Thursday, September 17, 2020

Book 251: The Pleasing Hour

"They had forgotten me, and I felt snug and warm in my blanket of incomprehension. I had always wanted to go to France to learn the language, but instead I’d come and lost my own. Finally I was free of the need to explain anything to anyone."

Dates read: July 24-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

It can be difficult to see your own family objectively. Many families have a level of dysfunction that seems normal from the inside, but if you were to see someone else's family doing the same thing would seem maladaptive. That doesn't necessarily mean the people in that family are unhappy, though. No one's family is perfect, and if it's not one weird pattern of behavior, it's another. Finding a balance where personality quirks are able to be negotiated and worked out with each other is the important thing.

The Trivot family, living on a houseboat in Paris, looks happy from the outside in Lily King's debut novel The Pleasing Hour. A beautiful mother, Nicole, a successful father, Marc, and three fundamentally good children: lovely teenage Odile, high-spirited Lola, and serious Guillame. Every year, there's a new jeune fille who works as an au pair, helping with the kids and around the house, and this year, it's 19 year-old American Rosie. Usually, the young women in her position are studying at the Sorbonne, perfecting already skilled French, enjoying a social life untethered to the "real world" they'll return to at the end of the year. But Rosie is different. She's clumsy with the language, not attending school, and spends most of her off-duty time in her small bedroom. What drove her to France was not an appetite for adventure, but escape from a situation she couldn't face.

Not long before she arrived, Rosie had a child, and gave him up to the older sister who basically raised her. She's still working through that experience when she comes into the Trivot household, where the glossy surface conceals plenty of problems underneath: haughty Nicole and sheepish Marc are disconnected, and the kids each have their own struggles. Rosie becomes more integrated into their lives, finding some sense of security, before a trip to Spain unsettles everything.

One of the major themes of the book, and one that really resonated with me, is language: the power of fluency and the way it can both bring people together when it's shared and isolate them when it's not. Rosie arrives speaking poor French, setting her apart from the family, and even as her proficiency increases to the point where she feels comfortable speaking it in most situations and to everyone else in the household, she fears Nicole's ability to make her feel wrong. Nicole herself tries to bury the Provencal accent that marks her as a non-native Parisian. And the way Rosie sees herself and is seen by the Trivots shifts when they go to Spain and she has the most command of Spanish. Anyone who's ever tried to learn a language, or gone someplace where they didn't speak the primary one well, knows how isolating it can be when you don't understand it, how frustrating it can be to sort-of understand, but be unable to clearly make yourself understood, the thrill of being able to communicate.

While I found that particular thematic element of the book compelling, as a whole I'll admit it was just okay for me. It is a debut, and though it's the promising kind (King's prose is strong, and she shows flashes of brilliance of characterization), it doesn't seem quite sure of what exactly it's trying to say or do as a whole. We get in-depth looks at the family's children, and go back in time to learn about Nicole's parents and childhood, but get no insight into her as an adult or into Marc at all. The plot meanders, and important threads of narrative, like Rosie's emotional processing of her pregnancy and surrender of her child, didn't feel like they went anywhere. It's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not particularly good either. If what you've read makes you interested, you won't be wasting your time in picking up the book, but you won't really be missing out on anything if you don't.

One year ago, I was reading: Empire Falls

Two years ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

Three years ago, I was reading: Duel with the Devil

Four years ago, I was reading: Neon Green

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Great Posters For Books Made Into Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is technically supposed to be a cover freebie, but honestly I am not huge into book covers. So I'm doing a little twist on it: I'd originally thought of highlighting books that get new covers when a movie is released and the best or worst of those, but instead, I'm just going to do the posters for the movies themselves! I have either seen the movies or read the books (mostly both) for every one of these.

The Silence of the Lambs

24 All-Time Best Movie Posters with Great Designs

Breakfast at Tiffany's Pyramid America Breakfast at Tiffanys Audrey Hepburn Holly  Golightly Romantic Comedy Movie Film Cool Wall Decor Art Print Poster  24x36: Posters & Prints

Gone With The Wind Pop Culture Graphics Gone with The Wind 11 x 17 Movie Poster:  Prints: Posters & Prints

The Godfather The Godfather 1972 Marlon Brando Classic Movie Poster No Frame  (11 x 17): Posters & Prints

Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness)

Apocalypse Now (1979) Original Australian One-Sheet Movie Poster - Original  Film Art - Vintage Movie Posters

Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) Pop Culture Graphics Blade Runner 27x40 Movie Poster: Prints:  Posters & Prints

Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby (1968) - IMDb


50 Beautiful Movie Posters — Smashing Magazine

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (Original poster maquette for the 1973 film) by Friedkin,  William (director); Bill Gold (poster design); William Peter Blatty  (screenwriter); Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Linda Blair  (starring): (

A Clockwork Orange

The 50 Best Movie Posters Ever | Movies | Empire

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Book 250: The Romanov Empress

"For the moment I obliged, reasoning that the ongoing burden of the war, the shock of Alexei's illness, and Alexandra's distress were an impossible combination. Let time ease the brunt of it. Once it did, I'd try again. I'd not cease until Nicky accepted that in this modern age, our autocracy was already doomed. No tsar could rule as his ancestors had. If he didn't concede, they would force him to it."

