Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book 151: The Man Without A Face

"Putin loved the Soviet Union, and he loved its KGB, and when he had power of his own, effectively running the financial system of the country's second-largest city, he wanted to build a system just like them. It would be a closed system, a system built on total control—especially control over the flow of information and the flow of money. It would be a system that aimed to exclude dissent and would crush it if it appeared."

Dates read: June 9-14, 2017

Rating: 7/10

There are two kinds of people, in my experience working in politics, who decide to run: people who genuinely care about people and want to be a part of the solution in helping the community run better, and people who like power. These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but there's generally one that seems to be predominant. Thankfully, most of the people I've worked with are in the former rather than the latter category. As hard as it seems to believe in our currently climate of partisan enmity, the solid majority of politicians on both sides are in it because they're trying to do good for their communities, states, and country.

It's the other ones, the ones who are focused on power, who are hard to deal with at best and dangerous at worst. Perhaps the world's most prominent power-oriented politician is President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and The Man Without A Face is Russian writer Masha Gessen's look at how he rose and how he's managed to stay on top.  Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election has been and continues to be a very hot topic, so this book got bumped up on my reading list because I wanted some context for what's going on in the world right now. It proved a very timely, very enlightening read.

Those looking for a straightforward biography of Putin will be disappointed. Although the details of Putin's life, such that they are available, are discussed at significant length, the book is just as focused on explaining the Russia in which he came to power and how he's worked to concentrate and hold that power ever since. The relative comfort in which Putin grew up, the disappointment of a boring posting to East Germany while with the KGB, his good fortune in finding himself attached to then-Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, the way in which he was plucked from obscurity to succeed Boris Yeltsin by political handlers overconfident that he would be moldable clay...and his utter ruthlessness in completely destroying potential foes before they were able to gain any real momentum. All of that's there, but Gessen provides important details about Russia's political history to help understand how it was all able to be executed so effectively.

Speaking of executed...Gessen's book doesn't directly accuse Putin of having them carried out, but she draws damning connections between dissident activity that angered him and then sudden, untimely deaths due to very unlikely causes, like radioactive element poisoning. Documentary proof of this and other clandestine, illegal activity very likely doesn't exist or is deeply buried, so she can't present it to her readers. This is not surprising, but I didn't get the sense that she was scare-mongering or making molehills into mountains. It seemed to me like she picked examples of politically motivated scare tactics/violence where the logical chain was clear, and I have to imagine that for every situation she presents, there are several sketchier ones that required larger conclusory leaps that were left untold. If you're interested in Putin, or Russia, or autocrats, I'd definitely recommend this book. It's worth your time.

Tell me, blog you think politicians are mostly good, or mostly bad?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Three years ago, I was reading: Gilded

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookstores/Libraries I’d Love To Visit

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the bookstores and libraries of the world that we'd like to visit. This one was a bit of a stretch for me...I'm much more into reading the books than in where they come from. I do enjoy a good stroll through the shelves, though, so here are ten stores/libraries I'd love to go see!

John K King Used & Rare Books: I am personally embarrassed that I have never been to this gigantic, amazing bookstore despite growing up super close by!

The Strand: Obviously this NYC bookstore is legendary and I would looooove to spend an afternoon here just wandering.

Powell's: Portland is on my must-visit list for a lot of reasons (beer is pretty high up there), but I'd love to while away some time visiting this place!

Parnassus Books: I've enjoyed Ann Patchett's work, and I want to visit her bookstore in Nashville because a bookstore owned by an author sounds amazing.

Magers & Quinn: Now to plan for two trips I'm planning before the end of the year! This is the largest indie bookstore in the Twin Cities, so I'll definitely have to stop by when we're there later this month!

Faulker House Books: I'll admit Faulkner himself doesn't really do it for me, but this rooming-house-turned-bookstore where he once lived looks awesome!

New York Public Library: New York is the center of America's literary scene, and this library is iconic. Those lions!

Los Angeles Central Library: Susan Orlean's The Library Book got me intrigued by the story of this place so now I want to see it for myself!

The Library of Congress: It's the closest thing we have to a national library so I feel like an eventual visit is mandatory.

The British Library: It's the largest national library in the world!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book 150: In The Skin Of A Lion

"How can she who had torn his heart open at the waterworks with her art now lie like a human in his arms? Or stand catatonic in front of bananas on Eastern Avenue deciding which bunch to buy? Does this make her more magical? As if a fabulous heron in flight has fallen dead at his feet and he sees the further wonder if its meticulous construction. How did someone conceive of putting this structure of bones and feathers together, deciding on the weight of beak and skull, and give it the ability to fly?"

