Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book 142: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius



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

Date read: April 24- May 1, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: New York Times Bestseller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Websites and Blogs

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book 141: The Leavers




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

Dates read: April 21-24, 2017

Rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books To Read Together

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



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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book 140: The Children of Henry VIII



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

Dates read: April 13-21, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The White Tiger