Thursday, November 26, 2020

Book 261: The Silence of the Girls


"I hated serving drinks at dinner, though of course it didn’t matter to Achilles whether I hated it or not and, curiously, it soon stopped mattering to me. This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s."

Dates read: September 10-13, 2018

Rating: 6/10

We all know the axiom that history is written by the victors. But it can be easy to forget that it's also written by the people within those victorious populations who have access to the tools that will ensure that their words are marked in the first place. And until the modern era, with a few exceptions, that meant men. When women's stories were recorded, it was almost always through the eyes and thoughts of the men surrounding her. And that's if anyone bothered to think of their stories as important enough to be recorded at all.

Many of us were required, at some point in our education, to read at least parts of The Iliad. Set near the end of the Trojan War, it tells the story of the falling out between Achilles, the greatest warrior among the Greeks, and the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon, which threatened the Greeks with defeat because Achilles refused to continue to fight. The source of that quarrel between the men? A woman, Briseis, taken captive during a raid on her Trojan-allied city and chosen by Achilles as his prize. When Agamemnon laid claim to her instead, and took her from Achilles, that's when the drama went down. Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls explores what it might have been like to be Briseis, or any of the other girls and women enslaved by conquering troops, as the Trojan War turned their worlds upside down.

From the beginning of the book, when her city is being raided, when he kills her brothers, Briseis hates Achilles. This does not change when she's given to him as his reward for valor, but she knows her hatred doesn't matter. She'll be expected to serve at his table and be used in his bed anyways. She has nowhere to run, and they both know it. Although deeply unhappy, she becomes accustomed to her routine with Achilles, becoming close to Patroclus and his own slave girl, as well as the other women of the camp, from whom she hears tales of Agamemnon's cruelty. She's terrified when he takes her, though he mostly ignores her, and is not particularly happy to be returned to Achilles when she eventually is. It's not a pleasant lot, to be an object, a bargaining chip, instead of a person.

Dehumanization, the way it crushes the spirit, is the central theme of the novel. Briseis goes from being a queen in her own right to no more than chattel. The injustice of being expected to serve as a sex object for the men who killed your loved ones and destroyed everything you once held dear is a note struck consistently throughout, though Barker does a good job of keeping it from being the only note or making it feel unduly repetitive. She portrays a range of experiences through the camp women, from those beaten and abused by their captors to those who do their best to work themselves into the good graces of the men who keep them, including by bearing their children. I appreciated that Barker did not fall into the common trap of historical fiction around young women...so often they're written as anachronistically defiant and spunky, but Briseis and her fellow captives feel grounded in reality. Barker doesn't engage in any sort of rhetorical flashiness; rather, the book is an elegant plea to consider the historical voices that we've never gotten to hear.

The lack of flash, though, also works against the book. It's rooted in traumatizing experiences, and if I'm being honest, the lack of a big personality for Briseis or much in the way of hope for her can make it feel like a slog. I imagine this explains why the narrative occasionally leaves the first-person perspective of Briseis and engages in third-person narration of Achilles and Patroclus instead, to try to break out of the rut of Briseis's despair. I don't think it really works...in a novel otherwise focused on giving the viewpoint of the forgotten, focusing on the star characters of the familiar narrative doesn't add anything. It certainly doesn't do anything new or particularly interesting with these characters, leaving their bond open to interpretation. If you want an Iliad retelling that's less technically proficient but has more heart, I'd recommend Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles. The Silence of the Girls, while certainly not a waste of time, doesn't really enlighten or entertain.

One year ago, I was reading: After the Party

Two years ago, I was reading: The Possibilities

Three years ago, I was reading: The Hate U Give

Four years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Gratitude

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's Thanksgiving week, which means that it's time for lists about things we're thankful for. After this strange, tough year, I'm not really feeling up to making a list (which feels insufficient), but I did put together a little narrative below.

 

2020 has been a real rollercoaster. It started out more or less like any other year...I had a work trip to California, my mom came into town to visit, I was planning my summer trip with my best friends to Charleston. And then the world as it had been just...stopped existing in quite the same way. The day after the Utah Jazz game got canceled because of a positive COVID-19 test, which still feels like the moment it became real, I went down to a State Board of Education meeting, which was held live and in person. I stopped at the little secondhand bookstore in Carson City and browsed, the last time I went inside a bookstore for any extended period, listening to the retirees who staff the store chatter among themselves about what the coronavirus might mean. And I stopped at the grocery store, grabbing the second-to-last pack of toilet paper on the shelves, wondering to myself why there would be a run on toilet paper for a respiratory illness but thinking I should probably grab some if everyone else was. That day didn't quite feel normal, but it was close enough that I think of it as the last normal day. The last day when my life looked more or less like it always had before. 

I have been very fortunate during this pandemic in many ways: I am spending my time with my husband and dog, whose company I genuinely enjoy. I have a secure job that I like, that I was able to transition to doing from home fairly straightforwardly, with a boss who continues to give me the flexibility to work from home for large portions of the workweek. This is a relief as case numbers spike in my county. Both my husband and I have remained well, as have our immediate families. We do not have children who we would need to manage care and schooling for. My sister is getting ready to welcome her first child, and I am very excited to be an aunt! In all of this, I know I am extremely lucky. 

Even as I acknowledge and give thanks for these things, for my good fortune and that of my loved ones, I want to take space to recognize that this doesn't mean things have been easy. There have been opportunities lost. The challenge and risk of travel means that living on the other side of the country from my friends and family has been extra difficult. I will almost certainly not be able to meet my nephew anytime soon after he is born. I have long struggled with depression and anxiety, and my usual coping mechanisms have proven unable to compensate adequately for the additional stress and pressure that we've all been experiencing the last several months now. I've been able to access resources to help me cope, which is another thing I am grateful for. 

I try to remind myself that it is okay to grieve for what has been lost, even if my own losses have been relatively minor in the scheme of things. I am working not to get lost in ideas of what could or "should" have been. The future as it seemed it might exist on March 1 is no longer the future that is possible, and dwelling on it will not help me better navigate the world as it exists now. All I can do is wake up each day and try to do my best, and be thankful to be lucky in so many ways.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Book 260: Juliet, Naked

 

"Oh, it was a complicated business, loving art. It involved a lot more ill will than one might have suspected."

Dates read: September 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

The first time I heard a Ryan Adams song was my freshman year of college, when his "Wonderwall" cover was used on The O.C. I actually didn't like it, I tend to be hard to please on cover versions. But it got stuck in my head and I found myself listening to it again and again, which led me to the rest of his music, which was been a part of the soundtrack of my life for about 15 years. Ryan's music was been there for me through parties and fun and breakups and lazy days on the boat and college and law school and moves and everything else. I saw him live four times. I bought every album the day it came out. Which means that it really sucked when The New York Times reported that he'd been predatory towards women, and I decided that I didn't need his music to be a part of my world going forward (though I do still have a sentimental fondness for the songs that meant the most to me).

As someone who experienced my own minor obsession, I know what it's like to be devoted to a musician. But not the way Duncan is with Tucker Crowe in Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked. Tucker was a rocker whose breakup album Juliet was starting to make him famous when suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, he gives up his music career and vanishes. Duncan is so obsessed that he not only runs an online message board where he talks about Tucker's music with other devotees, he also drags his longtime, put-upon girlfriend Annie to America from the small seaside English town where they live to tour the sites most closely associated with Tucker's short career. And then one day, Duncan is sent the acoustic demo versions of the songs on Juliet, which the label intends to release as Juliet, Naked.

