Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Changes In My Reading Life

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Book 207: The Sellout



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

Dates read: February 6-9, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Three years ago, I was reading: The Paper Magician

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Use As Bookmarks

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book 206: Thank You For Smoking



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

Dates read: February 1-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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