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.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book 171: Stoner

"Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized how little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know."

Dates read: August 20-23, 2017

Rating: 9/10

When I was little, I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, like Sandra Day O'Connor. We're encouraged to dream big like that, to set our sights on the presidency or being a surgeon or designing skyscrapers. The reality, of course, is that most people won't achieve anything like that. We lead smaller lives. Our names never appear in headlines. The older I get, the more I realize that that's okay. It's wonderful to accomplish big things, but what actually brings me happiness is the smaller stuff: playing with my dog, getting a good-night hug and kiss from my husband, laughing with my best friend on the phone. It's the little things that actually make a life.

John Williams' Stoner chronicles a life that most would write off as mediocre. William Stoner is born to subsistence farmers in Missouri, and when he grows up, his parents send him to college to learn about agriculture. Stoner is a decent but unspectacular student until he takes a required English course and he's seized by the love of learning. He abandons his original plan to return home for the academic life, continuing his education and becoming a professor. Along the way he marries Edith, a lovely young woman who turns out to not be a very good wife, they have a daughter, and Stoner gets caught up in academic politics. He writes and publishes one book, and dies without much more in the way of accomplishments.

It's a "small" life: Stoner never really leaves Colombia once he gets there, and never rises to any sort of prominence. He opts out of World War I, his book never makes any waves, his marriage is a disaster (not only do they never love one another, she frequently goes out of her way to spite him and destroy any small measure of contentment he feels), his adored daughter is turned against him and grows up to become an alcoholic, and he permanently alienates the head of his department (preventing any sort of advancement) when he refuses to give his approval to allow a clever but shallow student to progress towards a doctorate. He has one short period of true happiness, an affair with a graduate student, but it doesn't last. He dies in pain, separated from those he loves.

It sounds like a massive downer. It should be a massive downer. But Williams' writing, particularly his characterization of Stoner, creates a portrait that's melancholic but in a way that's poignant rather than outright sad. Stoner has the stoicism that one might expect from a boy born to taciturn farmers...when you grow up expecting to eke a living out of the soil from which your parents struggled to do the same, you don't expect greatness or wild happiness from life. Fundamentally decent and essentially passive, Stoner accepts most of what his life brings with grace. Even his biggest fight, his determination to fail the unworthy student, is more of a refusal to back down from doing what he genuinely believes he should do than an active campaign against the student in question. Stoner is a very rare example of a literary protagonist who is almost entirely reactive rather than proactive.

It's Williams' beautiful characterization of Stoner that makes the novel's one significant flaw (for me, anyways, you might have more) so glaring: Edith is so one-dimensionally villainous. She's given some sympathy at the beginning, when she's no more prepared for the realities of marriage than her young husband. But she gradually progresses to be a vindictive antagonist without any real indication given as to why. When every other character is rendered with emotional honesty, it stands out that Edith is not, and as she is the most significant female character in the book, it's troubling. But not nearly enough to outweigh the merits of Stoner as a whole: it's deftly and elegantly told, in prose that's resonant without ever being flowery, and gives dignity to a kind of person and life that's usually brushed aside without much thought. I really loved this book, and completely understand why it's been rediscovered and celebrated as of late. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...what was your big dream?

One year ago, I read: The Martian (review to come)

Two years ago, I read: Housekeeping

Three years ago, I read: Dead Ever After

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Like To Switch Places With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at characters whose lives look pretty good...good enough to switch into for a bit, as long as I got to come back anyways!

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): Being Harry Potter himself is dangerous and scary. Being Hermione, though, means you get to have all the adventures and be the smartest person in the room at all times, which is the dream.

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): The lessons she learns are fairly gentle, and she's handsome, clever, and rich, which honestly seems like a great way to be.

Daine Sarrasri (Wild Magic): Growing up, her magical connection with animals was something I loved and really wished I had!

Vasya Petrovna (The Bear and the Nightingale): She's brave, smart, beautiful, and magical, and one of my favorite recent series heroines.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones' Diary): Her life is honestly pretty easy even if her escapades are hilarious.

Professor Maud Bailey (Possession): She's lovely and smart and a feminist scholar and that's not a bad way to find yourself being.

Natasha Rostova (War and Peace): I will never get over what Tolstoy does with her in the end, but right up until then she's got the best, most interesting personality and journey of anyone in the book, and is one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever read.

Astrid Teo (Crazy Rich Asians): Okay, she's got romantical problems. But so does everyone and she's gorgeous and absurdly wealthy.

Cersei Lannister (A Game of Thrones): SHE'S THE WORST. But she's also beautiful, rich, powerful, and utterly (albeit wrongly) convinced of her own intelligence and rightness.

Sookie Stackhouse (Dead Until Dark): Yes, the constant unwanted intrusions of others' thoughts would be stressful, and the frequent murder concerns are a problem, but she also gets to have a bunch of love affairs with hot dudes, so...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Book 170: Mildred Pierce

"She felt wretched, wished Veda would come over to her, so she could take her in her arms and tell her about it in some way that didn't seem so shame-faced. But Veda's eyes were cold, and she didn't move. Mildred doted on her, for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery, which hinted at things superior to her own commonplace nature. But Veda doted on her father, for his grand manner and fine ways, and if he disdained gainful work, she was proud of him for it." 

Dates read: August 16-20, 2017

Rating: 6/10

One of my ongoing life projects (besides, of course, reading 500 books over the course of my 30s) is to watch all the movies that have won "major Oscars". For me, that's Picture, Director, the acting categories, documentary, and foreign language film. This is something I've been loosely trying to do for probably a decade. I've done all of the movies that are available either streaming or on DVD from Netflix for Picture, Actor, Actress, and most-but-not-all of Supporting. Less progress through Documentary and Foreign Language. It's been an interesting journey...some of the movies, even the older ones, are fantastic (I loved It Happened One Night and The Apartment). Others are not (too many to list, honestly). But seeing how the ways that stories are told both change and stay the same is fascinating.

