Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Changes In My Reading Life

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about how our lives as readers have changed over the years. I'm not the same reader I was five or ten years ago. I'm definitely not the same reader I was in high school! Here are ten things about me as a reader that I've noticed a change in.

I read more: Just on a baseline level, I'm much more inclined to read for pleasure than I was when I was a younger adult. I do still watch movies and tv, of course, but I've turned into one of those people who always has a book with me. This is why I now read about 80 books a year.

Fewer series: Teenage me loved a good series, and it's not that I don't have any time for them anymore or anything, but I'm less compelled by the idea of starting a brand-new series than I used to be. I read much more stand-alones.

More non-fiction: I used to read a ton of historical fiction to learn about what life was like in the past. These days I'm more likely to pick up a biography of someone who lived during that time period instead.

More open to genre generally: I'll be honest, mysteries and sci-fi and romance aren't usually my preferred kinds of narratives. But of course there are gems in any genre, and I'm much less likely than I used to be to pass over a book I think I might like just because it's not the sort of book I usually read.

More likely to buy in paper rather than electronically: Don't get me wrong, I love my Kindle. I have HUNDREDS of books on it, and I think it's amazing that I can have thousands upon thousands of pages on a device smaller than the average magazine. But I really do gravitate lately towards having an actual book in my hands. This has created storage issues.

More interested in critical thinking about my reading: When I was in high school, it felt like analyzing a book could only serve to "ruin" it. But the older I get, the more I want to really examine what exactly it is that works about a book and why, to better understand both technique and what I enjoy as a reader.

More diversity in authorship: I grew up reading a lot of books by white people, particularly men. They do, after all, make up much of the literary canon. I make more of an effort lately to seek out work by women, people of color, immigrants, and people whose life experiences are generally different than my own.

Less likely to read something I'm not excited about just because everyone else is: I'm not immune to the best-seller lists, but I used to be more willing to read something that was popular even if it didn't seem like something I would like, because I wanted to be able to talk about the latest hot book. I'm much more aware these days of what I like and give myself permission to say no on something I have no reason to think would be a good use of my time.

More likely to make recommendations: Recommending books is hard! So much depends on what kinds of things each person responds so, and hearing that someone didn't enjoy something you told them they should read is so disappointing! But people ask and I've come to enjoy making educated guesses about what might appeal to them.

More involved in the bookish community: I have this blog! I have a twitter account where I follow authors and readers, I go to an in-person book club, I post pictures of my books on my instagram, I volunteer with the local Friends of the Library. The internet has a LOT of downsides, but for what it does for keeping me connected to the bookish world, I appreciate it!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Book 207: The Sellout

"They say 'pimpin' ain't easy'. Well, neither is slaveholdin'. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don't do what you tell them to do. And when your eighty-some-odd-year-old black thrall has maybe fifteen good minutes of work in him in a day and enjoys the shit out of being punished, you don't get many of the plantation perks you see in the movies either."

Dates read: February 6-9, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

Rating books is an inherently subjective task. We try to fool ourselves into thinking that we're able to judge them based on objective quality, but we're ultimately judging them on scales that are both personal and ever-shifting. Tastes change during our lives, and where I see a lyrically-written character-driven masterpiece, someone else might see a purple-prose-laden never-goes-anywhere snore. Some books "feel" better than they are because you read them at the right moment, and others get downgraded because it just wasn't the best time. Which is why I always believe in rating and reviewing even the books that didn't work for me, because hating something you've only seen positive reactions to can make you feel like you're out on a limb and reading someone else saying they didn't like it either can be a relief.

So I was just talking last week about Thank You For Smoking and how the humor really hit home for me and I really liked it. I'm not sure if it was that I ended up reading two satires in a row, or that I didn't connect the same way with the subject at hand, or if it was just not my thing, but The Sellout just never quite clicked for me. This story opens up with our unnamed narrator (we get the last name, Me, but unless I missed something we never got a first name) watching his case go through oral argument at the Supreme Court. His case? He owns a slave and has re-segregated the school in his outlying Los Angeles community of Dickens, which has recently literally been taken off the map. Did I mention our protagonist is black?

We go back in time to get Me's whole story, from being homeschooled by his father, who uses him as a subject in various psychological/sociological experiments in the oddball agricultural community of Dickens, to his childhood friendship with Hominy, a cast member of the Little Rascals (who later pledges himself to Me as a slave after Me saves his life, much to Me's chagrin), to his long-running crush on his beautiful neighbor Marpessa, who drives a city bus, to his eventual decision to pretend there's an all-white charter magnet school going in across the street from the local school that's overwhelmingly attended by students of color, which winds up with him in front of the Supreme Court.

This was a book I read for my book club, and I was surprised to find I was one of the few for whom it didn't especially resonate. But as I listened to the others talk about how they found the satire refreshing for its bluntness and outrageous honesty about the state of race relations in America, I think maybe one of the reasons it fell a little flatter for me is that I'm on the younger side in that group and being more immersed in an internet culture where these issues are more on the forefront maybe made the punches land less hard, since they were more expected. In a world where Get Out was an enormously popular, Oscar-winning movie (and a good, interesting one that I personally really enjoyed), The Sellout's transgressive satire seems almost tame even though it's only a few years old.

To be sure, there are some brilliantly inspired moments (that opening Supreme Court scene, the Dum-Dum Intellectuals, the "sanitized" versions of racially-problematic novels), and if you're looking for a book that will be very up-front and sometimes uncomfortable (so many n-bombs!) about race in America, this is a very good book. Chattel slavery, and the institutionalized racism that persists to this day, is something that we're still struggling with. This book was written during the Obama era, when everyone was busily congratulating each other on living in a post-racial society, and the way it refuses to play along and pretend that was true feels eerily prescient given the election of Donald Trump. This book is smart, funny, and pulls zero punches (though those punches might not land quite as hard as they did even a few years ago, depending on what the dialogue you engage in looks like). It didn't quite ensnare me, but it's definitely worth reading.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Three years ago, I was reading: The Paper Magician

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Use As Bookmarks

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is about bookmarks. While having plenty of my own, I've definitely found myself grasping around for something, anything, to mark my page while reading outside the home. This might be the first time since I started doing this that I haven't been able to come up with ten! So here are seven things I will use to hold my place.

Actual bookmarks: I've got about a bajillion of these, many of them cheap ones that came with a bookstore order, but some nice ones that I've bought as presents for myself or as souvenirs.

Receipts: I've always got some sort of receipt in my purse, so these get pressed into service fairly often.

Airline tickets: I will never stop using paper boarding passes, if only because they make excellent bookmarks.

Pens: NOT a long-term solution because they're hell on the binding, but sometimes you need to save your place and the pen is there and the bookmark isn't.

Business cards: I think I never have copies of my own business card because they're all marking pages inside of books somewhere.

Money: I don't carry cash very often, but if I have it, I try to remember not to use more than a dollar bill because I will absolutely forget it's in there.

Beer coasters: The paper kind from bars! I tend to grab them when I'm out drinking and then I have a billion in my purse so they're handy. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book 206: Thank You For Smoking

" 'Pleasure,' Nick croaked, though what he was experiencing was far from pleasure. The audience glared hatefully at him. So this is how the Nazis felt on the opening day at the Nuremberg trials. And Nick was unable to avail himself of their defense. No, it fell to him to declare with a straight face that ze Fuehrer had never invaded Poland. Vere are ze data?