Dates read: July 20-24, 2018

Rating: 6/10

My husband and I are both fortunate in the in-laws department. His parents like me, my parents like him. While I very well remember the feeling of discomfort when it comes to "meeting the parents" for the first time (with the exception of my college boyfriend, this always went well for me but was still nerve-wracking), now that that part of my life is over, I find myself wondering what it must be like to be on the other side of it. To know that your offspring is bringing home someone they really like and want you to like, and you hope you like them but also want them to like you. It must be a tricky situation if you get a bad vibe off the new you discourage and get called a meddler? Passively accept that your adult child can do whatever they want and let it go? Figuring out how to play it must be a very thin tightrope to walk.

Of all the decisions that Maria Feodorovna, Empress of all the Russias, made in her long life, one of the most fateful what was to do about her oldest son, the tsarevich Nicholas, and his devotion to a minor German princess called Alix. She failed to dissuade him from her, and Nicholas and Alexandra, of course, were deposed and ultimately executed along with their five children. But while it might be the fate of her eldest and her grandchildren that the world mostly remembers her for, Maria had a long and interesting life of her own, and C.W. Gortner explores that life in his historical fiction novel The Romanov Empress. We first meet her when she's the teenage Princess Dagmar of Denmark and follow her through the beginning of her years in exile after the fall of the royal family.

That gives us roughly 50 years to cover, and there was a lot that happened in those years. Dagmar initially falls for and is betrothed to tsarevich Nicholas, and is enthusiastically preparing for her new life in Russia when Nicholas has a horse-riding accident and dies, but before he does he begs Dagmar and his younger brother Sasha to wed. They do, despite initial coolness on both of their parts, and the marriage is ultimately a happy and successful one. But this was a time of increasing instability in Europe, and after multiple attempts on her father-in-law's life, Tsar Alexander II is assassinated and Sasha becomes Tsar Alexander III. Sasha's reign is challenged by the same forces that ended his father's, but Maria stays mostly out of politics and turns her attention to charity, court life, and raising her children, and is particularly close to her eldest, Nicholas, whose mildness irritates his father. Neither Sasha or Maria want him to wed Alix, but when it becomes apparent that Sasha's kidney condition will take him sooner rather than later, they reluctantly consent so Nicholas can be married before he assumes the throne. Sasha's death makes him Tsar Nicholas II and his bride Tsarina Alexandra, and Maria tries to guide her son and his wife through continued social turbulence, but Alexandra will have none of it and turns to an obscure mystic called Rasputin for guidance after it becomes apparent that her youngest child and only son, Alexei, suffers from hemophilia. We all know how it goes from there.

Though I've read/heard about Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children (particular Anastasia), I'll admit my familiarity with any other Russian rulers besides Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great is non-existent. So even though "the grandmother" is always present in Anastasia stories, I literally had no idea who she was, and this book was a solid introduction to her. She lived in an era of such turbulence that she's a great lens through which to take a look at how Europe completely changed within one generation. The downside of that, from a novelistic perspective, is that since there is so much actual action to pack in, once you add in the interpersonal Romanov drama on top of the greater social shifts, that Maria ends up being kind of a passive, reactive character. Which isn't such a bad thing in and of itself, but when the writing is constantly telling us about Maria's high spirits and sense of mischief and all we see is a woman who's mostly pretty conventional and constantly placed in a position to be reactive rather than proactive, it creates a mismatch.