So before I picked up James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, I'd already seen the Joan Crawford movie version. Which meant I knew the general idea of the plot, but this isn't the kind of story that's "ruined" if you know how it goes. It tells the story of the titular character, a wife and mother of two during the Depression era. Before the crash, her husband had supported his family through investment income, but is too proud to work for a living when that's no longer an option. He's decided to perk up his spirits by having an affair, and Mildred kicks him out of the house pretty much right off the bat. Desperate to keep the roof over her and her daughters' heads, she tries to figure out how to make money. Her side business selling cakes and pies isn't enough, and so even though she tries to find a white collar position, she finally has no choice but waitressing.

She's embarrassed to be forced into this service role...not just because it's hard for her personally, but because she's afraid of what her daughter Veda will think. The older of the girls, Veda is spoiled and selfish and snobby, and Mildred is completely devoted to her. Eventually, Mildred's hard work and a bit of luck lead her to open her own restaurant and attract the attentions of handsome socialite Monte, which Veda loves because his social connections open up an entire world of wealth to the now-aspiring musician. But Monte's fortunes fall, and soon he's taking Mildred's money but making no moves toward marriage. So she leaves him, but before long her relationship with Veda flounders. So Mildred and Monte renew their romance, though this leads to the ruin of everything Mildred holds dear.

The movie, to me, was in some respects more successful than the book. Some plot lines were cut and some were significantly changed to comply with the Code. In the book, Mildred's obsession with her daughter reads as almost romantic, which both explains why she clings to her so hard but honestly is also creepy. Mildred onscreen comes off as doormat-y as Joan Crawford was capable of being, but in the book she's got more moxie. Her rise also feels more organic, as it develops more slowly, and therefore all the more hard to read about as it starts to crumble underneath her. Cain created a great character in Mildred...she's clearly fundamentally good but not without flaws, with the kind of scrappiness that makes her easy to root for.

The characters around her, though, are flat: Veda's just a bitch with nothing redeeming about her, Monte's obvious trash, her business partner is totally shady. The plot hinges on Mildred's love for Veda, and although I've known of plenty of parents of brats that think they're just misunderstood geniuses, that she would so consistently overlook her daughter's harshness (especially when she's clearly capable of knowing when to push people away) strains the bounds of credulity. It's not a question of whether Mildred is going to destroy herself for her daughter's sake, but when and how. Cain's writing isn't particularly smooth or insightful, either. It's not a bad book or a waste of time, but it's not good enough that I'd affirmatively recommend it. If you like domestic dramas or want to read the source material of a story that's been adapted twice (there's also the Kate Winslet miniseries from several years back), it's worth a read. Otherwise, skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: A Leg To Stand On

Three years ago, I was reading: The Big Rewind 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Month In The Life: February 2019

Two months down, ten to go! And as always in session years, this was a very busy month...and the next few will only get busier! And it was extra exciting for another reason: in the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, I taped Jeopardy! I'll definitely have more details on when you can see me on the show, so watch this space for updates!

In Books...

  • Hausfrau: This was very trendy around the book blogging space a few years back, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. While there's definitely some quality writing here, I could not get invested in this tale about Anna, an American expat housewife living in Switzerland who's less than faithful to her Swiss husband. It's sometimes a little too on-the-nose, and I found Anna to be just completely uninteresting.
  • The Mind's Eye: This collection of case studies focuses on disorders of visual processing, and features Sacks not only as doctor but as patient in his own right (dealing with face blindness and a loss of stereoscopic vision after a bout with ocular cancer). As always, it's compellingly written, but I didn't think it quite had the zing of his best work. 
  • The Buried Giant: I've loved the other books I've read by Kazuo Ishiguro, but this one, a fantasy novel set in a Dark Ages Britain populated by ogres and pixies and dragons, didn't quite work for me. The themes of memory and forgetting and revenge are powerful and the writing is elegant, but I never really got into it. 
  • Forest Dark: This was a book club pick, and while I appreciated the skill of Nicole Krauss' telling of her parallel tales of American Jewish people searching for a purpose in Israel, this was another one I struggled to connect with, partly because the two stories were too disconnected for me. 
  • Daisy Jones and The Six: This story of a fictionalized 70s rock band, who recorded a classic album and then broke up on tour, is told like an oral history explaining how the record and the bust-up happened. I'd heard great things about Taylor Jenkins Reid before, and after devouring this book, I'll definitely be reading her other work...I totally loved this and had a hard time putting it down even at bedtime!
  • The Silkworm: This is the second in J.K. Rowling's Cormoran Strike mystery series about a private detective in London, and I thought it worked better than the first one from a plot perspective. I also appreciated that we got deeper into the emotional lives of the main characters, but mystery as a genre just doesn't really do it for me even when it's well-executed (as it is here). 
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: I'd seen the movie version of this ages ago, but had completely forgotten the plot by the time I started reading it. It's an interesting but underdeveloped (for me) take on the "special teacher" genre, about a group of girls taken under the wing of the titular Ms. Brodie, who seeks to make them in her own image...with uneven results, both for her and the girls she nurtures.  

In Life...

  • I taped Jeopardy!: Being on Jeopardy! has been a total life goal of mine for about forever. I've taken the online test several times, but this past July I got invited to audition, and then I got a call last month and taped a few weeks ago! Of course I can't tell anyone anything, but if you're curious, keep an eye out for me on April 19th to see how I do! 
  • First month of session down: As of Friday, the first four weeks will officially be over, and it's been hectic so far! Not in the least because of the nutty weather we've been having. After a beginning of winter that didn't see all that much in terms of precipitation, we've had SO. MUCH. SNOW, which is zero fun when you've got a 40 minute commute through the foothills. 

One Thing:

I'm not usually one to be drawn to a book by its cover...most of my choices of what to read are based on recommendations or going back to writers whose work I've loved before. But I'm not immune to the appeal of a catchy cover, and this article about cover design and the way it's been impacted by mobile browsing and #bookstagram was super interesting!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Places Mentioned In Books That I’d Like to Visit

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about places in books that we'd like to visit. We live in a wide world and there's always more to see of it, so here's where books have me intrigued to go to!