Dates read: June 4-9, 2017

Rating: 6/10

What does it mean for a piece of media, like a book or a movie, to be "good"? Does it mean it's artistically accomplished? Excellent on a technical level? And what point does the degree to which you as the audience enjoyed it enter into it? Should it? As someone who loves books and movies, this is a question I find myself struggling with regularly. For example, in what will likely be an unpopular opinion, I did not at all like watching Goodfellas. Objectively, it's a very well-constructed movie and I can understand why it's so admired. But I hated it. I wouldn't watch it again if you paid me. Well, it depends on how much, but it wouldn't be cheap.

I read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient a few years ago, and I felt much the same way about it as I did reading his earlier work, In The Skin of a Lion. It's beautifully written, poetic and lush. It has powerful themes, love and belonging and the building of a major city. But I never connected to either book. In The Skin of a Lion is told in a not-quite-linear format and has a dreamlike quality. When you remember that the story is framed as though it's being told by one person to another during a journey, this makes more sense. Its primary focus is Patrick Lewis, a man who grew up in rural Canada doing ranching and demolition work alongside his father (his mother was long since gone). The father was a solitary, taciturn man, and Patrick grows up to be much the same.

Patrick's adult life is presented to us as the story of his relationships with two women, both actresses: Clara, who he meets when he takes a job looking for her vanished boyfriend, and Alice, a friend of Clara's who he reconnects with after Clara has herself disappeared and after Alice has had a daughter, Hana. There are stories between and around those relationships, and stories about other characters who are more tangential to the plot, all loosely connected through Patrick.

I've said before that I'm a reader who tends to be drawn to character-driven stories, which means this book was sometimes a struggle for me. The sheer beauty of the writing helped me get at least something out of it, but the characters were profoundly underdeveloped. Patrick is the central character, and although he's written as being pretty emotionally closed-off, it's frustrating how opaque he is. The other characters are barely people at all...the women especially seem much more like plot devices than actual humans, but the men aren't much better off. For plot devotees, there's not much here either...what I was left with by the end of the book was less the sense of a story than a series of beautiful, haunting images. Like a Malick film.

I usually try to write my reviews of book club selections before the actual discussion so that my ideas are my ideas, but I didn't quite make it with this one and I think talking about it with other people gave me a new frame of reference for it. There are two epigraphs introducing the book, and the one that I'll focus on is from The Epic of Gilgamesh. When you think about this novel as consciously echoing the style of an epic, some of its shortcomings make more sense: the clunky dialogue, the characters that feel more like archetypes than people, the sense of mystery that hangs over the entire thing. It still wasn't a book for me, but looking at it through that lens made me feel like its flaws were less egregious. If beautiful, almost poetic prose is something you're drawn to, this will be an amazing read for you. If you like a bit more traditional story structure with strongly drawn won't.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite classical epic? I've got to go with The Odyssey, myself.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Life of the World to Come

Three years ago, I was reading: Unbelievable

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Year 3: An Update (And Giveaway!)

Yesterday was my 33rd birthday! I decided, when I turned 30, that I was going to commit to reading 500 books over the course of the next decade, and started this blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable. So my reading years begin and end on my birthday, and that meant that yesterday marked the end of year three. I like to take my birthday to look back on the year that was, both in terms of numbers and in terms of life, so let's see what happened:

In Reading

Books read (this year): 87! This is obviously more than my yearly goal of 50. And it's up from last year's 84, which I'm excited about because I read some lengthy books this year. But I don't know that I'll ever touch the 95 I read the first year again.

Books read (total): 266. I am currently over 2 years "ahead" of my posting. I'm not sure what to do about this, if there's anything that needs to be done about it. I feel like it's better to have a buffer in case I ever find my pace slowing, and it's not like I feel crazy pressure to read every single second. I'm reading as much as I want, and right now that's more rather than less.

Male/Female Authors: 44 men/43 women. As always, this is just about even despite not making a conscious effort to read equal numbers. It's always something that's interesting to keep track of, especially since I read a lot of "literary fiction", which is a genre that tends to be male-heavy.

Most Read Genres: Speaking of literary fiction, I've stopped tracking it as a sub-genre this year because of that very male-heaviness. Instead, I either list it as historical or contemporary fiction. This year, I read 66 fiction books (most-read subgenres continue to be contemporary fiction and then historical fiction), but only 21 non-fiction books (most-read subgenres here were science and history). That's a 3:1 ratio, while previously I've been more like 2:1. I've actually been buying more non-fiction lately, but I think I was just going through a particularly fiction-heavy portion of my backlog. I will admit this: it's a LOT easier to write about the fictional books, so I'm not bummed on that count.