Since Duncan is the kind of boyfriend who expects his girlfriend to make sure the home runs without his input, Annie actually gets the new album first when checking the mail, and listens to it, preferring the finished versions. When Duncan puts up a glowing review on his website, she submits her own counterpoint...leading to an email from Tucker himself, the famous recluse agreeing that the original album is better. Tucker, it turns out, is not actually a recluse at all. He lives a normalish life in small-town Pennsylvania with his wife and their small son, the only one of his five children he's actually participated in raising. One thing leads to another, Duncan cheats on and is dumped by Annie, who continues her correspondence with Tucker, whose own relationship has deteriorated beyond repair, and then happens to find himself in England, and you can probably figure out where it goes from there.

I'll be honest: Nick Hornby is a comfort author for me, and I'm predisposed to enjoy his work and let him get away with things I'd be more critical of other authors for. He often uses elements in his work that can get a little same-y: obsessive people, adult man-children struggling towards emotional maturity, sometimes a heart-tugging actual child. But he has a way with characters and especially dialogue that gives his books a sparkle and charm that overpowers his tendencies to hit familiar emotional notes. It might not be clear from the way I wrote about the book, but it's Annie rather than Duncan who's really at the center of the narrative, and her voice as she examines how she got "stuck" with Duncan and how she feels about the time they spent together, is very identifiable. Who hasn't gotten out of a stagnant relationship and felt both the exhilaration of new possibilities and the fear that what you've left behind was as good as it was going to get?

Since I'm already being honest, I will say that this is one of Hornby's lesser efforts. There are a few too many plot points going on, meaning that some of them (Duncan's rebound relationship with the girl he cheated with, Annie's efforts to curate an exhibit for the small local museum, Tucker's other children) get the short shrift. And I think Hornby treats Tucker's poor efforts at fatherhood for all but his youngest child a little too flippantly. More genuine regret there might have given some nice weight to the narrative, and for a book that does deal with some heavy stuff, it could have used it. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable read...as long as you don't think about it too much as you're reading. If you're looking to try out Hornby, I'd recommend About A Boy or High Fidelity first. If you already like Hornby, it likely won't wow you but it has its charms.

One year ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Two years ago, I was reading: Dark Places

Three years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Four years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Animals in Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is supposed to be characters we'd name a pet after, but I feel like that's basically all of them? I'm very open-minded when it comes to pet names. So I've decided to twist this a big and highlight my favorite animals from books...not all of these are strictly "pets", per se, but they're all animals that are great characters in their own right.

 

Fang (Harry Potter): This series has some great animals, like Hedwig and Crookshanks, but my sentimental favorite was Hagrid's scary-looking but sweet and dim guard dog.

The Disruptable Dog (Lirael): Lirael is desperately lonely when she tries to make a dog out of magic to keep her company and it doesn't quite turn out the way she expects...the Disreputable Dog is no one's pet!

Solovey (The Girl in the Tower): Vasya's beautiful, mystical horse is just as high-spirited and stubborn and she is.

Charlotte (Charlotte's Web): I mean, Wilbur may be some pig but Charlotte is the brains of the operation.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (The Jungle Book): The brave mongoose is one of the first animal characters I can remember really taking a shine to (though I think I was influenced as much or more by the Chuck Jones cartoon than the Kipling story itself).

Cloud (Wild Magic): Daine's stubborn pony has more sense than just about any other character in the series.

Rosie (Water for Elephants): The titular Polish-trained elephant was honestly probably my favorite character in the book.

Richard Parker (Life of Pi): The tense, uneasy relationship between Pi and the tiger, in which they both need and mistrust each other, is beautifully developed.

Shiloh (Shiloh): Another childhood favorite. Shiloh was a good dog.

Iorek Byrneson (The Golden Compass): The ferocious armored bear (and all of the detail Pullman created about their society) is one of the standout aspects of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Book 259: Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

"But when the sample size of fish food ran out, and I asked Leonie to buy me more, she said she would, and then forgot, again and again, until one day she said: Give him some old bread. I figured he couldn't crunch like he needed on some old bread, so I kept bugging her about it, and Bubby got skinnier and skinnier, his bubbles smaller and smaller, until I walked into the kitchen one day and he was floating on top of the water, his eyes white, a slimy scrim like fat, no voice in his bubbles. Leonie kill things."

Dates read: September 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award

It's...interesting how much more we as a culture are willing to forgive fathers, in a way that we're not willing to forgive mothers. Fathers can be physically absent, or emotionally unavailable, or not there for the hard stuff, or bad-tempered, and get a pass for it as long as they can convince us that they tried. But not mothers. Mothers are supposed to be always there with love and support and kindness, and if they're not, it's taken as mark of moral failure. Mothers literally give us life with their bodies, and once we're born, they're expecting to continue doing the hard work of nurturing and woe betide them if it doesn't work out that way.

Wicked, cruel stepmothers are a common enough trope, but literary examples of bad biological mothers are harder to find. Which makes Leonie, in Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, a relatively rare creature. In her late 20s, she is the mother of two children, adolescent Jojo and toddler Kayla, with her longtime boyfriend Michael. Leonie is also an addict, with a special fondness for the meth that's sent Michael to prison. The kids have been mostly raised by her parents in rural southern Mississippi, though their other grandparents have never even met them...you see, Leonie is black, Michael is white, and his parents are racists who helped cover up the murder of Leonie's brother Given when they were in high school, by one of Michael's cousins. 

When she finds out Michael is due to be released early, Leonie loads her kids in the car and drives to Parchman to get him. It's the same prison where her own father, River, once served time in his youth, and his past there becomes important because Michael isn't the only passenger they pick up: they're also joined by the ghost of a teenager named Richie. Only Jojo and Kayla can see Richie, who Jojo's heard about in his grandfather's stories, and when the family arrives back home, Jojo agrees to confront his grandfather to find out how Richie died. 

There's a lot more to it, and that's actually one of the highlights of this novel: it is rich in atmosphere. Ward deftly weaves together the stark realities of poverty, drug addiction, how parents and children can fail each other, and the way the justice system works for the white power structure and against people of color. She brings certain threads to the forefront at times, then others, but never loses track of any of them. She also does beautiful work of characterization, making Jojo an incredibly sympathetic and compelling protagonist, showing Leonie's selfishness and the damage it causes but depicting her as a deeply flawed human rather than a one-note villain, conveying the decency and strength of River and his wife Philomene, doing their best in a world that has not done right by them.

But though it does some things incredibly well, it stumbled hard (at least, for me) in other ways. The most pronounced was that it sets itself in the literary tradition of Beloved...and then doesn't measure up to the incredibly high bar of Toni Morrison's masterpiece. You can't write a story about the stain of institutionalized racism that prominently features ghosts and the mysterious death of a child without knowing that you're going to be compared to Beloved, and if you're going to go there, you better bring it. It wasn't brought. Ward's choice to use Richie as the most prominent ghost in the narrative rather than Given (who Leonie sees only when high), an actual member of the family whose perspective could have been used to give more context to Leonie's youth, is inexplicable to me. I never got invested in Richie, which meant that when Ward brought her threads together for a set of final climactic scenes that are supposed to pack a huge emotional punch, it felt overwrought and unearned rather than profound and cathartic. It has merit, and it's worth reading, but if you haven't read Beloved, read that and skip this.  
 