Hawaii (The Descendants): This novel about a family dealing with loss as the father is also dealing with a court case about land ownership is deeply rooted in its Hawaiian setting and made it sound just incredibly lovely.

The Tuscan countryside (Under the Tuscan Sun): I've been to Florence, and it's gorgeous, but this book really made me want to visit the rural areas in Tuscany!

Athens (Outline): Cusk doesn't make the city sound all that fantastic in the summer heat, but she does make the ocean sound amazing.

Morocco (Less): Less' trip through the country may be ill-starred, but the beauty of the desert at night is vivid in Greer's rendering.

Puget Sound (The Highest Tide): I didn't love this book, but it did make the Puget Sound tidewaters sound just magical beautiful.

Northern Beaches (Big Little Lies): The contrast of the idyllic-sounding setting against the domestic turbulence of its residents is kind of the point, but also the beachy parts sound gorgeous.

Cambridgeshire (Rebecca): Manderly the house isn't real, but the area of England where it's supposed to be is and I want to see it (and the homes that inspired Manderly) for myself.

Crimea (The Romanov Empress): It's supposed to be a lovely area, and the way it's depicted in this book as a place for rest and relaxation makes it seem even more appealing.

Delft (Girl With A Pearl Earring): The Netherlands seem like a cool place to visit, and the way this city is described in this book intrigued me!

Swedish islands (The Fly Trap): This memoir of a man who studies flies on a remote Swedish island makes that setting sound actually pretty interesting, even though it's not someplace I'd ever really thought about before.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Book 169: Charity Girl

"The matron and her cornering. Barred windows. But all these things, it hits her, she can bear, has been bearing; these things every patient here must bear. And that's what's so awful: that they take it, that they can, that it's so easy to lose the fighting edge."

Dates read: August 13-16, 2017

Rating: 4/10

The process for how textbooks get developed is fascinating. Especially for K-12 public school texts in the United States. The information contained in what's really just a handful of books makes up the knowledge base for what the majority of students end up learning. Large buyers can exert significant influence, given that companies want to market their products to as wide a base as possible. So you end up with books that shy away from controversy, meaning that when you learn about "Manifest Destiny", you read about it as triumphant white people making their way from sea to shining sea with just side notes about the devastating effects that the migration had on Native American communities. You have to actively seek out information that runs contrary to the official version.

Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl explores one such "hidden" aspect of history. His novel follows Freida, a teenager who flees from her Russian Jewish immigrant mother after her father dies and she's about to be sold (literally) in marriage to a much older man she barely knows. She goes to Boston, where she gets a job in a department store and makes friends with her coworkers. She meets Felix, a dashing young soldier who sends her heart a-flutter...but leaves her with syphilis before he reports for training to head overseas to fight in World War I. She's tracked down by the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps, and even though she tries to get away, she's eventually picked up and sent to a reform facility.

She's committed no crime, but neither she or the other girls she's detained with (some prostitutes, some, like Freida, "charity girls" who don't sell their bodies but have offered their company to men who take them out) are sophisticated enough players to work the system. While there, the girls are treated for their STDs (this is the pre-antibiotic era, so those treatments are on the harsh side), as well as proselytized to about leaving behind their "scandalous" ways. There is a social worker who offers her help to Freida, and she never loses hope that Felix does care for her and will effectuate her release. She does eventually leave the home, but I'll leave the how for anyone who wants to read to discover.

Let's start with the good things about this book. First of all, it introduced me to a piece of American history I'd never heard of. That the military members who were as often as not the source of the diseases the girls had were able to get treatment and move on with their lives while the women were subjected to indefinite detention (sometimes followed by criminal prosecution), honestly, not all that surprising, unfortunately. But it was definitely something entirely new to me, and I'm glad I read it and found out more. I actually thought Lowenthal did a fairly good job with Freida's characterization (she's kind of wishy-washy and prone to flights of fantasy, but she's a 17 year-old girl who was sheltered for most of her life), and I appreciated that he surrounded her with a relatively diverse cast of characters.

But it wasn't really a very good book at the end of the day. Frieda might have been a well-drawn character, but as a protagonist, she was more irritating than not. The other girls she lived with might have been diverse, but they were all pretty flat. As soon as you find out than one of them is pregnant, it's obvious that there's going to be a botched abortion, because along with the helpful social worker turning out to be a predatory lesbian (yikes) who turns her back on Freida when she discovers that she's still infatuated with Felix, that's just the kind of story this is. I never really felt like the stakes were that high or got invested in the story. The writing is fine, but unspectacular. Unless you have a particular interest in this time period, I'd say that this is skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what did you only learn about after high school history

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Three years ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books we've liked that are a bit more under the radar. I cheated a bit and picked two books that almost certainly will go above 2,000 soon but were published late last year so haven't quite gotten there yet. But if you're looking for something to read that isn't the same thing everyone else is reading, these are great choices!

The Anointed One: This is a pretty niche interest (Nevada politics), but it's also really good and still very relevant even years after it was published.

Seduction: This one is kind of cheating (it was a late 2018 release), but I recommend it very highly. If you enjoy the author's podcast (and its ratings suggest lots of people do!), it's very similar to what she does on the show but in book length!

The Butcher's Daughter: This book was so interesting and different than a lot of historical fiction! I'm bummed it never seems to have found an audience because it's really well-written.

The Big Rewind: Another one that should have blown up huge (so delightful!) and I will continue to push!

The Sky Is Yours: This one, at least, I can understand why it didn't take off. It's very very weird but I also found it really compelling!

Valley of the Moon: This is a sweet time-travel romance that appealed to me even though this is not at all my usual genre.

The Fly Trap: This was a book club selection, and when I found out I was going to be reading a book about a dude that lives on a Swedish island and studies flies, I was very skeptical. It's actually a really entertaining read!

Once Upon A River: This one is another cheat. I'm sure this book will be widely-read (and it should be, it's wonderful) but only came out two months ago.

