Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Auto-Buy Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about authors who you hear are coming out with a new book and it gets pretty much instantly added to your to-buy list. Not all of these authors are flawless, and they've written some stuff that I didn't care for in most cases, but I'm usually excited enough about how good they have the capacity to be that I'm willing to give them a chance straight away.

Margaret Atwood: I love her ability to build characters while weaving in powerful themes and compelling plots, and her work always gives me something to think about.

Neil Gaiman: His humor and sheer storytelling ability mean I'm always interested in what he writes.

Michael Chabon: He knows how to put together a family epic like no one else.

Kazuo Ishiguro: He's got a way of drawing you into a story and then just amping up the quiet tragedy bit by bit until you're devastated.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Her writing is always elegant without sacrificing the ability to hit an emotional knockout punch.

Alison Weir: I love royal histories, and that's what she does, using facts to create compelling narratives.

John U Bacon: I'm obsessed with Michigan football, and so is he.

Mary Roach: Her books aren't big serious stuff, but they're always interesting and bursting with humor and curiosity.

Lawrence Wright: He takes big, wide-ranging subjects and manages to put them into a narrative that pulls you along and helps you understand without feeling pedantic.

Jeffrey Toobin: When it comes to the legal and political systems, Toobin has the kind of panache and analysis I find super compelling.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Book 189: A Vast Conspiracy

"Ironically, with respect to Starr, the Democrats fell into the same trap as the Republicans did throughout the Clinton years. The problem with Starr was not that he was a lawbreaker, as the questioners consistently tried to imply, but rather that he lacked judgment and reason when it came to this case. Neither Starr nor Clinton was a criminal. The errors of both Starr and his critics illustrated the perils of a world where the legal system had taken over the political system. It was never enough to prove that your adversaries were mistaken; you had to prove that they were evil as well."

Dates read: November 11-17, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

During the 2016 election, one of the most persistent themes seemed to be the constant air of scandal that floats around the Clintons, Bill and Hillary alike. Maybe that's one of the reasons she had such a hard time shaking the email stuff...there's always the assumption that they're somehow being shady, and that this little whiff of smoke MUST portend a fire somewhere. We all remember his fling with his intern, but there's also his other rumored dalliances, and then Vince Foster, and Whitewater, and it seems to go on and on. At a certain point, they're tied to so much that it feels like something surely has to be going on.

I remember the impeachment scandal, but I was like 10 or 12 at the time, so while I understood that the President had cheated on his wife and lied about it and that's why he was in trouble, I didn't really get it. After Hilary's 2016 loss, I was curious about the backstory that I "knew" but didn't actually know, so I picked up A Vast Conspiracy, Jeffrey Toobin's book on the Clintons in the 90s. It mostly focuses on the impeachment, but also spends a lot of time with Paula Jones' lawsuit and dips into the other scandals enough to give them context. After I read it, I felt much more informed...not just about the actual events of the impeachment, but about the history of the Clintons and how they've gotten to have that air of perpetual shadiness.

On one level, Toobin tells a straightforward story: a politician with a raging libido really likes getting blow jobs from women who are not his wife. When he's Governor of Arkansas, he has an encounter of some kind with a young woman named Paula, who originally seems unperturbed but eventually launches a lawsuit against him after he becomes president. While president, a young intern develops a crush and starts flirting with him and he decides to pursue her. His inability to either keep it in his pants or admit to his wife what he's been up to leads him to be untruthful when he shouldn't have been, and because of the profound dislike and determination of a special prosecutor, he comes very very close to losing his presidency. It's a compelling story, with lots of morally ambiguous parties to project either heroism or villainy onto. I understand why it transfixed the country for months when it happened.

But Toobin also ties it in to a larger story, in which the legal system has become part and parcel of the political arena. The technique was first used by liberal interests to find the victories through the judiciary that they struggled to achieve through the legislature, but as time passed, conservatives picked it up, too, and this is perfectly illustrated by the hounding of the Clintons via the courts. It's an interesting perspective, and even though I'm well-versed in both arenas I don't know that I'd made the explicit connection before. And while I ultimately think the courts do and should have a proper role in protecting and enforcing our legal rights and responsibilities, it is a double-edged sword. Judicial processes don't always lead to the results one thinks they ought to.

As always from Toobin, this is well-written and more interested with delving into the facts to take much of a side. That's not to say it's totally without a side...it does tend to favor Clinton, particularly over Starr and the scheming Joneses, but it doesn't shy away from digging into his flaws either. It seems like there's something about the Clintons that just absolutely enrages people and drives them to try to destroy them as hard as they can...which explains why there's been so much mud thrown their way, and even though relatively little of it has ever hit a mark, with that much dirt in the air everything looks dingy.

One year ago, I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Three years ago, I was reading: Under The Tuscan Sun

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Teenage Girls

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a character freebie, and I thought quite a bit about what kind of character I wanted to talk about. I decided to go for one of the types of people the world takes the least seriously: teenage girls. As a culture, we dismiss them and the things they find important. But they make some of the best bookish heroes you could ask for!

Vasilisa Petrovna (The Bear and the Nightingale): Vasya is brave and strong and true and vulnerable and scared and just the best.

Jessica Darling (Sloppy Firsts): Jessica's deprecation of herself and everyone else she goes to high school with are just so true to being that age.

Georgia Nicholson (Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging): She's kind of daft and boy-crazy, but she's hysterically funny.

Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Having been a nerd who loved school, obviously I've got a soft spot for those kind of girls.

Starr Carter (The Hate U Give): Starr is whip-smart and brave even through her fear and I loved reading about her.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): We all know who the real hero of this series is, right?

Lyra Belacqua (The Golden Compass): Bold as brass.

Sabriel (Sabriel): There is a type of "strong female character" which basically just means extroverted and ass-kicking and even though Sabriel is more than capable of kicking ass if she needs to, she's not that type of easy heroine and that's why she's great.

