, I'm already looking forward to re-reading it someday when I finally read through my TBR.

Tell me, blog friends...have you still got friends that you made when you went through hard times together?

One year ago, I was reading: In The Skin of a Lion (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Shouldn't Have Bothered Finishing

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! A few weeks ago, we talked about books we didn't like but were glad we'd read anyways. The actual topic for this week are books we decided to stop reading too quickly. I almost never DNF (do/did not finish) my books, but there are some that if I'm being honest with myself, I should have because the book did nothing for me.

Where'd You Go Bernadette: I knew almost as soon as I started reading this that the tone was a mismatch for me. That never changed.

Bonfire of the Vanities: I'd previously read and hated Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I should have bailed when I started this and realized within like 50 pages I hated this too. Instead I read the whole thing and hated every second of it.

On Trails: I've actually got a pretty rocky history with the books my book club reads, but I love the group so much so I stick with it. This was last month's read, and the scattered way the information was presented was something that annoyed me pretty quickly and then just never stopped annoying me. This is a minority opinion, book club overwhelming liked it!

The Sisters Chase: This was another book club selection and holy smokes it was awful from the first page all the way to the last. This time everyone else in book club agreed.

Sophia of Silicon Valley: If you're going to like this book, you have to really be rooting for the titular Sophia and given that I thought she was terrible from the did not work out well.

Vinegar Girl: The gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew are hard to update to the modern world, and the wit and snap that would make it work do not materialize. Skip this egregiously bad book and watch 10 Things I Hate About You.

The Witches of Eastwick: The movie version of this book is a cheesy 80s delight with some genius casting. The book, which I was surprised to find out was written by the legendary John Updike, was a dull, tortured plod and never got good.

The Circle: I was so excited for this book before I read it...a 1984 for the social media generation? Sign me up! But then it fell SO. FLAT. Lazy characterization, clunky dialogue, and the least interesting plot choices made. Though I'm always honest when asked for my opinions, it's very rare I'll actively discourage someone from reading a book. This is one of the few exceptions.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Two Eggers in a practice with any given author is that if one book doesn't work for me, it's just as likely to be a weaker offering or just the wrong book at the wrong time as it is to be that I'll never like that author. Two, though, and I give up. Why I made myself suffer through this simultaneously anxious and boring book before I wrote off Eggers for myself I can't quite understand.

Dune: This space opera hits like 100% insanity right away and I do better when there's a little more world-building first.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book 131: Housekeeping

"And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again, or as if she could find the chink, the flaw, in her serenely orderly and ordinary life, or discover at least some intimation that her three girls would disappear as absolutely as their father had done. So when she seemed distracted or absent-minded, it was in fact, I think, that she was aware of too many things, having no principle for selecting the more from the less important, and that her awareness could never be diminished, since it was among the things she had thought of as familiar that this disaster had taken shape." 

Dates read: March 6-10, 2017

Rating: 5/10

Lists/Awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels

My husband has had the most normal life of anyone I know. He was born in North Dakota to two teachers, who moved out to Reno when he was five. They have been happily married for decades, with a wide circle of friends. They even had a Golden Retriever named Max that they adopted from the Humane Society when he was in middle school. Pretty much everything but the white picket fence. Until I met him, I didn't know that people with such conventional lives actually existed. Where was the drama, the scandal, the love child, the secret substance abuse issue?

But, as it so happens, those Norman Rockwell childhoods do exist, and my husband had one of them. It's a decidedly imperfect childhood, though, that's at the center of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Ruth, and her sister Lucille, don't have much if anything in way of memories of their father. They are raised by their mother, Helen, until one day she leaves where she's been living and returns to Fingerbone, Idaho, where she was raised by her own single mother (her father died during her childhood when the train on which he worked derailed into the local lake). She arranges her daughters on her mother's porch with a box of crackers and promptly drives her car off a cliff. The girls have some stability with their grandmother for a time, but then she dies. At first, grandma's two sisters-in-law come to take care of the kids, but as longtime spinsters, they're not quite up to the task. So then Sylvie, their aunt, comes to town. And that's when things start to change.