Three and Out: Also kind of a niche interest, this is a well-reported, well-told account of the brief, unhappy tenure of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's head football coach.

Messy: This Fug Girls-penned sequel (to their debut, Spoiled) actually worked better for me than the first entry...I'm sure they've moved past this series, but I'd love to read another one if they ever wrote it!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book 168: The Sense Of An Ending

"We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it that said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient—it's not useful—to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."

Dates read: August 10-13, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The New York Times bestseller

Like many siblings, my sister and I squabbled a lot growing up. One time, and I can't remember what she said or did that prompted it (if anything), but I was mad at her and I told her that her teeth were yellow. It wasn't even true, they were pretty much the same color as mine. Years later, I asked her why she usually smiled with her mouth closed in pictures, and she told me that she'd been self-conscious about the way her teeth looked ever since I said that to her. I apologized and told her I was just being a jerk, of course, but I've made an effort since she told me that to really think before I snap back at someone I'm upset with. You never know how the words you toss off without thinking can really impact someone's life.

Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending illustrates the same principle on a much more profound scale. The book tells the story of Tony Webster, a deeply ordinary person. He went to school, worked a normal office job, got married, had a kid, got divorced, and remained on good terms with his ex into their retirement years. But a mysterious bequest drags him back towards most tumultuous time of his life. As schoolboys, Tony and his friends absorbed into their ranks the new kid in town, Adrian. Adrian was different than them: smarter, more serious. The group starts to fracture after graduation, everyone going their own separate ways to different schools or workplaces. At university, Tony meets and starts dating Veronica.

It is this ultimately short-lived relationship that changes lives. Veronica is mysterious and aloof, and Tony has a hard time knowing where he stands with her. They get serious enough that she takes him home to meet her family, but the only one that's nice to him once he gets there is her mother. They break up shortly after that trip, and not a particularly long time later Adrian writes to Tony to tell him that he's started dating Veronica. Tony is hurt, and writes back angrily. Then he goes on an extended jaunt to America, and it's not until he gets back to England that he hears that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony is, of course, upset, but his life goes on fairly smoothly until that bequest arrives: Veronica's mother has passed and left him a small sum of money and Adrian's diary. The money gets to Tony, but the diary is with Veronica.

Tony's journey to try to understand why he was left anything at all and attempts to get the diary comprise the balance of this slim novel. In its less-than-200 pages, it explores powerful themes: the difference between what we chose to remember and the truth, the impossibility of taking back something that's been said, how we change even though we feel like the same person we've always been. Barnes is a talented writer, and reflects on these with clear, emotionally resonant language that puts into words things that we (or at least I) have thought about but never really been able to distill. The mystery behind it all keeps the plot moving forward, but it never feels tantalizing just to inspire page-turning. Rather, the interesting thing is how Tony reacts to each new twist.

Barnes does brilliant characterization work with Tony, by the time things are wrapping up he feels like an old friend who has a way of dropping wistful bon mots about life. Both Adrian himself and Margaret (Tony's ex-wife) likewise feel realized despite appearing relatively infrequently in the narrative. But Veronica, who winds up being a significant factor, never really came together for me. The "clues" she gives Tony are maddening...if she really doesn't want to engage with him, she could have avoided him entirely, but for her to make just enough contact with him to drop cryptic references doesn't make sense. Either tell him what's going on, because he clearly doesn't get it, or ignore him. Her remoteness and Tony's inability to comprehend her are one thing, but I can't understand her own motives at all, which took away from my enjoyment of the book. As for the final resolution itself, I'm not sure I go all the way there with it. That being said, this is a lovely and powerful book, and I'd recommend it very highly.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever said something to someone that you wish you could take back?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Three years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Favorite Couples In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Valentine's Day coming up around the corner, this week we're looking at favorite couples! I feel like I did something similar-ish not tooooo long ago, so I'm highlighting my favorites from books I've read fairly recently.

Arthur and Freddy (Less): Arthur Less feels silly for being so sad when he finds out his ex Freddy is marrying someone else...after all, they weren't even ever really "official". But as he remembers their time together, it's more and more obvious how much he did actually love his lost flame.

Jessica and Marcus (Sloppy Firsts): We all have that one crush on the "bad" guy that we shouldn't have feelings for at some point, don't we? It's satisfying watching that relationship actually come together and kind of work!

Bathsheba and Gabriel (Far from the Madding Crowd): Watching Bathsheba make bad decisions about dudes is so rough because the right one is right there and you're just waaaaaiting for them to finally get together.

Maud and Roland (Possession): Like most nerds, the idea of falling in love while engaged in an intellectual pursuit is just impossibly romantic to me.

Nadia and Saeed (Exit West): These two young lovers and the journey they take is so deeply moving, even as their experiences change them in ways that put their future in jeopardy.

William and Katherine (Stoner): William's life is so sad that even knowing his affair with his beautiful, smart colleague can't last, I still found myself caring so much and wanting it to go on as long as possible so he has the chance for more happiness.

Lux and Joseph (Valley of the Moon): I liked the way Gideon built up the relationship between these two slowly and organically so that by the time they actually got together it felt so right!

Joe and Rosa (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay): I don't entirely love how Chabon wrote Rosa overall, but I really did care about the relationship between her and Joe and wanted things to work out somehow.

Vasya and Morozko (The Girl in the Tower): One of the things I love about how Arden writes these books is that Vasya is deeply aware of how ridiculous the idea of an actual relationship between a teenage girl and an ancient death god is...but they're so easy to get invested in!

Ifemelu and Obinze (Americanah): Rooting for these two to make it means rooting for someone who cheats on their spouse to end up with the person they're cheating with...but I found their love story so compelling I couldn't help it!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book 167: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

"I loved being a part of an administration that I thought was making the country better, and I had an incredibly generous, kind, and helpful boss who I felt had not only my best interests at heart but also the entire nation's. Plus, when I traveled for work, I took Air Force One, which never got old, and instead of wasting time at boring conference centers I was doing things like eating goat in the courtyard of Hamid Karzai's palace. They wouldn't let me go inside because I was a woman and they didn't believe I was actually part of the senior staff that was cleared to go in, but still: not much is cooler."

Dates read: August 7-10, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I've been a woman working in politics for six years now. It's an interesting field, but it's hard. In lobbying, you have to constantly be juggling your client's expectations, your relationships with legislators and how much you can bother them before they get sick of seeing your face, and keeping coalition partners engaged and trying to figure out if they have another angle they're trying to work at the same time. When you add into that the necessity of waking up at 5:15 to make sure that I get into the office on time (it's a 40 minute commute, and committees start at 8, but we need to make sure we have time to get the day prepped) and not getting back until at least 6:00, if not later, most nights...I'm glad our state only has session every other year.

And session started this week, by pure coincidence of publishing schedule and reading order. Which means that it's the perfect time to review Alyssa Mastromonaco's Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?. Mastromonaco was the deputy chief of staff to President Obama, and the book is structured around various personal qualities she feels helped her rise in her field (leadership, preparedness, etc). As she talks about these concepts, she fills in details about her experiences in the political world, from interning with Bernie Sanders to working on the Kerry campaign, to getting her start in with Obama when he was a senator and staying with him through the presidential race and then into the White House. There are highs and there are lows, and there's even some romance (and a look at the gentler side of her husband, a former Harry Reid aide known, like his boss, for being caustic).

Mastromonaco is up front about why she wanted to write her book: while there are plenty of works out there from male political types talking about their time in public service, there are comparatively few by women. Part of that is because there haven't been as many women walking the hallways of power, but even among members of that group there's some reticence about being out there about what they've experienced. Mastromonaco wanted to write something honest about being a young person, and a young woman person specifically, living and working in a field not necessarily known for being welcoming to females. And honest she is: she talks openly about her IBS and dealing with it when traveling around the world with the President, being walked in on at the office doing sit-ups, coping with the death and illness of a pet, and the sleep/health destroying stress and pressure that come along with working in the nation's most exclusive address.

I really enjoyed reading this book! When I'd seen the press around the book before I read it, it was described as being as if you had a smart, funny older sister who happened to work closely with Barack Obama, and that's exactly what it is. Mastromonaco's voice is warm, droll, and strikes a great balance between downplaying her success and bragging about it. She owns that she worked really hard and sacrificed a lot to earn what she earned, and how frustrating it could be to deal with people who sometimes let themselves treat her like her youth and gender made her less worthy of their respect. As someone who also works in the general field (though nothing like DC, thank goodness), her words and experiences rang true to me. Politics is exciting and frustrating and there are some of best people who work in it, but also some of the worst. There's nothing quite as great as the feeling of pulling together with your team to get some really good work done and winning the day, but there are also the days when you go cry in the bathroom stall because there are just too many things happening at once and it's overwhelming.

If I was going to offer a critique, it would be that the timelines could get a little hard to keep track of, jumping back and forth from the later part of her time at the White House back to the campaign trail, then forward and then backward again. Organizing around subject areas keeps it cohesive, and by the time you get into the back half off the book it's more chronological, but there were some moments of confusion when I started to read it. Overall, though, it's a look at a side of political life that most people don't ever think about, much less get to see, and I think it would be a great read for anyone interested in what it's actually like to work in this crazy field. I would recommend it particularly highly to women, but men absolutely should read it too. It's a very solid book.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Three years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Upcoming Releases I’m On the Fence About

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This is another one of those topics that I struggle with since I read so much backlist! I do look for things I might like on the frontlist, but generally wait to hear about other books from people I trust. I did manage to put together ten books that caught my eye but I'm waiting to have vetted to see if they'll make my list.

Machines Like Me: This concept seems intriguing (a love triangle with an android), but then again so did Ian McEwan's last book, Nutshell, which I mostly heard to stay away I'm waiting it out on this one.

The Body Lies: Thrillers are a category I don't always love, though this one about a creative writing group does pique my interest, so I'm going to hold out until I know if it's any good or not from people who generally don't read the genre.

Dual Citizens: I'm always interested in reading books about sisters, but there are plenty of stinkers out there so I'm hoping someone tells me if this one is worth picking up.

Polite Society: I'm on the fence, generally, about retellings-of-classics...for every one that delights, there's another that clings too tightly to the original to be fresh, so someone please tell me if this take on Emma is great or not so much.

Henry, Himself: This book about an old man looking back at his life seems like it will either be heartwarming and charming or intolerably annoying.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton: I used to love historical fiction but have found myself gravitating away from it more and more as I get older unless I hear great things...this one does sound like something I'd like, so I'm keeping an ear out for word about it.

Disappearing Earth: A mystery about missing children set in rural Russia, this promises to look at multiple perspectives in a way that I might be interested in exploring, but I want to hear how well it executes first.

Furious Hours: This is a book about Harper Lee planning to write a book about a murder trial (which, obviously, she never ended up publishing), which sounds fascinating but also I've heard virtually nothing about it, which makes me wonder if it's actually a dud.

Homeland: This is a novel about Basque nationalism and the ETA which sounds either like it'll be really good or really grim and I need more input to know!

Patron Saints of Nothing: This is YA, which I don't normally read, but the subject matter (the drug war in the Philippines) seems promising, so hopefully the word on the street is good.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Book 166: Party Monster

"Oh, Angel was probably dead, all right. No big deal. Or maybe he was in the hospital. Who cared? They had probably been partying too hard and Angel overdosed. Happens all the time. People die around us all the time. Drop like flies. Overdose. AIDS. Sometimes they kill themselves. People come. They go. Dying is the same as rehab or moving back to Missouri. It just means I won't be seeing them again. New people were already in line to take their place."

Dates read: August 5-7, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I've never really gotten what makes drugs fun. I'm not a total square, I drink regularly and I've partaken in the occasional marijuana cigarette, but nothing really harder than that. I don't like feeling out of control. I'm already high-strung enough without the help of uppers. Even very low doses of pain or anxiety pills just make me sleep, which I do love to do, but I don't really classify as "fun". And the idea of seeing or feeling things that aren't there just seems more scary than anything else. Who knows, if I tried those things maybe I'd like them, and if other people do enjoy them, that's their business, but I generally feel like I'll be okay if I meet my maker (or don't, I don't know what happens after we die) without ever having tried cocaine.

Suffice it to say that when it comes to drugs, James St. James and I have different opinions. In his memoir of his days as a New York City club kid in the late 80s/early 90s, Party Monster, he gleefully recounts his experiences doing LOTS of drugs, with ketamine as a special favorite. But the drugs aren't really the focus of the book. The focus is really on the murder of Angel Melendez, a crime that marked the end of the reign of the Club Kids. It's not a who-dunnit, as the murderers, Michael Alig and Robert Riggs, are identified right at the beginning through Alig's own confession to St. James. We even know how and partially why. What's left is the context.

To give us that context, St. James tells his own story. An earlier arrival on the scene than Alig, St. James tells us how he came to occupy a fairly high rung on the social ladder of the nightclubbers, introducing us to the people whose asses he kissed to get there. Just a short while later, Alig arrived and St. James tells us how he at first watched and then became a friend and sort of mentor to Alig as the younger man engineered his own meteoric rise up the hierarchy. And part of what Alig brought with him, along with a new group of hangers-on, was drugs. Well, there were already drugs obviously. But more drugs, and harder ones. The kind that let two strung-out junkies, high on a cocktail of pills and their own sense of importance and untouchability, brutally murder a drug dealer, shove his body in the river, and carry on with their lives like they're going to get away with it. And they very nearly do: despite the fact that Melendez is a missing person and Alig and Riggs' involvement in his disappearance is an open secret in their community, it isn't until the body is found that the police actually take any action.

I've never been one to find substance abuse memoirs especially appealing...reading about someone's experiences taking a lot of drugs doesn't really do much for me. But St. James' arch, gossipy writing style makes it about as good as it can be. And while there's no doubt after reading it that he mostly enjoyed the experiences, he doesn't shy away from exposing the less glamorous side of it. Like groups of addicts ripping the radiator out of an apartment wall because they think they remember someone dropping a bag back there, a scene he renders darkly humorous while still exposing as pathetic. Indeed, it's St. James' strong writing that makes this book workable overall. 20somethings drinking and dancing and getting high out of their minds wearing weird costumes is something that seems like it would make a decent essay but would be tiresome at book length, and yet the way St. James tells his story makes it mostly pretty fun to read. This is not great literature, but it's an interesting, well-told account of a very particular time and place.

Tell me, blog friends...are drugs more fun than I think they are?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Marlena

Three years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: January 2019

One month of 2019 down, eleven to go! I'm still writing 2018 on feels like it takes about six weeks to really get it down, doesn't it? Like most Januarys in odd-numbered years, this one was actually pretty busy! Legislative session starts on Monday, though, so I'm about to look back at this as a chill month.

In Books...

  • Margaret Beaufort: I've been interested in her since I read Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen, and this biography reiterated that Gregory does not unduly trouble herself with fact. The real Margaret Beaufort was a bold and fascinating woman, and Elizabeth Norton manages to bring her to life without engaging in unsupported speculation, which is a tricky feat. 
  • The Cuckoo's Calling: Unlike a lot of people, I enjoyed J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter follow-up The Casual Vacancy, but given the reception it got, I can understand why she went under a pseudonym to write her mystery series. I found this good, but not seemed like she had difficulty balancing the character development she was clearly trying to do with the development of the mystery itself. I'll definitely read more from this series, I'm curious to see where she goes with it!
  • The Winter of the Witch: I'll be honest, my expectations for this book were super high. It's the end of a trilogy I've loved and I've been waiting for it eagerly for over a year! Luckily, it did not disappoint. It was wonderful! I had a couple teeny quibbles, but thought Katherine Arden did a masterful job of bringing her story to a close. 
  • Astonish Me: I am very basic and love a good ballet book. But I really didn't care for Maggie Shipstead's debut, so I was torn, but I always believe in giving an author at least two shots...and I'm glad I did! For the most part, I really enjoyed this! She builds interesting characters and puts them in thematically rich situations. But after lots of delicately built drama, the end felt rushed and not quite earned. On the whole, though, this was a very good book.
  • Say Nothing: I did sometimes struggle with this book, which explores The Troubles through the lens of mother-of-ten Jean McConville being disappeared by the IRA, but I think that was mostly due to the digital format in which I read's hard to flip back and forth on the Kindle! I also just had so little context to work from (everything I knew about the subject before I read this was either from The Cranberries or U2) that I found myself turning to Wikipedia for more information. But it's a compelling story and draws vivid, intriguing portraits of some of the major figures of the era and once I got situated, I found it hard to put down!
  • A Tale for the Time Being: This is an odd but enjoyable take on an epistolary novel. In it, a Japanese-American writer named Ruth (sharing many of her key character traits with author Ruth Ozeki) finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of the small island in the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her husband. Inside is the diary of a Japanese teenager Naoko, chronicling her increasingly sad life, which Ruth becomes increasingly obsessed with. I found myself getting just as drawn into it, though it did get dangerously close to losing control of its own narrative near the end. I want to read this again someday, it feels like the type of book that takes multiple reads to really sink in. 
  • Bad Blood: Remember that blonde chick with the deep voice that was telling us all we'd be able to do all of one blood tests with just a finger prick, that had the company with the board of directors like Henry Kissinger and Jim Mattis? The journalist who revealed that she (Elizabeth Holmes) and the company (Theranos) was all a scam does a book-length treatment of what actually happened and if you think Fyre Festival was bad, just wait until you read it. Very solid page-turner true (corporate) crime. 

In Life...