Lady Catherine (Catherine, Called Birdy): A true Sass Queen for the (Middle) Ages.

Charlotte Doyle (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle): The way we get to see Charlotte grow and change and come into her own is awesome.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Book 188: The Underground Railroad

"She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them."

Dates read: November 6-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

Does anyone in popular American culture have a more valuable public endorsement than Oprah? She spent decades as the most trusted voice of American housewives through the power of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and when she's given a person or product her imprimatur, it's often a game changer. She's the reason Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz have the careers they do (whether or not that's a good thing, I'll leave up to you). When it turned out A Million Little Pieces was made up of a million little lies, half of the outrage felt like it was because someone had had the gall to lie to Oprah. And lately, I'm sure I can't even imagine how many more women joined Weight Watchers at her urging.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of her blessings have been the authors who wrote books which she included in her book club. Her power is such than in 2016, her selection of The Underground Railroad for that book club drove Colson Whitehead and his publisher to release it two months ahead of schedule. From there, it won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and ended up on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Obviously that kind of attention had nothing to do with Our Lady Winfrey, but it probably helped the book become a #1 best-seller. Which means that a lot of people who might not have otherwise picked it up did, which is a good thing because this book bends time and history to lay out a damning case on the way America has done wrong by Black people.

Set in the antebellum South, The Underground Railroad focuses on the journey of one slave woman, Cora, towards freedom. The granddaughter of a woman who survived the Middle Passage and was enslaved in Georgia, and the daughter of a slave who ran away when she was just a child, Cora has spent much of her life as an outcast even among her own community. So she's surprised when another slave, Caesar, approaches her to run away with him to find the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's alternative history, the railroad is literal...there are stations built into the earth that spirit slaves away to the north.

Run away they do, and Cora finds herself first in South Carolina, which in this world has outlawed slavery but holds ownership of Black people itself, and then distributes them as it sees fit in service work. But they're also secretly infecting men with syphilis to study it, and sterilizing women...and then Cora finds out she's being chased by a man called Ridgeway, a slave catcher. So the next stop is North Carolina, which has abolished slavery too...out of a fear that the Black majority population of the state will rebel against their masters. It's replaced their labor with white indentured servants, and escaped slaves are publicly executed. Cora hides there for a while, but before she can devise an escape, she's caught by Ridgeway. That doesn't mean she stops fighting for her freedom, but freedom isn't an easy thing for a slave to find.

I wanted to love this. I wanted to find it a revelation. And it's good, very good actually. Whitehead's prose is both lovely and powerful. And I understand why he can't "go easy" on Cora...it reads sometimes like she's a punching bag for the universe and she barely gets room to breathe before she's knocked down again, but that's probably what it feels like to be African-American, obviously back then and to a lesser but still very real degree even now. And the characters are interesting, with Whitehead even writing one-off chapters from perspectives other than Cora's, to give us context for the people who have an impact on Cora's life and where they're coming from when they interact with her.

But I just never connected with and got emotionally invested in the novel the way I do for the books that distinguish themselves for me as "great". I cared only in a kind of distant way about Cora, and for all that the side characters were developed they mostly just faded away...when Caesar and Cora are separated relatively early in the proceedings, for instance, I never found myself missing him on the page. And while I cared about Cora and what was going to become of her, it was never in the way where I wanted to skip ahead to see how she might make it around each obstacle thrown in her path. I'm not quite sure why that was, honestly...like I said, Whitehead's writing is incredible so it's not for any lack of ability to make her more compelling on his part. It just didn't quite get there for me. Nevertheless, it's a very good and powerful book, and one that I'd recommend to just about everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

Three years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about childhood favorites. I have a bunch of teenage favorites that I already talk about all the time, so I made this list focus on books I loved more when I was a kid/pre-teen that I haven't highlighted much, if at all!

James and the Giant Peach: I loved Roald Dahl, but this story about an abused little boy who manages to escape from his wicked aunts with the assistance of a supersized stone fruit and some enormous insects was my favorite.

Julie of the Wolves: I'm not usually into "wilderness survival" type stories, but as an animal-lover, the bond that Julie developed with the wolves got me good.

The Babysitter's Club: I wonder what happened to the several dozen of these books I acquired over the years. I read SO MANY of them as a kid. The supersized specials were the BEST.

Animorphs: Oh man, another series I just absolutely devoured. I was obsessed with these books and read them over and over.

Black Star, Bright Dawn: I've maintained a lifelong interest in the Iditarod thanks to this book about a teenage girl who competes in the race that I re-read multiple times.

The Giver: I'd actually read and already loved this by the time it was assigned reading in middle school. I've never been able to make myself read the sequels because I don't want to diminish my memory of how much I adored this book.

The Egypt Game: I went through a period when I was a kid where I read everything about Ancient Egypt (fiction or otherwise) that I could get my hands on. This book was like the greatest thing ever at that point.

Redwall: I remember spending many summer days at my outdoors-oriented summer day camp hiding from counselors who wanted to make me participate in things to read these books and getting completely lost in the magical world of mice and badgers and stoats.

Charlotte's Web: The childhood tearjerker! Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte (and even Templeton) all have special places in my heart from reading this book many, many times.

Bridge to Terebithia: The other childhood tearjerker! I wonder if kids growing up today would even recognize having the freedom to just...go play in the woods for hours on end.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: June 2019

My life! I have one again! This month saw the end of legislative session and while it was a good one for me, with lots of professional growth, hot damn was it a struggle near the end. But now it is over until 2021! I'm hoping my reading pace picks up, I'm behind where I was even two years ago, the last time I went through session!

In Books...