One day ago, I was reading: The Great Mortality
 
Two days ago, I was reading: Everything Under
 
Three days ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy
 
Four days ago, I was reading: Invisible Man
 
Five days ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles that Would Make Great Song 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 titles that sound like they would make great songs. So here are my ten titles that sound like bops!

 

"Brave New World"

"Awakenings"

"Rebecca"

"Black Star, Bright Dawn"

"Yes Please"

"About A Boy"

"To Die For"

"Zone One"

"Sing Unburied Sing"

"There There"

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Book 258: Paint It Black

 

 

"She felt like old people who forgot what shoes were for, each gesture calling meaning into question—unbuttoning a button, breathing. Movement slowed to half-speed, quarter speed, as if the air had thickened. She could take nothing for granted, her hand on her shirt, her ability to keep the floor underfoot."

Dates read: August 29- September 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Although most people, when asked what kind of baby they're hoping for, will say "a healthy one", I suspect most actually have a gender preference. I think a lot of people hope for the same as themselves...if you're a lady, it's probably easier to think about raising a girl, and vice versa. And I think others think about the ease of raising. I've heard that girls are "easier" until they hit the teenage years, and then boys are. And then there's the idea that while girls "leave" your family eventually to start their own, boys are always a part of their parents' family.

It's this last, I think, that often drives the stereotypical tension between wives and mothers-in-law. But there's a difference between the usual case of being a bit possessive of one's little boy, and emotional enmeshment that's unhealthy. In Janet Fitch's Paint It Black, Josie Tyrell is intimidated by her boyfriend Michael's mother Meredith. She hears his stories of the way Meredith kept him close to her after his parents got divorced when he was a child, and the world he grew up in as the son of a leading concert pianist who traveled the world is wildly different than the one she grew up in and ran away from, on the wrong side of the tracks in an industrial city in southern California. They meet in Los Angeles, where Josie's working as an art model after dropping out of high school, and Michael goes to escape the Harvard education he never really wanted. They fall in love, rent a house together...and then Michael commits suicide.

His death comes at the very beginning of the novel, and over the course of its 400 pages we get the story of his relationship with Josie, and with his mother, as well as the two women's gradually intensifying connection after he's gone. It's tempting for Josie to play along with what Meredith wants, to give in to the ease and glamour of being a replacement for Michael. But there's a sense of a fly being drawn into a spider's web. Paint It Black is a study of grief, and the ways even the ones we think we share everything with remain mysterious to us, and the power of narcissists to prey on the vulnerable. 

Clearly the relationships between mothers and daughters are something Janet Fitch finds compelling, as it was the focus of her big hit White Oleander and is explored in its own way here, with Josie becoming a kind of surrogate daughter to Meredith, who upgrades her from Michael's girlfriend to his fiancee for an air of legitimacy. The terms of this particular relationship, ostensibly between adults although with Meredith holding all the money and most of the obvious power, is an unusual one, and I thought Fitch wrote Josie's grief well enough that we could understand and empathize with how she becomes ensnarled in it. Speaking of writing, it's really the star of this book. I was constantly tabbing passages to come back to, that captured a feeling in an interesting and new way. It's lush and rich and evocative.

It could have used some editing, though. The book's biggest issue is that it's simply too long for the amount of material it actually has. It feels like it drags in the middle because it's just Josie mourning, and drinking, and taking pills, and being unable to help herself from being in contact with Meredith even though she knows she shouldn't be. And while I did very much enjoy the writing, it did at times feel circuitous and self-indulgent. The characters are not as well-developed or interesting as those in White Oleander, so if you're picking up this because you loved that, be prepared for a less fully realized novel. It's got merit, and if it seems interesting to you it's not a waste of your time to pick it up, but it's not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Two years ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Three years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Non-Bookish Hobbies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about what we like to do besides reading. If you like books enough to start a whole blog about it, it's safe to say reading is a top hobby, but we're all more well-rounded than that. So here are ten things I like to do besides mainlining books!

  

Watching figure skating: I absolutely love figure skating (even though I personally can only skate forwards around an oval), and watch all the international events every year. I have a lot of Thoughts about figure skaters!

Thrift shopping: Haven't really done this one in person in the last several months, but I used to love just taking a couple hours and scouring shelves for cashmere sweaters and nifty home decor.

Working out: I feel like a douchebag for putting this on here, but I've been working out at home since March and am doing six days a week these days and I actually really enjoy it. I like to feel like I'm getting stronger!

Watching college football: I'm a big Michigan football fan, which often does not work out well for my emotional health.

Baking: I am not a particularly talented cook, though I am competent-ish. What I really enjoy, and am good at, is baking. You need desert, I'm your girl. 

Playing with Korean skincare: I'll be honest...I didn't really start taking care of my skin until I was in my mid-20s when I moved out to Reno. In Michigan I would occasionally remember to slap on some moisturizer, but when you live in the high desert slacking on skincare can be dangerous! I started using Korean skin care 3-4 years ago and have never looked back!

Watching movies: I'm on a never-ending quest to watch all of the movies that have won in the six major Oscar categories, as well as Foreign film and Documentary. It's been well over a decade I've been working on it and it's still ongoing!

Trivia: Probably unsurprising from a former Jeopardy contestant, but I love trivia. In the Before Times, my husband and I would do occasional bar trivia, but I also do online trivia! If anyone has heard of and/or is potentially interested in a referral to LearnedLeague, I can't get you in this season, but let me know and I'll set aside one for you next season!

Visiting breweries: I can't wait to get back to doing this one when the world is a moderately safe place to be again. I really enjoy beer, particularly sours, and my husband and I have enjoyed both exploring new places around town (Reno is very hipster this way) and finding new breweries when we travel!

Politics: I try not to be overly political in the course of my blogging, just because I don't think it's what most people are interested in hearing from me on here, but politics is how I make my living and I honestly find it fascinating!

Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: October 2020


October is my favorite month...it is my birthday month, after all (and my husband's)! After a summer that felt like it lasted foreverrrrrrr, we're finally having some fall, so I'm enjoying the crisp in the air. Otherwise, we had some muted birthday celebrations and are looking forward to getting through the next two months and shutting the door on 2020.

In Books...