Sylvie is...a drifter, to be polite. She's actually more of a hobo. She likes the girls, loves them in her own way even, but it's hard for her to create a stable home for them. She can't break out of old habits: riding around in train boxcars, falling asleep with her shoes still on in case she needs to be able to move along, hoarding. While Ruth takes after her aunt, Lucille doesn't. As the girls enter the teenage years, Lucille wants normality. She breaks away from the family, and as she talks about what's going on back home, outside interest increases dramatically. This strains things to the breaking point and forces Ruth to make a decision about who she really is and who she really wants to be.

The more I read, the more I boil books down to three essential elements: plot, characters, and writing. A good book has two, a great book has all three. Robinson's writing is lovely, her prose clear and insightful and strong. But the other two legs of this stool aren't really there. Despite being told from Ruth's perspective, we never get much of a sense of who she really is. Her sister, despite being her closest companion, doesn't get much development either apart from wanting a more conventional life. Even Sylvie is elusive, even though you get a better sense of her than you do almost anyone else. As for the plot...despite being a coming-of-age novel, it seems almost more like a failure-to-come-of-age novel. Ruth never really grows or changes. She just...drifts along, like a leaf along a river. A rootless child, she follows her rootless aunt/guardian. Even her break with her sister, what should have been a deeply traumatic experience, feels anticlimatic and muffled, somehow. Since there was quite a long gap between this book, published in the 80s, and Robinson's next work, Gilead, not published until the early 2000s, I'm still interested in reading more of her works. Maybe that long gap helped her develop a better sense of people or plotting? This book, though, isn't quite good enough to recommend.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been interested in the life of a wanderer?

One year ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: May 2018

It's after Memorial Day weekend now, which as far as I'm concerned marks the start of summer regardless of what the calendar says. And the mercury (well, the app on my phone) agrees! It's been quite warm already, which gives me dread for the real heat of summer coming up. Also heating up is the political world, with Primary Day here in just a couple weeks. Since Nevada is a state where you can vote early, I've actually already cast my ballot and I'm just waiting to see how it all shakes out. And in more personal news, my family suffered a loss when my grandfather passed away.

In Books...

  • The Book of Unknown Americans: This book, about Mexican immigrants who leave their comfortable life to come to America when their daughter suffers a significant brain injury in the hope of giving her a better life, has an interesting perspective, but doesn't come together really until the end, which is very good. I wanted it to be more consistently better than it was, though.
  • Game of Crowns: I figured this was the perfect time to read this book with the Royal Wedding and everything. Turns out it's basically a very long People article, and a total hit job on Charles and Camilla. I did not think it was worth my time. 
  • On Trails: This was our book club selection for this month, and I really did not like it. It was scattered and engaged in only superficial analysis of the more interesting aspects of its subject matter, the making and use of trails. It ended up being mostly an "in the wilderness" book about the Appalachian Trail, and I could not possibly have been less interested. 
  • Children of Blood and Bone: This was a super-hyped release that I enjoyed more as I reminded myself that it was YA and I needed to adjust my frame of reference accordingly. Set in a fantasy version of Nigeria and playing on the mythology of the area, the plot is dynamic and propulsive and the world-building intriguing, but the characterization is shallow. That being said, though, I'm curious to see what the next volume in the trilogy brings! 
  • Far From The Madding Crowd: This is my second Thomas Hardy novel, and I think I've discovered a new classics author I enjoy! Sure, he's a little biased in his glowing portrayals of rural life, but I like his warmth and humor and the characters he creates, and Bathsheba Everdene is a wonderful, complicated heroine. 
  • The Heart of Everything That Is: This book focuses on the fight led by the Lakota warrior Red Cloud against the US government in the Great Plains, culminating in the "Fetterman Massacre" in Montana. He managed to win unprecedented victories for his people...but we all know how this story ends and that those hard-won victories didn't last. It was interesting and informative, if rather dry.
  • Landline: I've heard amazing things about Rainbow Rowell, but I'd also heard that this was her least enjoyable book, and I was glad I had the latter feedback to temper my expectations. Parts of this time-travel telephone story were delightful and fun, but I thought it suffered from some inconsistent tone issues and just didn't quite come together.
  • How to Love Wine: This book from the NYT's Chief Wine Critic is competently written enough, but at the end of the day boils down to "drink it, with people you love, and good food, and don't worry about the rest of it" spread over 200+ pages. 