  • Company trip to Las Vegas: This year, for our company retreat, we spent a couple days on the other end of the state in Las Vegas. I'm never going to complain much about getting out of winter weather in Reno, and it was nice to have a weekend away before things kick off crazy at work next month! Also we got new website headshots taken, so I got to have someone make me glamorous and couldn't resist a selfie!

One Thing:

I've switched to a backpack to carry my things back and forth to work after getting some soreness in my shoulder from my always-full tote bag (which I will have to go back to for session so I look like a professional adult), and really like the Lo and Sons Hanover that I picked for myself! It has plenty of room for the things that I need to schlep around and because it's designed for women, it doesn't feel heavy or uncomfortable on my back. It looks neat and seems easy to clean, though I haven't needed to do that yet and in the best part, it has a panel on the back that you can zip open to slide over the handle of a suitcase so you don't have to worry about lugging it around the airport!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Additions to My To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books we've added to our TBRs lately. Much to my despair of catching up, my to-read list is ever-growing, and these ten books are among the ones that I've added to it the most recently!

First: The first person I remember thinking of as a role model is Sandra Day O'Connor, so obviously I am down to read a biography of her. I'm so excited I got approved for an advance review copy!

Golden Hour: I know lots of people love Beatriz Williams' books, so I'm going to finally try her out with her next one!

Basque Legends: I've gotten super into folklore lately, and the Basque are a fascinating people!

Everything In Its Place: One last collection of essays from my beloved Oliver Sacks.

The History of Love: A subreddit I frequent recently had a thread on five all-time favorite books, and this one someone else listed seemed like something I'd love!

Royal Babies: The fuss over the pregnancy of Meghan Markle is just the latest in a long line of fusses made over the babies born to royalty, so I'm super interested in this examination of the topic.

Destiny Disrupted: Figuring out that the history I learned is a very selective interpretation of events has me wanting to explore different viewpoints, like this one from the Islamic world.

Into the Drowning Deep: I'm not usually into suspense/horror, but this Kindle sale pick looked too intriguing to ignore.

The End of Tsarist Russia: I've gotten heavy into Russian history lately, so I want to look at the end of the royal family and the beginning of the October Revolution and trace it from there.

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas: The two Tom Robbins books I read in high school remain among my favorites, so when I found copies of this one (along with another) in the secondhand book store, I figured I should try reading him again!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Book 165: Butterfly Boy

"I want to tell him the truth. Yes, I know this story. He's told it to me at least three times, and each time he tells it he remembers more details. That's how my father lies, convincing himself more and more that what he's telling is fact, because fiction isn't this exact and memorable."

Dates read: August 2-5, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Since I've started tracking my reading for this blog, I've tracked particular categories. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Hard copy books vs. Kindle editions. And male vs. female authors. Like a lot of white people educated in predominantly white schools, I've been exposed constantly to white writers, usually male (my AP English teacher did make it a point to have us read works by black authors as well). I took it for granted until I started reading book blogs before I launched my own, and I started to really think about how many books I was reading that were written by dudes. I decided that I wanted to keep an eye on that metric...women are half the world, shouldn't we be telling half the stories?

Turns out, I often really like books written by women! And I've become more and more sensitive to the number of white and heterosexual (and cisgender and able, etc) narratives I read as well. Books force us to really think about people that don't look like us as people worth investing our time and energy in. And so I was intrigued when my book club chose Rigoberto Gonzalez's Butterfly Boy. I'll admit that I was initially concerned about finding something to relate to in this memoir of a gay Latino man's coming-of-age, but I realized how ridiculous that was very quickly. What there is to relate to is the experience of being a human growing up. Although the details of Gonzalez's childhood and adolescence are very different than mine, the broad themes are very similar: trying to figure out who you are and who you want to be, struggling with your relationships with your parents, finding yourself in unhealthy relationships. There's a reason the coming-of-age genre is so popular: everyone's gone through it, so everyone can relate.

Gonzalez centers his narrative around a bus trip he takes with his father to his maternal grandparents' village in Mexico. Gonzalez, at this time a college student, has just had another ugly, violent fight with his lover and reflects on this relationship as well as his life growing up, particularly his conflicted relationship with the man he's traveling with. It's a harsh life he's led: the family's poverty keeps them rootless, chasing unskilled labor jobs, constantly living with relatives to keep a roof over their heads. Their time living with his paternal grandparents is especially bad: his grandfather is physically abusive and rules the home through fear. Gonzalez knows fairly early on that he's gay, and while his sexuality is mostly a topic avoided by his family, his mother encourages him to hide it from his father, so he lives in a constant state of shame and suppression.

Gonzalez's writing is really beautiful, even as he describes brutal violence and searing embarrassment. He mostly avoids telling the reader who people are (himself, his father, his mother) in favor of showing who they are through their own words and actions. When, early in the book, Gonzalez gives his father money for two first-class bus tickets and the older man returns with two coach tickets, overriding his son's decision about how to spend his own money, we can tell what kind of person he is. By the time Gonzalez gets to the end of his story, we understand how the ways he's been taught to hate himself leave him vulnerable to a relationship in which he's treated with contempt. This would probably be a very difficult book to read for people with a history of domestic violence, but I'd recommend it for other readers. Regardless of your background, there's a story here that's very worth reading.

Tell me, blog you think about who writes the books you read?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Helter Skelter

Three years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Meant to Read In 2018 But Didn’t Get To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking back to 2018 to highlight the books we really thought we were going to read...and then didn't. I've included only 2018 releases on here...I read about 15 or so front-list releases last year, but there were so many more I wanted to get to and just didn't have time for!

Bad Blood: I heard rave reviews for this true-crime story about Elizabeth Holmes and the scam that was Theranos.

The Immortalists: I've got a soft spot for books that follow groups of friends through time, so this one about four kids who get their future told and how that effects them through their lives sounds like a winner.

The Milkman: I always read the Booker Prize winners!

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: Anyone who knows me knows I love a t-rex, and this book won the Goodreads choice award for science so it's probably pretty readable.

The Great Believers: This was recommended by so many people whose opinions I respect that it's a must-read.

The Female Persuasion: I loved Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, and while I've heard that this reads a little "Women's Studies 101", I never took that class so I'm definitely interested!

Ma'am Darling: Books about royalty are my kryptonite!

Not That Bad: I don't think a book about rape culture is going to be easy or fun to read, but I trust Roxane Gay to present essays that are going be important and relevant.

The Book of Essie: Reviews were a little mixed, but I love the premise (famously Christian reality TV family has a daughter get pregnant as a teen) and really want to read it for myself!

There There: This own voices book about a pow-wow got raves and seems like the kind of thing I'd really like.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book 164: Notes On A Scandal

"People like Sheba think that they know what it's like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can't bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters."

Dates read: July 29- August 2, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Arbitrary age guidelines are...well, arbitrary. A person isn't suddenly mature and responsible enough to drive a car the day of their sixteenth birthday if they weren't the day before. They don't suddenly understand all the implications of a contract they sign the day they turn eighteen if they didn't previously. There's no magic power to being able to handle your liquor at 21. But since it's enormously impractical to examine these kinds of milestones on a case-by-case basis, we develop a shorthand. Most 16 year olds are in a better headspace to drive than those younger than them. By the time someone hits 18, they're more mature and responsible than they were even a few years ago, more able to make adult decisions. And your brain is more developed by the time you get to 21, better able to absorb the impact of alcohol.

One of the more controversial age guidelines (and one that tends to vary depending on place and circumstance) is the age of consent. In the US, it tends to vary between 16-18. Europe skews slightly younger, with most between 14-16. Again, there's no hard and fast way to assess if someone is "ready" to give knowledgeable consent, so you just have to set a standard and go with it. What is always inappropriate and often illegal is exploiting a relationship of power. So when Sheba Hart, an art teacher at an English school in Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, begins a relationship with 15 year-old student Steven, she's clearly in the wrong. Sheba's story is told through the voice of fellow teacher Barbara Covett, as a manuscript that Barbara is writing in the wake of Sheba's deeds becoming public. At the beginning of the events that the book recounts, she's a bitter, lonely older woman who has had no real bonds with anyone besides her cat. When Sheba, lovely and ditzy, makes her teaching debut at St. George's, Barbara sets out to befriend the soon-overwhelmed younger woman.

Well, befriend isn't really the right word. She wants to become a necessary part of her life, the way she'd been closely enmeshed with a different younger woman years earlier who got married and will no longer speak to her. There's an implication that Barbara's interest is more than platonic, but I think making too much of a "repressed lesbian" angle is overstating the case. As I read it, Barbara's not trying to get into Sheba's pants, she's trying to get into her head and exert control over her. And the way Heller writes it (through Barbara's not-exactly-unbiased narrative voice), Sheba isn't exactly in control of her affair with Steven, either. The deeper Sheba gets in, the more he pulls away until he eventually ends it. And then it all comes tumbling down, leaving Sheba cast off from her family with no one to stand by her side. No one, that is, besides Barbara.

Heller has written a book with a lot of moral complexity. Barbara is certainly manipulative, but she's also desperately lonely, and is understandably very hurt when Sheba throws her over after she's had to put her cat down to go cavort with Steven. Fundamentally, she wants to be important to another person, which is something most of us want (although most of us aren't as manipulative as Barbara). Sheba is the one crossing the boundary with Steven, but she met her much-older husband when he was her professor in college, when she was only a few years older than her teenage lover, and Steven proves to be the party less emotionally invested in their relationship. Both women are predators, but neither is purely evil.

It's a book that may prove difficult for some people to read as it deals heavily with a adult-teenager, teacher-student relationship. Barbara, for all that Heller has given her some sympathetic qualities, is a negative character and given that the book is told from her perspective, I'd classify it as "dark" in tone. But it's undeniably compelling. Even though I watched the movie (years ago, when it came out) and remembered the "twist", as it were, I still found it interesting and enjoyable, in its own way, to read. I'd recommend it for people prepared for the subject matter.

One year ago, I was reading: An Untamed State (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Three years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-Me Authors I Read In 2018

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a favorite annual topic of mine...authors whose work I've experienced for the first time in 2018! Even with how much I read, there are so many great writers who I haven't gotten to yet, so I like keeping track of which ones finally made it only my list each year. I like to reserve this list for established authors only, so I don't count ones who have only written one no matter how much I might have liked the debut!

Roxane Gay: I've loved her Twitter presence for years, but I'd never actually read any of her books until this year, when I read the searing An Untamed State. I'm definitely ready for more!

Iris Murdoch: I'd been curious about her ever since I watched her biopic years ago, but Henry and Cato didn't really do much for me. I do want to try The Sea, The Sea, but if that one also falls flat I'll probably call it quits with her.

Rainbow Rowell: One of the bookternet's favorite authors, I'd heard the for-adults Landline was one of her less successful outings, so I'm not going to let my underwhelm with it push me away from reading her well-loved YA.

Louise Erdrich: I found Love Medicine a little challenging to follow at times, but she's written a whole series of books based on the same fictional reservation and I'm curious to see how she develops these characters out!

J.M. Coetzee: One of only a few authors who've won the Booker Prize twice, I read one of those books (Disgrace) for my book club. It was very depressing but also really well-done, so I'm interested in continuing to explore his backlist.

Lawrence Wright: He's written a bunch of non-fiction, and reading his The Looming Tower (about al-Queda and 9/11) gave me faith that he presents solid research in a compelling way, so I'll for sure read more by him!

Elizabeth Strout: I'd heard great things about her writing, so I picked up her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Olive Kitteridge. It was good, and I'll absolutely grab more of her writing to read!

Jesmyn Ward: She's an incredible well-regarded young author, and while I have others from her that I'm still looking forward to reading, I thought Sing, Unburied, Sing was powerful but flawed.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Her short story collection got a lot of buzz this year, and reading her debut Prep definitely made me interested in reading it and the rest of her writing!

Michael Pollan: I've been aware of his books, especially those about food and eating, but reading In Defense of Food convinced me I don't need more.