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