  • Adaptation: This YA sci-fi/fantasy is honestly pretty unremarkable but for its central love triangle. Teenage Reese and her debate partner/crush David are driving back from Arizona to San Francisco after a sudden crisis grounds air traffic, when they suddenly crash in the Nevada desert. They get treatment at a mysterious hospital, and find that they've developed strange new abilities. While Reese tries to figure out what happened, she meets pretty Amber on the street, and realizes she might not be entirely straight after all. Character development is weak and so are the story elements, but a sensitively handled bisexual first love(s) story is something pleasantly different. 
  • Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story: This is a very comprehensive look at its subject, clocking in at about 750 pages. It's not a particularly good biography, leaning heavily towards a recitation of facts without much in the way of analysis. It did at least help give me some more context about the life of a figure who remains controversial even over a decade after his death.
  • Exhalation: If it's short stories, it's because it's a book club pick. I usually don't especially care for short story collections, as I find they have as much chaff as wheat. This one, though, was special. It's eight science fiction stories, one long enough to practically be a novella, and while not all were brilliant, they were thought-provoking and compelling. I really liked it!
  • A Bollywood Affair: My brain and my heart didn't feel quite the same about this one. I had some real issues with characterization, particularly of central character Mili, who is almost always either crying, blushing, tripping, or eating in an apparently especially sensual way. And I didn't love Samir either, finding his "bad boy cured by the love of a good woman" arc trite. But I did get swept up in it in the middle, before the ending lost me again. 
  • His Only Wife: I wanted to like this debut novel from Ghanian author Peace Adzo Medie more than I actually did. There are solid bones here...the story of a poor but pretty young woman, Afi, who is married to Elikem, the handsome son of a wealthy local family, in his family's attempt to break up his longstanding relationship with a woman they don't like. Complications ensue, of course, but Afi is often irritatingly naive and some of the side characters are honestly more interesting than the main ones. 
  • The White Princess: The Wars of the Roses in England were finally ended when the two skirmishing families were joined as King Henry VII wed Elizabeth of York. This book follows the story of the latter after the downfall of her uncle, Richard III and through much of the rest of her life, including her marriage to Henry and the birth of all but their last child. It's one of the weaker installments of this series, less because of Gregory's choices (though I definitely side-eye some of those) but because Elizabeth is a fundamentally reactive, passive character, which makes it difficult to get invested in her. 
  • Looking for Alaska: This book is hard for me to evaluate as a 35 year-old. On the one hand, it felt like it would be an excellent book to read as a teenager, full of making new friends and self-discovery and crushes on unattainable people and thinking about life and the world. On the other, I am a boring settled-down adult lady now and have a hard time connecting with that kind of intensity of feeling, and the characters felt more like collections of quirks than actual people.

 In Life...

  • I turned 35!: And so did my husband (our birthdays are two weeks apart). Like pretty much everyone else this year, I had a very subdued celebration...we ordered in from one of our favorite local restaurants and watched a movie, which was nice. And of course, I gave away a copy of my favorite book I blogged about in the past year, Exit West, to celebrate my fifth year of blogging, so congrats again to Savannah for winning it!

One Thing:

One of the categories I include for my lists and awards is the best-seller list from The New York Times. I actually don't use it at all to drive my book decisions (awards are much more enticing to me), but I always find it interesting to note which books I've read have been very popular. Well there was a study that cross-referenced those lists with the way readers actually reviewed the books, based on Goodreads ratings, and I found it very interesting! Maybe you will too, so I've linked to it here.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Book 257: Oryx and Crake

 


"How could I have been so stupid? No, not stupid. He can’t describe himself, the way he’d been. Not unmarked — events had marked him, he’d had his own scars, his dark emotions. Ignorant, perhaps. Unformed, inchoate. There had been something willed about it though, his ignorance. Or not willed, exactly: structured. He’d grown up in walled spaces, and then he had become one. He had shut things out."

Dates read: August 25-29, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Becoming more aware of the world kind of sucks a little. Not being able to just laugh at the joke. Not being able to just let it go. The eye rolls and sarcasm. But once you really start thinking about it, the way the polar ice is melting at levels unseen before in the modern world, the way the waters are warming, the wildfires in the West, the way coastal cities are left vulnerable to ever-more calamitous weather and flooding, it's hard to just put out of your mind. And that's just global climate change, to say nothing of the countless other significant issues facing our world.

One day, something is going to be the end of the world as we know it. Superbacteria and/or a global plague. Nuclear war. Heck, maybe the zombie apocalypse. But why not climate change? In Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, it's climate that creates the void into which increasingly powerful corporations pour themselves. Soon, the divide between the haves and the have-nots becomes even more literal, with the highly-educated few retreating into city-esque complexes created and owned by business interests, while the masses are walled off into their own zones. Jimmy is born into privilege, to a mother and father who are good worker bees, and it is in the compound school that he meets Glenn, who becomes his best friend...and who ends up changing the world beyond what anyone could have imagined.

As an adult, Jimmy has renamed himself Snowman (after The Abominable), and as far as he knows, he's the last "real" human left alive. There's a group of genetically engineered people, the Children of Crake, but they're not the same. He's left alone, in a devastated world, with only his memories and his guilt over the role he played in it all. These memories make up the bulk of the book, with very little actually happening in an actual plot sense. Jimmy does venture back to the last place he lived in search of food and sunscreen and medicine, which forces him to confront what happened with Glenn, who became Crake, and the beautiful, reserved Oryx, who was involved with them both. How they died, and how the virus that wreaked havoc on the rest of the world was released.

It's a character study as much as a work of speculative fiction, and that's really Atwood's strength anyways. She loves to dig into the ways our little flaws can set in motion events that spiral out of control, to take the tensions underlying society and drag them up into the open. I find it really interesting that this book was written in 2003, the year I graduated high school, because so much of it seems to apply to the kinds of debates that continue to be relevant even now: just because we have the technology or knowledge to do something, does that mean we should? How do we weigh morality? Whose morality gets weighed? The writing date of the book does mean there are some things that come off anachronistic (she posits a world focused on disc-based storage, in which email is a primary communication method), a lot of it is startlingly prescient.

Clearly I liked it, but it was not without failings. The biggest, for me, was its lack of developed female characters. Jimmy's mother is intriguing, but we see relatively little of her and through mostly his eyes, reflecting on the way her choices impacted him. Oryx remains to the reader just as mystifying as she largely is to Jimmy, and while I could see Atwood intending this as a statement of how men tend to project their own stories only the women they claim to love (Jimmy is convinced he knows parts of Oryx's past, which she herself denies), I wish we'd gotten more of her perspective. And as much as I enjoy character-driven novels, I wish it had been structured differently, so that it was taking place in the present rather than largely in the past. These are relatively minor issues, though. On the whole, this book is fascinating and thought-provoking and one I'd recommend widely (though maybe not younger/less sophisticated teenagers).

One year ago, I was reading: Patron Saints of Nothing

Two years ago, I was reading: Seduction

Three years ago, I was reading: The Book Thief

Four years ago, I was reading: The Confessions of St. Augustine

Five years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Take Place In Other Worlds

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's the annual Halloween-themed freebie. I had a hard time coming up with something I haven't done before, especially considering I don't read a lot of horror (I'm too easily frightened!), but decided to look at books that take place in other worlds.



His Dark Materials: This amazing series takes place in a parallel version of England, called Brytain, which is both quite similar to and very different than our own.

The Old Kingdom: Perhaps my favorite other world, this richly-imagined land has its own magic system and an intricately designed world of Death as well.

Wild Magic: Like many (maybe all?) of Tamora Pierce's books, this series takes place in the medieval-esque, magical world of Tortall.

The Lord of the Rings: Middle Earth may be the most iconic fantasy realm of all!

Oryx and Crake: This is less "another world" and more "a version of what our world could become". Honestly besides her thinking that CD-ROMs were going to be the storage mechanism of the future, this felt eerily prescient.

The Hunger Games: This is another one that is, I think, technically set in the far future, but it's such a different social arrangement that it's basically another place entirely.

A Song of Ice and Fire: These gigantic novels create and explore the rich territory of Westeros, its seven kingdoms, and the larger world beyond. It's loosely inspired by medieval Europe.

Wicked: This one is based on an already-established fantasy world, Oz, which is familiar even to those who haven't read Baum's books because of the enduring popularity of the film. I love the rich politics of the world that Maguire fleshes out!

Stardust: This is a fairy tale, and has both a "real world" and fantasy realm of its own. It's truly magical to read!