Dates read: February 1-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

There's a look people get when I tell them I'm a lobbyist. It's partly surprise, that lobbyists are a thing that exist outside of DC. And then the next question I get is who I lobby for. The answer is not Save The Whales. When I name some of our clients, as often as not I get some joke back about corporate evil. Which is neither original or entirely fair, but we live in late-stage capitalism and we all need our little jokes to get by.

But as a lobbyist, the sharp satire of Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking resonated perfectly for me. Many of you will have seen the (very good) movie version, and it's one of those movies that I actually like so much that I was worried about reading the book! It turns out they're very similar, telling the story of lead tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor and his constant fight to defend the industry. Naylor appears on Larry King, on Oprah, before Congress, and battles for his job while his boss tries to replace him with his pretty young protegee.

While the movie gets a lot of milage out of the divorced Nick's young son, he's very much a background character in the book. Instead, the focus is on Nick's quest to make smoking cool again by getting the movie studios to put it on screen, and a bizarre kidnapping in which Nick is abducted and covered in nicotine patches. When he's not busy flying to Hollywood and being abducted, Nick is having two different flings (one with his corporate rival, one with a reporter) and hanging out with his closest (read: only) friends, the lobbyists for the alcohol industry and the firearm industry, who are constantly squabbling about whose product kills more people.

Satire, like most comedy, can be very tricky to nail with the right tone, and I'd read a Buckley book a couple years ago that I didn't think quite landed. But I always believe in giving an author I was unimpressed with a second chance, because everyone has some variance in the quality of their output and some books you just don't read at the right time. Happily, I found this one excellent. Even though this book was written in the early 90s, there haven't been enough significant changes in the political process or corporate communications that the humor has lost its relevance or edge.

On the flip side, it is a satire, so character development (usually big for me as a reader) was pretty minimal and the plot was of course exaggerated. If smoking/tobacco is something you take seriously, this book will likely be more irritating than amusing. But if you've seen and liked the movie, or you work in corporate communications/government relations, there's a lot to enjoy here.

One year ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

Three years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Love To Take A Class On

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a autumny freebie. Since autumn always makes me think about school, I figured this week I'd feature titles I'd love to seriously study. I took a whole class on Dante's Divine Comedy in college, and it was not only an amazing course, but it made me wonder how you could ever really understand the work without getting all that context, because there is SO MUCH Italian history crammed in there. And sometimes I feel that way with books, like I need to really dive into it to understand everything. So here are ten books I'd love to study!

War and Peace: I'd love to know more about Russian life, both among regular people and the aristocracy to which the Rostov family belongs. And then the Napoleonic wars on top of that!

Vanity Fair: Another perspective on the Napoleonic wars! Plus more information about social status/life/etc during the Victorian era would be great.

Midnight's Children: I enjoyed reading this, but felt like if I knew more than what I'd picked up from other novels about the Partition, I would get about 1000% more out of it.

Snow: Turkey has had an interesting history, being neither really Middle Eastern or European, but a little bit of both. I just don't know much about that history, which would have given a lot more richness to the way this wrestles with cultural tensions in Turkey.

Sense and Sensibility (and all of Austen, really): I still have one Austen novel outstanding (Northanger Abbey), but I would love to deconstruct both the class system of Britain and how it has changed/evolved and just really dig into what makes her work so brilliant.

The Age of Innocence: While we certainly know all about the Roaring Twenties, the Gilded Age in America (and particularly New York) isn't as high profile. I'd love to learn more about that world, and compare it with our own, in exploring this wonderful novel.

Great Expectations: I'd really enjoy going into depth on form and structure here, as this was of course originally published as a serial. It's been the most successful, for me, of the Dickens I've read, and how he managed to make each installment interesting while keeping the overall story on track would be fascinating to explore.

The Lord of the Rings: There is a LOT going on in this trilogy, and I'd love to explore how J.R.R. Tolkien's own life experiences/social world impacted the writing of these books, as well as really dive deep into questions I've always had, like what the holy heck is the whole Tom Bombadil thing about?

Harry Potter: I'm sure there actually are classes about this at college these days, but every time I go back and revisit these books I catch another layer in them, and would love the chance to really dig into this world.

Wolf Hall: I've read quite a bit of Tudor-era historical fiction, and most of it is wrapped up in the interpersonal drama of the relationships between the main players. But this one is uniquely rooted in both church and political power structures, which made it hard to get into at first and definitely required outside research to grasp.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Book 205: Lost Horizon

"It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality; that the whole world's future, weighed in the balance against youth and love, would be light as air."

Dates read: January 29- February 1, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Not too long ago, I went to a show. It was pretty well-attended, and so after a while the internet got super slow. I couldn't check Twitter, or Instagram, or even my email. And it made me realize how short my attention span has gotten...as well as my tolerance for boredom. Usually I'm the type to always have a book in my bag, but of course I didn't think to have a book when I was going to a show. Seeing how dependent I am on my technology to entertain me was surprising...and also a problem I'm not quite sure how to solve.

And to think even rotary dial phones weren't commonplace 100 years ago. You wanted to get in touch with someone, you wrote a letter. So if someone had gone missing, it might take quite a while to figure out. Of the four people who find themselves skyjacked and crash-landed in the Himalayas in James Hilton's Lost Horizon, there's only one (the youngest, Mallison, an Englishman) who seems all that bothered by the distress his going missing might cause. The other three: Conway, a fellow Englishman and civil servant, Miss Brinklow, an older woman who works as a missionary, and Barnard, a mysterious American businessman, are intrigued by their rescuers, the residents of a lamasery: Shangri-La. The story is actually told around Conway, using the framing device that his story was told to an old acquaintance before he disappeared, which I usually find trite but I think really worked here.

There's not a lot of plot going on in this book: the four passengers are on a plane being evacuated from an Asian city that's experiencing civil conflict when they realize they aren't being taken to the drop point they expect. The plane crashes and the pilot perishes, but they're picked up by a group of Tibetans and taken to their monastery. The area is incredibly remote, nestled within the mountains with only a small native village even remotely close by. The group is at first eager to return to the outside world, but as they grow more and more accustomed to the well-provisioned lamasery and its tranquil residents, it is only Mallison who retains any urgency about trying to leave. Conway, on the other hand, is taken into the confidence of the High Lama and learns the secrets of their way of life.

This book is pretty thin on characterization as well as plot, and I admit I was baffled by its status as a classic until I found out it was apparently one of the very first mass-market paperbacks, which put it in the hands of a much wider audience than many books. Otherwise, it's fine but not special. The prose is good quality. It's one of those books that you have to remind yourself of the publication date for while you read...there is frequent use of racial slurs targeted at Asian people, and of course the "wisdom" that propels Shangri-La and its unusually long-lived residents is revealed to be the product of white people. It was the 1930s and James Hilton was a middle-class white British dude, so that kind of thing isn't exactly unexpected, but I was personally taken aback by the casual racism and expect most other modern readers would be so as well. There's nothing special or particularly interesting in this book, so while I didn't hate it, I don't recommend it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Three years ago, I was reading: Confessions of Saint Augustine

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: October 2019

October, being my birthday month, has always been my favorite month. Besides the obvious, I love the fall weather you get in October, the way it's crisp but usually not too cold yet, peak fall colors, and pumpkin spice everything (I'm basic, I'm fine with that). And this October has been pretty busy! One of my coworkers/friends got married, and I got to go to an awesome sporting event with my best friend!