In Life...

  • I started taking Tai Chi: As a certified High Strung Person, I'm always looking for ways to manage my anxiety. I saw a local community college offered an extension class to learn Tai Chi and it's something I'm really enjoying.
  • RiverFest: This is one of our favorite local events and we've been going to it for years now! This time around we bought tickets to the craft beer village AND the limited releases tent so there were lots of delicious samples. Unfortunately, it was held on what must have been the least nice day of the month, only in the 50s and raining, so we didn't linger as long as we might have.
  • My grandpa passed away: I usually try to keep things pretty chipper around here, but life isn't always as smooth as I wish it was. My paternal grandpa, who was my last surviving grandparent, passed away this month after about a year of declining health. He lived a full life and was married to my grandmother for decades before her death, had six kids, and was active enough to be driving four-wheelers around until his mid-80s. I will miss him. 

One Thing:

The distinction between art and artist is a thorny one to navigate. Resolving to never again watch Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown again is a greater loss to me than it is to Roman Polanski, an unquestionably garbage person. But the extent to which we're willing to excuse "genius" men, like Polanski, their awfulness, and indeed, conceive of genius as a masculine trait, is the subject of this very interesting article by Megan Garber, which gave me a lot to think about.

Gratuitous Pug Photo:

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Worlds I’d Never Want to Live In

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the worlds books create and whether or not we'd actually want to live there. We did a similar topic late last year about places we would want to go, so this time around I'm going to be talking about places I would not want to find myself!

Westeros (A Song of Ice and Fire): I would love to see a dragon, but Martin does not flinch from the reality of a world which has been in a state of war for years on end. It is gloomy.

Bon Temps (The Southern Vampire Mysteries): The risk of getting killed by a vampire or were-creature or even rogue maenad seems disproportionately high.

Camazotz (A Wrinkle in Time): A conformist world where everyone has outsourced all decision-making to a central authority is not for me. Also the idea of that giant brain totally freaked me out as a kid.

Gilead (The Handmaid's Tale): I like having control of my own reproductive decisions, thanks.

Olandria (The Winged Histories): Another fantasy world riven by war.

Dune (Dune): A desert world so arid that every drop of water your body produces needs to be purified and recycled so you don't die of thirst, populated by giant sandworms? Ick ick.

Oz (Wicked): A rising authoritarian state where some citizens are treated as second class is no place to want to be.

Orisha (Children of Blood and Bone): Again with totalitarian government and a war-ravaged society being a less-than-pleasant destination.

Panem (The Hunger Games): It sounds like life in the capital and the first few districts isn't too bad, but what an awful world overall.

The hospital (Blindness): This book was brilliant but the devolution of society inside the hospital is harrowing.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book 130: Die A Little

"The words, their whispery, insinuating tones, their voices blending together- I can't tell them apart, they seem the same, one long, slithery tail whipping back and forth. My head shakes with the sounds, the hard urgency, and my growing anxiety at being somehow involved in this, even if by accident, by gesture."

Dates read: March 2-6, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Ah, the American Dream. A loving spouse, 2.5 kids, a 4-bedroom 3-bathroom home with a white picket fence, and a Golden Retriever named Lucky. Baseball games, road trips, and family hikes with a picnic lunch brought along. There have been no shortage of movies and TV shows, from Twin Peaks to American Beauty, that try to roll back the curtain and show the dysfunction that lurks behind even those who seem to have what we're told to want. But the genre most dedicated to showing the seamy underbelly of America and our dream is noir.

When we think of noir, we usually think of a morally compromised cop at the center of the story, a femme fatale, and often some kind of good girl set against her. And Megan Abbott's debut novel, Die A Little, has all of these elements. But it's not a straightforward noir. The driver of the action is the good girl, schoolteacher Lora King, and her cop brother Bill is the one that she has to save from the clutches of the femme fatale: his wife, Alice.