Kindle/Hard Copy: This year, I read 51 paperback or hardcover books and only 36 on my Kindle. This has been my most inconsistent category I track...the first year I read significantly more on the Kindle than in hard copy, while last year was about even, and now this. I do honestly prefer reading a hard copy, so part of that is doing things like buying the physical book for my book club instead of the Kindle version, even when the e-book would be cheaper.

In Life

Girl's trip to Las Vegas: My annual trip with my best friends was close to home (for me) this year...since Britney Spears was wrapping up her residency at Planet Hollywood, we spent four days in Las Vegas centered around her show! We usually do weekend trips, but it turned out to be much kinder to our pocketbooks to go during the week. And the show was awesome! I was reading: Player Piano (review to come)

Work trip to Seattle: My first-ever trip to Washington! It turns out January may not quite be the best month to experience a coastal was pretty cold and the wind coming up off the water made it even more so. But I wish we'd gotten more time to explore, so we'll certainly be heading back sometime, but probably during a more hospitable time of year! I was reading: An American Marriage (review to come)

My grandfather died: This isn't any sort of highlight, but it was a significant life event. He'd been doing poorly for about a year prior to his death, so it didn't come as an awful surprise, but it was still a rough time and he's missed. I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is (review to come)

Second wedding anniversary: We've been together for six years now, but only married for two. We didn't do anything particularly special, just a dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, but it's nice to celebrate anyways. I was reading: Sloppy Firsts (review to come)

Weekend in San Francisco: We hadn't taken a long weekend in months, so we decided to hop over to the Bay for a few days in early July! We stayed in San Francisco for a few days, and then over to Berkeley, and had an awesome time eating and drinking and walking around. I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Trip to Faribault: When you grow up in a Catholic family, a cousin getting married is a pretty regular occurrence. This time it was my cousin Matt, so Drew and I took a long weekend to go to Faribault, which also happens to be my boss's hometown! It was lovely to be there for Matt and Jessie's celebration and spend some time with my dad's side of the family. I was reading: The Luminaries (review to come)

The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of my favorite book that I've reviewed on the blog over the previous 12 months. This year, there was no contest: I absolutely loved Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie's Americanah. I'm hardly the first person to rave about this book, but I found both the story and the prose really, really compelling. So here's how it works: there's a Rafflecopter link down there, and the instructions from there are pretty easy. I've leave this up for a week, and then use a random number generator to pick a winner! If you win, I'll get in touch to get your information to give you either a Kindle or paperback copy of this wonderful book! Sorry, international friends...this is a US-only giveaway.  a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Longest Books I’ve Ever Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the longest books we've ever read. I know a lot of readers find gigantic books kind of unwieldy, but I actually quite like doorstops! Some of them have been amazing, some less so, but here are ten of the longest ones I've made it through (if one author has multiple entries, I'm going with the longest one for that author)!

A Suitable Boy: This will almost certainly be the longest book I ever read because it's looooong, y'all. I spent weeks reading it during a summer in college. It was really good and I want to read it again but that is a COMMITMENT.

Les Miserables: I know a lot of people complain about the extended digressions into things like the history of the sewer system in Paris, but I actually really liked the whole thing!

War and Peace: It's so long but it's soooo good! The size can be intimidating but once you get started it really draws you in.

A Storm of Swords: The longest of the A Song of Ice and Fire series! All of these books are super long, and this one is actually my favorite but it took me until my second try to actually get all the way through it.

Gone With The Wind: In the ultimate bookish heresy, the movie is better. The subplots that got cut were worth excising for a still-sprawling but more focused narrative.

The Executioner's Song: I still maintain that there's a very good 600 page book inside this 1000+ pager about the first person executed after the death penalty was re-instituted in the United States but as is it's just too bloated to really recommend

Don Quixote: I hated this book so much.

The Cider House Rules: The movie inspired me to pick this one up, and though I haven't read it again in ages I want to someday because it's really good.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra: I read this (and quite a bit of other Margaret George) in high school, and I feel like I liked it? My memories of it are vaguely positive anyways.

Shantaram: I read this fairly recently, and after about page 200 it was hate-reading. For the next 700+ pages.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Book 149: Mrs. Dalloway

"How much she wanted it- that people should look pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was so silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves, but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! she thought, stepping on to the pavement, could have looked even differently!"