In Books...
  • The Age of Miracles: I'd read that this had been partially inspired by Saramago's Blindness, which had me prepared for something very grim. Though there is certainly darkness in this story about a teenage girl living through the experience of the earth's rotation slowing and the consequent social upheaval, it's generally lighter in tone. It struck a good balance between the coming-of-age story and the environmental-and-societal disaster story, and I really liked it!
  • The Overstory: I'd already gone ahead and bought it because it won the Pulitzer, but then it was picked for book club so I actually read it! I ended up with some mixed ideas: there are A LOT of tree feelings, some of them better expressed than others, and some spotty executions of characters. Lots of ambition, not all of it fully realized. 
  • Plagues and Peoples: This is an interesting subject matter, the effect of disease on the development of civilizations. It's clearly well-researched and thought out, but it was unfortunately as dull as dishwater. There's just no life to the writing at all, so even though there's good stuff from an ideas perspective it was just not compelling. 
  • Revolutionary Road: At this point, the idea that The American Dream Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be is hardly a new one. But that doesn't mean it can't be explored in interesting ways. This book tells the story of a couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who seem like they have it all: he's got a steady, reliable job, they have two adorable children, and they have a cute house in the suburbs...but it turns out, that isn't necessarily a recipe for happiness. Not ground-breaking stuff, but it's well-told and engaging to read.
  • The Line of Beauty: This book examines the 80s/Thatcher era in the UK through the lens of a middle-class young gay man who becomes attached to a rich political family. As could be expected, there's sex and cocaine and AIDS. The writing is lovely, and it's paced well enough that it doesn't feel like it's actually 500 pages long.

In Life...
  • I turned 34 (and so did my husband): Our birthdays are two weeks apart, so we share a birthday month. I had a lovely birthday and was fortunate enough to get some nice gifts, while giving away a gift of my own...my annual "best-of-the-year" giveaway was for a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was won by Karen! 
  • Weekend in Las Vegas with my best friend: I've always loved figure skating, and this year, Skate America was held in Las Vegas...too close to not plan to go! Originally I was going to drag my husband, but my best friend Crystal stepped up and saved him. We had an awesome weekend and saw some amazing skating and it was super fun.

One Thing:

If you exist on the internet, you've seen someone you know post a link to a GoFundMe. We hear all about the most successful ones and how life-changing they can be for people dealing with a sudden job loss, or a devastating disease. But obviously for every mega-viral funder that raises millions, there are many, many people who raise next to nothing. This article really digs into how the mechanics of crowdfunding often end up benefiting those already comparatively better-off.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books About Murder

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Halloween is right around the corner, and that means it's time for the annual Halloween freebie! These ones get harder to come up with an idea for every time, but since we're going for scary stuff, let's talk about books about murder/murderers...both real and imaginary.


In The Woods: There are two murders in this one! One, of a young woman, that is being investigated by two detectives, and one that took place many many years ago, in one of the detectives' past. The two intersect in interesting, inexplicable ways.

We Need To Talk About Kevin: This book examines a teenage boy who murders his school classmates, daring its readers to make a judgment call on nature v nuture.

American Psycho: These murders, committed by a Wall Street banker sociopath, are especially gruesome.

To Die For: The movie they made out of this one was honestly great, but the source material about an ambitious newscaster who needs her traditional husband out of the way is very much worth reading!

The Name of the Rose: A murder mystery among medieval monks! There are some obvious nods to Sherlock Holmes and it's much more entertaining than you might think.


Say Nothing: One kidnapping (and, eventually confirmed, murder) of a mother in Northern Ireland provides a lens through which to examine The Troubles.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: We will never know what actually happened and who actually killed JonBenet Ramsey, which is very frustrating.

Party Monster: Addicts killing each other over drugs is nothing new, but the over-the-top setting of Club Kid NYC provides an interesting twist!

The Stranger Beside Me: The classic, in which Ann Rule gradually comes to realize that the serial killer stalking young women in Washington state might actually be her suicide crisis hotline coworker Ted Bundy.

Devil in the White City: This book examines both H.H. Holmes and the Chicago World's Fair he used the chaos of to help disguise his crimes.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Book 204: Mansfield Park

"The meeting was generally felt to be a pleasant one, being composed in a good proportion of those who would talk and those who would listen; and the dinner itself was elegant and plentiful, according to the usual style of the Grants, and too much according to the usual habits of all to raise any emotion except in Mrs. Norris, who could never behold either the wide table or the number of dishes on it with patience, and who did always contrive to experience some evil from the passing of the servants behind her chair, and to bring away some fresh conviction of its being impossible among so many dishes but that some must be cold."

Dates read: January 23-29, 2018

Rating: 8/10

It's easy to romanticize the past. Before selfies! Before the internet! Before television! Before phones! Back when people wrote letters to each other to stay in touch! Don't get me wrong, I love good quality stationery and the feeling of getting a note in the mail. But while we're longing for the good old days, we forget that there was an awful lot of human history that was lived before penicillin, when a simple infection could legitimately kill you. Before effective corrective lenses so if you couldn't see well you were just doomed to always be squinting and probably struggled to read. A lot of us have mothers who weren't lost in childbirth that otherwise might have been. There's a trade-off.

It's never quite specified what exactly ails Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, but she's physically weak and often sickly, and can't walk very far before she needs to rest. Maybe asthma? Whatever it is, it's likely something that could be treated easily if she'd lived in today's world. Oh well. She is the way she is. And maybe it plays into her personality, for she's as retiring emotionally as she is physically. It takes Fanny, a naturally shy creature, quite a while to adjust when her aunt, Lady Bertram, decides to relieve her sister (Mrs. Price) of one of her many children to help ease her financial burdens, and Fanny's taken out of her familiar home and brought to the country estate of Mansfield Park to be raised alongside (but not quite the same as) her cousins, Frederick and Edmund and Maria and Julia.

Of the lively Bertram children, it is only Edmund that makes the effort to draw Fanny out of her shell, and so by the time she becomes a young woman of marriageable age, she's of course quietly-but-devotedly in love with him. To the rest of the family, she's sort of halfway one of their own. But things turn upside down when a new parson arrives, complete with his wife and her half-siblings: Henry and Mary Crawford. They're Londoners, and have city attitudes that contrast sharply with Fanny and her country morals. Henry's flirtations nearly break up one of the Bertram girls' happy engagements, while Mary and Edmund begin to grow closer despite her concerns that his planned future, as a clergyman, won't be lucrative enough to sustain her in the lifestyle she'd like to lead. And then Henry, to amuse himself, decides to try to make Fanny fall in love with him...only to find that he's the one who grows besotted. Since this is Austen, it ends with a happily made marriage and everyone getting more or less what they deserve.

Those who like to read Jane Austen for her sparkling, witty female leads, like Eliza Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, will be disappointed here: Fanny Price is more like Elinor Dashwood, but with the fun quotient dialed down to almost zero. I'm glad I didn't read this book until I was in my 30s, because I think if I'd read it when I was younger I would have found her so tiresome and boring I would have put the book down. That's my most significant criticism of the book: Fanny can be hard to root for, even though we're clearly supposed to. She's definitely sympathetic, but she's also kind of a stick-in-the-mud. She always always behaves appropriately and is horrified by transgressions of her strict moral code. At the end of the day, I found her good heart outweighed the irritation of her teacher's pet persona, but I can imagine plenty of readers finding it hard to really like her and therefore really like the book.