Bill and Lora are a closely bonded sibling pair: their parents died when they were teenagers, and they've been all the other could really count on ever since. But their cozy life in Los Angeles sharing a home and serving as each other's support system is thrown into turmoil when Bill meets Alice, a lovely and charming wardrobe assistant at a movie studio. He's smitten and they marry and set up their own housekeeping fairly quickly. Alice is the perfect little wife, energetically keeping the home and throwing delightful parties for Bill's police coworkers and their wives. She soon becomes employed at Laura's school teaching home ec. But there are cracks in her shiny surface: she has a best friend who's always coming by with fresh bruises and dark insinuations, and questions about Alice's claimed teaching certification start to pop up, and soon Lora is wondering who her brother is really married to.

What exactly is in Alice's past? Lora's concern for her brother leads her down a twisty, winding path that draws her into drugs, prostitution, and Hollywood clean-up men. The way the story unravels is compelling and enjoyable, but the weakness is the characters. While Alice is drawn vividly (the villain is oftentimes the most interesting character in morality tales), Bill is a cipher, and Lora's development is honestly not especially believable. A naive teacher manages to take on an investigation of sophisticated underworld players and put nary a foot wrong? It seems Lora "just knows" how to react in situations which would have been terrifyingly alien to someone of her background a little too often for my taste. But if you don't think about the little shortcuts that Abbott takes too hard and let yourself get drawn into its well-created atmosphere, you'll enjoy it. I've got several other of Abbott's works on my TBR, and this book has me intrigued to get into her catalog.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite noir (book or movie)?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Devil In The White City

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Character Names

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the characters with the best names. It would be so easy to go with just girl's names, since it seems like authors often get more creative with them, or stick to the realm of fantasy where there's even more flexibility, but I decided to try to limit myself to one name from any given series and included my favorite five for girls and five for boys!

Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games): Many fantasy-style novels use names that are similar to ones we know and use, but with a twist. This one falls right in line with that, but it's particularly well-done because the rhythm and balance of it is pleasing.

Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina): Maybe it's the repetition of the "n" sound and the "a" vowels that tie it together so well, but this one just flows beautifully.

Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice): She's only really a bit character, but I've just always loved the elegance of Georgiana as a name. It feels more sophisticated and unexpected than Georgina.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): I like the link to the famous Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and Vianne is lovely, and they work really well together.

Daenarys Targaryen (A Game of Thrones): A Song of Ice and Fire had to get in here somewhere, and the distinctive majesty of this name is instantly identifiable with the series.

Philip Pirrip (Great Expectations): Both names come close to being palindromes, and echo each other in a way that should sound cheesy but instead has a bright ring.

Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter): There are so many names from the Harry Potter universe that could have made it on here, but the soft consonants of the headmaster's name, its very old-fashioned first name and to my American ear, very British-sounding surname, make it my favorite.

Tristran Thorn (Stardust): Again with the "fantasy using slightly-changed normal names", but I like the stutter-step of "Tristran" instead of the familiar "Tristan", and both names sound enough alike but are still different that they hang together well.

Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit): This is just such a delightfully hobbit-y name.

Newland Archer (The Age of Innocence): This has the kind of moneyed, old-fashioned aura that fits this Old New York character perfectly.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book 129: A Leg To Stand On

"And in that instant, I no longer knew it. In that instant, that very first encounter, I knew not my leg. It was utterly strange, not-mine, unfamiliar. I gazed upon it with absolute non-recognition...The more I gazed at that cylinder of chalk, the more alien and incomprehensible it appeared to me. It seemed to bear no relation whatever to me. It was absolutely not-me—and yet, impossibly it was attached to me—and even more impossibly, 'continuous' with me." 

Dates read: February 26-March 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

When I was in college, I quite often used a shortcut to get back to my apartment after a night at the bars. It was a short, dark path than ran next to a parking garage. I almost never saw anyone back there. A few times I saw some homeless people, but no one ever tried to stop me or talk to me. Thinking back on it, it sounds like the beginning of a horror film: a young, drunk, small college student walks down a secluded path into the dark. But it never occurred to me to be afraid. And, obviously, nothing ever happened.

