Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Signs That You Love Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the signs that you're a lover of books! If you're reading this, you're probably one too, so you might see yourself in this list! I had a hard time with this one, so there's only eight here. Apologies!



You write a book blog: I read enough of them to know that there a lot of book blogs out there...some are focused on young adult, some on romance, some on nonfiction. But if you care enough about books to write about them on the internet, you definitely love books!

You always have a book on you: I joke that I have two things in my bag at any given time...a koozie and a book. You never know when you're going to get stuck waiting for something and have a couple minutes to get a couple pages in!

They exist in piles around the house: If you have an actual library, I am super jealous. I have several bookshelves, but it's not enough! There are piles of books everywhere you look.

You're a member of a book club: I've been a part of a book club at my local indie bookstore for the past several years now and I love it! I've really appreciated the incentive to pick up books I otherwise might never have read and I love having the chance to talk about them in real life!

You've become the go-to book recommender for your friends: You know you're a book person when your friends and acquaintances turn to you when they're looking for their next read!

You find yourself saying "it reminds me of this book I read": Global pandemic? Got a book for that (Station Eleven). Reality show contestants not knowing that a pandemic is going on because they've been isolated, like the German Big Brother thing? Got a book for that too (The Last One)!

You get a bookstore gift certificate as a go-to present: If someone isn't sure what to get you, and what they think will be a safe gift is a gift card for the local bookstore, you're probably a book nerd!

Your friends send you book memes: Every time there's a new bookish meme making its way across the internet, I get about six texts from people who know me being like "look, it's you!"

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Month In The Life: March 2020



What a month. The world is a very different place than it was just 31 days ago, and it remains to be seen how this all shakes out. My husband and I are fortunate enough that both of our jobs are secure and able to performed remotely, at least in the short term. But it's hard to be on the other side of the country from my family, which includes my nurse sister, my pharmacist mother, and my immunocompromised father. We're all in this together, though, and I hope those of you reading this are safe and healthy.

In Books...
  • Brother of the More Famous Jack: This coming-of-age classic which fell out of print only to be revived by zealous fans is a very slow starter, and I had a hard time initially connecting with protagonist Katherine. But it picks up momentum as it goes, and the writing is just lovely, and I wound up quite enjoying it.
  • We Are Our Brains: I'm a sucker for books about neurology, so thought this would be right up my alley. It's broad in scope and there's some interesting stuff here, but I found myself put off by the righteous tone and the way Swaab kept referencing reactions to his own research...as well as the lack of citations in a book that's supposed to be based on science. 
  • 'Til the Well Runs Dry: This book was the kind of multi-generational saga I tend to find very compelling, following the lives of a Trinidadian family. It's engaging and well-paced, though the adult characters remain underdeveloped. Where it really stumbles is in its constant parade of tragedy: there's incest, sexual violence, police corruption, underage prostitution, human trafficking, and even more...it just got kind of exhausting to read.
  • Lost Children Archive: I started reading this book right as the coronavirus situation really started to escalate quickly here in the United States and turned out to be poor timing. The writing is beautiful and rich, but my attention span was just not where it needed to be to really engage with it. There were some style and technique choices I found grating, not to mention I really did not enjoy the perspective shift that happens late in the book, so this just didn't end up working for me.
  • The Magical Language of Others: That E.J. Koh is a poet by trade is not surprising, reading her prose. Her writing is elegant, restrained, evocative. But in this memoir, based on her experience as a teenager having her parents move to the other side of the world, leaving her in the care of her older brother, there's a little too much polish. She holds the reader at a remove, which made it hard to connect with the book.
  • White Teeth: This book takes on a lot of weighty subjects, like family, religion, colonialism, and race, but never feels heavy. That it was a debut (published when Zadie Smith was just 25!) makes this all the more impressive. Not everything really develops or is executed as well as it could be, but she draws vivid characters and paces her slightly overstuffed plot well, which makes this an engaging read.


In Life...
  • Social distancing: Like everyone else, I've been staying home and social distancing. As a natural extrovert, I've been going a little bit bonkers. I miss going into the office, I miss my friends. It's the right thing to do and things will be better in the long run for all of us if we stay home, but I am ready to get back to something approaching normal when we can!
One Thing:

My husband loves video games, but I have the hand/eye coordination of a below-average four year-old, so I play them very infrequently. That is, until Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out. It's laid back and requires just enough attention to distract me from everything while not being at all mentally taxing, which is exactly the kind of entertainment I'm looking for right now. I'm hooked!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book 226: Chosen Country



"But his abiding concern was with the same thing preoccupying the townspeople at the meeting in Burns, a desperate and totally genuine love for an idea of a communally minded and free-living western way of life that corporate agriculture and federal regulations were supposedly squeezing out of existence. I don't think you have to idealize this sort of thing, support the Bundys, or believe in a glossy magical cowboy past to take this kind of love seriously."

Dates read: April 17-20, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I never thought about public lands before I moved to the West. Michigan has some National Forest land, a National Lakeshore. But I'd never even heard of the Bureau of Land Management, and wouldn't have been able to tell you what it did before I moved to Nevada and starting working in politics. I guess I would have figured most states were like Michigan, if I'd bothered to think about it at all. Turns out that the federal government owns and administrates upwards of 80% of the land in Nevada! In the West, I think one of the only things as controversial as water rights is the issue of federal ownership of land.

The first controversy over federal land I followed after I moved to Nevada was the Bunkerville situation, orchestrated by a Clark County rancher, Cliven Bundy, and his sons Ammon and Ryan. Not too long after that incident, Ammon and Ryan led the takeover of Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge. It's still mind-boggling to me that a group of armed men occupied federal government property and this was only sometimes referred to as terrorism and only ended in one death. I try to imagine what might have happened had those men not been white and it doesn't seem likely that a protracted stand-off would end with no loss of life beyond one man who tried to break a roadblock. Reporter James Pogue was in and around the Refuge during its occupation, and turned his experience with it into a book: Chosen Country.

Pogue half-heartedly tries to tie the Malhuer episode to the greater scope of the dying out of the "traditional" ranching culture of the West and the long-standing libertarian streak of the people here, their sense of independence and alienation from a bureaucracy so far away. I say half-heartedly not because the connection is tenuous, but because it's poorly explored. There's a rich history here, but Pogue only glances over it, completely leaving out incidents like Ruby Ridge (which aren't tied into the lands dispute, but definitely inform the prickly relationship between people who live in the rural areas and the federal government), so that he can spend more time talking about the relationships he built with the men who occupied the refuge and the things he did with them. In this choice, I really feel like he fails his readers, who I imagine are mostly picking up this book out of curiosity about the larger movement and Malhuer's place within it.