That being said, though, Maria does feel like a real person. Gortner indulges in some insta-love in her initial engagement to Nicholas, but I appreciate the way he built her relationship with Sasha over time, as a couple who barely knew each other when they married and grew their connection gradually. I also enjoyed the frenemy dynamic between Maria and her sister-in-law Miechen, whose actual roguish energy made Maria seem even more well-behaved and dutiful in comparison. With the time span this covers, and all the events it needs to touch, it almost feels more like a highlight reel than a portrait of a person, and comes off a little cluttered. I think some of the material could have been trimmed down a little, which would give it all a bit more room to breathe instead of feeling like we're hopping from major life event to major life event. It just never really takes off, and while it's a solid read, it's nothing more than that. It did serve to introduce me to several figures I'm hunting down actual biographies for, so there's that at least. If you're interested in Russia and the Romanovs, this is decent and worth reading. If that time and place doesn't hold any interest for you already, though, this is skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Silence of the Girls

Three years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls

Four years ago, I was reading: Smoke

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent(ish) YA Books My Teenage Self Would Have Loved

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! So, a little while back I made a list of young adult books, published while I was a young adult, I wish I would have read. This list is similar, but with a twist: here are ten YA books I wish had been published when I was a teenager (so, after 2004), because I would have been very into them!

The Hate U Give: I thought this book was a solid read as an adult, but it's really more targeted towards teenagers, and I think teenage me would have been extremely into it!

The Hunger Games: This book and its sequels (haven't read the new prequel yet) are exactly the type of young adult I would have loved, complete with stereotypical love triangle.

Twilight: I read all these books when I was in college, so not too far removed from my teenage years, and I ate them up (I still find them the perfect kind of brain dessert).

Uglies: I very much liked the first one of these that I read off my little sister's bookshelves, but the second one kind of lost me because I was really out of the "teenage dystopia" headspace by that point. 

The Serpent King: I absolutely loved this book even as an adult, but think it would have been even more appealing to me as a small-town nerd in high school.

Shatter Me: Another one I quite liked even as a grown-up, but would have been even more appealing to teen me.

Children of Blood and Bone: This did not do much for me as someone who has come to really enjoy a character-heavy drama instead a plot-driven adventure, but I think I would have appreciated the thrill of it more when I was younger.

Divergent: I read the first two books in this series several years ago, and I think teenage me would have been more tolerant of all the tropes on display there.

The Book Thief: I thought this was moving, enjoyable book when I read it a few years ago and I would have been obsessed with it if I'd first encountered it as a teen.

Delirium: I found this inoffensively fluffy as an adult but I'm pretty sure I would have found it very swoony once upon a time.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Book 249: Olive Kitteridge

"As a matter of fact, there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can't occasionally take a little of this, a little of that—just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give herself a little burst. Because Christopher doesn't need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything. Nobody knows everything—they shouldn't think they do." 

Dates read: July 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

It's easy to think that we really know the people in our social circle. We see them being regularly rude and snappy, we write them off as jerks. They're always kind and thoughtful when we see them, we assume that they're a good person. But it's hard, if not impossible, to actually completely know anyone else. The lovely human we know in the work place might go home and be cruel to their family. The person we see being prickly could spend hours volunteering in their community. Unless we've seen someone in every possible context, there's always an aspect of them that could be missing from who we think we know.

The thirteen short stories that make up Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge all feature the main character at least once. Sometimes she's the center of it. Sometimes she's a passing reference between two other people who live in her small Maine town. It moves roughly chronologically, beginning when Olive and her husband Henry are already older and headed toward retirement (though the first story, about Henry, is mostly a flashback), and their son Christopher is an adult. Olive negotiates her relationships with her family and her community at large as they all change, slowly but inexorably...or, often just as aggravatingly for her, don't change much at all.

Though many of the lives we encounter look at least moderately happy on the surface, there's often profound sadness lurking underneath. This is not new territory, suburban dysfunction and familial drama, and while there's nothing special plot-wise it's Strout's skill as a writer that makes this book shine. Each story is a whole unto itself but subtly builds to create a full picture of Olive, her strengths and her flaws. She can be infuriating, as when she deals with the fear from finding herself the victim of a crime by berating her husband, and she can be deeply relatable and sympathetic, like when she overhears her new daughter-in-law mocking the dress she made herself for their wedding. She is stubborn and proud and controlling and rendered with profound emotional truth. Strout never has to explicitly ascribe these qualities to Olive, because she understands the power of showing rather than telling, which she does in spare-yet-lovely prose.

As in any short story collection, some entries are stronger than others. I loved the first one, "Pharmacy" about Olive's husband's long-ago infatuation with a shy technician at his pharmacy, and two where Olive is only a background mention, "Winter Concert" and "Ship in a Bottle". Some others, like "Tulips" and "The Piano Player", failed to move me. But one of the upsides to reading short stories is that even if you don't care for a particular story, it'll be over soon! I'll be honest, I was not looking forward to reading this book, because it felt like I was in a rut of books that were interconnected vignettes without strong central plots and I wanted to read something with more structure. Happily, though, it's good enough that I found myself very much enjoying it and I'd highly recommend it even if you're skeptical of short stories!