Dates read: May 29 - June 4, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/Awards: Time All-Time 100 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Newsweek Top 100 Books

Our lives are the series of hundreds, even thousands of choices that we've made day by day. Sometimes those choices are the obvious, life-changing kind: where to go to school, who to date, the career path we pursue. But sometimes they're little things that we couldn't imagine having big ramifications. Going out instead of staying in one night, or vice versa. Like Sliding Doors. But it's all the choices, taken together, that really make up having a life.

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of just one day, as the titular Clarissa Dalloway prepares for and throws a party, but its scope is really her whole life and the choices she's made. Most importantly, the summer when she rejected the suit of her friend Peter and instead chose to marry Richard Dalloway, a minor politician with whom she has a daughter who's now a young woman herself. Peter is suddenly back in town, in pursuit of a divorce for the younger-but-married woman he's been courting, and comes by Clarissa's home that morning, spurring her to think about that time of her life, when she was more passionate and free-spirited.

There's a parallel story going on as well, that of Septimus Warren Smith. Once an idealistic student studying Shakespeare, he joined up to fight in World War I without really thinking about what he was getting into. He ended up with what we'd probably now diagnose as PTSD, and when he was sent to the villa of an Italian hatmaker to recover from his shellshock, impulsively married Lucrezia, the hatmaker's lively daughter. Although the pair has been married for several years by the time the book takes place, they have not yet had children, much to Rezia's chagrin. Septimus' mental state, always delicate, has taken a turn for the worse and his wife is desperately trying to find him adequate help. Although the stories at first seem disconnected, it becomes obvious that Clarissa and Septimus are foils for each other. Each is reflecting back on their lives and choices and the consequences of decisions long-since made, and teetering between hope and despair.

This is one of those literary classics that I'm glad I came to outside of the typical "high school English" setting. Like The Great Gatsby (which I hated when I read it in high school, but loved once I read as an adult), it's steeped in themes of remembrance and regret and reflecting on the choices made or not made that have shaped your path. And I'm sure I would have been disgusted that Clarissa had decided to marry steady, boring Richard who struggles to even just tell her he loves her because he's so uncomfortable with feelings instead of Peter, who struggles to contain his wellsprings of emotion and with whom she clearly has a more natural chemistry. But adult me understands that sparking passion isn't the same thing as love, and that Peter has not been able to make a steady relationship last, while Richard and Clarissa are still married, indicates that her instincts had merit.

Although it's only about 200 pages long, Mrs. Dalloway is a dense novel that I read at about half of my usual pace. The narration skips around, following mostly Clarissa and Septimus but also Rezia, Richard, Peter, and others. As a book focused on memory, it's presented in a more stream-of-consciousness style and demands close attention. It's one of those books that you read and immediately know you're going to get more out of every time you go back through it because there's a lot there, and I'm sure this is a book I want to revisit. Woolf's writing is lovely, not flowery or excessive but still packed with powerful themes and emotions. Since I wasn't an English major, this is actually the first time I've read her work and I walked away wanting to read more. I'd recommend this book to everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I’d Love To Go To A Reading For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is technically authors I'd like to meet, but honestly, I'm not sure what I would say to most authors besides "I love your work". That's what I said to Jeffrey Eugenides when I met him a reading/book signing in college! Since I've already met him, here are ten other authors I'd like to go to a reading for!

Charlaine Harris: I love her Southern Vampire Mysteries and she seems like someone who'd be super fun to hear talk about her work!

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: She's amazing and having seen her TED talk makes me feel like she'd be amazing to see do a reading!

Neil Gaiman: I always pick up his own readings of his works when I'm buying audiobooks, because he's got a fantastic voice. Seeing him in person doing it would be incredible!

Tamora Pierce: Her Wild Magic series was something I absolutely loved growing up, and I've love to hear her talk about the amazing female heroines she created.

Phillip Pullman: I love His Dark Materials so much, and having listened to him narrate the stories on audio makes me think listening to him read his work in person would be fantastic.

Garth Nix: The Old Kingdom series is one of my favorites, and knowing that Nix has an Australian accent to make the reading even more fun!

Katherine Arden: The Winternight books are some of my favorites I've read in the past few years, and I would just about explode with excitement if she came anywhere near where I am to support the last one coming out in a couple months.

John U. Bacon: This is a pretty specific "me" pick, but Bacon writes a lot about Michigan football and I love Michigan football.

Jeffrey Toobin: His non-fiction work around the judicial system is so well-done and interesting and I think a reading from him would be just fascinating.

Joan Didion: She's not young anymore, but the documentary that came out about her last year shows she's still very sharp and it would be amazing to see her actually read her own words.