But even though "bad kids" Henry and Mary are much more interesting than our protagonist, I still very much enjoyed reading this book. Jane Austen's turns of phrase and lively wit are just as much a part of this book as they are her others, and it's her quality of writing that I find enjoyable more than her characters anyways. It's maybe a trifle overlong. If you haven't read her work before, I wouldn't recommend starting here, because it's one of her slower books (start with Sense and Sensibility instead). But if you have read her and like her and wonder if you should read this, too, I do recommend it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: White Fur

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Through The Language Glass

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Could Use Better Titles Than Just A Name

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! While last week we highlighted books with awesome titles, this week we're considering the opposite: books with titles that could use a little more oomph. For me, I've always thought that just naming your book after a person in that book is a little bit of a cop-out (unless, of course, you've written a biography). So here are ten books with names as titles that I think could use an upgrade.

Emma: Austen's most famous works use Ye Olde Ampersand, so how about calling this one Love & Matrimony after the central theme?

Rebecca: It's symbolic that the book is named after a character who, though never alive during the narrative, dominates its events. But I would sort-of cheat and name it after its main character: The Second Mrs. deWinter, which I think creates intrigue about the first.

Lolita: Despite being the title character, young Delores isn't actually the main focus of the book (rather, it's narrator Humbert Humbert). I think No Choice would be a good replacement for this one...Humbert's desperate obsession makes him feel as though he doesn't have one, while she actually doesn't.

Anna Karenina: Anna herself is a fascinating character, but I might call this one instead The Train, paying homage to both the driving passion of the central affair as well as the importance of trains in several scenes.

Jane Eyre: This is a great book about coming of age, with strong gothic overtones and a person locked in an attic. The title coveys none of that. I'd crib an episode title from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and title this Becoming.

Macbeth: Let's just go with the theater tradition and official re-dub this The Scottish Play.

Tess of the D'urbervilles: The subtitle of this book is "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented". That doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, so how about Purity?

Nefertiti: This novel was a little underwhelming for me, but a title like that isn't going to help it stand out. For all the emphasis the book places on the physical loveliness of the Egyptian queen, For Beauty would make a more intriguing title.

Olive Kitteridge: I've actually always liked it when books that are short story collections (which is very much what this is, "novel" or no) are named after one of the stories within. It's not the strongest entry, but A Little Burst is a story that's both representative of the whole and that makes a good name.

Mildred Pierce: This is a noir, but the name Mildred has always made me think of mildew, which just makes it sound damp. It would be better served leaning into its potboiler style, so I'd call it From Bad to Worse.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book 203: An American Marriage

"We climbed into the small bed, a little buzzed from our jerry-rigged cocktails. Agreeing that the bedspread was suspect, we kicked it to the floor and lay facing each other. Lying there, tracing his brow bone with my fingers, I thought of my parents and even Roy’s. Their marriages were cut from less refined but more durable cloth, something like cotton-sack burlap, bound with gray twine. How superior Roy and I felt that night in this rented room of our own, enjoying the braid of our affection. I am ashamed at the memory and the hot blood heats my face, even if I’m only dreaming."

Dates read: January 20-23, 2018

Rating: 7/10

What does it mean, to be married to someone? Obviously, I'm not referring to the obvious stuff about fidelity, loyalty, support, etc. But how much of you is for them, and how much remains for you alone? Is it okay to keep secrets, even little ones? What amount of bad behavior is "enough" to get you an out clause? If you need to sacrifice yourself for the other person, how long are you expected to do so? I've only been married for a little over three years now, so I can't even pretend to be able to answer any of them, but what we owe each other is a question I'm sure we'll spend a lifetime answering.

The question of what marriage means, what it binds you to and entitles you to, is probably the most fundamental one at issue in Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. It's not the only one, though. The book follows Roy and Celestial, a young black couple married about a year and a half when we first meet them. Their future seems so bright: he's a promising marketing executive, she's an artist beginning to find success with her doll-making. They're thinking about having a baby soon when they leave their home in Atlanta and drive to rural Louisiana to spend the weekend with Roy's parents. Celestial has a bad feeling, but they write it off to nerves. It is the first night they're there that their whole world changes.

Roy is accused of raping a white woman, and even though he's innocent, he's sentenced to 12 years. They immediately appeal, but of course appeals take time, and while that process is ongoing Roy's continued imprisonment leaves both of them uprooted. After five years, the appeal is ultimately successful, but that time has left both Roy and Celestial different people, and they can't just pick up where they left off.

Any more than that about the plot probably reveals more than would be preferable...this is a book that's best to savor as it reveals itself to you (and usually I'm pretty pro-spoiler, but this does really feel like an exception). The truth is that there's not a lot of "plot" per se, but there's enough, and the work that Jones does with character and the way she uses those characters to poke at our understanding of powerful themes like marriage, and family more broadly, are brilliant. The instinct to find a "good guy" and a "bad guy", when two people are in conflict, is so strong, but Jones refuses us that easy perspective. They're both the bad guy. They're both the good guy. They're both people who've spent the last five years suffering, and trying to deal with that suffering, in their own ways.

While there is a lot to really like here and this is definitely a good book, I'll be honest: it never quite crossed that line from good into great for me. I got more out of pondering it after I finished it than I got out of reading it, if that makes sense. And also, I had a small qualm with a writing choice Jones made: while the book is primarily told from the perspectives of Roy and Celestial, there's a third person who also gets point-of-view chapters. This person is important to the narrative and it wasn't that those portions were inferior or anything, but I would have preferred that the focus remained on the central couple exclusively. That being said, this is still a book that is well-worth your time and energy, and I'd recommend it to all readers.

One year ago, I was reading: We Are Not Ourselves (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Great Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about book titles. Specifically, good ones! I'm only human, and as susceptible to the pull of a great title as anyone. So here are ten that got my attention!

A Clockwork Orange: I remember reading one that Burgess wanted to contrast the idea of mechanics/clockwork with the most alive thing he could think of, and came up with the juicy burst of an orange. I loved the book, and the title is captivating in its own right.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: I understand why this wouldn't have worked as the title of a movie, but it's so much better than Blade Runner.

The Color Purple: Every time I think about the title, I remember the central tenet of the book...which is effective for a title to do!

Exit West: This one just immediately suggests questions you have to read the book to find the answers to, like who's doing the exiting, and west of where?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: This title is a spoiler for its own book! But it promises an interesting story, and it delivers.

Skinny Legs and All: Tom Robbins has a way with eye-catching titles.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: I read this book because a college roommate liked it, but I would have 100% picked it up based on the title alone anyways.

Thank You For Smoking: There words in this order is so unexpected to see that it immediately grabs your attention.

Pride and Prejudice: The alliteration on this one just gets it stuck in your head. And it has a nice rhythm to it when you say it out loud!

Gone Girl: More alliterative goodness. The single syllables here give it a distinctive ring as well.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Book 202: An Untamed State

"I held my hand close to the heat. I knew what it meant to burn, how it felt, how the right amount of heat can make your skin rise and how the pain rises with your skin until it spreads through you and when the pain starts to spread, it becomes easier to endure."