One year ago, I was reading: Tower

Two years ago, I was reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Three years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Four years ago, I was reading: Life Itself

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Food-Related Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, our theme is food. We're supposed to be talking about books that make us hungry, but I honestly almost never take notice of food in books. So instead, I'm bringing you ten books that use food or food-ish words in their titles!

Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers: I love this whole series (the last couple books aren't the best, but most of them are very fun)

Chocolat: One of the few books that has genuinely made me want to eat the food described within!

Eat Pray Love: I know, this book is cliche at this point, but there is so much weirdness about being a woman and one's relationship to food that I think the idea of practicing indulgence deliberately hasn't lost its power.

Kitchen Confidential: This is Anthony Bourdain's first memoir, and it is what you would expect it to be...bursting with appreciation for food and life, irreverent, and rough around the edges.

The Hunger Games: I love this series, and the first one in particular is my favorite.

In Defense of Food: This one literally says food in the title. It basically boils down to an admonition to eat mostly whole/unprocessed foods.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: The movie is lovely, but if you've never read the book I'd really encourage it! It's quite short, more of a novella, but just wonderfully put together.

Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: You can't go wrong with Chuck Klosterman on pop culture.

The Grapes of Wrath: Grapes are food! Though this book is much more concerned with citrus groves in California (also, I hated this book).

The Cider House Rules: Cider is drink rather than food, but close enough, eh? I loved the movie in high school, which inspired me to pick up the book and I have loved it ever since.

Monday, August 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: August 2020

Tomorrow is September! Which feels impossible, because it feels like 2020 just started, in a weird sort of way. So many things that had been in the cards for this year just...never happened. At this point, it feels like getting through to the end of the year and looking forward to a better 2021 is about as good as it's going to get. But before we turn full bore into fall, let's look back at August!

In Books...
  • A Luminous Republic: I am usually a reader drawn to books with rich characters, but this short novel, which is heavy on theme and story rather than character, grabbed my attention and wouldn't let it go. It's about a small city in Argentina, on the edge of the jungle, from whence a group of feral children arrive and chaos ensues. It was really thought-provoking!
  • The Thirteenth Tale: I absolutely loved Diane Setterfield's more recent novel, Once Upon A River, so I had very high expectations for this. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this story of a young woman who receives an invitation to be the biographer of a very famous writer, whose life narrative is a riff on gothic classics. It isn't bad, per se, but felt both overlong and under-developed.
  • On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: This was my book club read for the month! It's absolutely beautifully written, Ocean Vuong's background as a poet shines through in a great way as he tells the tale of the son of a Vietnamese immigrant growing up and dealing with his family legacy of conflict and reflecting on his first relationship with another man. It's a lovely book and I would recommend it, but I wish it had felt more focused and had developed more of a cohesive narrative.
  • Ivanhoe: I generally tend to really enjoy classics, but the language in this one felt like it was fighting me and I couldn't really relax into the rhythm of it. Nearly 600 pages of that fight made this feel like a slog, which is in part a pity: there is wit and humor here, and if a couple hundred pages were cut out there could be a charming adventure novel made out of this. I nominate the pages with the blatant anti-Semitism as the first to go!
  • The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B: Napoleon's first wife, Josephine, basically had a whole entire life before she even met him. And she wasn't even called Josephine...born Marie Josephe Rose, she usually went by the last of those names. She was married, had two children by her faithless husband, and survived the French Revolution, and this historical fiction account of her early years, structured as a diary, tells the story of the life she lived before she became Napoleon's wife in highly entertaining and readable fashion. It's not trying to be Serious Literature, but I quite enjoyed reading it and am interested in the sequels!
  • The Moonstone: What a delight! This mystery classic is both well-plotted and very funny in a dry sort of way. A young woman inherits a massive diamond from her uncle on her birthday, which disappears only hours after she acquires it. A private detective is called in to help solve the riddle, complications ensue. It's told from multiple perspectives, including a sanctimonious spinster aunt that had me cackling.

In Life...
  • Another special session: Technically this one started on the last day of July, but it dominated the first several days of August as well. There were some quite long days that lasted into the early hours of the morning, but hopefully we're done with this until February!
  • Wildfire season: After a fairly mild summer on the fire front, we got ALL of the wildfires in mid/late August. By "we", I mean not the Reno area itself, but California...the smoke comes in over the Sierras and then settles down in the river valley. Our air quality has been terrible for the past like, two weeks, so here's hoping we get some rain

One Thing:

I loved reading the deep dives Tom & Lorenzo took into the costuming of Mad Men, which really helped me understand more about how film and TV costumes really work. They've been running a series recently called One Iconic Look, which is exactly what it sounds like: an examination of the most memorable clothes women have worn in the movies. I've really enjoyed reading these and highly recommend checking them out!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Book 248: My Own Words

"The institution we serve is ever so much more important than the particular individuals who compose the Court’s bench at any given time. And our job—the job of judging in a U.S. federal court generally—is, in my view, the best work a U.S. lawyer could wish for. We serve no client, our commission is to do what is right—what the law requires and what is just."

