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

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

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

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.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Book 163: Station Eleven

"The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it? Perhaps humanity would soon flicker out, but Kirsten found this thought more peaceful than sad. So many species had appeared and vanished from this earth; what was one more? How many people were even left now?"

Dates read: July 23-29, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Honestly, I would not survive the end of the world. I have no survival skills. I'm not strong, or a good shot, or a person who knows things about plants that you can eat. I'm a stress-crier and I don't think anyone want to deal with that trying to stay one step ahead of the zombies. My ability to perform critical analysis and produce a pop culture reference for every situation is not going to be valuable. So my fingers are crossed that the apocalypse happens (if ever) after I'm already gone.

There are some end-of-the-world scenarios, however, that don't discriminate between the heroes and not-heroes among us. Like disease. In Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, the world is devastated, like 99%-of-the-population-gone devastated, by a mutated flu that gets into the global transportation system. In Toronto, the events kick off when an actor, Arthur Leander, collapses while playing the title role in a production of King Lear. An EMT-in-training, Jeevan, leaps onto stage to try to help, while a young actress, Kirsten, playing a child version of one of the daughters watches it play out in front of her. Within weeks, the world as we know it has ceased to exist. No more internet. Shit, no more electricity. Some people are immune and survive, but are they the lucky ones?

The primary thread of the story follows Kirsten fifteen years later, as she and the other actors and musicians who make up The Travelling Symphony journey through coastal southwest Michigan. Small communities have sprung up along the shores of the Great Lakes, and the ragtag crew that makes up the Symphony continually loop around them, performing, taking their inspiration from a line from Star Trek: "survival is insufficient". The group is excited to return to one particular town, where one of their members left them to settle down, but when they arrive they find their friend gone and things much changed. The town is now controlled by a cult leader known as The Prophet. When a stowaway pops up after the troupe has fled, trouble follows.

There are a lot of time jumps in this book. So much so that it seems almost unfair to call it entirely a post-apocalyptic novel, since a decent chunk of the narrative actually takes place before the flu hits. It goes from Kirsten in her present, to Arthur in his early years, to an interview taking place after the flu but before the principal timeline, and so on and so forth. It sounds confusing, but the way that Mandel writes it it's actually pretty easy to follow. It's a tricky thing to pull off, a narrative that moves around in time as much as hers does, but Mandel is a talented writer and, for my money, makes the emotional impact even stronger by doing it.

This is a wonderful book, y'all. Not only does Mandel handle her narrative masterfully, she also draws characters that resonate. You care about them, even knowing that some of them are going to meet their end when the virus happens. It's not a book like The Road about despair and sorrow. It's a book about people, and the connections that are made and fractured between them. There are certainly dark moments, but the atmosphere she creates is overall one of poignancy and bittersweetness. I loved reading it and am planning on purchasing a hard copy (I read this on my Kindle) so I can have it on my bookshelves to re-read on paper. I recommend it to literally anyone who likes to read.

One year ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Two years ago, I was reading: Americanah

Three years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the First Half of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking forward over the next six months and talking about the books we're super excited for! For me, these lists are always hard to put together since I'm so focused on backlist reading, but even I can't avoid the siren song of frontlist hype, so here are ten books I'm looking forward to coming out soon!

The Winter of the Witch: This was actually on my list last year, was supposed to be released in August 2018, but the release date got pushed back. I love these books so I am super pumped for the final entry in the trilogy!

Say Nothing: I know basically nothing about The Troubles, and I want to know something, and the blurbs on this one look promising.

Daisy Jones and the Six: Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author I've heard tons of buzz about, but I've never actually read any of her work, and this book about a female-fronted band in the 70s sounds really good!

The Club: I love a dark campus novel, and this one from a German writer set at Cambridge looks like it's right up my alley!

The Dreamers: Karen Thomas Walker is another author I've heard good things about, and this story about a sleeping plague is supposed to echo Station Eleven, which I loved!

The Trial of Lizzie Borden: This nonfiction book apparently not only looks at the famous murder case, but focuses on the Gilded Age world in which it happened, which sounds super interesting.

Necessary People: Like everyone else, I occasionally enjoy a twisty thriller, and this story about frenemies in TV news sounds super entertaining!

The Last Romantics: A family epic about siblings? That's pretty much exactly my taste.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf: I am definitely here for fantasy epics that aren't focused on the same old European settings and mythology, and so this African-set series opener from Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James is on my list!

Women Talking: I'm increasingly interested in stories about isolated religious communities, so this books (apparently based on a true story) about Mennonite women fighting predatory men within their community is very intriguing.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book 162: Me Talk Pretty One Day

"After a few months in my parents' basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of those things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations. The moment I took my first burning snootful, I understood that this was the drug for me. Speed eliminates all doubt. Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. The speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant. The upswing is that, having eliminated the need for both eating and sleeping, you have a full twenty-four hours a day to spread your charm and talent."