A Wrinkle in Time: This series of books is almost more magical realism than anything else...rooted in our world, but with supernatural possibilities for the Murray family (time travel! space travel! angels!) that mean it's not quite our world as we know it after all.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Book 256: Life After Life


"And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur–if a dish was to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances."

Dates read: August 19-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I have a small scar right about a half inch above my left eye. When I was a kid, I was jumping on the bed and my mom told me to stop. I jumped off entirely, and the scar is where the corner of the open dresser drawer I didn't keep track of went into my face. Just a tiny difference in my jump and I would have lost the eye. I wonder what would have changed in my life if I had. Or if I'd made any number of different choices before I went to college. Or while I was in college! If I'd gone to a different law school. If I'd taken a year off between undergrad and law school. If I'd gone to grad school for psychology instead. If, if, if. The fact is that there's no point in torturing myself with hypotheticals for things that have gone "wrong". Things are the way they are and all I can do is try to make the best choices I can from here.

What if, though, things could be changed? If you could go back, live again, make different choices? In Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, on a snowy night in England in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and immediately dies, choked by her umbilical cord, because neither the doctor or midwife made it on time. Then, on the same snowy night, she's born again, but this time the doctor makes it and the cord is cut and she lives. Until she's three, when she follows her older sister Pamela into the ocean and is swept away. Then she's born again with the doctor there, and manages to survive the family trip to the seaside but perishes at age five when her big brother Maurice throws her toy onto the roof and she tries to scramble after it but falls. And so on and so forth. She doesn't remember her previous lives, per se, but has strong feelings about crucial events that drive her to new actions in the face of them.

Where the book spends the bulk of its time is Ursula's various World War II experiences. In a few she dies when a bomb falls on her apartment building. In a few she's working on the rescue/cleanup squad. And in at least one, she's living in Germany. The fates of her family members, too, change in each go-round. What happens to Teddy, her sensitive, thoughtful younger brother who becomes a pilot, has a major impact on how things go for the family. Some things, though, never change: her deeply practical and stalwart sister Pamela always marries and has children and spends the war at the family home, and belligerent brother Maurice is never much liked by his parents or siblings and always rises to positions of authority.

Anyone who's ever wondered how things might have turned out if they had a chance to do it all over again (i.e. pretty much everyone) will find this an intriguing concept. And it allows Atkinson freedom to really explore the ways in which seemingly-small moments can resonate enormously in our lives, which she does with clear, assured prose that feels almost old-fashioned or "classic" in tone. Refreshingly, the most important choices are mostly unrelated to her romantic relationships with men! As a lady person, I'm used to books (and the world in general, honestly) treating marriage and childbearing as the central dramas of women's lives. Who she loves, though, is much less important to Ursula's story than her relationships with her siblings, particularly Pamela and Teddy, who are both wonderfully likable characters and the kind of siblings everyone wants to have.

What held back this novel from greatness for me was that with so many lives cataloged, I found myself sometimes more interested in how she would die this time than how that life actually played out, as well as a portion near the end that bugged a little bit because it made me question the underlying mechanics of it all. To be honest, though, these quibbles are a little on the nitpicky side and I wonder if they would have occurred to me if I'd read this book completely free from expectations. It's a very good book, well-written and enjoyable. But when I read it after hearing about how good it was for years, I was expecting something mind-blowing and it didn't get there, for me. Like I said, though, it's still something I liked quite a bit and I'd recommend it to all readers!

One year ago, I was reading: The Line of Beauty

Two years ago, I was reading: Detroit, An American Autopsy

Three years ago, I was reading: White Fur

Four years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Five years ago, I was reading: Through the Language Glass

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read Which Have Been Recommended by Maris

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books we read because other people recommended them! I'm focusing my list on one recommendation source: Maris Kreizman, who is pretty much just "Maris" in book world. Here are ten books I've read and that Maris has recommended (or rated 5 stars, which is basically the same thing as far as I'm concerned).


The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: This little coming-of-age story about a pre-teen pop star a la Justin Beiber trying to navigate his momager, fauxmances, and homeschooling during his tour wasn't quite a five star for me, but it was certainly an interesting read that raised some good questions about child entertainers.

The Line of Beauty: This is a classic of LGBTQ lit, about a young British man who becomes attached to an upper-crust family and his life as a gay man during the Thatcher years as the AIDS crisis begins. It's beautifully written and involving.

The Group: It can feel like the issues we face as women are all unique to our own time period, but this book, set in the 1950s and following a group of friends through their early post-college years shows that fitting in to the workplace, trash dudes, and trying to remain sane as a parent are timeless.

The Queen of the Night: I absolutely love this book. It is very, at times almost preposterously, dramatic but also feels rooted in emotional truth and its rich characters. 

Boy Snow Bird: I still feel uncomfortable about the ending of this one, but the way Helen Oyeyemi builds her story and uses language is remarkable.

Valley of the Dolls: This is not a "great" book by a traditional understanding of such...the prose is solid at best, and the most prominent character is pretty boring, but it delightfully trashy and is SUCH fun to read.

Cat's Eye: Female friendships are one of my favorite things to read about, and Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, so it's no surprise I thought this book was fantastic!

Gilead: I was concerned about this because I don't tend to like faith-heavy fiction, but figured if Maris liked it, it was worth a try. It was a bit of a slow start but was one of those books I'm glad I stuck with, I found it deeply moving (and no, not too religious at all).

In The Woods: I don't usually care for mystery/thrillers. I find them formulaic and too dependent on disguising their twists to create interest, but this one hooked me with its strong characters even though the ending wasn't too hard to see coming. 

The Song of Achilles: This retelling of the events of The Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, including an explicitly homosexual relationship (explicit in the sent of outright, rather than in the sense of obscene) with his companion Achilles, is incredibly compelling.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Book 255: The Butcher's Daughter


"We go down on our knees with a pail of water and handfuls of rags and wipe the floor clean of dirt and spillages. The stones are irregular and filth is embedded in the cracks. I do my best, telling myself that such labour teaches me the true meaning of holy charity – which is principally, if you are female, concerned with the bodily needs of others."

Dates read: August 16-19, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Catholicism runs deep on both sides of my family, but particularly my mother's. My great-uncle Tom was even a priest! I've sometimes wondered what makes people chose to take holy orders. Faith, obviously, but there are lots of religious believers in the world and only a very small percent of them embark on a ministerial career. And it seems like it's declining generationally. I can't think of a single person I know, or even someone I've heard of through friends, deciding to enter the priesthood or become a nun. In a modern world, renouncing the ability to amass private wealth or have romantic relationships seems like a very difficult choice to make indeed.

It's not an excess of religious zeal that drives Agnes Peppin to enter an abbey in Victoria Glendinning's historical fiction novel The Butcher's Daughter. Though she's not an unbeliever, she doesn't have particularly deep convictions. Rather, teenage Agnes arrives at Shaftesbury Abbey because she fell pregnant with the child of a neighbor, Peter, in her small village. Peter's sister had recently lost a child of her own, so when Agnes's baby is born, he's given to Peter's family and Agnes is sent to the Abbey to join the sisters there. She comes to find some measure of contentment and a role for herself in the community, but it's not a great time to have joined a Catholic order. You see, Agnes lives in the time of Henry VIII, and his religious reforms threaten the Abbey's continued existence.