  • Delirium: Reading this at the end of session, when my brain was exhausted, was the best possible time to do so. If I was ever going to be receptive to a young adult dystopia about a world where love is considered a deadly disease, this was it. I didn't think it was especially good, it indulged in a lot of cliches, but it held my attention and interest reasonably well.
  • Good Riddance: While the previous book was fun fluff, this was just offensively dumb fluff. The potential was there in the concept, of a woman who tosses her mother's annotated yearbook in the trash only to find a neighbor has rescued it and wants to make it into a documentary, but the execution was awful. The plot was silly, the characters were flat...a waste of time.
  • There There: I'd heard rave reviews of this book, so I was super happy when it was selected for my book club. And while Tommy Orange's writing is often breathtakingly good and he sketches vivid characters through short vignettes, I found myself frustrated with the structure. It's basically interconnected short chapters from many points of view and I wanted a more cohesive narrative for what could have been an amazing novel but was ultimately a very good one instead.
  • The Coming Plague: This book, about the impact of human behavior on the diseases that we experience, was fascinating! It also was a little too long...at over 600 pages of text in relatively small type, there was a point at which even the well-told and interesting stories about the emergence of "new" diseases like Ebola, AIDs, and Legionnaire's Disease (among many others) gets old.  
  • American Psycho: The satire of the soullessness of 80s consumer culture/Wall Street bankers is devastatingly, perfectly sharp. But this is beyond a doubt one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. Even just skimming the sex/violence I still read things that it's going to take me quite a while to get out of my head. 
  • Amsterdam: I picked this up because it had won the Booker Prize, and now that I've read it, I have no idea why it did. It's cleverly written, and amusing in the way it skewers the delusions of grandeur of two old friends who reconnect at the funeral of a woman they both once dated. But it didn't make much impact on me, and I doubt I'll remember it for more than a couple months.

In Life...
  • Session is over: My fourth time through legislative session wrapped up early in the month and it wasn't a minute too soon! I'm very much enjoying having an 8-minute walk to work instead of a 40-minute drive, going home at lunch to hang out with my husband and dog, and being home at a reasonable hour every night. Also the enormous lessening of the stress burden. And we've started playing pub trivia!

One Thing:

Like many people recently, I was sucked into and fascinated by HBO's excellent docudrama Chernobyl. If you haven't seen it, I highly, highly recommend it. And either way, I'd recommend this fascinating article about women who have moved back into the Exclusion Zone. The piece is several years old now but I find this dilemma really interesting: if you're older, and you've spent your whole life living in one place and don't want to leave it, accepting the risks of staying...should anyone be able to make you go?

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book 187: La Belle Sauvage

"The steamy, noisy kitchen was the safest place in the world, it seemed to him. Safety had never been anything to think about before; it was something you took for granted, like his mother's endless, effortless, generous food, and the fact that there would always be hot plates ready to serve it on."

Dates read: November 2-6, 2017

Rating: 8/10

I tend to think that it's the books we read as adolescents that often end up making the biggest impact on us. It's an age where we're still impressionable, but able to handle sophisticated concepts, and a book that makes the right connection with you can totally blow your mind in a way that you just don't experience much (if ever) with books you read later in life. And I've found that even if I read those books again later and objectively maybe they're not especially good, it doesn't really matter. I still love them.

One series of books that has held up spectacularly well, even from an objective standpoint, is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I recently revisited them as audiobooks and they remain just wonderful. There's always a tension I feel when a beloved book gets revisited by its author after a long time for any sort of companion piece...what if it's just not as great? So I was both excited and wary when Pullman announced a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set in the same world as the original one, and then again when I finally held a copy of the first volume, La Belle Sauvage, in my hands.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, as original heroine Lyra Belacqua is just a baby in this one. Our new protagonist is Malcolm Polstead, a relatively normal preteen boy who goes to school, helps out in his parents' pub, likes to explore on the local river in his boat, and sometimes helps out at the nunnery down the road. Two events happen in a short period of time that change his life: the first is the arrival of baby Lyra at the nunnery, and the second is an assassination he sees while boating. Both of these bring the outside world and its rapidly changing politics much closer to home, and soon even school isn't safe. And then, as an epic flood rages, Malcolm, along with Alice, the older girl who works for his parents, find themselves racing to protect Lyra from danger.

This book does a great job of introducing its world (an alternate universe England known as Brytain, which I think is the first time I've seen it given a name, but I haven't read the novellas yet) to a first-timer, as well as providing backstory on characters and situations that returning readers already know: the rise of the power of the Church, Farder Coram, althieometers, Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter. And while Malcolm is about the same age as Lyra was at the beginning of The Golden Compass, and they both go on an adventure over the course of the book, they're not especially similar characters: while Lyra was high-spirited and bold, Malcolm is quieter and more solitary. He's got a decent amount of pluck, though, and makes an engaging hero that you get emotionally invested in.

I can't really evaluate this book from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the original series yet, but because of the way that the series is structured (this book is first in time, and then the original series, and then apparently the next book in this series will be a sequel to the original series), I'm going to go ahead and recommend it as a good starting place for people who are intrigued by it. The book is appropriate for older kids, but the series eventually takes a strong theological bent which may go over the heads of less mature ones, and may prompt discussions that parents should be ready for. If I'm being perfectly honest, I didn't think this book was as strong as The Golden Compass (I think that one did a better job of world-building), it might not be a fair comparison because that's one of my favorite books of all time. That being said, this is a very good book and an engaging adventure that has me longing for the next one already!

One year ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Good German

Three years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're bringing to you our summer reading. I've always maintained that my summer reading are just books I happen to read in the summer, so these are mostly not breezy or beachy.

Amsterdam: This is a Booker Prize winner, one of the prizes that my own tastes tend to track most strongly with.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: I've never read Murakami, so this giant book is going to be a trial run. Hopefully I like his writing!

Washington Black: I'm not sure about this book club pick...it's gotten lots of praise, but "adventure story" is not something that usually does it for me.

Polite Society: I have an ARC of this Indian twist on Emma, which actually does sound like a fun summer read!

Nickel and Dimed: Systemic poverty is a buzzkill, but it's important to be educated about.

The Man in the High Castle: I like alternative histories, and I loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep when I read it in high school, so hopefully I still enjoy Phillip K Dick?

How to be Good: I really like reading Hornby novels. They're pleasant and funny and I don't have to think too hard.

Sashenka: I have fallen hard into a Russia/Soviet Union obsession lately, so an epic about a woman's life beginning before the fall of the Romanovs and continuing through the Soviet era is right up my alley.

Money Rock: This is a nonfiction look at the life of a drug dealer in North Carolina, and the broader social forces that have impacted him and his family. I get a lot out of books that talk about broader movements through looking at particular people's lives.

Marie Antoinette: Royalty!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book 186: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

"The joy made him feel like a drunken man. To teach and exhort and explain to his people—and to have them understand. That was the best of all. To speak the truth and be attended."

Dates read: October 30- November 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels

A lot of people, including myself, talk about how hard it is to make friends as adults. And it is, for lots of understandable reasons, mostly centered around only meeting new people in relatively small numbers after a certain point. But we also tend to be less open and vulnerable as we get older, and that makes it harder to make a real connection. Our old friends, we feel like we can tell them anything, and that's such an important thing to have in our lives. Everyone wants to feel understood.

Carson McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter takes place in small-town Georgia, but it could take place in a small town anywhere. Our main character is John Singer, a Deaf man who works as a silversmith (he's continually referred to as "deaf-mute", or "mute", because this book was written in 1940 and they weren't great about sensitivity training back then). At the very beginning, he's living with a fellow Deaf man, Antonopolous, as his roommate, and they speak to each other in sign language. While Singer is otherwise typical apart from his deafness, Anton clearly has more profound issues...he seems to have some sort of intellectual disability as well as health problems. After a medical episode, his brother (the local grocer) takes him to an institution to be cared for, leaving Singer in need of a new place to go.

He ends up in the boarding house run by the Kelly family, and it's here that he attracts one of what turns out to be a small but devoted group of...well, followers is the best way to describe it. Mick Kelly, the musically-inclined daughter of the not-well-off family, comes often to Singer's room to talk to him (he can read lips and will occasionally respond in writing) and listen to the radio. At the local cafe, Singer attracts the lonely owner, Biff, who has a bad marriage even before he's widowed, and Jake, a traveling labor organizer trying to inspire the locals to band together. And then he also manages to meet and attract the attention of Dr. Benedict Copeland, the only black doctor in town, whose children (including the maid for the Kelly family) have refused to follow in his footsteps. While he moves through all of these people's lives at the center of their obsession, though, he maintains his own obsession with his friend and former roommate, regularly visiting him and bringing him expensive gifts.

I'll be honest...when I first started reading this, I was concerned that it was going to be a "sad lonely people being sad and lonely" story. Unless they're particularly well-written, those types of stories don't tend to appeal to me. But what I actually found here was a beautifully realized tale of the desperate human need to connect and feel like someone understands you. Each of the people drawn to John is estranged from most social connections: Mick, because her sensitivity and love for music makes her an oddball among her family and most of her peers, Biff, because he and his wife, who he was estranged from, never had the family he craved, Jake, because he's an actual outsider to the community whose efforts to organize them only alienate them instead, and Dr. Copeland because his education and pride separate him from his children as well as his community. In John, who can only listen and doesn't talk and is kind-hearted, they find the acceptance they covet. For John, though, the only person in his life who can understand him and he can communicate with in sign is Antonopolous, and it therefore it is this bond that John prizes above all others.

It's such an insightful look into the human condition that it's hard to believe Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. We're a social species, humans. We want to be members of the group. Feeling outside of it, especially when we're teenagers like Mick, is difficult to bear. For the most part, the characters McCullers creates feel real and sympathetic...John himself is really the least plausible character, to so patiently bear the demands on his time and emotional energy that his acolytes demand from him. I found myself wondering why he didn't literally shut the door on them once in a while to get some time to recharge. This novel would be best for fans of character-driven rather than plot-driven stories, because quite little actually "happens" besides the emotional journeys of the people involved. But if you're down for a slower, quieter book, this is really very lovely.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

Three years ago, I was reading: The Song of Achilles

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is the second yearly appearance of one of my least favorite topics, most anticipated books! I read SO MUCH backlist that coming up with new releases I'm looking forward to is always a struggle but here are ten that do seem intriguing!

The Golden Hour: I've never read Beatriz Williams before, and I love stories about royalty, so this Bahamas-set book about Edward Windsor and Wallis Simpson's social circle sounds like a great way to start with her!

Gods of Jade and Shadow: There are a lot of mythology-inspired fantasy books out there (and I want to read many of them!), but this one uses Mayan mythology as a basis, which is something I haven't seen before.

The Body in Question: Two jurors begin an affair while sequestered only to discover they are on opposite sides of the verdict...this sounds like the kind of thing I'd really enjoy.

Polite Society: Emma is one of my favorite Austen works, so seeing it retold in modern India sounds right up my alley!

Hollow Kingdom: It's the end of world...this time, told from the perspective of a domesticated crow. This seems like the kind of weird I'd like!

We the Survivors: A Malaysian man commits a murder, and after he's served his prison sentence narrates the story of his life to a journalist, whose own life is very different. It does sound heavy but I like heavy every so often.

Red at the Bone: Looking at the political through the personal tends to speak to me, so this book exploring race and class over the course of one family's story sounds fantastic.

The Dutch House: A book about two siblings and their complicated relationships with each other and their childhood home seems like something I could really get into.

Royal Holiday: I don't read much romance, but this story about a mom tagging along on her daughter's trip to work with the British royal family and falling in love with a member of the royal household sounds too cute to resist!

Beautiful on the Outside: I love figure skating, so naturally I can't wait to read Adam Rippon's memoir.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book 185: The Book Thief

"Although something inside her told her that this was a crime—after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned—she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn't help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that's where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate."

Dates read: October 25-30, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Over the past several months (writing from the end of 2017), there's been no small amount of debate over what it means to be complicit. Ivanka Trump asserted that she's not complicit in her father's presidency, which she wouldn't necessarily be as a daughter, but she pretty clearly is as a senior advisor in his administration. There's a growing awareness that to be privileged in a system that's beneficial to you, whether or not you are an active architect or proponent of it, without taking action for marginalized people also flirts with the line of complicity. No one likes to feel complicit, so we try to find ways to weasel out of it, to find people more actively involved with whatever it is, point the finger at them.

One of the biggest open questions of complicity in the last century is that of the German population under the Third Reich. I suspect, like most things, it fell in some sort of bell curve...some citizens were opposed, some were supporters, and most fell somewhere in between, trying to survive by keeping their heads down. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief takes us to a small village in Germany during World War II and lets us see that spectrum play out. A young girl named Liesel and her brother are brought by their mother to foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, because their mother can no longer afford to keep them with her. On the way, though, her brother dies, and this is what brings Liesel to the attention of Death.

Death is our narrator, and when the illiterate Liesel snatches a book off the ground as her brother is buried, he (it?) dubs her "the book thief". Liesel doesn't actually steal very many books during the course of the story, but it fits well enough. For a while, as Liesel grows to know and love her rough-edged, foul-mouthed foster mother and gentle, patient foster father who teaches her to read, and makes friends with her neighbor Rudy, their little town is isolated from larger events. But the real world can't be avoided forever, and World War II sweeps over the Hubermann household, bringing a Jewish man into their basement to hide and constant danger lurking everywhere.

The villagers' attitudes toward Nazism range from passionate true believers to the Hubermanns, who resist joining the Party and hide a Jew for months. Many of their neighbors go along as far as they need to to keep out of trouble. I don't think this is a perspective we see very often, looking at the ordinary people who exist in these regimes, and so I found it interesting to read. Zusak's characterizations of everyone who populates the village are a highlight...Liesel herself is probably the least well-developed character, but Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and several of Liesel's other classmates make vivid impressions and linger in the memory even after the book is closed.

But even though this book tends to get rapturous praise, there were some places where it fell flat, too. I think the Death-as-narrator trick worked less well than it could have...it just struck me as more gimmicky than meaningful and never really developed. I think the constant interjections into the text as "explainers" by Death were overused, and I think Zusak's writing is sometimes overly focused on going for "wow" instead of letting itself flow. As a whole, though, these are minor quibbles. The book is very good, with vivid and developed characters living in a well-drawn community, and the ending has a big (and earned!) emotional impact. It's well-worth reading and I'd recommend it widely, to everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Three years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Unpopular Bookish Opinions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's time for unpopular book opinions! I'm always a little hesitant of subjects like this, because it's easy for people's feelings to be hurt when they find out something they do bothers someone else. So let me say that this are just opinions, and the book world is wide and deep and there is room for EVERYONE in it. But I can't pretend I don't have some hot takes to share.

I love audiobooks, but I don't think it's the same as reading: I don't "count" audio toward my reading totals for the year, because while it's another way to consume stories, I don't think of it as reading. It activates entirely different parts of my brain and while I am listening to an every-increasing number of them, I just don't think it's "reading".

The classics are worth reading: I feel like a lot of people automatically dismiss classics as antiquated or boring and some of them are, but reading classics over the past ten years or so has made my understanding of and appreciation for literature so much richer.

I'm skeptical of people who read only or virtually only one genre: I don't care what that genre is...YA, nonfiction, chick lit. There are incredible books written in every genre and sticking to the one place you feel the most comfortable probably means you're missing out on something that could expand your horizons.

That being said, read what makes you want to read more: Side-eye though I may, I think the "right" things to read are the things you enjoy, and that make you want to pick up the next thing!

I love the Harry Potter series, but I am ready to be done with the expanded universe: I grew up with Harry, and those books have a special place in my heart. But I wish J.K. would stop tinkering with the world and trying to add things on. It often seems reactionary to (usually valid) critique.

If your book can't survive spoilers, it's not a very good book: I feel like this about all media, but if your book hinges on the "surprise" and can't stand alone, it's a sign of serious underlying issues. A good book takes you on a journey, and there is a lot of pleasure in encountering the unexpected on that journey, but if that's taken away and it all falls apart...write better characters and a more compelling plot.

There are a lot of series that should be standalone books: I'm not a series hater, but in my experience, there are many more of them that would have benefitted from stopping after the first one than those that really did have multiple books worth of story in them. I am almost never here for books that end on cliffhangers, one of the most cherished devices of a series.

I like a spunky heroine as much as anyone, but I am a little over the trope: I am myself high-spirited, as are many women and girls. But not every heroine needs to be so, most especially when it would be very anachronistic for them to be openly so. One of the things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is thinking about how someone in a different era would have conceived of themselves and their world and "as a modern teenager" is almost never accurate.

Most sex scenes should not be written: They're much more often cringey than they are erotic and very seldom actually add anything to the narrative. If they do need to be included (and sometimes they do!), they should be brief.

It's okay to not be on the DNF train: This is about me and me only, I have NO judgment for people that stop reading books they aren't enjoying! But people who do believe in putting a book down and never picking up again get very pushy about this being the only appropriate way to organize one's reading life. I finish everything I start, no one else has to, but leave me alone and let me hate-finish things in peace.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book 184: White Fur

"Jamey adores the shooting stars of her mind, the powdery galaxy of her thoughts. Her intelligence isn't organized the same way his is. She never finishes more than a few pages of a book, but loves to talk about what she read. She thinks in wild gardens, and his thoughts are espaliered into an introduction with a thesis, then supporting paragraphs, then a conclusion."

Dates read: October 22-25, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I didn't date in high school. Not that I didn't want to, there was just no one that I was interested in that was interested in me. It wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I had my first real relationship. Sean and I dated off and on for three years. It was very dramatic in that way that relationships between 19/20 year-olds can be...we broke up, we made up, we had big screaming fights, we were attached at the hip. He's a great person, and we're still casually friendly, but we were not at all a good match and that experience was a very good life lesson that passionate drama is not usually the basis for lasting harmony.