Dates read: January 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

The first stories we learn are usually fairy tales. Cinderella, the little mermaid, Hansel and Gretel. We learn the sanitized, Disney-fied versions: simple stories, with unquestionably evil villains that create danger for our heroes but are vanquished at the end, usually with a moral to wrap things up in a bow. The original versions are usually darker...less redemption, more death. But the tales themselves have endured, even as they've changed, over time. Storytelling is basic human nature.

The theme of fairy tales, and the subversion of that theme, runs throughout Roxane Gay's debut novel, An Untamed State. American-born Mireille is visiting Haiti, where her parents are from and where they've returned in their later years, with her husband and newborn son. They're just leaving the gated compound where her family lives when they're suddenly accosted by kidnappers and Mireille is taken. They demand $1 million for her return, and she's held for 13 days before ransom is paid. During those 13 days, she's brutally raped and tortured, and the woman she is when she's released is a world away from the woman she was before.

We learn about her life through the memories she experiences while she's captive. How she grew up, watching her talented father chafe against the ways in which he was treated as "lesser than" because of his status as an immigrant. Her relationship with her siblings, especially her sister. The way she and her husband Michael met and fell in love. Their privileged life together in Miami, where she's an immigration attorney and he's an engineer. And then when she gets back, how very unable she is to resume that life. The second half of the novel relates Mireille's flight to Michael's family farm in Nebraska to heal...or more accurately, recover enough to be able to deal. The wounds she's suffered aren't the kind that really heal, after all.

The motif of fairy tales is everywhere, from the beginning, where the book literally opens with "once upon a time", to the end, in which Mireille is given the chance to confront one of her captors. When I first read it, the ending bothered me. It seemed too convenient, to tie things up too neatly. Life doesn't work that way, and otherwise the book is deeply, unflinchingly realistic. When you think about it through the context of fairy tales, though, it has that kind of wish fulfillment that the modern versions of these stories often do. But the bulk of the story is filled with the things that get cut out of the tales for today's world: the violence inflicted on Mireille is completely unvarnished and it is very difficult to read.

And that difficulty of reading is the only reason I'm not more enthusiastic about this novel. Roxane Gay is a phenomenal writer and the book is compelling and hard to put down. She draws realistic, captivating characters who have shades of gray and consistent internal logic, and the way she subverts Mireille's "fairy tale" narrative of her life with Michael by showing us its sometimes-ugly underbelly is brilliant. I could go on forever about how incredibly-written it is. But with the subject matter being what it is, it's hard to recommend this book widely. There's a great deal of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. If that's something you're able to handle, I'd definitely recommend it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Beloved

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Year 4: An Update (And Giveaway!)

Today, I'm 34. When I turned 30, I set some goals for myself for the next decade. One of those goals was to read at least 50 books per year, or 500 total, so I started this blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable and have a place to talk about all those books! Since my reading years begin and end on my birthday, I like to do a check-in post every year to look back on the year that was, both in books and life. Without further ado:

In Reading
  • Books read (this year): I've finished 79 books since my last birthday! This is actually my lowest year since I started the blog, which is probably mostly because of session.
  • Books read (total): I've finished 345 books since I started the blog! I am obviously very very far ahead of my goal at this point, which would have been 200. I just own so many books that I want to read them as fast as I can! And who knows, I might have a reading slump one of these days.
  • Male/Female Authors: I read 42 books by men this year, and 37 by women. This isn't too far away from even, and it actually was neck and neck for much of the year, but the last month and a half or so has been a lot of books by dudes.
  • Most Read Genres: My balance between fiction and nonfiction was better this year! I tend to prefer about 2/3 to 1/3 (respectively), and with 55 fiction books this year and 24 nonfiction ones, I came pretty close. For fiction, my most read sub-genres were again contemporary fiction by leaps and bounds, followed by historical and fantasy. For nonfiction, they were biography, followed by medical and history.
  • Kindle/Hard Copy: I read more than twice as many books this year in hard copy (54) than on my Kindle (25). My Kindle is great, don't get me wrong. It's easy to use, super portable, very convenient. But the more I read, the more I just like the feeling of a book in my hands!

In Life
  • Minnesota trip with Drew: My husband has been talking about wanting to see a Vikings home game for approximately forever, so we finally made it happen last October! We stayed at a great little AirBNB in the trendy, brewery-heavy area of Minneapolis and even though the good guys didn't win, we had an amazing time. I was reading: Seduction (review to come)
  • Girls trip to New Orleans: For my annual trip with my best friends, we went to New Orleans! I'd been very briefly once before, but really enjoyed getting the chance to actually explore the city, relished every delicious thing I ate/drank, and of course, cherished spending time with two of the people I love the most. I was reading: Once Upon A River (review to come)
  • Work trip to Las Vegas: This year's annual work trip was to Las Vegas, where (of all dorky things), I stopped off to get a library card at the Clark County Library. They have a better selection of audiobooks on Overdrive than my home library! I was reading: Bad Blood (review to come)
  • Beginning of my fourth legislative session: This has been the worst session weather-wise I've ever seen, which isn't saying much, but my bosses, who have been making the commute much longer than I have, totally agree. I didn't even go down for the first two days, and there were some white-knuckle drives even after that. I was reading: The Mind's Eye (review to come)
  • Jeopardy taping: In the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, I was lucky enough to be chosen to be on Jeopardy! Which meant a whirlwind (literally 36 hours) trip to LA to tape and then back to work the next day. Totally worth it! I was reading: Forest Dark (review to come)
  • My Jeopardy episode aired: It was shocking how little I actually remembered of what had happened by the time it aired...I remembered pretty much nothing from the first half of the show at all! Some family and friends came out to a local brewery where we had a viewing party and it was super fun. And now I have my own IMDB page! I was reading: The Fever (review to come)
  • End of my forth legislative session: I took on more responsibility this session, and it definitely took me a while to figure out how to balance the new work load. So it was a stressful session, but I got the chance to grow professionally and already know what I need to do better next time around! I was reading: Good Riddance (review to come)
  • Summer holidays in Michigan: I hadn't been back for two years! Considering how much I still love the mitten, this was definitely an overdue week of vacation. And it was a hot and humid one, but I got to see family and friends and eat SO MUCH FOOD that I can't get out in Reno! I was reading: The Man in the High Castle (review to come)
  • Girls trip to San Francisco: We moved the 2019 edition of our annual escape up a couple months, so that's why there's two of these on this year's update! We spent a lovely weekend in the Bay Area and had a great time exploring the city (especially the Mission District)! I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes (review to come)
  • Long weekend at Lake Tahoe: As usual, I accompanied my husband to his annual work event at the lake, during which he worked and I was spectacularly lazy. I was reading: Seeing (review to come)

The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of the book I loved the most out of the ones I've reviewed on the blog over the past 12 months. I reviewed some fantastic books this year, but the one that captured my heart most of all was Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It's sweeping and epic and beautiful and everyone should read it. If you haven't, and would like to, here's your chance! Just enter via the Rafflecopter below during the next week and this book could be yours! Apologies to my international friends, but this giveaway is US-only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Character Traits I Love

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the character traits we love. As a reader, I'm drawn to character-based books, so this was a great opportunity to really put some thought into the kinds of characters that really capture my interest!

Female: Sorry, dudes, I have read and loved plenty of books about y'all, but I am really more interested in women's stories.

Smart: I like reading about smart people! They don't have to be book smart, but an intelligent character always get my attention.

Repressed: Repression has the potential to bleed into all kinds of juicy, interesting conflicts.

Confused: There are plenty of storylines with people who are sure about what they want only to have it derailed, but I find people who have conflicting motivations that are pushing them all over the place much more compelling.

Funny: Or at least, with a sense of humor. People who take themselves super seriously 100% of the time are boring in real life and to read about.

Curious: An occasional curmudgeon is delightful, but someone open and interested in the world is much more engaging to read about.

Loyal: Not to the point of being a doormat, but a character who's always there when it counts for the people that are important to them warms my heart.

Proactive: A character whose actions drive the plot, at least part of the time, is almost always more interesting to me than one who only reacts to the world around them.

Condescending: This one is for villains only! An antagonist who's basically the stereotype of a snooty aristocrat (especially if they toss off devastating one-liners) makes me cackle with glee.

Reliable: This applies specifically to characters who serve as narrators. An unreliable narrator can be executed well, but it's usually not.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Book 201: Ghost Wars

"The Taliban assembled their story so that Pashtuns could recognize it as a revival of old glory. The Taliban connected popular, rural Islamic values with a grassroots Durrani Pashtun tribal rising. They emerged at a moment when important wealthy Pashtun tribal leaders around Kandahar hungered for a unifying cause. The Taliban hinted that their militia would become a vehicle for the return to Afghanistan of King Zahir Shah from his exile in Rome. They preached for a reborn alliance of Islamic piety and Pashtun might."

Dates read: January 6-17, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times best-seller

There's no denying that we live in a golden age for information. Thanks to the internet, access to pretty much anything we might want to know is literally at our fingertips! There is virtually no subject too obscure for Wikipedia, and anyone who wants to tell us what they know can start up a blog and start writing. While this phenomenon is pretty much always useful, it's also kind of exhausting. Given access to learn about pretty much anything you might want, it's a lot easier to retreat into the familiar.

Until September 11th, Afghanistan would have been a pretty obscure area in which to be a subject matter expert. Afterwards, of course, we all found out a lot about the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun people, but honestly it was all so much so fast that I know I (and probably lots of other people) ended up more confused than anything else. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars tells the story of American involvement in Afghanistan, beginning around the Cold War and ending on September 10th of 2001, and it tied together a lot of the dangling strings that American involvement in Afghanistan after September 11th left me with. Deeply researched and very informative, this is a thorough portrait of how we got to where we are.

Geopolitics in Central and South Asia turns out to be really complicated! The CIA's involvement began as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the desire to have a firewall against the spread of Communism. It continued even after their withdrawal to both prevent a re-invasion and because of the US's relationship with Pakistan, which saw Afghanistan as a firewall of its own against India. And then there's Saudi Arabia, which had its own complicated relationships with not only Afghanistan, where it exported its brand of intense Islam, but of course the United States, as well as Pakistan. It's very messy, and trying to learn about it feels like intensely watching a magician to try to discern the sleight-of-hand...you've got your eye on one part of the stage, but to really understand the whole picture, there's something going on somewhere else that's going to be important to the way it comes together. And then of course there's the relationship of the CIA to their own government and the American public, which had a very real impact on how much, and how effectively, the CIA was able to actually do.

It becomes patently obvious while reading this book that there was very likely no one single factor that would have prevented terror attacks from taking place on American soil. There were too many forces that were all coming into alignment for it to be avoided entirely. But it does raise (without proselytizing about) issues that might have kept the particular 9/11 attack from coming to fruition that are, of course, all too easy to see in hindsight: US funding for the Northern Alliance, more willingness to heed the increasingly frenzied warnings that al-Qiada was eager and capable of an attack, a more forceful relationship with Pakistan, etc after etc. Coll doesn't try to lay blame at anyone in particular's feet, but he's also not interested in massaging or obscuring information that would let anyone claim absolution, either. He's interested in presenting as full a picture as he reasonably can, and he accomplishes that.

Considering that it's nonfiction designed to reach a mass audience, it's about as comprehensive as anyone should want/expect. In fact, if I'm being honest, its biggest flaw is that there is so much information being presented that it's overly dense. It's hard, because it never came off like there were details being dumped extraneously so it's not that it just needed a more diligent editor, but the reality is that it's a fact-heavy story, with a lot of new people/situations needing to be introduced to the reader with sufficient context, so the result is a book that ends up feeling kind of like a slog even though it's interesting and relevant. And honestly, I prefer that kind of approach to one that cuts out important bits to dumb itself down for the reader. To sum up, I do recommend this book if you're interesting in learning about the history of the US in Afghanistan. It's well-written and a very good resource. But if fact-intensive non-fiction isn't your jam and this isn't a subject of particular interest to you, there's no need to torture yourself.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Royals

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles with Numbers In Them

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books, and numbers. Specifically, at books with numbers in their titles. Here are ten of my favorite numerically-titled books.

Hyperbole and a Half: About half the content of this book was already freely available on Allie Brosh's blog of the same name, but it's hysterically funny and I highly recommend it. I think of her often and hope she is well.

The Last One: I absolutely loved this book from a couple years ago that tells the story of a woman trying to survive an apocalypse that she thinks is just a part of an elaborately staged reality survival show she's filming when a virus devastates the world.

The Two Towers: This does suffer a bit from "middle book" syndrome, but honestly all three of the books in The Lord of the Rings are great.

Three and Out: The issues that have plagued the Michigan football program over the past decade or so have been agonizing as a longtime fan, but John U Bacon's book about the Rich Rodriguez years is fascinating.

Daisy Jones and the Six: This "Behind the Music" style book about a Fleetwood Mac-esque band's rise and fall just completely captivated me.

The Nine: This look at the Supreme Court in the last years of the Rehnquist Court is a fascinating peek behind the scenes.

Station Eleven: This has become a go-to recommendation, the end of the world book for people who don't like end of the world books. Haunting and elegant, this is a modern classic.

12 Years A Slave: An absolutely searing account of becoming a slave, written by a free black man who was kidnapped and sold. The movie is just as good.

Child 44: I'm not always super into fast-paced thrillers, but this one scooped me up and took me for a wild ride through Soviet Russia.

1984: An all-time favorite, I've been re-reading this one since I was 12 and it still holds up.

Monday, September 30, 2019

A Month in the Life: September 2019

And somehow now it's fall! After a long, hot August, the return of a little bit of crisp to the air has been very welcome. It even snowed enough for chain controls to be issued on some of the roads at higher elevation in the middle of the month, and it's been in the 50s and 60s for the past several days now. It's hard to believe the end of the year is just around the corner, but October is my favorite month of the year so I'm excited to be heading into it.

In Books...
  • Tower: An interesting look at the history of a very important building...the Tower of London. It's served as a fortress, a palace, a prison, an executioner's grounds, and even a zoo! A little too detailed/fact-dense for the kind of popular fiction it seems like it's trying to be, though, and it never really grabbed me.
  • Seeing: It's hard to tell at first that this is a sequel to Jose Saramago's Blindness, a book that is incredibly bleak and that I devoured. It takes place in the capital city of an unnamed country, where one election day, voters suddenly turn in blank ballots in overwhelming numbers. The government goes into crisis, searching for answers...which leads them back to four years previous, when everyone went mysteriously blind. This is only slightly less bleak, but takes a while to get going and generally felt less strong.
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation: This is an odd book, about a young woman in millennium-era New York City who decides that the cure for what ails her is to sleep as much as possible. There's not really a central conflict driving the narrative and pretty much everyone in the book is varying degrees of unlikable, but Ottessa Moshfegh's skill with storytelling renders it strangely compelling. 
  • Empire Falls: I feel like if I'd read this Pulitzer-Prize winner several years ago, I would have thought it was brilliant. Reading it here and now, though, I was struck by the misogyny with which the female characters were painted and frustrated with its lack of subtlety or nuance...and a major plot development near the end felt very cheap and hackneyed. 
  • Zone One: If you don't think of yourself as the sort of person who likes zombie books, this might be the zombie book for you. Gore is minimal in this tale of a man, jokingly called Mark Spitz, working to help "clear" Manhattan of residual zombies as humanity works to restore some semblance of society. Gorgeous prose, but there's something removed about a tale that should be visceral. 
  • Soon The Light Will Be Perfect: This debut novel bit off way more than it could chew. Telling the coming-of-age story of one summer in the life of a pre-teen boy, it wrestles with religion, poverty, fraternal bonds, the serious illness of a parent, and a fledgling romance in 250 pages, which gives none of it any room to develop and the constant shifts in focus left it feeling incredibly unfocused. This was like reading an early draft of an epic...all bones, no actual meat.
  • The Hours: I'd seen the movie, so I had a good sense of the plot already, but I wasn't ready for how beautiful the language of this book would be. The stories of three women are told through a single day from the perspective of each, all linked by Mrs. Dalloway: Virginia Woolf as she begins the novel, Laura Brown, a housewife in the 1950s who is reading it as she wrestles with the constraints of her role as a mother, and Clarissa Vaughan, who is preparing to throw a party for her best friend and ex-lover, Richard, who has just won a literary prize but is dying of AIDS complications.

In Life...
  • Weekend at Lake Tahoe: As usual, I joined my husband for his work conference at the lake this month, which is always a treat because it's gorgeous up there.

One Thing:

On the surface, this is an essay about an influencer by the person who helped ghostwrite the internet persona that made her famous. But it's also a story about toxic friendships, and jealousy, and mental health, and growing up, and the writing is beautiful. It's inspired a lot of discussion on the internet about who (if anyone) is in the wrong, and I found it very ample food for thought.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Book 200: Pond

"Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that's not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream. And daydreams return me to my original sense of things and I luxuriate in these fervid primary visions until I am entirely my unalloyed self again. So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive."

Dates read: January 3-6, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I came to the realization that I was not going to be able to hack it in my first profession, as a lawyer, I felt like a failure. I probably let that fear, that other people would think of me that way too, keep me in it longer than I should have been. Thankfully, when I finally quit I had something else lined up, and then the job I got shortly after that became the job I'm still in, so I didn't have a lot of time to sit and dwell on it, but the sense of disappointment in myself was very real. It's hard to put a lot of time and energy (and money) into a life path only to watch that path hit a dead end.

The never-named narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond is a failed academic. It's one of the few details we get about her life. She washed out of academia and responded by renting a small cottage in the Irish countryside. This book isn't really a novel, nor is it a collection of short stories...it's more a series of loosely connected vignettes. Our narrator observes and speculates on the scenery and life around her, and (less frequently) thinks about her past. It's very non-linear and free association-y. There's really no plot, as it were, to describe for this book, so I'll just get right to the review part.

The writing is gorgeous, almost poetic. There's wit and keen, delightful observations. But ultimately, this was a frustrating reading experience. I've said before that I tend to think about books as having three primary characteristics: prose quality, character development, and plot. A bad book does none of these things well. A great book does all of them well. And there's the in-between...usually, I find that two-of-three makes a good book but one-of-three makes a frustrating one. When one quality really shines, it makes lacks in the others seem more glaring. And these are obviously all weighted differently for different people. For me, their importance more or less corresponds with the way I've listed them above, in that even a book that has an interesting plot and characters fails for me if the writing is clunky. So while the writing here is lovely, it's the characters and plot that let it down.

Like I said before, there's not really much in the way of "plot" to speak of, but what's most annoying is that even though this book is the inner life of one person, she remains at a remove from the reader. We see what she thinks, but we know very little about her, about what drives her, about what she wants and needs. And it feels like a deliberate choice to make her such a cipher, but it means that it's really hard to connect with the book in any meaningful way beyond admiration for Bennett's technical skill in crafting language. It's not bad, but it's also not good (the consensus at the book club I read this for was that we felt positively about it, but not strongly, and some people couldn't make themselves finish it even though it's quite short). So while I don't feel like it's not worth reading, if you're so inclined, if you're looking for a story about a young woman who's a failed academic trying to figure out her life, I'd recommend 2017's Chemistry, which felt similar to me but was more satisfying.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever failed professionally?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Three years ago, I was reading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! These are my favorite lists: our quarterly TBRs! This fall looks to bring some books-made-into-movies, some prize-winners, as well as some infectious disease nonfiction, and a bunch of other stuff too.

The Hours: I've wanted to read the book ever since I saw the movie, but thought I should probably read Mrs. Dalloway first. Well, now I have and so it's time to read this!

The Age of Miracles: The concept behind this (the earth's rotation slowing, lengthening days and throwing the world into a panic) seems intriguing, and I heard that it was inspired in part by Jose Saramago's Blindness, which I loved.

The Overstory: The book club pick for next month, this was the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner and I'd actually already bought a copy to read before it was picked!

Plagues and Peoples: The influence of disease on human history is extremely up my alley.

Revolutionary Road: I tend to find suburban dissatisfaction interesting, and I did like the movie version, so I've got high hopes for the book.

The Line of Beauty: I will read anything that has won the Booker Prize.

Patron Saints of Nothing: I don't read a ton of young adult, but this one has a UMich connection, deals with the political situation in the Philippines (which I'd like to learn more about) and has gotten good reviews.

Slam: I've heard some mixed reviews of this one, but I love Nick Hornby so I'll give it a try.

The Great Mortality: It's all about the Black Death, which I've never really learned much about except kind of broadly, so I'm excited to read more about it.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: There's a lot of "I saw the movie" in this quarter! Because that's the appeal here, too.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book 199: Fourth of July Creek

"Regretted saying the word the moment it slipped out of his mouth and they looked at him like he’d broken out in French. Literature. What drugs and literature in the houses in and around Tenmile, Montana. Louis L’Amour and James Michener, and comic books, furled and foxed Penthouses, some marijuana. Popular Mechanics and some truckers’ speed. The Bible, if you were lucky."

Dates read: December 29, 2017- January 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

There's a certain kind of person attracted to life in a rural area. I've never lived in a truly rural area (I grew up in a small town, but it was exurban more than rural), but I live in an area now that's only a short drive from the middle of nowhere, and I've met plenty of people who think of property lines in acres rather than yards. When you go out to the wide-open areas in the West, there's an undeniable thrill to it: the possibility in that remoteness. There's a dark side to it, of course: you're that much farther away from medical or police help if anything bad were to happen, it's harder to make sure you get your trash picked up regularly. There's a reason most of us live relatively near a city, at the end of the day, but there's something appealing in the wildness of off-the-grid.