Dates read: July 20-23, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

What is the standard for calling something "nonfiction"? It can't be 100% objective accuracy, because there's always something that gets left out of the telling. No one will ever be able to capture all the nuance, every single gesture and word that went into an interaction. I couldn't recount the full details of a three-minute conversation I had with my boss a couple hours ago, much less look back into my childhood and perfectly recreate important moments. So if it's not total undisputed truth, is it mostly true? More true than not? True in spirit? It's hard to draw a line.

When you make your living writing books of essays, usually prominently featuring your childhood, you're definitely liable to accusations that your treatment of the truth is...flexible, which is something David Sedaris knows all too well. Me Talk Pretty Some Day is the first of his books I've ever read, and I have to admit, some of the pieces it contains do strike me as a little too good to be exactly, totally true. The book is separated into two parts: the first focusing on his early life, mostly his childhood with his family, and the second focusing on his adult life, mostly the portions in which he lived in France with his boyfriend. He didn't speak French before he spent time there, and his frustrating attempts to learn the language are a major through-line of the back half of the book.

As in any essay collection, there are hits and misses. For me, personally, there were many more of the former than the latter here. Humor in books is a tricky thing...even if I find something funny, the most it usually provokes is a smile. An out-and-out laugh is a rare thing, but Sedaris managed to get a few good chuckles out of me (including while I was reading it on an airplane, which made me seem A+ sane I'm sure). "A Shiner Like A Diamond" (about David's sister Amy freaking out their father by wearing the bottom half of a fat suit on a trip home) and "Make That A Double" (about Ugly Americans refusing to even try speaking French, and the weirdness of learning to speak a language with gendered nouns) were particular highlights for me, but most of the pieces were decent to good, in large part because they weren't ever boring.

And that's where we get into the truth-telling. These are funny stories, based in fact. But are they true? There's been more than one examination into the accuracy of the stories Sedaris tells (this one from The New Republic is particularly thorough). So if they aren't really all that true, sometimes, does it really matter? For me, I guess the answer is that it depends. For these kinds of books (memoir-ish essays, usually humorous or meant to be), I'm generally proceeding under the idea that there might be some minor embellishment, usually to fill in dialogue or some of the finer details. But it seems like some of these stories in this book (particularly the one about the guitar teacher) are more than just slightly spruced up. And that's a little more bothersome. Part of the reason some of these stories are so funny isn't just because they recount humorous situations, but because those situations are supposed to have been real. If they're not actually real...I feel like there should be some sort of acknowledgement that these stories are based in fact but might have been dazzled up to tell a better story, maybe?

That probably sounds more negative than I intend it. At the end of the day, even after I read about the likelihood that some of these stories weren't exactly real life, I did enjoy reading the book. And for me, that's what counts. I enjoyed it enough, honestly, that I'm likely to continue reading other David Sedaris books, because I like his writing. My husband tells me that this is his best collection, so I'm curious to read more and see if I agree with him. I'd recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day to anyone looking for a mood-lifter (especially if you, too, have suffered through the indignity of learning a foreign language).

One year ago, I was reading: Pond

Two years ago, I was reading: The King Must Die

Three years ago, I was reading: Thirst

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read In 2018

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's just now 2019 today (happy new year!), so let's look back at the best 2018 books I read last year. As usual for me with this list, I'm only counting books that were released in 2018...I so rarely have a chance to give frontlist reading a spotlight so I like to use the end-of-year list to do it!

Once Upon A River: The last 2018 release I read this year, and I guess I saved the best for last! This story, about storytelling as much as anything else, has echoes of folklore and creates some wonderful characters and I enjoyed it so much.

Seduction: I've loved Karina Longworth's podcast for years, so it's no surprise when she took her talents to the page I enjoyed it just as much! A fascinating look at Howard Hughes and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The Butcher's Daughter: This book flew under the radar this year, but told a compelling story of religious turmoil of Henry VIII's reign (and what it meant to be a woman in that time frame) from the perspective of a nun.

An American Marriage: This book was on lots and lots of "Best of 2018" lists for a reason...when a young marriage is disrupted by a faulty conviction, where does the blame for the ensuing pain lie?

The Library Book: Susan Orlean's ode to reading and libraries tells a really interesting story about the history of the Los Angeles Library, including a mysterious fire that took place in the 1980s.

Everything Under: This debut novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and the rich atmospherics are a sign of a prodigious talent...but I didn't think her attempts to retell the Oedipus story entirely worked.

The Sky Is Yours: This book about a apocalyptic, dragon-infested New York City is deeply weird but managed to snag my attention and keep it despite how off-putting I often found it.

The Silence of the Girls: Another classic Greek story retold, this looks at the perspective of Briseis, the woman at the center of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon in The Iliad. Women's voices in ancient epics are missing, and Pat Barker brings the very real limits of their lives and choices to life.

Children of Blood and Bone: This YA fantasy was one of the buzziest titles of the year, and it's easy to get sucked into...the plot takes off and never slows down over 500+ pages. But that plot movement is often at the expense of character development, and I'm not sure if I'm in any big hurry to read the second one that comes out later this year.

The Romanov Empress: The story of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, is well known. But his mother, Maria Feodorovna, outlived them and this historical fiction looks at the end of the Romanov era through her eyes, as the Danish princess who became Empress of all the Russias.