There's something about that age, though, just barely into adulthood, where it feels like if you aren't in some sort of constant crisis and don't have that dramatic intensity, that it's not really love. In Jardine Libaire's White Fur, Elise Perez and Jamey Hyde are both young adults, but have precious little else in common. Jamey is the scion of a prominent Northeastern banking family, in his junior year at Yale and drifting aimlessly towards his predetermined future working with his father, when Elise moves in next door. A textbook example of "rough around the edges", she's just out from the housing project where her single mother raised her and is constantly wearing the white fur jacket she traded for on the Greyhound. They couldn't be more different, but they're drawn to each other and quickly find themselves in a relationship that changes their lives forever.

After they've been together a few months in New Haven, Jamey's summer internship at Sotheby's pulls them into New York City and closer to Jamey's family orbit, which proves problematic. The Hydes are furious with him for dating so far below their expectations and try to engineer a breakup by cutting off Jamey's funding, but the couple soldiers on. After an old friend resurfaces and disaster strikes, though, a final showdown between Elise and her beloved's family for his heart and soul is inevitable.

This is the kind of novel that gets described as "gritty" and "raw", which actually means there's just a lot of non-prettified sex in it. That's the basis of Elise and Jamey's relationship, both when it's just starting out and after they've fallen in love: sex and lots of it. I'm not prudish about that kind of thing, but there's a point at which it starts to feel gratuitous...and this book went soaring past it. The ease of sexual freedom without worrying about STDs, and having venues for some kinkier hijinks, is one of the few ways in which I felt like this book really took advantage of its 1980s New York City setting, which was underplayed to the extent where I forgot it was supposed to be taking place in the 80s for large portions of its duration. Which isn't necessarily problematic in and of itself (I don't need a pop culture reference every three pages), but 80s NYC seems like a setting that could have really been played into in a way that Libaire just didn't.

I found Elise and Jamey (particularly the former) to be relatively well-drawn characters, and the narrative did make me root for them as a couple. The way Jamey is manipulated by virtually everyone in his life made it understandable that he'd fall so hard for Elise because she actually sees him as a person, and I enjoyed the way that Libaire made it clear that her interest in him has no root at all in his wealth the way that everyone assumes. But there were issues for me, particularly the ending, which I just found too easy. Libaire has a gift for prose, and I'll be keeping an eye out for her future work, but this didn't quite come together for me. If you like "gritty" stories or a good twist on a star-crossed lovers tale, you'll find something to enjoy here, otherwise maybe not.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: In The Skin of a Lion

Three years ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Pulitzer Prize Winners

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books from our favorite genre. My favorite genre is probably "literary fiction", which is broad and hard to put boundaries around, so I decided to go with prize-winners, the Pulitzer Prize in particular, and talk about ten of my favorites!

Less: I'll admit my expectations were low when this was chosen for my book club. A breakup comedy about a middle-aged white dude? Surprise! It's truly a delight.

Devil in the Grove: It's one thing to read about Jim Crow in the abstract. It's another thing entirely to read this searing account of institutionalized racism in Florida.

The Looming Tower: I'll remember where I was on 9/11 for the rest of my life. This look at how it happened is so so good.

Middlesex: I love Jeffrey Eugenides, and this epic family saga stretching from Greece to Detroit and a masterpiece.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: Michael Chabon spins an absolutely incredible story about two cousins and their comic book series. Even if you're not into comics (I'm not either), don't skip this!

Beloved: Just mind-blowingly powerful.

The Color Purple: Such a testament to the power of love and joy even in an often-terrible world.

All The King's Men: This tale of the rise and fall of an idealistic politician turning corrupt is timeless.

So Big: I only thought to pick this one up because it was a Pulitzer-winner, and it turns out it won for a reason. It's wonderful!

The Age of Innocence: I thought this was going to be fussy and pretentious but it's lush and fascinating.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: May 2019

It's the end of May, and after a long and blustery winter and some fits and starts to spring, summer is upon us here in northern Nevada. And in just a few days, I will actually be able to enjoy it because my professional busy season will come to a close!

In Books...
  • Jackaby: This YA mystery is very much Doctor-Who-meets-Sherlock-with-a-touch-of-Supernatural. When the young Abigail Rook flees from her prim upbringing as a proper lady in England in search of adventure, she winds up in America in a small town called New Fiddleham, in the employ of a strange detective called R.F. Jackaby, who solves supernatural crimes. It's a very simple mystery, but it's breezy and light and enjoyable to read.
  • First: Sandra Day O'Connor has been one of my role models from the time I was a little girl, so I was super excited for and had high expectations of this biography of her. And I was let down. The book itself seems tilted to the right politically in a way that wasn't necessary, and was a little too laudatory. I wanted a more complex portrait.
  • Battleborn: I'd been meaning to read this Nevada-centric short story collection for a while, so I was excited when it was chosen for my book club. And I wasn't disappointed! Though I'm often ambivalent about short stories, there were no duds here, just a powerhouse collection of ruminations on loneliness and the failures of human connection
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: I think I didn't quite get as caught up in this novel about a  maybe-cursed Dominican family as I could have because I kept stopping to translate the Spanish and slang, but I was still very into it and impressed by it...so next time I read it (because there will be a next time, it was that good), it'll go smoother!
  • The Lives of Tao: This was a slightly cheesy sci-fi/adventure story that I picked up on a whim from the Kindle sale selection. It's easy and enjoyable enough to read, chronicling what happens when a sloppy, pudgy IT tech, Roen Tan, suddenly finds himself the host to an ancient alien called Tao who needs to whip him into shape to serve in a war between factions of the alien race, but there's nothing really remarkable here.
  • Midnight's Children: This is a masterpiece of a book and Salman Rushdie is an incredibly talented writer...but as much as I appreciated the craft of this book, I never really actually got into it. I want to learn more about the history of India and then come back and read it again, it really seems like the kind of book that needs to be read multiple times to fully appreciate!

In Life...
  • Almost done with session: By the end of the day Monday, the gavel will fall and the Legislature will adjourn. It has been an enormously busy month with lots of stress and I will be very glad to return to my commute-less existence. And, you know, sleeping.

One Thing:

When I started watching Game of Thrones when I still lived in Ann Arbor. My coworker Beverly told me how much she loved the show and invited me over to her house to watch it, I think right around the time the second season was starting, and I got into the books after that. My life has changed a lot since then, what with a cross-continental move, a career change, and getting married, so watching the finale this month felt like the end of an era. The end of the show was so bad, though, that I don't know that I'm disappointed that it's over. I AM looking forward to reading how George R.R. Martin handles the ending of the story...even if it's largely similar, his writing will almost certainly make it a more enjoyable experience!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book 183: Player Piano

"He knew with all his heart that the human situation was a frightful botch, but it was such a logical, intelligently arrived-at botch that he couldn't see how history could have possibly led anywhere else."

Dates read: October 17-22, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I graduated from law school at the wrong time. 2010 was just a few years after the recession began, and it had completed changed the landscape of legal hiring from where it had been in 2007, when I started. Not only were the biglaw firm jobs (that I never coveted) getting slashed, the kind of government jobs I'd been hoping for (I wanted to be a prosecutor) were incredibly scarce, too. I'd hoped that once I passed the bar, I'd get somewhere in my job hunt, but I spent the next six months unemployed. I sent out hundreds of cover letters and resumes and got nothing more than a handful of form letters letting me know they'd keep my information on file. This was one of the worst experiences of my life. Being without a job was awful.

A lot of that explains why I stayed so long in the job I did eventually get, which was a terrible work experience, but that's neither here nor there. What is relevant is the very real sense of usefulness that one gets from meaningful work. This concept is the key idea behind Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano. In it, he hypothesizes a world in which America, during one of the world wars, focused on automation in order to win. And it didn't stop simply at military automation...instead, virtually every aspect of American life that could be mechanized, was. A generation later, there are two classes of people: the very smartest, who become engineers and managers, and everyone else, who have the choice to either enlist in the military (which is never sent into action anymore) or unskilled labor doing public works.

Our protagonist is Dr. Paul Proteus. The son of one of the architects of the system, he's in leadership at the facility where he works, but even with his top job and satisfying marriage, he feels like something is missing. When his friend Ed blows into town at the beginning of the story, announcing that he's quit his very similar job and reflecting on the plight of the ordinary people of the world, it kicks off a series of changes within Paul. He finds himself questioning the wisdom of the world that his father helped build and he's helping perpetuate. He finds himself longing to work outdoors, with his hands, in a way where his worth is measured in his ability to do the work that will feed him. This kind of thinking is considered dangerous radicalism.

He joins Ed and some other characters in a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the machines, and ironically is ordered to infiltrate the same by his superiors as a mole shortly thereafter. He's propped up as the "head" of the organization to take advantage of his famous name as they prepare a rebellion against society as it currently exists. There's a parallel plot in which a foreign religious leader is being given a tour of the United States, meeting people and seeing how "advanced" the West has become...that this man sees the masses of the citizenry as and insists on referring to them (in his own language) as "slaves" is a point that is driven in over and over without the slightest modicum of subtlety.

And it's subtlety that's really missing here. This reminded me of some of Ayn Rand's works...not so much in terms of the ideas expressed, but in the way that the story is really kind of window dressing for the author's larger statement about the world. There's not really a lot of character development that goes on, and the plot is predictable. Vonnegut clearly wanted to draw attention to a trend he saw that was troubling to him and kind of propped up a story around that idea. Also, this was his first novel, and while some debuts bring us a writer already in command of their gifts...that's not the case here.

I actually found the novel more intriguing from the perspective of today...the results of the 2016 election and the way the opioid crisis seems to have hit the so-called Rust Belt especially hard demonstrates the real-world rage and despair that happen when people find themselves deprived of the chance to perform meaningful work. Even within my own lifetime, I've watched the way self check-out has replaced retail cashiers. I do exponentially more of my shopping on the internet than I do in stores. Automation is moving brutally forward, and it could be a much shorter time before most of life is mechanized than we think. So the book, even if it is more a statement than a story, does at least raise interesting questions. If you're a Vonnegut completist, there's merit to be found here, but for anyone else, it's very skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...has automation crept into your job?

One year ago, I was reading: The Sky Is Yours (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Three years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Released In the Last Ten Years

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're taking a look back at the past ten years and choosing our favorite books for each one! Some of these ended up being pretty hard choices!

2018: Once Upon A River- I loved this book, which was consciously meta about the power of storytelling but without losing the magic.

2017: The Bear and the Nightingale- By far, my favorite series of the past decade. Each one of the books is fantastic, and the first one especially so...I got completely immersed in the world of Russian folklore it creates!

2016: The Queen of the Night- This book is completely bonkers. Sweeping, epic, entertaining, and with the most delightfully crazy plot twists.

2015: Dead Wake- I knew like nothing about the Lusitania (besides that it had sunk) and precious little about World War 1 and got SO into this.

2014: Station Eleven- This book isn't just about a world-decimating flu and its immediate aftermath, but how humanity continues to survive even more than a decade later and even if you don't think you like post-apocalyptic fiction, you should read this.

2013: Americanah- If someone hasn't recommended that you read this book about an African couple whose immigration journeys take very different paths by now, let me be that person. If you just haven't read it yet, let me encourage you to get to it. It's amazing.

2012: Devil in the Grove- It's one thing to read about Jim Crow and police brutality during that era in the abstract, but this account of young black men in Florida falsely accused of rape in the 1950s is searing and fascinating and eye-opening.

2011: The Song of Achilles- This retelling of the story of mighty Greek warrior Achilles, in which his loyal servant Patroclus is actually his partner, has a power that lingers long after reading.

2010: The Man Without A Face- Masha Gessen's nonfiction look at Russia and its leader is relevant and completely enthralling.

2009: Wolf Hall- There are so many Tudor stories out there, it's hard to think of a fresh angle on the drama of Henry VIII's reign. But Hilary Mantel's look at it from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell manages to do just that masterfully.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book 182: Lincoln In The Bardo

"A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured.
It costs you nothing. 
Why not try?"

Dates read: October 15-17, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

As much as it's inextricably woven into our lives, sometimes I wonder what the world would be like right now if there was no social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Want to share baby photos with friends back home? You'd have to text, or email, or even just hard copy mail them. Advertising would still just be on TV, or in our mailboxes or magazines, or at the top of websites. I'm sure we'd still get those chain forwards from that one aunt, the ones that told you if you didn't forward this on to twelve people by midnight you'd never find love, or that there was a clear image of the devil in the smoke over the Twin Towers on 9/11, or those kind of things. But the ability to share low-quality information widely and quickly would be much diminished.

One area I think it would make a real difference would be in political news coverage. It's easier to cast a gauzy glow over figures that never faced the kind of constant examination that politicians today face. There was a lot of stuff going on in the White Houses of yore that even if it was known, wasn't published and dissected and scrutinized the way things are now. Like, for example, when Abraham Lincoln's 11 year-old son, Willie, died while he was in office during the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln had a breakdown, and Lincoln himself didn't cope well either. He went to the vault where his son's body was, at least once, and picked him up and held him. It was a demonstration of terrible, profound grief, and if it happened today can you imagine the tweets?

It is this situation, the heartbroken Lincoln going to see his dead son, that inspired lauded short-story writer George Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The bardo is based on the Tibetan concept of a liminal state between life and death, fairly similar to the Catholic purgatory but without the connotations of having done something "wrong", and the Lincoln in question is not Abraham but Willie himself. It is his soul that comes to the bardo, where he encounters other spirits, those who have elected to stay. They don't believe themselves quite dead...they refer to their coffins as "sick-boxes" and are sure that they'll soon recover and get back to their lives as they knew them. But they all know that children aren't supposed to linger, they're supposed to move on. And Willie is more or less ready to do so when his father appears, to hold him and talk to him, and promises to come back. So now Willie, too, wants to stay.

There are three main ghosts/spirits/souls that take on the task of trying to figure out how to inspire Willie to move on: Hans, Roger, and Everly. Hans was an older shopkeeper who remarried after the death of his first wife. He waited to consumate his second marriage until his young and lovely bride was comfortable, and after months, she's finally ready to do so...and then Hans is struck violently in the head by a wayward beam. Roger was a young gay man who managed to find love in a time when that was difficult...only to get dumped and slit his wrists in despair. As he bled, he realized how beautiful the world was and how much he wanted to live. And then there's Everly, a former reverend who lived righteously but is too afraid of heavenly judgment to go. They try everything, including communing with the President, to get Willie going where he needs to go.

This is a very odd novel. It's mostly structured like a play...dialogue is followed by a notation of the speaker's name. Then there are occasional sections where Saunders excerpts nonfiction historical sources to describe various aspects of the situation at hand: the party the Lincolns hosted at the White House the night Willie lay dying, what Lincoln actually looked like, what Willie was like, the day of the funeral. There's no traditional "narrative" at all. I'll admit that this made it a bit of a struggle to get into...I don't usually especially enjoy reading plays, and there's not a lot of information provided about what's going on and who the various characters are right off the bat. But my reluctance to put down books before I've finished them paid off here, because once I got into the flow of it, I found the back half quite strong and the ending unexpectedly powerful.

I've never read any of Saunders' short stories, but I'm excited to do so in the future because the sheer inventiveness of this novel is delightful. As someone who loves The Divine Comedy, I enjoyed his take on Dante's technique of contrapasso, giving the spirits physical manifestations matching the reason they won't leave the bardo. Although it won the Booker Prize for its release year (which was awarded the day after I finished reading it!), this is a novel destined to be divisive and one that I'd therefore hesitate recommending widely even though I personally enjoyed it. If you're looking for a straightforward form or narrative, or something more traditionally "historical fiction", this isn't for you. But if you're interested in a more unusual reading experience that challenges you to read in a different way, I'd encourage you to at least give it a try!

One year ago, I was reading: How to Love Wine (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Migraine

Three years ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Would Love To Own A First Edition Of

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is actually books that you won't let anyone touch. I'm not much for holding my books sacred (though I am pesky about getting them back...I'll actually often buy a secondhand copy of a book and just give that one if someone wants to borrow a book so that I don't have to worry), but if I had first editions of these books, I'd definitely hoard them all to myself! I'm highlighting five of my favorite books I've come to love as an adult, as well as five that meant a lot to me while I was a kid.

The Virgin Suicides: I love this book so much. I do have a signed copy, which no one is allowed to touch, but a first edition would be something special.

Lolita: A masterpiece that inspired me to not just enjoy reading, but to really appreciate the way the English language can be used.

The Secret History: I first read this book at 18 and it is STILL my go-to recommendation if someone hasn't read it yet.

In Cold Blood: Truly one of the greatest non-fiction books I have ever read.

1984: I read this when I was a teenager and it blew my entire mind.

Wild Magic: I was a kid who often felt better connected to animals than to other people, so this book about a teen who literally has a magic bond with animal life was something that spoke to me.

Sabriel: The whole series is good, but the first book is one I've read over and over again and still enjoy every time. I feel like these would have been monster smashes if they'd been written a decade later instead of being cult hits.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The British original that started it all.

Northern Lights: The title was changed when it came overseas to America, but this series still means so much to me that I want to get my hands on the actual first edition.

Catherine, Called Birdy: As a hard-headed smart-mouthed often-disobedient daughter, Catherine was everything.

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 story...it'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 friends...do 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