In her childhood, Agnes had learned to read and write and these skills land her a position as the Abbess's personal assistant. So she's right there as the Abbess tries desperately to save their way of life, but ultimately fails. It's about halfway through the book that the women are finally turned out of their homes and sent into the world, and Agnes has to figure out what's next. Going off with a fellow sister? A return to home? To the big city of London to find her fortune? She ends up exploring all of these paths and more while contemplating what it really is she wants out of the rest of her life.

Victoria Glendinning has written several biographies, and while skill sets don't always transfer over neatly (and I've never read any of her bios, so I can't speak to their level of execution), I think it really helped her make Agnes a well-realized, compelling character. Agnes is not your typical historical fiction heroine...I feel like many authors in the genre default to making their protagonists read like modern spunky young women to appeal to their intended audience of, well, modern women. Agnes, however, is clearly an introvert and spends a lot of time thinking things that she doesn't say. She breaks with the gender conventions of her time gently, without raging about the restrictions upon her as a woman in a man's world. Since the book is deeply centered on her experience of the world, a character that feels real is crucial, and Glendinning pulls it off very well.

It was also refreshing to get a historical fiction perspective that wasn't from the top of the social hierarchy. We've all read (and I've personally enjoyed) books about the court of Henry VIII, but this book shines a light on people further down, for whom Henry's marriages and divorces are background noise to the actual living of their lives. It wasn't just the people actually living in the dissolved monasteries who were impacted, it was the people who depended on services that religious houses provided, and this book shone a light on that. That being said, there were a few things that kept this from being even better for me. The biggest issue I had with the book was that it felt like Agnes' path was a little too easy. She drifts into one thing, and then into the next, in a way that seems improbably fortunate. The resolution of the plotline of a side character, Elinor, also felt a little off and I wished that it had been cut. Those quibbles aside, though, this is an interesting, unusual take on the genre and time period and I'd recommend it for people who'd like to broaden their reading in the historical fiction realm.

One year ago, I was reading: Plagues and Peoples

Two years ago, I was reading: We Are Not Ourselves

Three years ago, I was reading: Lincoln in the Bardo

Four years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Five years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Super Long Book Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting the books we've read with super duper long titles. These ones are definitely lengthy! And all of the books themselves are solid reads.



The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe


The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B  

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires


On The Bright Side, I'm Now The Girlfriend Of A Sex God

Friday, October 9, 2020

Year 5: An Update (And Giveaway!)

 

I am 35 years old today, marking my halfway point through this decade of my life. Starting tomorrow, I'll be closer to 40 than 30. It's also the halfway point of my challenge to myself to read 500 books, the genesis of this blog. When I turned 30, I set some goals for myself for the next decade. One of those goals was to read at least 50 books per year, or 500 total, so I started the blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable and have a place to talk about all those books! Since my reading years begin and end on my birthday, I like to do a check-in post every year to look back on the year that was, both in books and life. Without further ado:

In Reading

  • Books read (this year): 76. While very comfortably north of my 50 book goal, this is actually my lowest yearly book total since I started the blog. I've generally trended downward every year, with a very small bump up between years two and three. I think this is mostly a function, this year, of the struggle I had to read during the first few months of a pandemic.
  • Books read (total): 421. I am now far, far beyond my goal number for this point, which would have been 250, and I could realistically finish out the 500 within the next year (though I suspect I won't).
  • Male/Female Authors: This year I read 41 books by male authors and 35 books by female authors. This is fairly close to an even split, and a recent stretch of mostly-male authors knocked it a little off-kilter.
  • Most Read Genres: This year's split between fiction and nonfiction is almost identical to last year's: I read 53 fiction books and 23 nonfiction books, which puts my ratio below 3:1, where I aim for it to be, but above 4:1 at least. My most-read subgenres for fiction were contemporary and historical (which is normal for me) and for nonfiction were history and memoir. I'm a bit surprised at the latter, as I wouldn't describe memoir as an especially favorite genre of mine.
  • Kindle/Hard Copy: This year I read 54 books in hard copy (either paperback or hardcover), and 22 books on my Kindle. I aim to be fairly even, but I really do just prefer hard copy books. I shop overwhelmingly secondhand, and the ones that I finish that I don't love end up in Little Free Libraries, so it doesn't feel wasteful or anything. I would probably read even more hard copies if I had the space to store them!

In Life
  • I went to Skate America: I LOVE figure skating, but had never seen a live competition before. Well, they had the 2019 edition of this first event on the Grand Prix calendar in Las Vegas, so my best friend Crystal joined me! I was reading: Revolutionary Road (review to come)
  • I went to New York City with my mom: My mom has always liked to take a special trip during the holidays, and this year she asked me to join her in New York City for a long weekend! I hadn't been for a few years, so I made the cross-country journey and we had a lovely time exploring the city and seeing Moulin Rouge on Broadway! I was reading: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (review to come)
  • I went to Newport Beach, California: My work retreat was to Orange County, California, and it was lovely to have a weekend away where I got to put my feet into the ocean. I had one more plane trip to come, at the very of January for meetings in Las Vegas, but this was my last normal trip. I was reading: Perfume (review to come)
  • My mom came to Reno to visit: My mom's birthday is at the end of February, and her present to herself was a trip out West to visit people she loves. Obviously that includes me so she stayed in Reno for a few days, and I'm glad she did because otherwise it would have been even longer since I'd gotten to see my mom after things shut down. I was reading: A Visit From the Goon Squad (review to come)
  • The country shut down: I'm dating this from the day after the NBA postponed the Utah-Oklahoma City game because of COVID-19. Obviously the Seattle and San Francisco outbreaks had started before this, and I think the news that Tom Hanks had contracted the virus came shortly before, but when it stopped sports it felt REAL. I was reading: Lost Children Archive (review to come)
  • My sister's baby shower: The first time I stepped foot on a plane since January was in late September, which was a bizarre experience, because I usually travel every few months and usually go to Michigan at least once per year. This marked 14 months between trips, but I definitely had to make this one happen, as my little sister is pregnant and I wouldn't have missed her baby shower for the world. I was reading: Naked (review to come)
The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of the book I loved the most out of the ones I've reviewed on the blog over the past 12 months. I reviewed some wonderful books this year, but the one that captured my heart most of all was the lyrical, lovely Exit West. If you haven't read it, and would like to, here's your chance! Just enter via the Rafflecopter below during the next week and this book could be yours! Apologies to my international friends, but this giveaway is US-only. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Book 254: The Informant

 

 
 
"Shepard turned to Weatherall, shaking his head. They had heard enough to know this tape was fabulous. Their witness—this lying, manipulative man who had just failed a polygraph exam—was in the middle of a massive criminal conspiracy."

Dates read: August 9-16, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Well, this is embarrassing. Though I have no recollection of deleting the post I wrote for this book after reading it (I usually write my review within a few weeks of reading the book), it seems as though it has vanished. Maybe it was me, maybe it was a Blogger issue, but it is gone and the reality is that my memory of reading this book over two years ago is...not especially detailed. Therefore, this is likely going to be the shortest, least in-depth review I will ever post here, because I am not going to go back and re-read it so I can re-write the post.