Pogue also stumbles in his organization of the book. Perhaps if I'd been reading a hard copy rather than an e-book, it might have been easier to flip back and forth and have a better sense of who he was talking about when, but Pogue tends to introduce a person (and there's a fairly large cast of them) and then go on to never again place them in context. For some of the more prominent people, like the Bundy brothers and LaVoy Finecum (who was ultimately killed), that's probably not necessary, but I kept forgetting who everyone was and their relationships (if any) to each other. He also jumbles his timelines quite a bit between Malhuer, Bunkerville, and a smaller incident he highlights involving a dispute over a mining claim. He's constantly ping-ponging back and forth in time and place without re-orienting his reader and it's confusing.

I know that's a lot of negativity, but I didn't hate the book. I mostly was disappointed in it...Pogue is talented at his work and paints a captivating portrait of Ammon Bundy in particular, as well as Finecum. His reporting for Vice about these events is very worth reading, and I can understand why he was able to pitch a book on the strength of it. I don't regret having read it, but I wish it had undergone more vigorous editing and done a better job of illuminating the environment in which the takeover took place. Instead we get stories about how Pogue understands why people value public lands so much after he takes a bunch of drugs while he camps in BLM land. Instead of reading this book, I'd recommend finding his original articles, which cover much the same territory without feeling like a padded-out term paper.

One year ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Collections

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a genre freebie, so we get to chose our own topics! As I've written about before around here, essay and short story collections don't tend to be my favorites...but that doesn't mean they all need to go in the trash bin. There are some great ones out there, and in a time when you might find yourself more easily distractable than ever, they make good books to pick up and put down.



Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: Mindy Kaling's writing style is breezy and relatable, and these essays about her life and the kinds of things that preoccupy 20somethign women are amusing and enjoyable. 

Me Talk Pretty One Day: It's hard to go wrong with a David Sedaris collection...he's so witty and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny a way that's rare for me reading something in print.

Bossypants: I love Tina Fey's sense of humor, and while not every essay in this collection is a total winner, overall it's one of the funnier books by comedians I've read!

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: I love pop culture, and refuse to apologize for loving it, and if you're the same way, Chuck Klosterman may be for you.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: This collection by Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen explores the way society punishes women for stepping outside of the social boundaries it otherwise sets.


Battleborn: I have to admit that I'm biased towards a story collection set in and figured in the state where I live (Nevada), but this is truly an amazing piece of work.

A Visit From the Goon Squad: This is billed as a novel, but it's much more a collection of short stories so that's what I'm calling it. Anyways, it's very very good.

The Things They Carried: I'm not usually very into war narratives, but this collection about a group of soldiers during the Vietnam War is a classic for a reason.

There There: This is another one that calls itself a novel but is actually interlinked stories from various perspectives and features some absolutely incredible writing.

Olive Kitteridge: I am from small-town America, so this collection about a little town in Maine and a difficult woman who lives there really resonated with me.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book 225: Sex At Dawn



 
"The anachronistic presumption that women have always bartered their sexual favors to individual men in return for help with child care, food, protection, and the rest of it collapses upon contact with the many societies where women feel no need to negotiate such deals. Rather than a plausible explanation for how we got to be the way we are, the standard narrative is exposed as contemporary moralistic bias packaged to look like science and then projected upon the distant screen of prehistory, rationalizing the present while obscuring the past." 

Dates read: April 14-17, 2018

Rating: 6/10

The general proposition that men and women think different ways, and value different things, seems undeniable. Men have more testosterone in their system, and women have more estrogen, and both biochemicals have impacts on our nervous systems. But is it as easy as the old cliche about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Do all men really just want to get out there and propagate their genes, while all women want to hunker down and raise their children? I think most of us would say of course not, that's a reductive and stereotyped way to think about human behavior, but it's hard to get out of our minds anyways.

In the field of evolutionary psychology, there's a basic proposition that seems to be taken as a fundamental tenet. In any male-female pair bond, the two halves have diametrically opposed interests. Men, in an effort to spread their DNA as widely as possible, are interested in multiple casual affairs, and are most threatened by physical infidelity, because it might mean they are duped into spending their resources on what are actually the offspring of other men. Women, on the other hand, have to invest heavily in each of their children because the energy-intensive gestation and feeding of infants falls to them. They want relationships that last so that they're able to ensure the best environment for their kids, and are most threatened by emotional infidelity, because it might lure away their partner for good. In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and his co-author, Cacilda Jetha, critically examine these ideas by looking at the behavior of our nearest animal relatives to come to an entirely different conclusion.

The way Ryan and Jetha see it, humans are naturally polyamorous and best served in a group where sex is exchanged frequently and without possession or jealousy. They make the point that while researchers searching for the roots of human behavior often compare humans to chimpanzees because of the closeness of the genetic relationship, we're equally as closely related to bonobos, who have much different social structures. They look to these and other members of the ape family as they compare and contrast things like vaginal position, common copulatory positions, size and shape of the male reproductive organs, and female vocalizations during intercourse (and more) in an effort to determine how human sexuality has actually evolved over time and what it means for society today.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I thought they made some good arguments, but the language often got a little jokey informal trying-to-be-cool. Either you're trying to make a serious argument or you're trying to write a book aiming at a pretty low common denominator to get more sales, and this seemed like it was trying to be both. It's possible to write about important concepts in an accessible way, I just wrote about how well Silent Spring did that exact thing, but this doesn't hit the mark. I also thought they came off a little one-sided in their highlighting of the few examples of cultures that don't subscribe to the monogamous or polygamous models, portraying them as nearly utopian. The reality is that for most people in most cultures in modern history, marriages are between one man and one woman with the expectation of exclusivity. That hasn't always worked well in practice, but it's likely that even members of cultures that don't follow the mainstream experience unhappiness and strife in their personal relationships. More frustratingly, they don't really present a solution beyond "burn it all down and start over". It's an interesting look at the other side of evolutionary psychology, if you enjoy that sort of thing, but I wouldn't recommend it widely or whole-heartedly.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Three years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Four years ago, I was reading: Private Citizens

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Spring 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is another seasonal TBR. It's officially spring as of Thursday, so let's look at the books I'll be reading over the next several weeks (or maybe faster, if I'm stuck at home without much else to do for any extended period of time!).



The Magical Language of Others: This is a memoir by a woman whose Korean parents, after having immigrated to America with their children, went back to South Korea and left them behind...her mother wrote her letters, and Koh went back and re-read them as an adult to try to make sense of it all. This sounds heart-wrenching and amazing.

White Teeth: I've somehow never read Zadie Smith before, and this story about two war buddies coming back to England and changing as the world changes sounds like a great place to start.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: This environmental non-fiction won a Pulitzer, so I'll read it.

Shatter Me: I don't read much YA, but this book is supposed to be fun and I could use some brain candy right now.

The Perfect Son: I'm a sucker for a family saga and this one has very solid reviews.

A Beginning at the End: I would actually probably skip this pandemic-based post-apocalyptic story right now but I feel bad enough about being late to get to this review copy!

Cutting for Stone: Another family saga! This one has been recommended by people I trust so I'm going to try it out.

Bird Box: I've had this hanging out on my Kindle forever, long before the Netflix movie came out, and I'm finally going to get around to reading it!

The Son: I'd heard good things about Jo Nesbo's work and found this one secondhand before I found the first of his Harry Hole series so figured I might as well start here.

The Weight of Silence: This was a book that looked good during a browse of what was on sale for the Kindle, so we'll see how it plays out (suspense isn't always my fave).

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Book 224: The Color Of Water



"The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It's what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem."

Dates read: April 11-14, 2018

Rating: 8/10

When we're little, parents are like gods. Their word is law. They take care of us, make sure we are clean and fed and loved. They have the magic to heal the ouchies. But eventually we find out that they're just people, after all. They have flaws, and scars, and demons of their own, and sometimes even when they do their best it doesn't work out. Realizing the humanity of your parents is a little bit scary and a little bit comforting.

When he was young, James McBride's mother, Ruth, wouldn't talk about her own life. He knew there was something different about her, but when he tried to figure out why he was the only black kid he knew with a white mom, she would brush him off by telling him she was light-skinned. Eventually, though, she relented and told him her story, of how a little girl born Jewish in Poland, the daughter of a rabbi, came to marry a black man, have eight kids, become a widow, marry another black man, have four more kids, and then become a widow again, leaving her with twelve children, all of whom graduated from college despite the family's poverty. McBride sets her story against his own recollections of his childhood in his memoir, The Color of Water.

They're both extraordinary stories: Ruth's for its sheer improbability, and James's for being the kind that you'd think would end up one way that actually ends another. James' story has plenty of struggle and heartbreak, but Ruth's is just heartbreaking. Everytime you think it can't get much worse for her, there's another twist and worse it gets. And somehow it ends well, with Ruth being the last in her family to finally get the chance to go to college and graduate and James as an acclaimed writer. It's a testament to resilience, of refusing to let your lowest moments define and drown you, of defying the voices that would dismiss you and discount your worth.

But it's also just very good writing. McBride's juxtaposition of his experience of his childhood against his mother's early life is balanced, neither story feels as though it is given the short shrift in favor of the other. He renders his mother's story in what feels like essentially her own words, not flinching from the difficult parts, of which there are many. Much of this is heavy stuff (interested potential readers should know there's sexual abuse, abortion, death, and racism herein), but while he doesn't sugar-coat it, neither does he dwell on it in the way that books about hard lives sometimes do. Ruth is a woman who came through a lot of terrible things and carved out happiness for herself in a world that did not want to give her any. And though he was raised with much more love and care than his mother was, McBride's own upbringing was still challenging and he managed to come through it, too.

Memoir can be a hit-and-miss category, for me. Not everyone's life story is all that dynamic or engaging for anyone outside of it, and even if it is, so much depends on the skill of the telling of it. But when executed well, as this is, it can be an enlightening window into a realm of experience outside of our own. I don't necessarily know that this is a book for every reader...there's a lot of darkness here, and while it does end well, there's not necessarily a sense of triumph and uplift to counterbalance it. For me, this is part of why this book works, because it doesn't seek to lionize its subjects or turn itself into a paint-by-numbers tale of conquering adversity, but for other readers that might be hard to deal with. But I do think it's a book that should be read, and I do recommend it, so if what I've written here intrigues you, definitely pick it up!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Court Justice

Three years ago, I was reading: City of Thieves

Four years ago, I was reading: Sex with the Queen

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Bookish Twitter Follows

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, the topic is technically authors who have a fun social media presence. But I'm a bad book blogger, because I don't actually follow very many authors on social media. So there aren't quite ten here (only eight), and they aren't all necessarily authors. But they're all book-type people!



Roxane Gay: Not everyone loves Roxane's twitter feed...she posts quite a bit, and definitely doesn't let people get away with talking back to her. But I find her voice incredibly smart and often very funny (and sometimes not, but that's everyone, right?).

Celeste Ng: She posts quite a bit not just about her books/books in general but also about the news and our world and I really enjoy reading what she has to say.

Connor Goldsmith: He's a literary agent who does a lot of A+ pop culture tweeting alongside stuff about his work.

Anne Theriault: I think she has written a book, but she also writes longform articles (my favorites are about old-school royalty, Queens of Infamy) and tweets frequently about her life, her mental health, and her son, who sounds like a great kid!

Mignon Fogarty: She's Grammar Girl, so obviously a great resource, but I have to give an extra special shout-out to a fellow Northern Nevadan!

Maris Kreizman: She created the truly fantastic Slaughterhouse 90210 tumblr (and book!), was on staff of Book of the Month for a while there, and remains in the general literary realm. I don't always agree with her taste in books but she always has something interesting to say!

Alexandra Petri: Columnist, author, hilarious.

Rachel Hawkins: Her Sexy History twitter series was fantastic, both laugh-out-loud and informative. I also enjoy her tweets about the realities of being an author!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Book 223: Silent Spring



"To the public, the choice may easily appear to be one of stark simplicity: Shall we have birds or shall we have elms? But it is not as simple as that, and by one of the ironies that abound throughout the field of chemical control, we may very well end by having neither if we continue on our present, well-traveled road. Spraying is killing the birds but it is not saving the elms." 

Dates read: April 8-11, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

A sound that never fails to bring me straight back into my childhood is the nighttime song of spring peepers. I never thought I'd miss the high-pitched chorus emanating from the marshland behind us loud enough to be heard through even closed windows, but sometimes I long for it with an intensity that's hard to describe. They don't exist out here in the arid West, though they're widespread in the more humid regions of the country. At least, they are now. But like all wildlife, they're vulnerable to the decisions made by humans and could very well disappear one day.

The capacity for humans to not think through the ramifications of their choices on the environment and destroy it without meaning to do so inspired Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring. In it, she traces the links between the rising use of pesticides and insecticides and the devastating consequences it has had for animal life in areas where application is wide-spread. Worse yet, it often doesn't accomplish the desired effect in the long term, which just encourages even heavier use. She doesn't flinch away from the fact that humans are animals, too, and highlights the issues that can arise for the people who live in the often-rural and therefore less-seen communities where these poisons are used most significantly. And since these people frequently eat locally-sourced meat and fish, the problem of biological magnification (animals eating food that has its own level of exposure, compounding with each step up the food chain) becomes even more pressing for them.

Carson writes all of this in strong, clear prose that first explains the concepts she's introducing and then illustrates them with examples of the devastating effects of poisons that are marketed as safe and effective on life, from plants all the way up to people. She doesn't condescend and though her urgency is clear, it doesn't feel alarmist or like a scare tactic. Instead, she presents her case that we need to start paying attention and questioning what we're told rigorously but understandably. Science writing often veers into the esoteric, and this book should be used an exemplar for how to write for the popular market without getting bogged down in details or sidetracked into areas more consequential for the author than the reader.