In the West, especially, there is a not-small portion of the people who live in areas sometimes still officially deemed "frontier" who don't just do it for the excitement of living unplugged and off the land, they do it because they don't really fit in with mainstream life. This is true for Montana social worker Pete Snow, in Smith Henderson's debut novel Fourth of July Creek, but it's even more true for most of his clients. He's already got a pretty full plate between his current caseload and his rocky home life when a young boy wanders into a school, dirty and wildly undernourished. Pete's attempts to help the child, Benjamin, bring him into contact with Benjamin's father, Jeremiah, who lives so deeply off the grid and is so proud that Benjamin's not even allowed to retain the clothes Pete buys to replace the rags he found the boy in. He is, happily, allowed to keep the medicine for his scurvy.

This story forms the borders of the larger narrative. In the meantime, Pete's trying to deal with his unruly clients and his own personal struggles. His brother is on the lam from his parole officer, Pete's got some alcohol issues, and he's recently separated from his wife, who goes to Texas with their teenage daughter, Rachel, to follow a new boyfriend. And then Rachel goes missing, and Pete's desperate to find her. But she's gone, and figuring out what's going on with Benjamin and Jeremiah begins to overwhelmingly dominate his life.

This book is a relentless downer. Nearly everyone involved is damaged and acting out in some way, from the clients all the way up to our protagonist. And not like, in a quirky or reasonably socially adaptive way, but in a very serious Real Problems way. There's a realism to that sort of portrayal that can be appreciated, but the small spots of hope and happiness are very few and far between. I found myself drawn into the central mystery of what was going on with Jeremiah and Benjamin and that family, but most of the characters just made me sad.

On a technical level, Henderson is a very talented writer. His writing was clear and insightful, and while they were depressing, his characters rang very true. My major issue with the book from a craft perspective is that he used a rhetorical device interspersed throughout the book, in which an unidentified interviewer is talking to Rachel about what happened to her. We never know the context in which this dialogue is taking place, which leaves her plotline frustratingly unresolved. If you want to read a well-written book that has a compelling central mystery and don't mind if that book is very bleak, you'll likely enjoy this. I certainly think it was well-crafted and appreciated Henderson's skill, although I don't think I'd say I enjoyed reading it. I'd recommend only to someone that feels up for an unhappy look at life.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Stay With Me

Three years ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Things to Eat/Drink While Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about food! Specifically, the food we like to eat or drink while reading. For better or worse, I am not at all precious about my books. This is one of the reasons I usually buy secondhand instead of borrowing from the library! So while I read, I eat...whatever I want to.

Water: Let's start with the most boring basic thing! But honestly I drink a ton of water, well over 100 oz per day, so I'm pretty much always drinking it, including when I'm reading.

Coffee: I am a caffeine junkie, so I have coffee twice per day. I'm not usually reading first thing in the morning when I drink it, but my afternoon coffee pairs well with reading: I get through some pages while I wait for it to cool and then consume both book and mug contents at the same time.

Kombucha: I've only recently started drinking this stuff, but it has done a lot to help regulate my digestive system after I had my gallbladder removed. Tea people, this is as close as I get to your favorite!

Beer: I'm not trying to get tipsy while I read (I need to be able to remember it later for blogging purposes!), but on a warm summer afternoon nursing a sour while I get my lit on is lovely.

Popsicles: This is why I'm a bad book owner, because these things definitely melt and drip and then I have purple spots on pages but hey, this is also why I just own my books.

String Cheese: One of my all-time favorite snacks!

Pretzels: Also a fave snack, though I have to be careful with these because I always want to get up to get more and that interrupts my reading flow.

White Rice: I am a weirdo, because I will eat this in sufficient quantities that I'm not even looking for anything else to make a meal. Just plain. Delicious!

Apples: I had to have one healthy thing in here, right? I do love apples.

Pasta: Definitely not an ideal thing to eat while reading because it's high in staining potential, but as long as I know that the red spot in my books is sauce and not blood, it's all good.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Book 198: Rebecca

"Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there."

Dates read: December 24-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

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

We've all felt like an imposter at some point, right? Like, I don't think "imposter syndrome" is even a thing, I think it's so commonplace as to be just a part of the human experience. It's an ugly, scary feeling, to be so full of doubt about yourself. It feels especially endemic in that late teens-early 20s time of life, when everyone even five years older seems impossibly glamorous and adult and you still feel like a kid. You just were a kid, after all, and now you're expected to set your own alarm and remember to take your vitamins and schedule your own haircuts. "Adult" feels so far away even though you're already there.

I've never read a book that feels as steeped in that feeling of being an imposter as Daphne DuMarier's Rebecca. Our heroine is a never-named middle-class young English woman, in her early 20s, who's earning her living as a traveling companion to an crude older woman. On a stop in Monaco, she meets Maxim deWinter, who her employer is all too happy to repeat gossip about and try to kiss up to: he's the owner of the famous and magnificent country estate of Manderly, and his beautiful, stylish wife Rebecca recently died tragically. The young lady and Maxim have a whirlwind courtship, and before she knows it, she's married and honeymooned and off to her new home and new life as the mistress of a great house.

But when they get to Manderly, things go quickly south. Being middle-class, she's barely been in a place like this, and hasn't the slightest idea how to make it her own. Her husband is suddenly distant and moody. Her only real friend is the spaniel dog that she takes her walks with. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, all but openly sneers at her and constantly reminds her that she's not anything like the charming and passionate Rebecca. And it's not just Mrs. Danvers...even the locals she goes to visit tell her over and over again how exciting things were when Rebecca was around, how beautiful she was, how delightful. The shy, quiet second Mrs. deWinter begins to despair of ever being good enough for the role she's been handed, and is talked into putting on a costume ball (like the ones Rebecca used to have!) that changes everything.

If you've ever heard about super fast marriages Back In The Day and wondered if people even really knew each other when they go married, Rebecca answers that question with a resounding no. A major part of the drama comes from the fact that the young wife can't understand why Maxim married her and is afraid to share her fears and feelings of inadequacy because, well, she barely knows him. She tortures herself by imagining that he's constantly comparing her to Rebecca, and she's sure she comes up short. She can't even hide from the imposter syndrome that's consuming her...the very place she lives reminds her of the ways in which she feels inadequate. This book is often billed as a gothic romance, and while the former is accurate, the latter isn't really, in my opinion: there's a marriage at the center of it, but not really a romance per se.

Instead, I'd call this a psychological suspense novel. We know from the beginning that the deWinters no longer live at Manderly, that something bad happened there. How exactly this happens unwinds over the course of the book, with the inner lives of the characters and their relationships with each other being driving the action. And the story is well-told and well-paced, but it's still a classic rather than a modern-day thriller, so while it's certainly gripping it's not really a page-turner that'll keep you up all night. And for me, that's preferable anyways. I really enjoyed reading it and plan to add more duMaurier to my list of books to read. I'd recommend Rebecca to just about anybody, it's a tightly crafted and engaging story that'll appeal to anyone who's ever felt like they were playacting at being a grown-up.

One year ago, I was reading: The Silence of the Girls (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls

Three years ago, I was reading: Smoke