The Informant, written by Kurt Eichenwald, is a true story that you would swear was a farce if you didn't know otherwise. Mark Whitacre was an executive for Archer Daniels Midland, a large agri-business company. For years, ADM had been working with their so-called competitors to fix the price of food additive lysine, which Whitacre confesses to the FBI. He then goes undercover to tape meetings at which this price-fixing continues to happen, repeatedly almost managing to get himself caught but capturing hundreds of conversations for his government handlers. As the case is moving towards trial, a complication emerges: Whitacre has embezzled several million dollars from ADM, in part because he actually got suckered into one of those Nigerian advance-fee scams. After years of working to help the feds build a case against ADM, the bipolar Whitacre turns against the FBI during manic episodes, claiming that they have tampered with evidence. His behavior related to these claims invalidates his plea deal with the government, and he is charged along with the rest of his colleagues in the underlying price-fixing scandal, eventually being convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison. 

What I remember most about the book is its length, over 600 pages of often dense prose. The underlying crime is a very complicated white-collar conspiracy, and while Eichenwald did a decent job of trying to make it straightforward, my overwhelming recollection is that it frequently dragged. Whitacre himself is presented as a complex person: being a whistleblower/informant is a very stressful, pressure-filled situation, and combined with his untreated mental illness, he often behaves erratically. He is very sympathetic in some aspects, much less so in others. I feel like I remember that this was one of those books where the author was under the impression that his own reporting of the story was of particular interest to those reading it, which tends to be a pet peeve for me in non-fiction. It was often a struggle to read, and I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of doing so, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to others.

One year ago, I was reading: The Overstory

Two years ago, I was reading: The Library Book

Three years ago, I was reading: The Royals

Four years ago, I was reading: The Mothers

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR With Fall-Colored Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're focusing on books with covers that make us think of fall. I did a list like this a few years back for books I've already read, so I decided to make this list up of books I haven't read quite yet but already own and will eventually read with yellow, orange, and red covers! No commentary on the choices here since this is a cover-oriented list.



The Thorn Birds

On Beauty

Euphoria

A Kim Jong Il Production

Light Years

Geek Love

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

 
Uprooted

Did You Ever Have A Family


Killers of the Flower Moon

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Book 253: Less

 


 "He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again."

Dates read: August 6-9, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

Can we ever really run away from our problems? The conventional wisdom is no, and for the most part I agree with that. Many of our issues are rooted in our own patterns of behavior and a change of scenery does nothing to fix that. But there sometimes is utility in getting out of a toxic environment. Being outside of our ruts in our personal roads can help us see them more clearly. New experiences can refocus our attention on what we really value. And besides, sometimes even just a break from what ails us can give us the strength to push through.

In Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Less, the titular Arthur Less, a writer, decides to take a trip around the world in the face of two upsetting events: his fiftieth birthday, and the marriage of his sort-of-boyfriend of nearly a decade, Freddy Pelu, to another man. Nothing seems to be going quite right for him: after an auspicious debut, his subsequent novels have declined in both sales and critical acclaim, and he worries that the closest he will come to genius were his years dating Robert Brownburn, an acclaimed poet, and being in Robert's circle of writer and artist friends. When an invite to Freddy's wedding arrives, Less can't bring himself to either accept and be the subject of pitying looks or decline and know he'll set the gossip wheels turning with speculation that he's bitter. So he decides to be absent, creating a trip around the world for himself by accepting invitations for various and sundry events that he'd shoved in a drawer and never intended to actually respond to.

Less begins by leaving San Francisco for New York, where his new novel is gently declined by his publisher. And then it's off to Mexico, then France, then Italy for a prize ceremony for a translation of his book, then Germany to teach a summer course, then a trip to Morocco with friends, then a retreat in India to work on his book, then Japan to write an article about food for a travel magazine, and finally back, having neatly avoided both his birthday and the wedding. Along the way he runs into an ex he doesn't recognize, has a fling with academic, gets a custom-made suit, steps on a needle, and has to destroy his way out of a room. We get perspective on the life he's led through both his own reminisces and the voice of a narrator, whose identity is finally revealed to us as Arthur Less gets home.

I'll admit I was a little skeptical when this was chosen as a selection for my book club. "Funny" books can land wildly differently depending on the reader, and "prize-winning funny" does not tend to be a type of humor I find especially enjoyable. But what a delight this book was! I've talked before about how much my experience of a book can be impacted by what else I've read in the same time frame, and after the self-serious, sometimes ponderous Shantaram, the breezy lightness of Less just hit the spot. But it's not just a fluffy book at all. It's filled with sharp observations and resonant character notes, and the propulsive forward motion of the journey keeps the plot moving at a nice clip. It never gets bogged down anywhere. And while managing all that, it also excels at blending the moments of humor with sweetly poignant emotional work.

Writing a funny-yet-grounded book is hard, y'all. So many things to be balanced, and the Pulitzer has to be at least in part a recognition of how very well Greer crafted his work. Why, after all this gushing, is this not an even-more-highly-rated book for me? Two things: it didn't linger in my mind (books that I rate 9 or 10 stars stick with me long after reading), and the narrator reveal. While I thought it was an emotionally satisfying way to end the book, it didn't make logical sense, which spoiled it ever so slightly. That being said, it's a wonderful book that I heartily enjoyed, with meditations on aging, love, dignity, and identity that run beneath the parts that make you laugh to make you think. I'd recommend it to everyone!

One year ago, I was reading: The Age of Miracles

Two years ago, I was reading: Flip

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Four years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Month In The Life: September 2020


A more exciting month than usual: I left Reno for the first time since January and got back yesterday! I spent a week in Michigan after not having been on an airplane in eight months to celebrate an important family event and decided that since I'm not exactly going to make tons of use of my vacation time anytime soon, I might as well make a whole trip of it. I mostly felt pretty safe, but I am watching myself like a hawk for any signs of the virus after air travel. And, of course, I read books!


In Books...

  • Mother Daughter Widow Wife: This is an interesting book that provoked a lot of thought. It is centered around three women: Lizzie, a young graduate fellow in psychology doing research with a renowned psychiatrist, Wendy Doe, their subject who is in a fugue state with no memory of her life, and then, in a second timeline, Alice, Wendy's daughter, who comes to Lizzie looking for answers. It's been marketed as a mystery/suspense book, and while there are those elements there, it's really more a work of literary fiction dealing with questions of construction of identity. It's good, but not quite great. 
  • Yakuza Moon: If you are looking for a memoir with more information about the yakuza, like I was, this one by a daughter of a yakuza member is unlikely to be what you're seeking. Shoko's father leaves the life when she's still quite young, and her book covers mostly her teens and twenties. Her life was harrowing and there are about a million content warnings here: drug abuse, sexual violence, physical abuse, disordered eating. I don't know if it was the writing or the translation, but there is a sense of remove that made it hard to connect much with Shoko or her story. 
  • The Human Stain: I'd never read Philip Roth before, but had gotten the idea he was pretty fixated on sex. This is very accurate. There is merit in this book: Roth's prose is strong, and the story's themes of freedom and the creation of the self are powerful. But I mostly found it overwrought and much too focused on Men Having Feelings About Being Men (which is, of course, very tied up with sex, in this case between a former professor in his 70s and an illiterate cleaning woman in her mid30s). I wonder how I might have felt about this book even five years ago, before the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements really took off. Reading it now felt very cringey from a racial and sexual politics standpoint.
  • The Good Soldier: This book traces the relationship between two couples in pre-World War I Europe. John and Florence are wealthy Americans who meet Edward and Leonora at a health spa in Germany, which Florence and Edward visiting because of heart conditions, and the quartet become fast friends. John narrates the story, and it quickly becomes clear that he is highly unreliable and that the relationships of the characters are much complicated, and much darker than they might have initially seemed. 
  • The Memory Keeper's Daughter: I have several friends who thought highly of this book, so I am willing to concede that my issues with it are primarily from the "me" side rather than "the book" side. As a reader, I can be very hit and miss with domestic dramas, which I think are often nakedly emotionally manipulative in a way I don't enjoy. This one, about a family forever changed when a father makes the decision to give away his newborn daughter because of his fear that her Down's Syndrome will leave her susceptible to the heart condition that killed his own sister as a child, tried too obviously to tug my heartstrings and did nothing special with prose or characterization to redeem it. 
  • Fifth Avenue, 5 AM: Apart from the horrifying Mr. Yunioshi bits, Breakfast at Tiffany's is a wonderful movie. If you've ever wanted to learn more about how it got made, from the original Truman Capote novella from it being optioned and cast and securing a writer and director, to the actual shooting, this book will be informative and engaging. It's told in little pieces, no more than a few pages at a time, and while it's fun to read it's not very substantial. 
  • Highfire: I'd read the first few of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books quite a long time ago, and remembered them as enjoyable so thought I would try out his first fantasy for adults, about possibly the last dragon, who is named Vern and lives in the bayou in Louisiana and loves his La-Z-Boy recliner. It did not have the same charm as the Artemis Fowl books...it's almost as if, being free to use swear words and talk about genitals for the first time in his fiction, he went overboard. I love swearing, but it was a little much. I never really got invested in the characters.
  • Naked: Of the three of his collections I have read, this was the weakest for me. Of course, it was still funny and enjoyable to read, Sedaris is a great writer and story-teller. But the moments of real brilliance felt fewer and further between, and some of the stories did nothing for me.