This book's continuing relevance even after it led to the the ban of DDT, the chemical she primarily discusses, is a result of both Carson's skill as a writer and the impact her work managed to have on the public. Not only did it take DDT off the market, it blazed the path that eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon. Imaging a book being so popular and espousing its cause so effectively that it led to the creation of a new federal agency in today's world seems preposterous. All of that being said, this book wasn't an unqualified success for me. After a while, her constant use of examples of a chemical being introduced and the death of wildlife that followed started to feel repetitive, blunting its impact. And I found myself a bit skeptical of the rosiness with which she portrayed the alternative option of importing predators for invasive species control...to the best of my understanding, that can have harmful side effects of its own. All in all, though, this book is readable, relevant, and worth a perusal before you go nuts with the Round-Up on the dandelions.

One year ago, I was reading: If Beale Street Could Talk (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Three years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Four years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books With Single-Word Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl!This week, we're talking about books with one-word titles. I thought about doing my least favorite single-word titled reads, but decided to be positive about it so here are some of my favorites!



Less: I was reluctant to read this when it was a book club pick, but I wound up just adoring this story about a middle-aged man on a trip around the world to escape having to attend his younger ex's wedding.

Wicked: I picked up this book, which tells the "real story" of the Wicked Witch of the West, for the first time in high school and have loved it ever since, through many re-reads. I also love the musical!

Twilight: Shut up, I know this book (and the whole series) are objectively not great. But I found them very enjoyable to read despite my own better instincts, and I've re-read them all more than once.

Musicophilia: I talk pretty often about my love for Oliver Sacks' most famous book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I also really enjoy this one, about the ways that music effects the brain.

Blindness: Bleak and kind of depressing and no quotation marks to indicate speech so a little confusing to read at first, but so incredibly good.

Stardust: I love fairy-tale-esque stories and Neil Gaiman's trademark wit makes this one a real treat!

Prep: This book plunged me so powerfully back into adolescence it was almost physically uncomfortable to read but so well-executed.

Gilead: I am not religious, and had previously not cared for a book by Marilynne Robinson, so my expectations going into this book were low. It seemed like I was going to be right through the early going but it eventually cast its spell on me and I found it intensely moving.

Battleborn: I'm not generally into short stories, but this Nevada-centric collection really blew me away!

Americanah: Such an incredible, rich book with amazing characters and powerful themes and beautiful prose.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Month In The Life: February 2020



Happy Leap Day! It's March tomorrow, but the weather lately seems to be convinced that it's proper springtime...for the past few weeks we've been seeing highs in the 50s and even 60s! Flowers are starting to bloom! Of course it's this winter, when I'm not commuting to Carson City five days a week, that we're having this mild weather. It seems inevitable that there's more snow and cold in our future but I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

In Books...
  • Perfume: This book was...strange, more than anything. It's about an amoral young man born in France in the Middle Ages without a personal scent but an extraordinarily powerful sense of smell and his quest to make the most beautiful perfume in the world. This requires the murders of young women. It's very odd and sometimes repellent but strangely compelling.
  • Whores of the Devil: This is a non-fiction book chronicling witch-hunts (and witch-hunters) throughout history, and the title should have been my tip-off that it was going to go in a highly sensationalized direction. There was a LOT of editorializing going on as well, with little in terms of overarching structure to tie things together. It's not good.
  • Funny Girl: I really loved About A Boy and High Fidelity, but I was starting to wonder if I'd ever read a Hornby that was actually good instead of just alright again. This one, which tells the story of actress Sophie Straw and the people she works with on the opposites-attract sitcom Barbara (and Jim), is not quite a full return to form but comes very close: sweet, funny, and with sparkling dialogue. 
  • The (Hidden) Lives of Tudor Women: I am a real sucker for nonfiction about the Tudor period, especially anything about royalty. This book tries to marry a chronological look at the period with Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man in a way that isn't always successful, but it's interesting information and engaging...at least, if you're into this sort of thing.  
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously: As someone who was a voracious reader as a child, went through a period of reading very little, and then got back into books myself, this memoir by Andy Miller recounting a very similar experience was something I was predisposed to like. It's not anything memorable, but it's pleasant enough to read.
  • The Holdout: I've always been fascinated by juries, so this legal thriller about a sequestered jury which renders a controversial verdict and then is reunited a decade later only for murder to ensue seemed right up my alley. It's one of those where you have to turn your brain off a little, the main character behaves in ways that are so dumb for a person in her position that it's not believable. It's entertaining enough, though, until an ending twist that landed with a thud.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad: I am going to go ahead and officially acknowledge that the "interconnected short stories" genre of literature is not one I enjoy. This book does it about as well as it can be done...Jennifer Egan is super talented and engages in some interesting experiments with form. But some segments are weaker than others (the last story fell pretty flat for me) and I really wish it was just an actual novel.



In Life...
  • My mom came to visit: For her birthday (which was yesterday!), my mom made a trip out west to visit the people who are important to her...which obviously includes me and her son-in-law. She was only in town for a few days but we had a nice dinner and a fun brunch and (of course!) a trip to the bookstore. We also saw the new Little Women, which I loved so much.

One Thing:

I work in the political sphere, but I am not at all inclined to run for office myself. But I absolutely understand the obstacles in the way of women who do...one of which is the sheer cost of looking professional all the time. Which is why this move from M.M. LaFleur (a retailer which I have never purchased from, mostly because my job doesn't require business formal attire outside of 4 months every other year during session) is so great: they will help outfit ladies running for office with the kind of clothes they need to be taken seriously. This is an awesome move!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Book 222: Outline



"It is interesting how keen people are for you to do something they would never dream of doing themselves, how enthusiastically they drive you to your own destruction: even the kindest ones, the ones that are most loving, can rarely have your interests truly at heart, because they are usually advising you from within lives of greater security and greater confinement, where escape is not a reality but simply something they dream of sometimes. Perhaps, he said, we all are like animals in the zoo, and once we see that one of us has got out of the enclosure we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost." 

Dates read: April 6-8, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Every so often, I wake up and am confused about where I am. Why is the sun coming through the windows in that way? Why am I not in my childhood room, in the bed I slept in until I graduated high school? Or the one from my third year of law school, to this day my favorite apartment I've ever lived in? It doesn't happen regularly, but on the occasions it does I have to remind myself that I'm not 17 and needing to get into the shower so I won't be late for school, or that I'm not in Tuscaloosa anymore, that was literally a decade ago now. That I'm me, the me that exists right now, and I'm exactly where I was when I went to sleep last night.

That feeling of poignant unreality permeates Rachel Cusk's Outline, which follows Faye, a British woman recently divorced and in Greece to teach a week-long writing course over the summer. The book consists of ten conversations that she has with other people, starting with her seat neighbor on the flight over (with whom she continues to interact during the week) and ending with the next person staying in the apartment she's been put up in. In between, she talks to old friends, new friends, and her class about subjects ranging from animals to marriage and divorce. Well, more like gets talked at rather than talks to. Faye is not a big participant in these conversations, and so what we get about her is...wait for it...mostly an outline, defined more by what's going on around her than anything we see of her interiority.

This isn't an easy book to write about, because there's not a lot of "there" there. Virtually nothing happens, and since Faye is such a cipher and only her airplane seat neighbor makes more than one appearance, there's nothing to speak of in terms of character building or development. Instead, we're left with admittedly lovely writing and a lot of meditation on themes. Dislocation/unreality, processing trauma, illusions, and an unexpectedly heavy emphasis on marital relationships are explored throughout the book, and at the end, Faye heads home and back to her life in the UK without any sense that this week in her life has meant anything.

I can appreciate a book with an unconventional narrative structure, but this one never quite came together for me. Cusk uses language beautifully, you can feel while you read it that each word, each phrase was chosen with care. But the way she sacrificed plot and character development to focus exclusively on theme makes this feel like a writing exercise more than a book. There's not a story here, really. There are just words.

This isn't to say there's nothing of value here. The first section of the book, the first conversation, in which Faye and her seat neighbor discuss his personal life and children and divorces, is by itself a masterful short story. And there are moments of brilliance in her descriptions...Faye finding herself thrown off-balance at the acceleration of a motor boat captured a sensation I've personally experienced many times before in a way that resonated powerfully. And some of the people in my book club, for which I read this one, really connected with it. But all I can offer here are my personal reactions and review, and for me, this didn't work. I can't recommend it, but if it's something that intrigues you, I won't warn you away from it either.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato

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

Four years ago, I was reading: The Guest Room

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Follow On Social Media

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is characters that we would follow on social media. But of course, social media comes in different flavors, so I've divided my list into those I'd follow on Instagram and ones I'd follow on Twitter instead.



Instagram

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): I am sort-of cheating here, because the Emma retelling I read (and liked!) last year, Polite Society, wrote its central character as a social media influencer...which is perfect because it's exactly what she'd be doing!

Francis Abernathy (The Secret History): Francis would be the type to post mostly (amazing) outfit-of-the-day photos, with occasional picture of the exclusive things and places his wealth allows him access to.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): Bridget seems like the kind of messy friend that it can be fun to keep up with through social media. She would post lots of pictures of drinks with captions that probably overshared in an entertaining way.

Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby): A socialite who married rich, Daisy would be all about showing off the glittering exteriors to hide the hollowness of it all.

Lily Bart (The House of Mirth): She's basically trying to sell herself in marriage, and what better way to do that than to be the classiest kind of insta-model she could be?

Twitter

Lizzy Bennett (Pride and Prejudice): I'll be honest, I am not a super Lizzy fangirl. But she is definitely witty and could be very entertaining in 280 character bursts.

Ifemelu (Americanah): She would be the queen of those long strings of tweets that manage to somehow blow up the things you think you know and give you an entirely new perspective.

Catherine/Birdy (Catherine, Called Birdy): Quality teen snark.

Yunior (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao): The high-energy, pop culture reference-heavy way that Yunior tells the story would make for very entertaining tweeting.

Amy Dunne (Gone Girl): Anyone who could produce the Cool Girl speech could kill it on Twitter. I feel like she would mostly scroll and judge to herself, but every once in a while would give a truly inspired rant.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book 221: Sophia of Silicon Valley



"Minutes later, my phone rang. I knew it was Scott calling about the Time cover, so I hesitated to answer—one ring, two rings, three. I knew if I didn’t pick up the phone, though, forcing Scott to hold in his anger, he would really blow an epic gasket when the inevitable happened. Better to let him yell now. As I slowly brought the cell phone up to my ear, I could already hear him screaming." 

Dates read: April 3-6

Rating: 2/10

I'm always a little skeptical when a book (or movie, or whatever) tries to sell itself as the next [insert popular title here]. I understand why they do it...if you compare your work to a super hit, you'll catch the eye of people who loved that thing. But it so often sets the consumer up for disappointment. It usually winds up that the thing that people loved about the initial product wasn't its subject, themes, or plot, but something about the voice, or its unexpectedness, or the style. Even though I've been burned, though, I often can't help myself from picking up something that's described as an "if you loved" for one of my favorites.

When I saw the pitch for Anna Yen's Sophia of Silicon Valley as a "The Devil Wears Prada meets the tech industry", I was intrigued. Silicon Valley, with its constant promises of disruption and reinvention and outsized personalities, is ripe for satire. Yen, like ex-Vogue-assistant Lauren Weisberger before her, has insider bona fides: she came through stints at Pixar and Tesla, and continues to work in the field. Maybe it's the latter that keeps the book from reaching the heights of Prada, or indeed, any heights at all. This book isn't just not great, it's actively bad.

Sophia Young, our extremely-thinly-veiled author insert, is the younger daughter of wealthy Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco. She has type 1 diabetes, which she mentions more often than Stacy does in The Babysitters Club, and is therefore babied by the parents she's returned to live with after college. She starts work in finance, but when it turns out the glamour she'd hoped for in this field doesn't materialize, her interest flags and she's fired shortly thereafter. With the help of a friend, she gets a job as a paralegal at a prestigious law firm for a demanding partner (despite having no training for the role) and finds that she enjoys and is good at the work. Even with long hours, she meets a guy she likes and they find time to build a relationship, and Sophia starts dreaming about their future. Then she meets Scott Kraft, one of the firm's clients, who's starting up an animated film studio called Treehouse with a first feature about toys who come alive, and her world turns upside down.

Scott hires Sophia to come on to Treehouse to do investor relations and assist with the launching of the company's initial public offering. Scott, always in his trademark black turtleneck, is demanding and often unreasonable but a genius at what he does and not without a sense of humor, and Sophia learns from him as she spends a couple years with the company. The first boyfriend dumps her after their relationship deteriorates, but she meets another one not too long after, a handsome doctor who understands her crazy schedule and devotion to her career. The industry moves too quickly for Sophia to settle down in either her personal or professional lives, though, and after two years she makes a jump to an up-and-coming company called Ion, which makes cars and has a side line working on a space launch. Can she develop a relationship with CEO Andre Stark like the one she had with Scott? Will her relationship survive the tumult? Will she ever be like her sister and have a family of her own?

In a book like this, the protagonist needs to be relatable. The reader needs to feel like she's seeing this strange world through outsider eyes, needs to like and root for the heroine to prevail. And in this, it was an abysmal failure for me. Sophia starts out from a position of enormous privilege: her parents are rich, willing to support her, and their home is literally featured in magazines. She can afford to fail, so there's nothing really riding on her success except for her own sense of self-worth, which isn't nothing but also isn't very high stakes. On top of that, she's kind of awful. She calls her friends in the middle of their workdays to brag about the opulent hotels she stays at for work and sulks when none of them want to coo over it. Her opposing desires to find a husband and have kids and to professionally achieve at the highest level are understandable and something many women in their 20s and 30s go through, but she doesn't seem to want both at the same time as much as she wants one and then the other and punishes the men she dates for either not committing or trying to hold her back depending on how she feels that day. I found her deeply irritating.

On top of that, the promised "satire" and "humor" never develops. She doesn't take the piss out of the Steve Jobs or Elon Musk stand-ins, she hero-worships them (particularly the former) and excuses their bad behavior as a side product of their intelligence and innovation. There's never a sense that she finds them or the industry as a whole ridiculous. She plays nothing for laughs, nor does she puncture any bubbles. That Yen continues to be a player in the field almost certainly plays into her unwillingness to poke at its uncomfortable spots...she doesn't want to upset her own apple cart. And while keeping your eye on your own bottom line is understandable, don't try to sell your uninspired writing as a hilarious send-up if you're not willing to spill a little tea. I hated this book and do not recommend it to anyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Selfish Gene

Three years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Books I Really Enjoyed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're actually meant to be talking about books that gave us "hangovers"...you know, the kind where you finish it and it's so good that you have a hard time getting into your next read because you can't get it out of your head. As a devoted schedule reader (rather than mood reader), I don't really get book hangovers, so I'm twisting this just a bit to be the last books that I really got into.



Columbine: This is a hard book to say one "enjoyed" per se, but it's an incredible piece of journalism about an event that is misunderstood in important ways that have a continuing effect on our culture.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: I'd seen the movie, of course, so I thought this would be similar: kind of lightweight, enjoyable, not especially memorable. But in Tom Ripley, Highsmith created a fascinating villain and I really want to read the sequels!

Marie Antoinette: She's often held up as a symbol of the worst excesses of pre-French Revolution Europe, but this biography tears down the myths and reveals her as a woman whose own faults didn't help anything but was mostly caught up in forces beyond her control from the moment she came to France.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: One of those books you finish and immediately want to read again, telling a multigenerational Dominican (and then Dominican-American) story about a family curse with bright, vivid language.

Battleborn: I don't even particularly care for short stories, but this collection about Nevada was incredible.

Daisy Jones and the Six: I read this before the hype exploded and then became a participant in the hype, because the Behind The Music-style story of a band whose blood and tears created a classic album before it all came crashing down again was impossible to put down.

Bad Blood: We are living in a new era of fraudsters, and Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos were one of the highest-profile ones of all. A fascinating behind-the-scenes look of how the company got so big despite being based on total lies...and how it was all revealed.

Astonish Me: I am a sucker for ballet books, but was a little hesitant because I'd not enjoyed Shipstead's other novel. This one, though, was a treat: it beautifully balances a domestic story about a family against the drama of the exclusive world of ballet and totally captured my attention.

The Winter of the Witch: I loved the first two books and was so worried that the conclusion of the trilogy would falter, but I was wrong to doubt Arden. It was a perfect ending to an incredible story.

Once Upon A River: A historical fiction tale that celebrates storytelling, as a young girl is brought nearly dead into an English tavern and is claimed by several families, any or none of which might be her own.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book 220: Freedom



"This wasn't the person he'd thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to chose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones."

Dates read: March 30- April 3, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition), The New York Times bestseller

Something that seems to come up fairly frequently in profiles of successful people is that they have a daily uniform. Like Steve Jobs' constant black turtleneck and jeans, many of them report that not having to think about what they're going to wear every day frees up their minds for "more important" things. It's a concept called decision fatigue...the more decisions you have to make, the worse (over time) you get at making them logically. For me, deciding what to wear is enjoyable, but I do eat almost the exact same thing every day because food isn't that interesting to me. Cutting unnecessary choices out of your life does make things a lot simpler.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom isn't very subtle: he tells you the major theme of the book right there in the title. It's the story of a family, headed by Walter and Patty Berglund, and how it comes to be and how (of course) it begins to fray. It begins with a short, third-party history of their residence in a newly-gentrifying neighborhood in Saint Paul, which begins when they're young, energetic newlyweds, and continues through their raising of two children, Jennifer and Joey, the latter of whom causes quite a bit of grapevine drama when he takes sides against his own family in a growing border war with their neighbors. Just about as soon as the kids are out of high school and off to college, the parental Berglunds pick up and leave suddenly, and several years later in the newspaper their former neighbors read that Walter's gotten into a bit of a professional dust-up. So right from the beginning, we know that something is rotten in the state of Minnesota.

We then go back and time and get Patty's life story, in which she always feels like an outsider in her ambitious upstate New York family, culminating in her parents' refusal to do anything when she's raped by the son of a powerful neighbor. She flees on an athletic scholarship to Minnesota, where she develops a friendship with a disturbed classmate, through whom she meets musician Richard Katz and his roommate, Walter Berglund. Though Richard and Patty are interested in each other, Walter is also interested in Patty, and though he "gets" the girl, the attraction between his wife and his best friend lingers. We also move forward to Richard, Walter, and Joey's perspectives after their move out of Minnesota, and how each struggles with freedom as opposed to stablility, and the consequences of exercising choices that become available.

Jonathan Franzen as a human being is not my favorite. But as a writer, he is undeniably talented. Freedom wrestles with some weighty stuff: 9/11, environmentalism, corporate philanthropy, temptation, infidelity, the way family patterns repeat over generations, sexual assault, selling out, forgiveness. That's a lot for one book, even a long-ish one, to tackle. But for the most part, he pulls it off. Though I didn't necessarily always like the characters he created, I almost always found them compelling and interesting. Though some of the plot schemes he tangles them up veer towards the ridiculous, he mines them for emotional truth well enough that they stay on the good side of the line of believability.

There are some missteps, though. I found some of his decisions regarding Patty's trajectory baffling. Her rape doesn't seem like a character-informing experience for her, serving rather as an explanation to write her parents out of the book until there can be a rapprochement at the end to bring things full circle. And her college friend Eliza's obsession with her also seemed underbaked...it never really went anywhere besides serving as her introduction to Richard. The balance of Patty's story rounded her out, but the way he wrote Connie (Joey's childhood sweetheart) never made sense to me. She's not a person, she's a symbol, as was Lalitha, a young colleague of Walter's who becomes besotted with him. Maybe our cultural moment just has me primed to see underlying misogyny better than I used to, but I can't deny that it's here and it was part of what kept me from being fully absorbed in the novel. It's good, very good even, and I would recommend it with the caveat that if you're looking for strong female characters, you won't find them here.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Three years ago, I was reading: Zealot

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Non-Romantic Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! As usual for the week of Valentine's Day, this is a love freebie. I've written about couples for the past several years for this prompt, so this time I'm switching it up. Here are ten of my favorite deeply bonded pairs who certainly love each other, but not in that way.



Harry and Ron (Harry Potter): The relationship chronicled over the seven books of the series between our hero and his best friend is complicated and rich and more thoroughly developed than either of their romantic lives.

Meg and Charles Wallace (The Wind in the Door): The connection between these two siblings is beautifully rendered and significant in all the books in the series, but particularly in the second one, where Meg has to save his life.

Vasya and Solovey (The Bear and the Nightingale): We've all heard enough jokes about horse girls to recognize the strength of the bond between young women and their equines, but Solovey isn't just any horse and I really enjoyed the bickering and love between these two.

Joe and Sammy (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay): The artistic partnership between these two cousins has ups and down but is rooted in mutual admiration and care that pays off deeply in the end.

Francie and Johnny (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Johnny is a warm-hearted, charismatic addict, which makes him a terrible husband and a bad provider, but the easy, straightforward love he's able to show his sweet, bookish daughter is a lovely thing.

Becky and Amelia (Vanity Fair): Becky is a fascinating character, with her scheming and lack of morals. She's not a good friend in the conventional sense, but she does care about the docile Amelia in her own way, and their friendship is both interesting and of an uncommon sort.

Boris and Popper (The Goldfinch): One of the things I found most delightful about this book was the bond between protagonist Theo's crazy Eastern European best friend and the little dog he ends up liberating from his stepmother. These two were my favorite characters in the book, honestly.

Legolas and Gimli (The Lord of the Rings): The longstanding disdain between elves and dwarves means these two are often at each other's throats in the beginning, but the grudging respect and then genuine friendship that grows between them is often a more light-hearted highlight in an otherwise often serious series.

Annemarie and Helen (Number the Stars): I loved this book growing up, not in the least because of the warm, close friendship between gentile Annemarie and Jewish Helen and how it helps give both of them the strength for the former's family to help the latter's escape.

Lyra and Iorek (The Golden Compass): She's one of my favorite literary characters, and the way she earns the admiration and friendship of the king of the armored bears with her quick wits and bold lies is one of the reasons why.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Book 219: Of Human Bondage



"He yearned above all things for experience and felt himself ridiculous because at his age he had not enjoyed that which all fiction taught him was the most important thing in life; but he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were, and the reality which was offered him differed too terribly from the ideal of his dreams." 

Dates read: March 25-30, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Sometimes I think about my younger self and I want to shake that girl by the shoulders. I took myself so seriously, took the world so seriously. I was so sure of things, and while I do sometimes miss that clarity of certainty, I think I'm happier now. I tend towards the "control freak" side of things, and the more steps I take towards letting go of that need to be in charge of everything, to know where it's all heading, the more relief I feel and the better able I am to roll with the punches. I wish I could tell that girl that I was how to loosen up a little bit, how to think a little more broadly...but maybe all that can really teach those lessons is time.

Anyone who's ever taken themselves too seriously will recognize a kindred soul in Philip Carey of W. Somerset Maughum's Of Human Bondage. We meet him when he's still a child and very recently orphaned, going from a relatively privileged life with his mother to a much sparser one with his aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a pastor in a small town in the British countryside. Scared a bit by his distant uncle, he escapes into books and becomes a voracious reader. The next year, he's sent to boarding school, where his disability (he has a clubfoot, which gives him a limp), combined with his shyness and senstitivity, makes for a generally unhappy experience. He becomes passionately religious and plans on a career in the clergy, but when his prayers for a cure for his foot are unanswered, he loses both his faith and his direction in life.

He goes to Germany briefly, comes back to England and tries being an accountant, which doesn't take, then to France to study art, then back to England again, where he decides to settle down and study medicine, which was his father's career. But all his indecision has driven down his available resources so he'll need to live very modestly until he's a doctor and can start earning a living...and then he meets Mildred. Despite Philip's self-pity, he's had a few relationships with women at this point, and is actually in a good one, when he meets the waitress his friend has a crush on. Philip becomes obsessed with her, despite her obvious disinterest in him and lack of social skills. His situation eventually becomes desperate, but with some kindness and a bit of luck, it resolves itself.

If you've been reading here for a while, you know I'm a die-hard never-DNF (did not finish). This has lead to my spending my time reading books that I hated or worse, bored me silly, and I very much understand why other people do put down books that aren't working for them. But even though it does backfire on me sometimes, other times it pays off to stick with a book, and this was one of those instances. About halfway through it, I was sick of Philip and his moping and the garbage way he treated women and his refusal to understand that as wonderful as self-discovery is, there's no money in it. The whole book is his story of growing up, and he was so grating that I wasn't at all invested in him or rooting for him to succeed. But then he starts to mature, puts his head down and works hard, uses his own hard-earned life lessons and experiences to be a good doctor to the people he sees. And by the end of it, when he does find some measure of happiness and chooses to do the harder, better thing, I couldn't have been happier for him if he were an actual person and a friend at that.

I've always been a character-over-plot type of reader, and this book is all the former...the only major outside event is the Boer War, which happens late in the book and while it does have an impact on Philip, it's pretty far removed from the central themes of the coming-of-age story. In some ways, it suffers for its fixation on Philip...like I said above, he can be a hard character to really sympathize with, particularly early on. But the payoff in the back half is real, and seeing him grow as a person is really rewarding. This is a good book, a very good one even, but it may not be the right book for every reader. If you're looking for a dynamic plot, or lack the patience for/interest in a long-term character study, this probably isn't going to be something you enjoy. If you've read what I've written and are intrigued, though, I highly suggest you get ahold of it...it'll be a rewarding experience!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sellout

Three years ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR I Predict Will Be 5-Star Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books that we haven't read yet, but are pretty sure we're going to love. I actually rate very few books five stars because only ones I find really spectacular get that rating...something that's very good and I really like just as often only gets four stars because it just doesn't have that extra bit of magic. These ones, though, I think are going to hit that five-star rating...both fiction and non-fiction!



Know My Name: I've heard nothing but glowing reviews of this memoir from Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted by Brock Miller. I'm sure it'll be heavy, but it seems like the kind of thing I will really get a lot from.

Just Mercy: As a recovering lawyer, I have mixed feelings on legal books...my personal connection with the subject area can be a blessing or a curse. From what I've heard about how good this is, I'm thinking it'll be on the blessing side.

The Fire Next Time: I read Baldwin for the first time last year and just loved his fiction writing. This work of non-fiction is supposed to be incredible and I expect it'll be a highlight.

Trick Mirror: I love a good essay collection and have gotten raves about this from several different people I would not expect to agree with each other, so I've got really high hopes.

Matriarch: I love a good royal bio, and this one about Queen Mary (the current Queen's grandmother) is supposed to be fantastic.


A Gentleman in Moscow: I love books about Russia, and I love long, life-spanning novels, so this seems like it will be exactly my type of thing.

Homegoing: Tracing what happens to the descendants of two half-sisters from Ghana over the centuries...one of whom stays in Africa, the other of whom is enslaved and taken to America. This sounds amazing.

My Brilliant Friend: As someone who really loves reading about female friendship, there could not be a more "perfect for me" sounding series than the one that starts with this book.

Beartown: I'm not always here for a sports book, but this is supposed to be less about the actual hockey than the small town who get really into their hockey team, which I think will really be something special.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: I absolutely devoured the latest Taylor Jenkins Reid book, and this previous one has gotten similar kinds of praise, so I think I'll love it!

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: January 2020



The first month of the first year of the decade is over! Hard to believe that in another year, I'll be in full prep for legislative session, but I'm enjoying the easier pace of an off-year for now. And any month where you get to put your feet in the ocean is a good one, eh?

In Books...
  • Catch-22: Oh boy did I hate this book! It's a modern classic satire about the absurdity of war. It sort-of has a plot and characters but is mostly just "wow, war is absurd, isn't it?" for nearly 500 pages. This is just very much not my type of humor so it did not work for me at all. 
  • Native Speaker: A second-generation Korean-American, Henry, has had a mostly successful career in a sort of corporate espionage, but his latest mark, a Korean-American city councilman in New York City, raises a lot of complicated feelings: about immigration, about language, about being an American. And then there's his personal life, where he's estranged from his Caucasian wife. Mostly meets its high ambitions, though its debut-ness shows at times. 
  • Queen of Scots: For a 500-page biography, this actually moves pretty quickly! I'd really had very little understanding of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots before I picked this up but it was fascinating. It's thoroughly researched and mostly well-paced, though it does start to drag a little near the end. If you're interested in the Tudor era, it's definitely worth your time.
  • Sin in the Second City: As much as I love Serious Books, a little change of pace is always welcome. This book tells the story of the Everleigh Club, an exclusive brothel in turn-of-the-century Chicago run by two sisters, and the development of the Mann Act/eventual closure of the vice district in highly entertaining fashion. There have to be some slight embellishments here, but they're in service of telling a good story and this was really fun to read!
  • Mozart in the Jungle: This isn't just a memoir about Blair Tindall's experiences as a classical musician playing the oboe in New York City, but also about classical music as a cultural phenomenon and industry. The latter works better than the former, because once you get over the shock value of the casual sex and substance use among orchestra members, there's not much compelling left...unless you too have tried to make oboe reeds and found it as stressful as she did, because she talks about it quite a bit.  
  • Followers: This exploration of the world that social media has wrought has two storylines. In the present, gossip blog writer Orla helps launch the influencer career of her roommate, Floss. In the second, Marlow, a government-sanctioned "celebrity" living in a town that's a full-time reality show, gets off the mood stabilizing drug she's been the face of for years and starts to see the appeal of the outside world. Mostly decent characterization, with a few missteps, snappy writing, page-turning plot, but it never came together to be more than the sum of its parts for me. 


 
In Life...
  • Work retreat in Newport Beach: This year's work retreat was in Orange County, which meant I got to visit the Pacific for a little while along with the actual work bits. The weather was lovely and I had a nice time reconnecting with my colleagues who work in Las Vegas and Phoenix that I never get to see!

One Thing:

Do you need your heart warmed in this cold month? Check out the Dads Who Did Not Want Pets subreddit. Reddit has some toxic communities, but this is just what it sounds like: dads who didn't want to get a pet, got a pet, and now adore the pet. If you are softhearted like me, make sure there are some nearby tissues as you may get something in your eye.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Book 218: Possession



"Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or be confronted by."

Dates read: March 21-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, Time's All-Time 100 Novels

When you learn a second language, one of the first verbs you usually learn (after "to be" and "to do") is "to have". It's a fiendishly tricky beast to work your way around how it's used in various languages, not in the least because it's so broadly used in English. You can have tangible things, like a dog. Intangible ones, like a cold. You can "have" relationships. You can "have" a fight with the person you're in a relationship with. English, it seems, is hung up on the idea of having.

Many of the various kinds of having come into play in A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession. Young British scholar Roland Mitchell has a dead-end, barely-paying job doing research work for a university literature professor, who specializes in a (fictional) Victorian-era poet called Randolph Ash. While paging through one of Ash's books at the library one day, he finds two drafts of a letter to a woman that Ash met at a breakfast. Impulsively, he pockets them, and goes on a mission to discover who the woman was, and if the letter was ever even sent. He figures out quickly that it was, and its recipient was a fellow (fictional) poet called Christabel LaMotte...which leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey, who studies LaMotte.

The two then have a secret, as they try to uncover what might have passed between Ash and LaMotte without alerting Roland's boss, Maud's colleagues, or an avaricious American researcher who is constantly acquiring Ash memorabilia for his museum in New Mexico. That the two poets knew each other at all is new information, and as Maud and Roland discover more and more about how deep the connection ran, all of the knowledge that anyone "had" about them gets flipped on its head. And all along, Roland and Maud grow closer, which is problematic because Roland has a long-time girlfriend whose work supports them both, and Maud has issues of her own when it comes to relationships.

Despite their plot differences, I was reminded of nothing so much as The Name of the Rose while I read Possession. Both are rich reads, dense in the best possible sense of the word...the kind of thing that even while you're reading it, you know you'll get even more out of it the next time around. Byatt doesn't just include the main narrative, she supplements it with poems "by" the poets, "their" letters to each other, diaries from third parties. This must have been enormously difficult, to come up with distinct voices and styles for all of these characters, but it all fits in so smoothly it's hard to believe that this isn't all based on real people.

The mystery that Roland and Maud are trying to solve unwinds slowly but maintains tension...the delays that pop up feel organic and not just shoehorned in to pad page length. The characters are well-developed, and the way Byatt parallels their stories with those of the people they're researching is beautifully done. The prose is lively, despite its density, and the book moves faster than you think while you're reading it (partly because it's so absorbing). It's really an excellent book, one that I look forward to reading again one day. I highly recommend this, but beware: it's not light or easy reading, and deals with some emotionally turbulent subjects. Go in ready for something that will reward attention and move you, and (hopefully) you'll enjoy it!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Lost Horizon

Three years ago, I was reading: Marlena

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Covers I Liked Better Than The Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a covers freebie. Despite the old yarn about not judging books by them, I think we've all fallen prey to a pretty or interesting cover. Sometimes those books turn out to be great! Other times, less so. Here are ten books where the cover grabbed me but the insides didn't.



The Overstory: This book started out incredible and then kind of fell apart for me. But the cover remains gorgeous.

On Trails: Such a striking, simple cover for a book about the making and use of trails. This book club selection ended up being a dud for me (but I don't care for outdoors-y books).

Patron Saints of Nothing: I love the way this cover evokes prayer candles, and I thought the book was going to touch more on religious faith. Though it was clunky writing, not a lack of Catholicism, that tanked the book for me.

The Catcher in the Rye: This cover is just so visually appealing, I wish I liked the book more. Or at all. Alas.

The Buried Giant: The weakest Ishiguro I've read, but every version of the cover I've seen does something interesting with trees.

A Million Little Pieces: Even though I know this book is made of lies, I can't get over how much I love the image of this cover.

The Fountainhead: The Art Deco-ness of this cover is amazing. The book itself is...better than Atlas Shrugged, at least?

Friday Night Lights: The show is much more compelling than the book, but the image of the players strolling onto the field holding hands is perfect.

Shantaram: There's an actual golden sheen to this cover that totally drew me in and then the book is both gigantic and quite bad.

A Great And Terrible Beauty: I was really ready for this to be a kind of dishy romance because of this cover and it was very much not (nor was it good).