We often feel impervious to danger until something happens to frighten us. In his memoir A Leg To Stand On, Oliver Sacks recalls a time in his life that began with a hike on a solo trip to Norway. Sacks was an adult man who frequently traveled and was in excellent physical condition, so the idea of going for a hike alone didn't phase him in the least. It wasn't until a chance encounter with a bull during the hike lead to a fall that drastically injured one of his legs that he realized how very precarious his situation was. The leg was incapable of bearing any weight. No one knew where he was. It would get dangerously cold at night, and the path was little-traveled enough that he very well might not be found until it was too late. Somehow, miraculously, he managed to get himself back down the hill where he was discovered by locals. But that was just the beginning of his tale.

After surgery to repair the grave damage to his leg, he woke up to feel as though that leg wasn't really his. It was like the opposite of phantom limb syndrome: instead of feeling as though a limb that had been amputated was still there, Sacks felt like his existing limb wasn't a part of his body. His recovery, both from the underlying injury and the neurological symptoms, make him, for the first time since he'd become a doctor, a patient. He finds himself feeling meek and helpless, and even though his situation wasn't contagious, he's treated as though his suffering might be.

Eventually, he did recover, and continued to be physically active and practice neurology and write books. But it's not hard to imagine that this experience of being a patient helped inform the compassion in his work. Writing case studies is a delicate balance: there can be an exploitative edge to it, the feeling that the writer is mining suffering for their own pecuniary gain. But for my money, Sacks' works never come off that way. The things that come across clearly are his endless curiosity for how the brain works, how symptoms can be treated, and a respect for the fundamental humanity of the people he worked with and tried to help. Which is why I've been such a big fan of his books, and why I'm a little sad each time I finish one because I know it means there's one more that I'll never again get to experience for the first time. I found this one in particular a fascinating medical memoir, and a moving meditation on the experience of being a patient. I would definitely recommend it, especially for anyone who works in the medical field.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever realized how unsafe something you did unthinkingly was?

One year ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Didn't Like But Am Glad I Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books we didn't actually enjoy but were nevertheless glad we've read. For me, this kind of reading generally means classics, because I do like bragging about getting through these (and honestly, many of them are better than you think before you actually crack them open). So here are ten that didn't do it for me but I appreciate having finished anyways.

Don Quixote: I know this is considered a delightful comedic classic, but I hate this kind of cringe comedy. For me, the "joke" played out quickly and then there were still hundreds of pages to struggle through and emphasis on the struggle.

Crime and Punishment: I thought I hated Russian literature until I read Tolstoy. It turned out I love Tolstoy, so I happily turned to Dostoevsky in the hopes that I would love him too. Nope. Just Tolstoy. I hated this book.

Hunger: I found this book on a list of under-rated classics, but the best thing about it was that it was short.

Gone With the Wind: The movie is an (admittedly problematic) fave, but the book? Scarlett O'Hara is a total grade-A asshole but Vivien Leigh makes it compelling on screen. I just rooted for the Scarlett in the book to get her comeuppance.

Of Mice and Men: This one is less on the braggy side and more on the pop-culture reference understanding side.

The Catcher in the Rye: This one even more on the pop-culture side. Why does popular culture think the world is so invested in the narratives of Sad Alienated Boys?

Heart of Darkness: Being able to drop a pretentious allusion to this Joseph Conrad classic is literally the only reward for reading it.

Into the Wild: I enjoy having read this so I can rant about how much I hate it to anyone who tries to tell me that Christopher McCandless was anything other than a dude who deserved exactly what he got.

The DaVinci Code: This was not a good book, for me, but it was a cultural phenomenon and I'm glad I read it at the same time everyone else was.

Butterfly Boy: This was a book club pick and while I really appreciated getting the perspective of a man who is both gay and Latino, because it's not a kind of voice I experience very often, I didn't actually like reading it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Book 128: The Bear and the Nightingale

"On and on she went, and then paused, frowning. Left at the gray alder, round the wicked old elm, and then she would see her father's fields. She had walked that path a thousand times. But now there was no alder and no elm, only a cluster of black-needled spruces and a little snowy meadow. Vasya swung round, tried a new direction. No, here were slender beeches, standing white as maidens, naked with winter and trembling. Vasya was suddenly uneasy. She would not be lost; she was never lost. Might as well be lost in her own house as lost in the woods. A wind picked up that set all the trees to shaking, but now they were trees she did not know."

Dates read: February 21-26, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Although my parents split up before I was born, I've never known my father to have a serious girlfriend. Or maybe he's had them but never introduced them to me. In any case, I never had a stepmother. My sister has. Although her father never remarried, he's been with the same woman for a long, long time. She's a lovely person and cares very much about my sister. Honestly, despite the stereotype of the "wicked stepmother", I've never personally heard about more than one or two really bad stepparents.

But it's a storytelling trope that has roots in reality. In times and places where resources were scarce and women often died (usually of childbirth-related complaints) by early middle adulthood, a new wife who had children of her own looked out for the best interests of her offspring above any others. The most famous literary example of a wicked stepmother? Probably Cinderella. It's a story that's remarkably common around the world: China has a version. Iran has a version. And of course, there's the European takes on the tale that inspired the brothers Grimm. It's this familiar territory that Katherine Arden mines for her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale.

Arden gives us as our heroine Vasilisa, the youngest child of Pyotr and Marina. Vasya grows up with her four older siblings in a small village in Russia, bordering the kind of large and dark wood that a good fairy tale needs. After Marina dies in childbirth, the girl grows up half-wild, listening to old Slavic folk tales at the feet of her elderly nurse. But to Vasya, they're not just folk tales. She can see them, the spirits that populate Slavic mythology, and talk to them too. It's a trait she shares with her stepmother-to-be, Anna. But while rural-dwelling Vasya accepts this about herself, Anna, as a member of the urban nobility, is a devout Christian and thinks herself tormented by devils. Once she moves to the countryside after her marriage to Pyotr, the only place she can find peace is the church. She becomes obsessed with the handsome and vain priest, Father Konstantin, who is just as obsessed in turn with rooting out the local superstitions. There's a tinge of American Gods here, because the fading belief saps the strength of the spirits just when they're most needed in a battle brewing between the larger and more powerful forces of evil and of justice.

The characters that populate The Bear and the Nightingale are wonderful. Vasya is a delightfully high-spirited heroine, but what I enjoyed even more was that Arden didn't make Anna a simple bad stepmom. Instead, she's presented as scared, and her behavior towards Vasya is obviously rooted more in this fear than spitefulness. And even though the father in Cinderella stories often comes off as neglectful, Pyotr is a loving parent who has a hard time dealing with his first wife's death, his second wife's obvious mental health issues, and a daughter he doesn't know how to raise. And the world that Arden creates is rich and vivid. It's the first first-in-a-series that I've read in quite a while that's made me actually Google when the next entry is coming out because I want to continue along in the story Arden is beginning to unfold. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With My Favorite Color On the Cover

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books with our favorite color on the cover. My favorite color is blue, but since we've got a topic coming up in a couple months that'll include books with blue covers, I'll move to my second favorite: purple!

The Color Purple: This one is obvious, no?

To Kill A Mockingbird: My own hardcover copy is prettier than this, but I think we all read the one with this lavender cover in school.

Pride and Prejudice: This is a blue-r purple but still a lovely cover for a delightful book.

The Stranger Beside Me: The mass market paperback of this true crime classic (which is the edition I own) features Bundy's stare from a purple background.

The Other Boleyn Girl: I feel like I'm talking about this book a lot lately, which I'm not necessarily trying to do, it just keeps coming up.

Dead Until Dark: The first in Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries features Sookie Stackhouse and her vampire lover Bill floating against a dark purple sky.

Stay With Me: This debut novel has, well, stayed with me in the months since I read it...and its orange and purple cover is striking.

A Brave New World: This classic of dystopian fiction has an unusual tone of grayish purple in the cover.

Exit West: Beautiful book, gorgeous cover.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: These books get redesigned covers pretty frequently (the originals that I grew up with are my favorites), and honestly I find most of the ones in this series uninspiring, but I love this moody purple-soaked one.