In Life...
  • I went to Michigan: It had been 14 months since I went to Michigan, which is unusual...I usually try to go at least once a year, if not twice. But though I was not especially inclined to travel yet, my little sister's baby shower was last weekend and obviously that's mandatory. I got to celebrate my pending baby nephew and spend time with my mom, my sister, my dad, and my friends, which was wonderful.


 

One Thing:

After months and months of mask-wearing, I've found a favorite variety: Breathe in Peace masks are USA made, easily adjustable, and have a piece that goes over the nose so it fits snugly but comfortably. And they're cotton, so you can just chuck them in the washer and dryer when they need to be cleaned and you're done!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Quotes I Have Pulled For This Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a quotes freebie, so I went back through the quotes that I have pulled as part of my reviews for this blog and picked ten of my favorites! Here are the best of nearly five years of quotes!




"You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones."- The Blind Assassin

"The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits could be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place."- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

"You must resist the urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children."- Between the World and Me

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

"The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day."- A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

"It wasn't a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but that’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is finished and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime."- Good Omens

"I am not good at noticing when I'm happy, except in retrospect. My gift, or fatal flaw, is for nostalgia. I have sometimes been accused of demanding perfection, of rejecting heart's desires as soon as I get close enough that the mysterious impressionistic gloss disperses into plain solid dots, but the truth is less simplistic than that. I know very well that perfection is made up of frayed, off-struck mundanities. I suppose you could say my real weakness is a kind of long-sightedness: usually it is only at a distance, and much too late, that I can see the pattern."- In The Woods

"I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves."- The Girls

"There are stories that are true, in which each individual's tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it, like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others' pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to." - American Gods

"I've never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don't touch anything doesn't mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being just fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you're irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena's case, the person you'll never have the chance to be. The world doesn't care that you're just a girl."- Marlena 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Book 252: Shantaram

 
 "Personality and personal identity are in some ways like co-ordinates on the street map drawn by our intersecting relationships. We know who we are and we define what we are by references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them." 

Dates read: July 27- August 6, 2018

Rating: 5/10

If you had asked me where I'd be at 35 at virtually any point in my life, I 100% would not have said living in Reno, Nevada and working as a lobbyist. When I was in high school, I would have said probably in a major city practicing law, preparing for a career as a judge. In college, I would have waffled about maybe becoming a psychologist or academic, but probably still would have come down on the side of being a lawyer-looking-towards-the-judiciary. I wanted to be a prosecutor and then move onto the bench pretty much until the bottom fell out of the economy when I was in law school. With shrinking firm openings, even the kinds of public-sector jobs I'd had my eye on got super competitive, and for the first time I had to shift my dreams. That shift continued all the way until I got to where I am, and while it's worked out pretty damn well, it's nowhere near where I thought I'd be.

Of course, this is a pretty fortunate variant of the curveballs life can throw. The man who calls himself Lindsay "Lin" Ford (this is an alias, but we never get his real name) in Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram had a real switch-up. At one point, he was a typical suburban husband and father in Australia. Then he got into heroin, and then bank robbery, and then there was divorce and custody loss and prison. Facing a decades-long sentence in a high-security prison, he manages to escape and goes on the run, landing almost by chance in Mumbai with his forged passport and a chance decision to trust a street guide with a big smile changes his life all over again.

Lin's adventures in India are truly epic, from six months in his street-guide-turned-friend Prabakar's rural village, to living and working as a medic in one of the city's enormous slums, to Lin's passionate love for Karla, a beautiful and mysterious Swiss ex-pat, back to prison (in India this time), then into organized crime and even to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen. Along the way there's a shadowy, malevolent madam, a traintop marriage proposal, and Bollywood movies, among other things. It's sprawling, with countless side characters who appear and re-appear throughout. Lin's ability to proceed with cautious optimism keeps him generally lucky in both friendship and opportunity, but even that can't keep him safe from tragedy.

The book is based heavily on Roberts' own experiences...like his protagonist, he was an Australian addict-turned-robber who escaped from prison and lived for several years in India. While some characters are, in fact, entirely created, several (including Prabakar and his family) are actual people who Roberts did know in India but whose stories he may have rendered somewhat less than faithfully. It walks a fine line between obvious invention/fantasy (the scene in which Lin and Karla finally sleep together has them running into each other's arms while a thunderstorm rages around them and I literally laughed at how ridiculous it was though it was not at all meant to be funny) and things it seems like we're meant to believe even though they are clearly ludicrous (like the idea that Lin has apparently has an extraordinary ability to know instantly if someone is a decent person and is almost immediately accepted and tightly bonded into every community he finds himself in).

If you're looking for a plot-driven adventure story and have a high tolerance for flowery language, this will likely be something you really enjoy! It can honestly be hard to focus on how silly some of the events in the book are because he generally keeps things moving quickly enough that you don't linger on them before Roberts takes you in a new direction. I'm not kidding about the prose style, though...I'm generally fairly tolerant and sometimes even enjoy work that tends towards the overwritten, but only about 100 pages into the nearly 950 of this book I was already rolling my eyes and it didn't get better from there. There's a very good 500-600 page book in here, but it would have taken some serious editing down of the often-trite philosophical patter Roberts constantly inserts, and honestly more development of Lin as a character. He's our protagonist and we spend all our time with him, but we actually know vanishingly little of his life before he was imprisoned in his home country. We get full backstories for several less important characters, which made it extra frustrating for Lin to be so unrooted. As I think is probably obvious by now, I didn't especially like this book, finding it only mediocre-to-average in quality and completely unworthy of its enormous length. But honestly I think if I had read it in my early-to-mid-20s, when my tolerance for "poignant" pronouncements about life was higher, I'd have liked it more. As is, though, I can't recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Soon The Light Will Be Perfect

Two years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Four years ago, I was reading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses