Thursday, May 16, 2019

Book 181: The Blind Assassin

"You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones."

Dates read: October 10-15, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Lists/awards: The Booker Prize, Time Magazine All-Time 100 Novels

We're constantly telling the story of our lives. To other people, but most of all to ourselves. Amping up the parts that make us look good, glossing over the parts that make us look bad, editing out that parts that don't quite jibe with the character we want ourselves to be. No one likes to remember our worst moments, though those are the ones that creep into our heads at 2 a.m. when we can't sleep. But at the end of the day, all you can do is try to be better tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on and so forth.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin starts with the end at the beginning: Iris Chase's sister, Laura, drives off a bridge in Iris's car. From that point on, we get three threads of story: (faux) newspaper accounts related to Iris's life, Iris looking back on her own life as an old woman and telling the story that leads up to what happened with her sister, and a story-within-a-story, called "The Blind Assassin", about a pair of secret lovers weaving a science fiction tale about a pair of secret lovers. Unveiled early on in the narrative through the newspaper accounts, it is revealed that shortly after her sister's death (which is ruled an accident), Iris's husband died. And then their daughter grew up with drug problems and succumbed to them, leaving her own child behind. And then that grandchild was raised not by Iris, but Iris's sister-in-law, who also died. Iris is old, and alone, and has no reason to hold on to her secrets anymore. So she starts to write.

She starts with the story of her grandparents, and the button factory her grandfather started in their small Canadian town, the profits from which rendered him suitable enough marriage material for her grandmother, from a society family in decline. When their three sons went off to war, only Iris's father came back. His wife, Iris and Laura's mother, was never especially healthy and died from complications from a miscarriage. Her father tries to keep the family business together through the Depression, but the Chases find themselves unable to even maintain their own finances, and that's how Iris finds herself married off to Richard, an older industrialist, in a deal that's supposed to keep the factory open and what's left of the family afloat. Instead, the entire Chase family capsizes, in their own ways.

After revisiting The Handmaid's Tale shortly before I read this book, and then reading this book itself, I was reminded what an incredibly gifted author Margaret Atwood is. To pull off the narrative structure of the book, with its intertwining threads and mysteries, is a fiendishly difficult task, but to do it while writing so beautifully and powerfully is the work of a master. It is a little jarring at the beginning, when you're first getting used to the path the book is taking you down, but it works. There were so many passages in this book that I marked, struck by how gorgeous the phrasing was. The characters, particularly Laura and Richard, were vivid, and Iris herself is someone we gradually come to understand as she tells her story and feels so real that when the book and her story end, the loss feels unusually poignant.

This is an incredible book: sad, yes, but told with such skill and in a way that keeps you wanting more and more...I had a hard time putting it down at night. I'm kicking myself that this is only my second Atwood and I'm really looking forward to getting into more of her work. As a heads up to potential readers, there is some really heavy stuff in here: parental death, spousal abuse, sexual abuse/rape...I think Atwood handles this material with sensitivity and grace, but it's something to be aware of. I'd recommend this book strongly, particularly for mature readers (there's nothing gratuitous, but there's a lot of darkness and I think it's a work that's best appreciated with a little life experience behind the reader).

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains

Three years ago, I was reading: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Good Books That Would Not Make Good Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a page to screen freebie. I'm not one of those people who think that a movie made of a book is necessarily going to be bad...sometimes, I think the movie even manages to be better! That being said, some books, even ones I love, I cringe to think about as a movie. Here are ten books that I think should stay on the page.

Station Eleven: The time shifts, the interiority of the's hard to imagine a way this turns out well.

A Tale for the Time Being: The delicate paralleling of the narratives just seems like it would be really tricky to actually make work on-screen.

Middlesex: There's just so much story here...not to mention material that would need an extremely delicate hand to render with emotional honesty and not for shock value.

Lincoln in the Bardo: This book is intensely weird, in a way that's just inherently unfilmable.

The Bear and the Nightingale: Vasya is a heroine for the ages and if it was done correctly, a movie could be just as magical as the book. But I have a hard time believing that the chyerti wouldn't get cuted up and the heart of it dumbed down.

The Butcher's Daughter: I loved this book about a novice nun living through the religious turmoil of Henry VIII's reign, but it's way too much in her head. Nothing "happens".

The Blind Assassin: There are time shifts, unreliable narrators, and a lovely story-within-a-story that I can't imagine coming off as anything but cheesy if it were filmed.

Prep: Lee is so very inside her own head, the book is so rooted in the small-in-scope-but-large-in-impact agonies of adolescence, that rendering it so it could be visual seems impossible.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: This has the sweep and scope of an epic and I don't know that I think the parts of the story which integrate the comic, so important to the power of it, could be executed well.

Life After Life: There are so many lives here, some of which change only in small details and still end the same way, that I just don't think this story could be told anywhere but on the page.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book 180: The Royals

"There were no more seasoned actors than the British royal family. Like an old vaudeville troupe, they filed on stage to go through their practiced routines. Looking like rouged curiosities, they performed at weddings and funerals. In costume, they still drew a few regular spectators, but they lose their biggest crowds with the departure of their ingenue Princess. They knew that they were viewed best from afar; up close, their imperfections showed."

Dates read: October 2-10, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I'll admit it: when I went to London, one of the first things I wanted to see was Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. It feels a little un-American, given that the whole reason the USA is a thing was rebelling against the crown, but I love the British monarchy. If someone wore Saint Edward's Crown, I want to know about them. The jewels, the castles, and the wide variety of people who have worn them/lived in them through the centuries is something I just can't tear myself away from.

The family currently occupying the throne are the Windsors, and Kitty Kelley's The Royals recounts their modern history. She starts with the changing of their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor to downplay their Germanic origin in the World War I era, and traces the family through the divorces of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew (the book was originally published in the late 90s, shortly before the death of Diana, and while there is a bit of content added on to the later edition I had, the bulk of the material stops there). After some introductory material about the history of the House, she recounts it primarily by tracing the romances that have defined it: David and Wallis Simpson, Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Elizabeth and Phillip, Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, Charles and Diana, and Andrew and Fergie.

Kelley's book lies somewhere between the tawdriness of an expose and glossiness of an official biography...she's looking to tell a behind-the-scenes story to get to who the Windsors actually are, but mostly avoids being sensationalistic. Kelley highlights the steely reserve of the Queen Mother, who held on to her grudge against Wallis Simpson until the day the latter died, and how her deep opposition to divorce was internalized by her daughter and trapped many of the family members in marriages long past their expiration date (and prevented one marriage from occurring at all, in Margaret's case). Queen Elizabeth II is shown to be both deeply devoted to her duty as monarch, and also as a woman who's fundamentally introverted and struggles with social relationships, including parenthood. And while Phillip hasn't always been faithful to his wife, he has always been loyal to The Firm, as he calls the royal family.

This is actually what interested me the most as I was reading the book...the line that the Windsors walk between being a family, with all the messiness that entails, and being an institution, which needs to show staying power and continue to have meaning in order to maintain relevance. The Queen can never just be a daughter, or sister, or mother, or wife...she is always the monarch and the figurehead of the Commonwealth. For some, like Princess Anne, who has famously inherited her father's stubborn prickliness, this seems to have worked out just fine. But for Prince Charles, with his almost painful earnestness, it's clear that a more traditionally middle-class/warmer household would have been better for him...I found myself feeling more sympathy for him than I would have expected after reading this book. He's not either of his parents' favorite (Phillip prefers Anne, while Elizabeth reportedly favors Andrew), and his obvious desire to be feel loved and be taken seriously is sad. Kelley doesn't let him off the hook for the issues in his marriage to Diana (nor does she let Diana off the hook for her own contributions to the breakdown), but reading about his obvious lasting devotion to Camilla made me glad for him that they finally ended up married. 

Like I said previously, I think Kitty Kelley does a pretty good job of including enough gossip to be dishy, but not going overboard and just printing every rumor she heard while doing research. Obviously the Windsors themselves may disagree, but she definitely paints portraits of them as people who are neither flawless example of nobility nor cartoon villains (well, later-in-life Margaret veers towards cartoon villainy but it doesn't seem gratuitous, at any rate). At the end of the day, I found myself glad that the families I was both born into and married into are warm and loving and free from public scrutiny, even if that scrutiny does come with the castles and the jewels and all that. This book is sure to entertain those who enjoy reading about the British royal family, but won't have much for those who aren't already disposed to be interested. It's long, but never feels like a slog.

Tell me, blog you know anyone who's been raised in the public eye because of who their parents were?

One year ago, I was reading: Children of Blood and Bone (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters That Remind Me of Myself

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting book characters that remind us of ourselves. So there are a decent contingent of smart, book-nerdy girls on here, but also some that are probably less flattering comparisons.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): I know I just used her a couple months back in a similar topic. But is there an overachieving girl who doesn't identify with Hermione?

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): I am not much of a matchmaker, but I do enjoy gossip and drama like our girl here. And Emma does have a brain in her head: we're told she's clever right there in the opening line.

Meg Murray (A Wrinkle in Time): For reasons not worth getting into right now, I was an often-angry little girl. It's rare to find stories that center on a girl who gets mad and makes that part of her heroism.

Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Francie's determination to get an education and love for learning and reading make her a role model for plenty of nerdy girls.

Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar): I struggled with mental health and depression growing up and still do, honestly. Esther's struggle feels so familiar.

Daine Sarassri (Wild Magic): I tried getting into the Alanna series, but the central character's bravery was never something I could identify with. Daine's love of animals, however, really spoke to me!

Lee Fiora (Prep): I spent quite a bit of time reading this book infuriated at its teenage protagonist...because she made so many of the same mistakes rooted in hyper self-conciousness that I have made and to be honest, continue to make.

Jules Jacobson (The Interestings): Jules's struggle to recognize that her talents and worth may not be in the same place as her friends and deal with the jealousy she feels is all too recognizable.

Briony Tallis (Atonement): Briony's failure to understand what she's seen and desire to be important and listened to lead to own childhood busybody-ness didn't have disastrous consequences, but that was more luck than anything.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): Who can't relate to the refusal to really adult?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Book 179: The Bonfire of the Vanities

"Sherman lifted his Yale chin, squared his shoulders, straightened his back, raised himself to his full height, and assumed the Presence, the presence of an older, finer New York, the New York of his father, the Lion of Dunning Sponget." 

Dates read: September 22- October 2, 2017

Rating: 2/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

I try to pretend I'm kind and thoughtful, but I'll confess: when something bad happens to someone awful, even if they didn't deserve it, I don't usually feel sorry for them. I tend to figure that even if THIS bad thing isn't fair, per se, bad things that aren't fair happen to everyone, so at least when they happen to bad people we can smirk about it. What is life without those kind of tiny, petty joys?

Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, is filled with horrible people in 1980s New York City. Our main character is Sherman McCoy, a high-flying bond trader whose ridiculous salary somehow still isn't enough to fill his endless wants. One of those wants is a hot side piece, so he cheats on his interior designer wife with Maria Ruskin, herself the young trophy wife of a much-older rich businessman. The event that propels the entire narrative happens when he comes to pick her up from the airport one evening. On their way back to Manhattan, Sherman misses his exit and ends up in the Bronx. Now this is pre-Guiliani New York City, so crime rates are still quite high, and the Bronx in particular contributes significantly to this crime rate. Sherman is desperate to get out of the bad side of town in his fancy car, and so drives up a ramp back onto the highway only to find it blocked. When he gets out of his car to clear the debris, he's approached by two young black men, and he panics. He's aggressive with one of them, and when Maria gets behind the wheel and gets him into the car, they take off. He thinks he sees and feels one of the two guys get clipped by the car as it fishtails on their way out of there.

Sherman's inclined to report what happened to the police, but Maria dissuades him. But the guilt and worry begin to consume him, especially as the incident starts to pick up attention. Forces start to converge (a shady African-American preacher/activist type, an alcoholic English reporter desperate to prove his increasingly questionable worth to his employer, a Jewish DA trying to show the overwhelming minority community he serves action on their behalf in an election year), and Sherman is charged and sent to trial, where his prosecutor, Larry Kramer, is a man who seethes at the way his life has turned out, with a modest income that keeps him from being able to conduct the affair he wants to have with a former juror.

As you can probably tell from that rating up there, I hated this book. Basically everyone in it is The Worst, and no one's having any fun. I don't mind reading about morally questionable characters as long as they're compelling, but Sherman and everyone around him is miserable. Even before the accident, Sherman is living far beyond his considerable means and he's constantly worried about how to make sure he can stay afloat. Larry, who's the second lead in the book, is a covetous self-important blowhard obsessed with his own appearance and desirability to women. I hated both of them immediately and struggled so hard to make myself read this. It got better, plot-wise, as it went...when the pieces started coming together, I could appreciate the way Wolfe showed how the dysfunction of every participant in the process created the perfect storm in which Sherman was embroiled. But that doesn't mean I liked it.

I think part of it was the overwhelming male-ness of the narrative: all the major figures, save Maria, are dudes, and even Maria never gets the story told from her point of view the way the men do. I have no particular interest in masculinity crises, and there's a lot of that here. I think I'm also going to give up on Tom Wolfe from here on out...I read his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test a couple years ago, and I hated it just as much as I hated this. His tics as a writer, particularly his fondness of repetitious phrases, do not jibe with me as a reader. I recognize that as a satire of a particular time and place, it has merit, but I did not like it at all. I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...are there any writers that you just can't read because you don't like the way they write?

One year ago, I was reading: Game of Crowns (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Highest Tide

Three years ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Thought-Provoking Book Quotes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're focusing on quotes from books. Specifically, quotes that are either inspirational or thought-provoking. I'm too cynical to get deep into inspiration, but I love a book that makes me think, so here are ten quotes from books that get my brain going.

"Does the walker chose the path, or the path the walker?"- Sabriel

"Life is fleeting. Don't waste a single moment of your precious life. Wake up now! And now! And now!"- A Tale For The Time Being

"Things can change in a day"- The God of Small Things

"Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence. When you're unhappy, you get to pay a lot of attention to yourself. You get to take yourself oh so very seriously."- Jitterbug Perfume

"Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?"- Anna Karenina

“To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect”- Sense and Sensibility

“After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”- Remains of the Day

“Imagination, of course, can open any door - turn the key and let terror walk right in.”- In Cold Blood

“Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.”- The Handmaid's Tale

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”- Seeing Voices

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Month In The Life: April 2019

With tomorrow being the last day of April, that means we're 1/3 of the way through 2019 already, which just does not seem at all possible. It was another busy busy month, since we're still in session and this was the month the first major deadlines started cropping up but of course, I still managed to read books.

In Books...

  • All The President's Men: This book is a legend of political journalism, and I couldn't believe I hadn't read it yet. Honestly, though, it was so dry and seemed to be assuming that I had a lot of context around Watergate that I don't have. There's an amazing book to be written about this triumph of the free press, but the reporters were too far inside it to tell it effectively.
  • Princess Masako: In just in a few days, Emperor Akihito will abdicate the Japanese throne in favor of his oldest son, Naruhito. Which means Naruhito's wife, Masako, will be empress. Her story is quite sad: a highly educated, accomplished woman, she's widely reputed to be miserable in her tightly constrained life as a royal. This book means to examine her life, but the quality you can expect is right there in the subtitle: "Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne". Thinly sourced and inflammatory, but not without entertainment value.
  • The Last Romantics: This is the kind of long-ranging family-dynamics drama that I tend to enjoy, so it should come as no surprise that I really liked this book. Tara Conklin's writing is lovely and insightful, and the tensions that drive the plot arise from skillful character development. There were a few things that didn't quite work for me as plot points that kept it from being a true standout, but mostly this is a solid, engrossing read. 
  • Lilah: I hadn't read biblical fiction in a long time, and this didn't exactly encourage me to read more...Marek Halter did some decent characterization of Lilah, but the focus seemed strongly on the world-building and I thought the book, though short, dragged through the first half and rushed the second. 
  • The Fever: When one pretty teenage girl has a sudden seizure in class, it's a mystery. When a second does, though, and a third, it starts to feel like an epidemic. The entire small town starts to fray at the seams, and Megan Abbott's thriller keeps the tension high. I did find myself feeling like the three points of view was at least one too many, but this is a very readable, compelling book.
  • The Lowland: This book tells the story of two brothers in India whose lives take divergent paths as they grow up, and a woman who they both marry, weaving through the course of their tragedies and triumphs over a lifetime. It is an elegant, accomplished novel with deft prose styling and layered characterization, but I never quite connected to it. There's a sense of remove that blunted its impact, for me. 

In Life...

  • I was on Jeopardy!: Honestly, a lifelong dream. Even though I didn't win, I'm proud of my performance. I accomplished my make sure "Nevada" was pronounced correctly and getting to play Final Jeopardy! 
  • Session continues: We're now about 2/3 of the way through, just a little over a month to go! It'll be a pretty grueling month and change though, but then there will be some nice down time over the summer.

One Thing:

Instead of linking to something outside I'm going to write a little bit more about my Jeopardy! experience. I'm of two minds about it: on the one hand, I watched James play four shows before mine since I was on the last show of the day and knew what I was getting into...not that I was intimidated, per se, but his performance on the show has been of the sort where I don't feel bad that I lost. Lots of very smart, capable players have lost to James. I didn't lose a squeaker where I'd be kicking myself over one blown answer. On the other hand, I wish I'd gotten the experience of playing a "regular" show...getting your one chance to ever play be against such a dominant player is unfortunate timing but that's how life goes sometimes. For those of you, who (like me!) love to watch from home and shout out answers, know that buzzer timing is SO much of the game and WAY harder than you think it is. I never quite got the hang of it. But I am (I think) the first person from my hometown to ever make it on, which is pretty cool, and I will never forget that Edward is the other British king's name (along with Henry and George) to be used more than five times ever again in my life.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Book 178: Stay With Me

"I loved Yejide from the very first moment. No doubt about that. But there are things even love can't do. Before I got married, I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough that it couldn't bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it's in a thousand pieces under your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love."

Dates read: September 19-22, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes it seems like there are two kinds of long-married couples: those who genuinely love and appreciate each other, and those who seem to have just decided that they're sticking to it because of stubbornness, mutual resentment, "for the children", or any variety of reasons that aren't love. When I read stories about couples who've been married for decades, I find myself wondering which group that pair falls in. Are the latter something we should be celebrating, honestly? I've known people who got married only to find out later that the person they thought they were swearing forever to isn't who they've ended up with. Ending a marriage, even one that's gone sour, sounds like it's an agonizing decision, and I can't help but think that the social pressure to not make that decision keeps people together who might be better off apart.

What exactly it means to be married, and married well, is at the heart of Ayobami Adebayo's Stay With Me. When we first meet Yejide, we learn that technically, she's had a long marriage. She's lived apart from her husband, Akin, for many years, but she receives an invitation to attend his father's funeral as his guest that sends her on a reminisce about their past, and how their separation came to be. They met at university in Nigeria, and though they were both seeing other people at the time, quickly fell in love and got married. Their marriage was happy, except that even after several years, they were childless. Though Akin and Yejide were a modern couple, his parents were traditional, and if their first-born son couldn't produce an heir for the family with his wife, they had a solution: a second wife.

This is the first in a series of what come to be deep, deep cracks in Akin and Yejide's relationship. Yejide is desperate to keep her husband to herself, and knows that in order to do that, she must somehow become pregnant...which she does. The plot has several twists and turns, and while I'm usually not especially fussed about spoilers, this is one of the cases where I feel like letting the plot unfold as you read is important. Though the book is relatively short (under 300 pages), Adebayo deals with some powerful themes: love, marriage, mental health, trust, family, sex, and what it means to be a parent.

This is a debut novel, and in some ways, it shows. Some of the plot twists seemed to be a little too difficult to believe, and it sometimes felt that they were being deployed too quickly, with too little time for each to really settle and resonate before the next one came along. And while I appreciated the way she paralleled the upheavals and tensions of the central marriage alongside the political turmoil roiling Nigeria during the lives of the characters, references to it often felt shoehorned in. I felt like the book should have been longer, which could have ameliorated both issues by letting the plot breathe a bit.

At the end of the day, though, this is the kind of debut which makes me really excited for the author's follow-up(s). Yejide is a fantastic character...she's not always likable, and often makes poor choices, but remains sympathetic throughout. The perspective we get into her childhood informs the person she comes to be, and I wish we'd gotten a bit more of this with Akin. We get some, but he's less well-developed than she is and I think the book could have been even stronger if we'd gotten more of his perspective. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed this book and look forward to following Adeyabo's career. I would recommend it, but maybe not to everyone. I think it'll appeal most to readers who enjoy character-based domestic dramas and don't mind if they occasionally trend towards the implausible in their plotting.

Tell me, blog friends...what do you think are good reasons for ending a marriage, if any?

One year ago, I was reading: Rosemary's Baby (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Three years ago, I was reading: The President's Club

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: First Ten Books I Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! My opinions on books often change over time, so with this week's subject, what I want to do is go back to the first ten books I reviewed on this blog and see how I feel about them a few years later.


Rating then: 10/10

Rating now: 10/10

Comments: This book is a masterpiece.


Rating then: 3/10

Rating now: 2/10

Comments: I stand by my low rating of this book, which I barely fact, it feels fair to lower my already low rating because I can't remember getting anything at all out of this book.

Rating then: 3/10

Rating now: 3/10

Comments: This book was very bad and I rated it as such and I stand by that rating.

Rating then: 2/10

Rating now: 2/10

Comments: Another one of those that I can barely remember, except that it felt like it threw a bunch of trendy YA concepts into a blender with Korean mythology (the author is white, so it's not even an own voices book). 

Rating then: 9/10

Rating now: 8/10

Comments: I really did enjoy this deep dive into linguistics, but it's very dry and technical and something I'm not super eager to re-read...though I would enjoy reading more along the same lines.

Rating then: 10/10

Rating now: 9/10

Comments: This is a very, very good memoir, but usually I reserve that 10/10 for something that feels like a masterpiece and with some time in the rearview, this isn't a masterpiece. 

Rating then: ~5/10 (varying depending on volume)

Rating now: 3/10

Comments: I spent a LOT of time slogging through the four volumes of this psychoanalytic perspective on the history of world mythology. It could have been about 1/3 the length and still would have been dense. I think I rated it higher at the time because I wanted to believe it was better than it was for all the time I invested in it.

Rating then: 7/10

Rating now: 6/10

Comments: This book is solid, but when I read it I thought it was better than I think it is now. 

Rating then: 10/10

Rating now: 10/10

Comments: This, on the other hand, is a masterpiece and continues to deserve its rating.

Rating then: 5/10

Rating now: 4/10

Comments: I don't think this book was bad, there just wasn't much there. Some images from it have stayed with me, but with very few exceptions I remember so little of it I might as well have never read it at all. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Book 177: Duel With The Devil

"This room, filled with the most distinguished legal eminences in the state, might have seemed a Gordian knot of tangled conflicts of interest: Burr’s company owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk, and had political alliances and rivalries with his fellow counselors, the mayor, and the judge. In any other time or place, all this might have at least raised an eyebrow. But in Manhattan in 1800, it was just how business was done."

Dates read: September 15-19, 2017

Rating: 4/10

True crime, it seems, has never been more popular. It's always had a fanbase: look at Unsolved Mysteries, or America's Most Wanted, or Ann Rule's entire career. But ever since the first season of Serial took the country by storm (it was the first podcast I ever subscribed to, and I don't think I'm alone in that), it seems like it's everywhere, from other podcasts like My Favorite Murder to TV shows like HBO's stellar The Jinx. And there's never-ending source material: there will always be cold cases and shaky convictions all over America every day. What remains to be seen is if this is a trend that's here to stay.

One of America's oldest cold cases is the basis of Paul Collins' Duel With The Devil. Elma Sands, a young, often sickly Quaker woman who had come to New York City with her cousin, Catherine, and lived in a boarding house there, was found dead in a well in her best clothes. Suspicion quickly turned on Levi Weeks, a fellow boarder, who'd been seeing Elma and who she'd reputedly left her room the night she was killed to secretly marry. Levi happened to be the brother of Ezra Weeks, who was a well-connected businessman and arranged for Levi's defense by what was likely America's first legal Dream Team: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Henry Brockholst Livingston. Despite the almost overwhelming public opinion that Levi had done it, the defense managed to echo (pre-echo?) the OJ Simpson case in another respect: he was found not guilty. His legal victory did nothing for his PR woes, though, so he left the city not long thereafter and ended up in Mississippi, where he lived out the rest of his life being mostly pretty boring.

Collins complies his relatively brief book by doing four things: he gives the reader tons of background and context for the New York City in which the murder transpired and fleshes out the principals, he recounts the trial, he posits his own theory of who might have killed Elma, and he wraps up with the famous duel between the one-time co-counsels and long-time political enemies that cost Alexander Hamilton his life. I found Ezra Weeks to be a surprisingly interesting figure: we've all known of those "prominent citizen" types that seem to be able to pull all the strings, and he was able to get his brother two of the foremost attorneys in the city in a way that only one of those types could do. He was a local construction guy, and he had two customers with a taste for the finer things but without a budget to support that taste, who therefore owed him money: Hamilton and Burr.

The full-on Hamilton craze seems to have peaked a while ago, but there's still a lot of interest in his story. To be perfectly honest, this book, and the case at the center of it, aren't much more than a footnote in a life that managed to encompass a great deal despite its relative brevity. Collins does what he's trying to do here well enough, but there's nothing revelatory. If you've got an interest in cold cases or you've found out about this case in particular and wanted to know more, this book tells its story with clear, informative prose and is worth your time. If, however, you're more interested in Hamilton's entire career, I'd recommend Ron Chernow's Hamilton instead, which I listened to on audio and is very long but fascinating. 

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

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Dune

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Watery Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is actually "rainy day reads", but for me, those are just books that I happen to be reading when it rains. So I did a little twist on it, and went for books significantly tied to a body of water!

The Life of Pi: The bulk of this book about a boy who survives a shipwreck takes place on a boat in the ocean.

Moby-Dick: Another sea-faring book, this recounts a whaling voyage and the hunt for the legendary, titular white whale.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle: I LOVED this book as a kid, with its story of a proper young lady who becomes embroiled in sailing ship intrigue and winds up a member of the crew.

Dead Wake: This account of the sinking of the Lusitania introduced me to a whole part of history I knew basically nothing about and it was fascinating!

Many Waters: This entry in the A Wrinkle In Time series sends the Murray twins, Sandy and Dennys, back to biblical times immediately before The Flood.

La Belle Sauvage: Another flood story, this prequel to The Golden Compass features Lyra Belacqua as a tiny baby being rescued by teenage Malcom Polsted and his titular boat.

Once Upon A River: The events of this wonderful novel from last year are kicked off by a man's accident on the rain-swollen Thames, and a little girl who seems to have drowned in it, until it turns out she's alive after all.

Island of the Blue Dolphins: There's only really a ship in this one at the very beginning, but the circumstances that drive the action are rooted in people leaving on that ship and the surrounding water that isolates the island.

James and the Giant Peach: An oversized stone fruit is the most unusual aquatic vessel on this list by a long shot.

The Odyssey: The OG voyage adventure story on the ocean!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Book 176: Valley of the Dolls

"She stumbled out of bed and changed her pajamas. Dr. Mitchell was right—she was building up a tolerance to the pills. Maybe one more yellow...No, then she'd be groggy and hungover in the morning, and she had to learn those lyrics. Jesus. Today she had needed three green dolls just to get through the morning shooting. She poured a full glass of Scotch. Maybe one more red pill...yeah, they wore off faster. She swallowed it quickly. And she wouldn't drink all this Scotch, just sip at it until the pills worked."   

Dates read: September 9-15, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Every once in a while, I realize I'm drinking just to drink. Having a drink after work just because. Or on the weekend, getting to the point where I have a happy little buzz going and then having another drink or two just because it's there. So I'll knock it off for a while, because the slope between substance use and substance abuse is slippery and I want to stay on the good side of it. Well, unless the substance is caffeine. I am 100% addicted to it and I am 100% okay with that.

As long as there have been drugs, there have been people who've gotten hooked on them. Right now, it's opioids that are the hot topic and big area of concern, but back in the day, it was barbiturates. In Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, there are two ways to take the title. In one sense, "dolls" has long referred to women, and the book tells the story of three of them. But throughout the novel, the characters refer to their pills as "dolls" as well. The book tells the story of three young women who are briefly roommates at the beginning of their careers: Anne, Neely, and Jennifer. Anne is a lovely, well-bred New Englander who flees her hometown because she's terrified of getting stuck in a passionless marriage and never accomplishing anything besides raising children. She goes to New York City, where she finds work in the office of a well-known entertainment lawyer/talent manager. Neely has been on the vaudeville circuit since she was a small child, and is trying to break into Broadway with a group act. When the dancers get cast in a show starring one of Anne's company's clients but Neely gets cut, Anne manages to score her a new spot. And Jennifer is a stunningly beautiful but not especially talented actress cast in the chorus.

The women's stories all take different directions from there: Anne breaks off a relationship with a rich man who wants to marry her to pursue a relationship with Lyon, her boss's protegee, a veteran who's returned from war but thinks he maybe wants to be a writer instead of getting back into the rat race. She's crazy about him, but he's proud and doesn't want to marry her unless he can support her even though she's well-off enough for both of them. When they break up, she goes on to date an older cosmetics executive and becomes a TV spokesmodel. Neely goes to Hollywood to make it in the movies, where she's put on uppers so she can handle long song-and-dance rehearsals while skipping meals to lose weight, and gets herself onto downers so she can sleep. She becomes a huge star and wins an Oscar, but also turns into an addict. And Jennifer, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, chases a marriage with a successful lounge singer to lock in a source of support for her and her family...only to discover her beloved isn't who she thinks he is and winds up making "art films" overseas. She finally finds real love and security with a politican, but she also finds a lump in her breast.

On the one hand, this is delightfully campy melodrama: Anne's terror of being "frigid" and desperate desire for Lyon, Lyon's refusal to be a "kept man", Neely's marriages and pill popping and downward spiral into addiction, Jennifer's secret white trash past and doomed marriage and soft-core porn career. Y'all, there is an actual scene in which a wig is snatched and flushed down the toilet. I found myself actually giggling out loud while reading it. But there's also a very real story there about how the entertainment industry chews women up and spits them out. Two of the three major characters are clearly based on real people: Neely's story has too many similarities to Judy Garland's to be mere coincidence, and Jennifer's is less clear but still obviously reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. All three women are scared of aging, terrified of losing their looks and therefore their value.

While Anne is the main character (the book begins and ends with "her" sections), perspective switches to Neely and Jennifer often enough to keep things interesting. The characters aren't necessarily super deep, but they are each flawed in their own way and so are at least well-rounded and generally sympathetic (although Neely takes a turn towards villainy near the end). There's definitely plenty of fluff, like I talked about above, but there's enough reality and pathos to balance it out so it doesn't feel like the book equivalent of a Twinkie. It's an entertaining, enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it...particularly to those interested in the entertainment industry and classic Broadway/Hollywood.  

One year ago, I was reading: The Color of Water (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies

Three years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I’ve Done for the Love of Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the maybe a little over-the-top things we've done because we love books so much!

Collected far more of them than I have room for: Just ask my poor husband, who deals with piles of books on virtually every surface in our apartment.

Started a book blog: I mean, I love books and reading so much I created a space on the internet to talk about it.

Started a book newsletter on top of my book blog: A little less than a year ago, I decided that there might be people who can't get into the idea of checking a book blog but who might be able to get into a monthly newsletter in their inbox, so I've got that going on too.

Literally carry one with me 100% of the time: I carry two things with me no matter what...a koozie for my beer and a book for my brain.

Gone to a midnight release event: My sister and I went to a party for the release of the final Harry Potter book at our local Borders (RIP).

Go to a bookstore whenever I visit a new city: Anytime I go someplace new, the first thing I do is find an independent bookstore, make plans to go, and buy a new book!

Joined a book club: Speaking of indie bookstores, mine runs a book club that meets once per month and I've loved having a place to talk about books with people in real life!

Indulge in bookish merch: I've got candles, shirts, tote bags and more that were inspired by books!

Turned my insta into a quasi-bookstagram: It's not a formal booksta, and I don't pose anything all pretty and accessorized, but I do share what I'm reading and it's become at least half of what I post anymore!

Got into audio: I never thought I'd be a person who listens to books, but it turns out it's a great way to liven up my walks/drives, and get my re-reading in!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Book 175: The Sisters Chase

"The Chase girls stayed the next morning until it was time to check out, lying on the bed and basking in the infinitude of being nowhere. The motel served Saran-Wrapped Danish, hard-boiled eggs, and orange for breakfast, and Mary and Hannah ate them in their room, Hannah feeling the optimism of going somewhere, Mary feeling the relief of having left. The Chase girls were always happiest in those brief moments of in-between, when neither of them was sacrificing, neither of them being sacrificed."

Dates read: September 6-9, 2017

Rating: 2/10

To be honest, I was not very excited about my sister when she arrived. I'd been perfectly happy as an only child, thank you very much. When she was about 6 weeks old (I was 4 and a half), my mom caught me carrying my sister towards the kitchen. She asked me what I was doing, so I told her that I was throwing her away because all she did was cry. When I was informed that I couldn't actually toss her in the trash, I tried to bargain down to returning her to the hospital. No dice. We fought like crazy growing up, but now that we're all grown up, she's someone I love and cherish. Thanks for not letting me bin her, Mom.

The titular sisters of Sarah Healy's The Sisters Chase couldn't be more different. Fourteen years older, Mary has dark coloring and a corresponding dark personality...she's ruthlessly pragmatic, manipulative, proud and ungovernable. Hannah, however, is blonde and takes after the nursery rhyme in that she seems to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Their single mother owns and runs a hotel in a seaside town on the East Coast and has a night shift at a nearby casino to keep their family going during the off-season. But when she's killed in a car crash, Mary and Hannah find themselves on their own. Back taxes on the hotel and no life insurance mean that they're broke, and so Mary takes Hannah and leaves the only home they've ever known to try to take care of her.

After Mary successfully prises some seed money from wealthy relatives in Florida, she and Hannah (who Mary calls "Bunny") connect with an old acquaintance of hers in New England. Things seem stable, and even like they might end up happy, but Mary's past shows up to bite them and they leave. As Hannah grows up, they continue to travel, Mary refusing to put roots down anywhere for too long, until they wind up in California. Hannah, now on the cusp of her teenage years, wants desperately to stay in one place and so several months pass, but the idyll can't last and eventually tragedy strikes.

All of that is super vague, I know, because I do try to avoid spoilers and this book is very much "about" its plot and its mysteries. You'll notice above that I've rated this book quite poorly, and part of that is that is just because the kind of book that it is: plot-over-character is not my cup of tea, but this was a book club pick after a couple months of heavier, slower material so I gave it a shot. Turns out, I still don't get a lot out of this style of novel, and that's okay. Not every book is for every person, and my ratings are intended to be a reflection, at least in part, of my own experience of reading the book and the enjoyment I got out of it. But my ratings are also informed by my opinion of the quality of the book and how well it did what it was trying to do, and this is where The Sisters Chase really took a nosedive.

One of the reasons I tend to be personally pro-spoiler is that I feel like if "the twists" are all you have, you don't have a story. The Sisters Chase indulges heavily in one of the ways I find most irritating of shielding "the twists" deliberately hides information known to the characters from the reader. It's not that this can't be done well (the way Gone Girl "hides" that Nick Dunne's mysterious calls are actually from his mistress because he's a bad husband, not from a conspirator because he's a murderer, for example), it's that this book doesn't do them well. I guessed the big twist long in advance and I'm awful at guessing the twist. And I had a huge issue with characterization, too. The book actually has very few characters it spends any significant amount of time with (primarily Mary and Hannah), so should be able to round them out more fully. Instead, both the girls are flat. Mary is the kind of "she's beautiful...but wild" stereotype I've always found deeply irritating, and Hannah is so milquetoast that she's barely there. I've always thought that the three most important elements of a novel are plot, character, and writing, and a book needs two of three better than average to be good, and all three to be truly great. This book was not successful, for me, in any of those areas. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog you try to rate books? If you do, are your rankings purely objective or is there subjectivity there too?

One year ago, I was reading: Sophia of Silicon Valley (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Moonglow

Three years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things That Make Me Pick Up a Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about things that make a book jump out and say "pick me!" when we're browsing, so here are ten things that help a book find its way into my hands.

Royalty: I'm a sucker for anyone with a crown, both in fiction and nonfiction.

Sisters: As a sister myself, I'm always ready for books about the relationships between them!

Friends Over Time: I love a book that follows a group of friends over time as they grow and change and their bonds get weaker and stronger.

Based on Folklore: I love folk and fairy tales, so if I find out a book is based on myth/legend, I'm intrigued!

True Crime: I started with Ann Rule anthologies in high school, and I've still got a weak spot for a book telling me about the investigation of a crime.

A Historical Event: Either fictional or real, I enjoy reading accounts of major parts of history that give me more context or a new perspective for understanding.

Trusted Author: If I've read and liked work from a writer before, I'm much more likely to pick up something else by them, either a new one or a backlist selection.

Connection To A Place I Love/Have Lived In: If a book is about Michigan, Tuscaloosa, Reno, Florence...I'm automatically curious to see how it's depicted.

Coming-of-Age: Even though I'm well on my way to my mid-30s, books about teenagers growing up still get me right in the feels.

Boarding School: Either high school or dorm life in college, a group of inevitably very different people thrown into a tightly packed living arrangement makes for the kind of drama I usually like reading about!

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: March 2019

It's the end of March! This year is somehow both dragging and flying. The busy season at work continues and thankfully the weather has cleared up since last at least I'm not worried about sliding off the side of a bridge while I'm commuting!

In Books...
  • Going Clear: I'd seen the documentary that got made from this a few years back when it came out and found it really interesting, so no surprise that the source material was also compelling. It explores Scientology through its beginnings as the brainchild of L. Ron Hubbard through the current domineering leadership of David Miscavige and is critical without being gratuitous. Very readable nonfiction.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: I still haven't seen the movie, but was really excited when this was selected as our book club read for the month because I've heard great things. This book is short, but it's a beautifully told and heartbreaking tale of love and family and injustice with vivid, powerful characters. 
  • Man's Search for Meaning: This slim volume, recounting the author's experiences in a concentration camp and the "logotherapy" he developed beforehand and put into practice to help him deal with what happened. Basically, it's the process of finding a purpose to motivate one's life, through both its normal course and tragedy. It really gave me a lot to think about.
  • The Club: Another short book, this tells the story of Hans, who's recruited as a teenager by his only surviving relative to infiltrate an exclusive social club at Cambridge to help solve an unspecified crime. It doesn't go anyplace especially surprising, but it's entertaining enough.
  • The Stranger: Albert Camus' classic was short in length but rich in food for thought. I didn't especially enjoy reading it, though, and wonder if part of that was the translation I read, which was apparently meant to be Hemingway-esque...and I don't care for Hemingway's writing style. 
  • Inside Edge: This book about figure skating is about 25 years old, which means that it's "out of date" in terms of the personalties it profiles (I hadn't even thought about Nicole Bobek in a loooong time), but also in terms of the casual homophobia that is all over it. I don't think it's anything more than a product of its time, but the bigger sin is that it's just...not very good.
  • The Rules of Attraction: I wouldn't say that I liked this book about three college students struggling to find meaning among the sex and drugs that take up much of their senior year at a liberal arts school, but I honestly thought I would kind of hate it and I didn't do that either. 

In Life...

  • Halfway through session: Technically we're a little less than halfway through (it doesn't end until June 3), but close enough! I've been more active than I was last session, which has been awesome and I'm learning a bunch, but it's also been super busy! 

One Thing:

With Worlds now in the rearview, the figure skating season of 18-19 is over! I love watching figure skating and for me, the NBC Sports Gold figure skating subscription has been totally worth it. There's no commentary (which at first bummed me out but I've come to quite like it), and you get to see every single skater and not just the Americans and/or favorites. From Worlds, I particularly enjoyed Jason Brown's short program, Nathan Chen's free skate, and Evgenia Medvedeva's fight to earn the bronze!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book 174: Boys And Girls Together

"But there was, because over in the far corner a man was sitting, a lone man, and for just a moment he looked at Aaron, and Aaron saw the look and he saw what it meant. The man in the corner knew; you could fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you couldn’t fool the man in the corner."

Dates read: August 31- September 6, 2017

Rating: 3/10

I took my first trip to New York City in high school. I did a little bit of theater stuff, and the teacher who headed it up did an annual trip to go see a bunch of Broadway shows during Spring Break. I begged my mom to send me and she did, and I had a blast. I saw Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in The Producers, and Mary Louise Parker in Proof. I also got my first taste of the big city without parental supervision...we were chaperoned, of course but we had free time to go explore a little and it was so fun. I've been back several times, and while I've never had the personal desire to live there full-time, I totally understand why some people fall in love with it.

William Goldman's Boys and Girls Together tells the story of five different young people who all end up in the Big Apple, and whose lives come to intersect. This is a novel that focuses very intensely on its characters, and so we get not just the story of the principals, but their parents as well. Wannabe writer Aaron is the son of a New Jersey lawyer and his Southern bride, who is his father's delight until his untimely death of a heart attack, and winds up being the afterthought to his mother's favorite, his lovely but impetuous older sister. Aaron is cruel and proud, and when he's drafted into the military, crosses paths with Branch. Branch is the offspring of an Ohio mother who managed to trap his mostly-uninterested father into marriage and dominated him until he fled into the military and died while fighting overseas. Branch is mostly weak-spirited and lives under his mother's thumb until he flees to New York to try to become a producer. There's he's reunited with his college friend Walt, who directed plays and goes to the city to try his hand at it there rather than be trapped in the lucrative business his father built up and maintained both before and after Walt's mother died, having ignored her breast cancer until it was too late in an attempt to punish her husband for his infidelities.

These three all converge around a play, and their lead actors are Jenny and Rudy. Jenny is a tall, curvy girl from Wisconsin whose body seems to create most of her problems: she's nearly raped as a preteen by a stranger, and then is nearly raped again by her only friend in high school, who becomes her steady boyfriend. She follows him to New York and ends up working at a publishing firm, where she becomes embroiled in an affair with her boss. Rudy's story is the most focused on his parents of all: the two are both young, confident, and good-looking kids when they meet in Chicago and try to out-stubborn each other, which they continue into marriage and parenthood. Rudy is a sweet-natured and shy child who loses the only person in his life who really cares about him when his grandfather dies, and then becomes a pawn in his parents' struggles. He has no real ambition to act, but when Branch spots him, he's convinced.

I love a character-driven novel, so I expected to love this. Starting with the stories of the parents is an interesting device, and one I appreciated because it enriched the environment into which these personalities were planted and grew. The only problem: no one is actually interesting or compelling. Aaron is a raging asshole, Branch is pathetic, Walt's boring, Jenny's affair cycles through the same will-he-or-won't-he-leave-his-wife conflict so many times that I literally rolled my eyes at my Kindle, and Rudy's cardboard martyrism (apparently he literally can't say no to a direct request?) makes it hard to get invested in him. The only part of the book I really enjoyed reading was about the relationship between Rudy and his grandfather, who is the only person who views him as something more than an object. Goldman also wrote The Princess Bride, and it's easy to see the seeds of the grandpa-grandson relationship he depicted there in that portion of the book.

I usually try to think of an audience that might potentially like a book, even if I didn't. Every book isn't for everyone, of course. But it's hard to think of a particular group of people that might like this's definitely character-over-plot, but like I said, I didn't find the characters worth spending the time with (and this is a long book, over 700 pages, so there's lots of time). Apparently it had some notoriety when it came out because two of the main characters are gay, but neither of them is depicted particularly well, so I wouldn't say it's a good LGBT read either. Goldman is clearly a talented writer, based on his other work, and even in this one he has a knack for dialogue, but I can't in good faith recommend that anyone read this work.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been to New York?

One year ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

Three years ago, I was reading: Yes Please

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Favorite Non-Fiction Audiobooks

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is an audio freebie, so I've decided to highlight some of the great audiobooks I've listened to recently. Nonfiction is my favorite kind of book to do via audio, so those are what I've decided to focus on!

The Future is History: Masha Gessen takes a critical look at the renewed authoritarian rule of Russia, from the Soviet Union to Putin's control of the state, through the lens of several young people coming of age post-perestroika.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: I found myself wishing that McNamara had been able to finish out her book about the Golden State Killer herself, because the portions she wrote were the strongest, and I also wish she'd lived to see him caught.

Dream More: Dolly Parton is a saint and we can all use her in our lives.

Chasing Hillary: Amy Chozick's account of working as part of the embedded press on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign (as well as her 2012 primary race) has actually probably been my favorite book about that election so far. I found it illuminating and interesting, and appreciated the look at what it's like to be a reporter on the campaign.

We're Going to Need More Wine: I thought Gabrielle Union's memoir would be pleasant but forgettable but it's actually really wonderful. She balances being serious and thoughtful with dishing fun anecdotes about filming Bring It On and it's great.

So You Want to Talk About Race: As a certified honky, I found this book to be a great primer on how one can talk about race without blundering into being offensive. Basically, be thoughtful and considerate.

A Distant Mirror: Historian Barbara Tuchman looks back at the life of a Frenchman in the 14th century to draw parallels with modern tumultuousness and it's super interesting!

Becoming: This is an excellent book and listening to Michelle tell it in your ears is fantastic. She's a really talented narrator!

Heartland: Sarah Smarsh uses her own life and that of her parents to look at rural poverty in America and how difficult it can be to break out of it.

The Wicked Boy: I thought this was going to be an examination of child murderers in Victorian times but though it touched on that a little, it was mostly an examination of one particular adolescent, who killed his own mother, and his trial and life afterwards. It was fascinating!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book 173: The Year of Magical Thinking

"If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die? The clear light of day tells me that I did not allow John to die, that I did not have that power, but do I believe that? Does he?"

Dates read: August 29-31, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award, The New York Times bestseller

I'm very lucky in many respects, and one of them is this: my entire nuclear family is more or less healthy and very much alive. My parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, my husband...I've never experienced that kind of loss. My mom had lost both of her parents by the time she was my age, which just blows my mind. Even now, I don't feel prepared to lose either of my parents, much less both of them. I know this will change, and one day I'll find myself having to say goodbye to people that I love dearly, but for now I'm grateful.

I was reminded of just how lucky I am when I read Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she recounts an incredibly terrible time: while their adult daughter Quintana is fighting for her life in the hospital, a normal-seeming winter cold somehow having progressed into pneumonia, septic shock, and coma, Joan and her husband John come home, and while she's getting things ready for dinner, he suddenly keels over, dead after a massive heart attack. She doesn't know that right at the moment it happens, of course. All she knows is that he falls, is non-responsive, she calls an ambulance, they try to resuscitate him, and then off to the ER. She finds out shortly after she arrives that he's gone. Forty years of marriage, and then he's gone just like that.

But she can't just focus dealing with the loss of her constant companion for decades (as professional writers, they both worked from home). Her daughter is still comatose, and Joan has to break the news to her not once but twice (she forgets when she falls back into a coma after being told the first time). Quintana does seem to recover, the funeral happens, and she flies back to California with her own husband...only to collapse again on her way out of the airport. Joan leaves her NYC apartment to head to LA to be there for her daughter, and is constantly buffeted by memories of her family's early, happy years in the area. Eventually Quintana recovers again, and Joan returns home, wrapping up her book a year and a day after her husband's death.

On the surface, there's very little in Joan Didion's life that I can relate to: she and her husband lived at a level of financial security where they made regular trips to Paris (their quibbling over what turned out to be their last trip, taken at John's insistence because he had a vague feeling that it might be his last chance is something Joan relates), they lived in LA for a time to write screenplays, they take daily walks in Central Park. And like I've said, I've never lived through the kind of awful experiences she recounts in this book. But she's an extremely talented writer, so her words spoke to me and tugged at my heart. She doesn't just tell you that grief takes you around in circles, she has motifs in her writing that pop up over and over again, taking you on that journey with her. You feel her agony when she thinks she's plotted her route around LA when she's there with Quintana to avoid anything that would remind her of when her husband was alive but she finds that she didn't plan carefully enough and the fragile scar tissue she's built up is battered by waves of memory.

It feels odd to say that I "enjoyed" reading a memoir about profound grief. But I found it incredibly compelling and difficult to put down even though it was hard to read. She really takes the reader on a journey with her. Knowing that even though she was alive at the end of the book, Quintana died shortly thereafter, made its impact even greater. I'd never read any of Didion's work before, but I picked up one of her novels and two of her essay collections after reading this book, because I wanted to read more of her writing. I'd recommend this book to anyone that feels like picking it up.

Tell me, blog you have to relate to a memoirist's experiences to get into their book?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

Three years ago, I was reading: Private Citizens

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the next books up on our list! These are the next ten books I'm planning to read (book club selections will be added but I don't know what they are yet!).

Inside Edge: I love figure skating and have watched it ever since I was a kid, so even though this book is getting up there in years I'm still looking forward to reading it!

The Rules of Attraction: I honestly don't know that I think I'll like Bret Easton Ellis, but I want to try his work.

All The President's Men: This is a classic that I can't believe I haven't read yet, especially since I work in politics!

The Last Romantics: This came out last month and I won an early reviewer's gotten rave reviews from some of my trusted recommenders!

Lilah: Revisiting The Red Tent on audio last year reminded me how I much I enjoyed that work of biblical fiction, so I'm hoping this one is also good (though it's obviously from a different author).

The Fever: I've read one of Megan Abbott's midcentury noirs and enjoyed it, but I've heard her contemporary work is really great as well.

The Lowland: I love Jhumpa Lahiri's writing.

Jackaby: This is one of the Amazon publishing books that I've seen get generally very positive reviews...lots of people seem to really like the whole series!

First: Sandra Day O'Connor is a total role model, so this new release biography of her is right up my alley.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: I know Junot Diaz is problematic, but I've heard such great things about this book for so long that I do want to read it for myself.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book 172: The Idiot

"I wrote her phone number on my hand, while she wrote mine in her daily planner. Already I was the impetuous one — the one who cared less about personal safety and tradition, while Svetlana was the one who subscribed to rules and inherited systems, and wrote things in the designated spaces. Already we were comparing to see whose way of doing things was better. But it wasn't a competition so much as an experiment, because neither of us was capable of acting differently, and each viewed the other with an admiration that was inseparable from pity."

Dates read: August 23-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Sometimes I feel like I'm learning in reverse: when I was a teenager, I was sure I know pretty much everything, and the older I get, the less I feel certain of. I think many other teenagers are the same least, the ones I've known. Sometimes I almost miss that blazing moral clarity, the certainty that I was right and someone else was wrong. But letting it go (for the most part) has made me an easier person to get along with, and a better one overall.

Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, has the opposite problem. She's a freshman at Harvard, and she's overwhelmed by all she doesn't know. She doesn't know where her life is going, really, she doesn't know what classes she wants to take, she's not sure how to help the students she's been assigned as a part of her volunteer work doing adult education. She can't even figure out how to fall asleep regularly, adding exhaustion on top of her confusion. She kind of drifts along, and one of the places she drifts is into a beginner Russian class, where she meets two people that change her life.

One is Svetlana, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, who decides she's going to become Selin's friend and does so with aplomb, quickly becoming the dominant force in Selin's social life. The other is Ivan, a senior from Hungary, who becomes Selin's conversation partner for Russian class, and correspondence partner over the then-new medium of email outside of class in English. Their conversation gradually turns into them spending time together, and Selin develops an intense crush on him. Even after she learns he has a girlfriend (and while he's giving her very mixed signals), she takes up an opportunity to teach English in Hungary over the summer in the hopes of getting to spend time with him.

This book, like last week's Stoner, has a very passive central figure. Selin's unsureness about virtually everything means that she mostly reacts to the world around her instead of being proactive. This makes her simultaneously very relatable (who hasn't felt paralyzed with indecision, especially in a new situation?) and quite frustrating. If you've ever lived through the experience of having feelings for someone who wasn't quite sure what they wanted, you find yourself wanting to reach through the pages and shake her by the shoulders while telling her that this isn't going to end well. But you also know there's no way to learn that lesson except living through it, because you probably ignored the person who shook you by the shoulders and tried to warn you off.

Batuman is an incredible writer...I highlighted so many things on my Kindle that she wrote that just seemed to perfectly capture the essence of being young and lost and desperately self-conscious. And she creates a very real, sympathetic-even-as-she's-irritating character in Selin. The plot structure, though, could have used some work. While she's at school, the book meanders along slowly and had a hard time holding my interest despite the lovely prose. Once she gets to Hungary, however, and starts interacting with host families and students, the book gets much livelier and there were several moments that were actually laugh-out-loud funny. It's not that I didn't enjoy the portion of the book that takes place at Harvard, but I enjoyed the last quarter-or-so so much more. I wish Batuman had figured out a way to disperse some of that levity more equally throughout the book, because it's like 3/4 a good book and 1/4 a really good book. As is, though, I'd recommend this book, to recent-ish college grads in particular (I feel like if I were too much older than I am now, I'd be too annoyed by Selin to really enjoy what it had to offer).

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever have one of those flirtations with mixed signals?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Green Girl

Three years ago, I was reading: To Die For

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Standalone Books That Need a Sequel

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I personally am not big into series...I do read them, but they're more an exception than a rule. That being said, there are definitely books that I put down and wish I had the next entry waiting to pick up to see what becomes of these characters! Here are ten books I'd read a sequel to.

Pride and Prejudice: I know modern authors have done spins on this idea, what happens to Lizzy and Darcy, but I wonder what Austen herself would have done with them and how she would have kept their spark alive as a married couple.

Gone Girl: I want to hear from the child Amy's carrying at the end of the book...did his/her parents stay together long-term? What would it be like to grow up with those people raising you? I feel like there's a compelling story to be told there.

The Bell Jar: We know that Esther survives, goes on to (presumably) get married and have a child. How did that come to be? Like Sylvia Plath, does Esther continue to struggle?

Speak: I first read this book nearly two decades ago as a high school freshman and it's never left me. I'm still curious how Melinda grows up and how her high school experience continues to impact her.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Don't get me wrong, I love the coming-of-age aspect of this book, but I want to know what becomes of Francie Nolan, how she deals with moving away from Brooklyn, and what she makes of her life.

Matilda: I hope it all ends happily, but I do wonder how it plays out for Matilda and Miss Honey.

Catherine Called Birdy: The book ends on a hopeful note for high-spirited Catherine, but I don't think she'd easily adjust to life as a wife and mother, so I can only imagine there would be hilarity to ensue!

The Namesake: The tale of Gogol coming into his own is powerful, but I do find myself wondering what kind of husband and father (if he becomes a husband and father at all) he would be to his own children.

Let Me In: I mean, honestly, this book was super duper dark and I didn't want it to be any longer than it was, but I am interested in how Eli and Oskar survive together in the world.

The Lords of Discipline: I loved Will McLean and wish we would have gotten a glimpse at his adult life after college.