Dates read: July 11-17, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Growing up, my role model (and let's be honest, idol) was Sandra Day O'Connor. I wanted to be a lawyer and judge, and the first woman on the Supreme Court was the greatest person I could imagine. As I got older and better able to understand legal writing, she become a justice whose opinions I always appreciated reading, because in her fondness for balancing tests (while tricky to consistently administer) she seemed to always remember that while The Law is a mighty and important thing, it applies to actual people with actual lives and that is not less important than one's judicial philosophy. She remains someone who I profoundly admire, along with the other women who've been appointed to the highest court in the land: Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and everyone's favorite pop culture icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the past several years, she's had books written about her, a documentary and a biopic hit theaters, and been made into an action figure (which I have on my desk as I type). She's become almost more of an idea than a person, which made My Own Words, a collection of her writings/speeches, organized with her co-writers Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, all the more relevant to read. There is an actual woman beneath the mythologizing, and that woman is whip-smart and has a lot of important things to say that can't be slapped on a photo and turned into a meme. Not that I have any beef with that picture of her that says "all them fives need to listen when a ten is talking" in the Beyonce font, but in a world where complex thought is increasingly rare, we owe it to one of our best thinkers to really listen to what she has to say.

The book's collection of her writings has examples all the way from pre-teen editorials submitted to the school paper to oral announcements of Supreme Court dissents. That she is a serious, thoughtful person is obvious even in the early writings, and examples of her work as she pushed for gender equity at the ACLU and then was elevated to the federal bench demonstrate her prodigious intellect and ability to distill arguments to their essence. But it's not all ponderous and serious. There's a written version of remarks about the role of lawyers in opera and an excerpt from the comic opera that was written about Justices Scalia and Ginsburg's close personal friendship, which included trips to the opera, despite the gulf between their views on the law. There are a few pieces that were written/delivered by Gibsburg's beloved husband Marty, whose wit made me giggle in few places.

The co-authors are apparently working on an authorized full biography of Justice Ginsburg, and the way they've worked with the material they have here gives me high hopes that it'll be excellent. It can be challenging to edit down legal writing into something that can be understood by an audience not trained to read it, but between what's clearly Ginsburg's own facility with language and careful tweaks, the material will definitely require attention but isn't difficult to understand. That it's just relatively short vignettes may disappoint some who are looking for something more like a traditional biography, though there is interstitial writing to fill in the gaps and provide context. You do definitely get a sense of who she is through reading it, though. I'd highly recommend this for anyone who's interested in the law, as well as any RBG enthusiasts.

One year ago, I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes

Two years ago, I was reading: Oryx and Crake

Three years ago, I was reading: The Idiot

Four years ago, I was reading: Inamorata

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Questions I Would Ask My Favorite Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about questions we'd ask our favorite authors. Not all of these authors are my absolute favorites (for one, I only chose authors who are alive), but here are ten questions I'd ask authors I respect and admire!

Roxane Gay: What was your favorite thing about living in the Upper Peninsula during your Ph.D. program?

Margaret Atwood: You've written so many brilliant modern classics. What modern classic means the most to you?

Alison Weir: What person in British Tudor history would you like to write a biography about, but there just isn't enough material there for a book?

Jeffrey Eugenides: What is your favorite place in Detroit?

Katherine Arden: What is your favorite Russian folk tale?

Donna Tartt: Your The Secret History is one of the most popular books not yet adapted for the the screen. Has there ever been an actor you thought would be perfect for one of the roles?

John U Bacon: Who is your favorite Michigan football player of all time?

George RR Martin: When are you going to finish The Winds of Winter?

Nick Hornby: Music was such an important part of High Fidelity. What is your favorite song?

Erik Larson: Is there a historical event or person that you find interesting, but you don't think you're the right person to write about?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Book 247: The Looming Tower

"On the existential plane, Bin Laden was marginalized, out of play, but inside the chrysalis of myth that he had spun about himself he was becoming a representative of all persecuted and humiliated Muslims. His life and the symbols in which he cloaked himself powerfully embodied the pervasive sense of dispossession that characterized the modern Muslim world. In his own miserable exile, he absorbed the misery of his fellow believers; his loss entitled him to speak for theirs; his vengeance would sanctify their suffering. The remedy he proposed was to declare war on the United States."

Dates read: July 5-11, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times bestseller

I'm naturally a high-strung person. Always have been. I'm the type who gets up out of bed to double check if I can't remember locking the door. Every once in a while, I have to remind myself with statistics that what's most likely to harm me are things I do constantly: get in the car and drive, cross the street on my way in to work, exist in a world filled with carcinogens. I'm not the only one, either. I think a lot of us are more frightened by the kinds of things that make newspaper headlines than the ones that are much more likely to be lethal. It's unlikely we'll get caught in a deadly tornado or raging wildfire. It's also vanishingly unlikely we'd ever find ourselves the victim of a terror attack.

And yet, ever since September 11th, that fear has loomed large in the American cultural imagination. It happened once, and it could happen again. But how exactly did it come to happen? That is the question Lawrence Wright seeks to answer in The Looming Tower, in which he traces the development of radical Islam and the life of Osama bin Laden, through the rise of al-Queda and the intelligence community turf wars that handicapped the country's ability to understand and prepare for the threat. It's a story that begins with seeds planted by a few in Egypt that grows to expand to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the United States. It's a story about people, about men whose understandings of the world are on a collision course. It's a story about near-misses and mistakes that ends in tragedy.

I was a little hesitant when I picked this up...I'd read Ghost Wars about six months before and was worried that this would largely be a rehash of things I'd recently read. But that concern turned out to be unfounded. While there's certainly overlap, that book was focused heavily on Afghanistan, and the CIA's involvement in that country's recent history. This book is really about al-Queda and how it's leaders, Osama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri, came to join together and carry out attacks against the West from their position in Afghanistan. If you're interested in this general subject area and think you might want to read one of these two books, I'd suggest The Looming Tower (or at least reading it first). 

While there is no denying the incredible research and level of detail in Ghost Wars, the end result is a book that tends toward the dense. Having read it once, I'm sure it would take me at least another few passes through it to really feel like everything was sinking it. The Looming Tower doesn't bring that level of specificity, but it's not really trying to either. That's not to insinuate that it's not deeply rooted in fact and without a breadth of source material. The references section is extensive. But what The Looming Tower does well is actually stringing that all together into a cohesive narrative. Depending on the author's skill level (and, to be honest, intended audience), non-fiction can struggle with storytelling and a tendency toward dryness. But this is where Wright shines. Despite working with names, places, and concepts that are largely only vaguely familiar to a Western readership, he never lets the pace get bogged down in information dumps. Like the events it recounts, it keeps on moving forward to what we know is coming.

That's not to say it's perfect. There's an emphasis on counter-terrorism expert John O'Neill (who died helping evacuate others on 9/11), especially his personal life, that doesn't quite fit in with the overall flow of the book that I think should have gotten trimmed. And, having read Ghost Wars, I thought the situation in Afghanistan and the relationship of al-Queda and the Taliban was simplified too far. I think the book could have added about 50 pages and given everything a bit more depth and shading and been stronger for it. But for a primer on the situation in the Middle East and inside the federal bureaucracy that culminated in September 11th, written for a wide audience, I think this a very good book indeed. I highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: The Forgotten Sister

Two years ago, I was reading: Life After Life

Three years ago, I was reading: Stoner

Four years ago, I was reading: Lights Out In The Reptile House

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Which Should be Adapted Into Shows

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about adaptations! Books have of course always been popular as a source material for movies, but more and more books are getting made into shows, which really allows for longer books to shine. I did a similar list a couple years back so am going to try not to repeat anything here!

The Luminaries: This book is a doorstopper, and its story of a small mining community in New Zealand would be fascinating to play out on the big screen!

Americanah: This one actually is being made into a miniseries (by HBO!), which I think will be better than a'll give this sprawling, gorgeous story some space to relax and really explore its themes!

A Visit From The Goon Squad: The book, marketed as a novel, is more a set of interconnected short stories so it's already in convenient episodic format.

White Teeth: Multiple settings, multiple generations of characters, complex subject matter about the legacy of should definitely be a series and I would love to watch it.

Daughter of Fortune: There's a lot of story in this book...a young woman growing up and falling in love in the the British community in Chile, a poor rural Chinese boy who grows up to become a doctor and then finds himself sailing the seas, and California Gold Rush. It could be a really fascinating series!

The Line of Beauty: I love a "fancy British people" series, and this book is about a young British gay man coming of age among the fancy set near the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. They actually already did a miniseries of this in the UK, but it was almost 15 years ago and only three episodes and I'd like to see a proper series.

The Age of Miracles: I don't know what the appetite would be right now for a post-apocalyptic show, but I'd never seen this kind of "end of the world" scenario (a slowing of the Earth's rotation) before and I think there would be enough to explore to make a series out of it. 

There There: Again, this is written as a series of interconnected point-of-view chapters that are almost more like stories than a single narrative, so it would be straightforward to adapt into episodes and we should have more media representation of modern Native American experiences.

Daisy Jones and the Six: This one is also sort-of cheating because it was announced it was becoming a series not long after it was published, but I am super looking forward to this one!

A Tale for the Time Being: The way this book plays with metanarrative might make it difficult to adapt well, and some of the themes are heavy, but it was such an interesting book and I'd like to see it be tried, anyways.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book 246: Disgrace

"A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them."

Dates read: July 2-5, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

Once upon a time, it seemed, there was a kind of script for powerful men who got caught behaving badly around women. There would be a statement full of vague, none-too-sincere seeming apologies for their actions and crocodile tears. There would be a trip to rehab, usually for "sex addiction" but sometimes for substances if they'd blamed that for their misdeeds. There would be an announcement of some sort of charitable contribution, often money but sometimes actual volunteer work if they wanted to really put on a show. They'd go away for a while, 6 months or a year. Then there would be a sit-down interview on a broadcast network where they talked about how much they'd changed and how they couldn't even recognize the person they used to be. The interviewer would lob softball questions designed to elicit sympathy. Then back to business as usual.

Then came Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. You could see Harvey trying to trot out the old familiar playbook, disappearing to sex rehab. But it didn't work. The failure of the established pattern is also at issue in J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, except in this case it's because the man in question specifically refuses to use it. David Lurie is a white professor at a university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. A frustrated scholar of the Romantic literary tradition, interest in his classes has dwindled and he finds himself teaching Communications. He's an unhappy man, twice divorced and mostly uninterested in developing actual relationships with other people. On a whim, he decides to pursue a beautiful student in one of his classes. They sleep together a few times, all at David's initiation and at least once when he's aware that she doesn't actually want to. Suddenly her boyfriend shows up in class, and shortly thereafter he finds himself accused of misconduct against her.

He's offered the standard-issue response: an apology, counseling, a break, but an eventual return assured. He refuses, simply capitulating, and leaves Cape Town for the countryside, where his daughter Lucy owns and runs a small farm. No sooner does he get somewhat accustomed to life there, though, than an episode of violence changes things forever. Three young black men attack David and Lucy, attempting to burn him and gang-raping her. The already-strained relationship between father and daughter becomes even more tense as both try to cope with their trauma in different ways.

It's obvious fairly early on that the characters and situations aren't intended to be always read as strictly realistic. There's a lot of allegory going on here about apartheid and the wounds that it left and the violence that was a crucial part of that system continuing to resonate. I found myself wishing I had more background in the history of South Africa, because I felt like there were layers and layers of meaning and some of them were out of my grasp. Disgrace is a fairly short book, not even 250 pages, but there is a lot going on in it because Coetzee is an absolutely master of his craft. Every word of this book was obviously carefully, deliberately chosen and he evokes so much by just letting his plot and characters speak for themselves. And speaking of characters, such a sticking point for me as a reader, this was a strange experience in that I didn't find anyone especially compelling but still found the book as a whole to be something that I was invested in.

So what I'm saying is that this is a very good book, but reader be warned: it is bleak. It is a story about a terrible person, who does some awful things. You almost wonder if he deserves it on some level, but even worse things happen to his daughter and she's just trying to live on her little piece of land and doesn't seem at first blush to be culpable. Or is she? Are all of those who benefit from systemic inequality culpable? There is a note of hope at the end with the promise of the birth of a biracial child, clearly meant to be symbolic of the way forward, but honestly using a child who will also be the offspring of a violent rape of a lesbian woman to represent that hope is extremely cynical. This is a high quality book that I appreciated the experience of reading and am glad I read and have no plans to ever return to because it was hard. I would definitely recommend it, but go in expecting a downer (and be aware that there's violence toward animals/animal death in case you're sensitive to it).

One year ago, I was reading: Bright Boulevard, Bold Dreams

Two years ago, I was reading: The Informant

Three years ago, I was reading: Charity Girl

Four years ago, I was reading: A Passage to India

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved but Never Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is books we love but have never reviewed. I've only really reviewed the books I've read in the last couple years, so this is basically a list of my all-time favorites.

Lolita: The most incredible writing, the fact that it was written in Nabokov's third language makes me want to weep for my insufficiency with just the one. I have so many thoughts about this book and why it is brilliant.

The Secret History: I genuinely believe that this is a book that everyone could enjoy. It has rich characters and an intriguing plot. It begins with a crime and then winds back in time to show you how it happened, and then what happened after, which keeps the suspense up. I have re-read it so many times since I was introduced to it in AP English!

Catherine, Called Birdy: A childhood favorite, mostly for the decidedly un-ladylike heroine at its center.

The Virgin Suicides: I love this book so much, it's so beautiful and such a well-realized portrait of a time and place. As a native metro Detroiter, I am especially invested in the story.

The Golden Compass: Another one that deeply appealed to childhood me in part because of the female hero who refused to be docile and compliant and what a girl "should" be. The sequels are also great, but the original volume is where my heart really lies.

1984: I first read this in 7th or 8th grade, I think, and I believe it influenced my early interest in politics...and my sometimes-cynical perspective on it.

In Cold Blood: This is not just my favorite work of nonfiction by a country mile, it's one of my all-time favorite books. I know there are concerns with Capote's reporting, but anyone expecting 100% accuracy out of any nonfiction book outside of an academic history is naive (and even then, decisions about information to include v. what to leave out can influence the perspective of the reader).

The God of Small Things: Another book where the luminous writing is what drew me in, and then the heartbreaking story and richly drawn rendering of a family and their relationships elevated it to my top tier.

Anna Karenina: This is half here because I thought War & Peace would be too pretentious, half because it's an incredible book in its own right. Such incredible depth of characters, and the story is actually pretty straightforward but really beautifully told.

The Remains of the Day: This book is just...exquisite. It's elegant and reveals itself with such heartbreaking steadiness. I was a wreck by the end in the best possible way.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Book 245: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

"When the detectives began working the Ramsey case, they said to each other that they wouldn't settle for anything less than the death penalty. After the CBI's tests determined that what they had thought was semen was in fact blood, the detectives said they would accept nothing less than a conviction on a murder charge. A few months later, they would have settled for a felony conviction. By the time they met with the FBI at Quantico in September 1997, they would have considered an indictment a victory. When Eller was replaced, handcuffing would have felt like a triumph. After a solid year of working the case, they prayed for the chance at a second interview with the Ramseys. Now, eighteen months in, they were happy to have the opportunity to present the case to the DA."

Dates read: June 25- July 2, 2018

Rating: 7/10

When I was a kid, I was on the swim team. I grew up on the lake, learned how to swim early, and just loved the water...I spent basically all summer splashing around either at home or at day camp. I am without much in the way of athletic gifts (read: I am slow and clumsy), but I was a reasonably competent swimmer, so my mom signed me up for the swim team. There was some contention about it my freshman year of high school: I was no longer interested in the kind of practice required for high school swimmers, so I wanted to drop out. I was mediocre at best, so no one would have missed me. But my mom, remembering her own mother's decision to force her off the swim team she loved, refused to let me leave before the end of the season. I swore I'd never swim another lap if she persisted. She did, and I haven't swam one since.

What I'm going for here, beyond an example of my supreme stubbornness, is that many parents direct their kids toward activities that they themselves enjoyed growing up. My father-in-law was a long-time runner and track coach. My husband ran track throughout high school into college (and liked it!). And when Patsy Ramsey had a beautiful little daughter, she put her in pageants, which she'd participated in and enjoyed growing up. While it seems very unlikely at this point that the pageants had anything to do with JonBenet's death, at the time it lead to a lot of suspicion. Lawrence Schiller recounts these rumors, as well as quite a lot of actual facts, in Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, his book on the still-unsolved murder of the little beauty queen. Sourced from what seems to have been exhaustive research and interviews with as many of the players as possible, it recounts how the case developed (and developed issues) right from the moment the cops were called to report a kidnapping until the case was finally submitted to the grand jury.

What actually happened as a result of that grand jury (an indictment was issued against John and Patsy Ramsey, but the prosecutor refused to sign it) isn't covered, and that is of course the most interesting part. Who did it? Someone did. The book steadfastly refuses to answer the question, though. Schiller clearly is trying to stay neutral as much as possible, presenting the police department's firm belief that the parents were getting away with murder with just as much credibility as the prosecutor's office investigator's belief that it was an intruder. The answer is, of course, that we will almost certainly never know. JonBenet is dead. Patsy Ramsey, too, has passed away in the years since. John is still around, but unless he or whoever else might be responsible issues a deathbed confession, this case will remain forever open.

Schiller spends a lot of time on context to really develop a comprehensive picture of what was happening at the time in the world in which the Ramseys lived. The City of Boulder, its tightly controlled development and the resulting high price of real estate creating a little enclave, the rareness with which the police department had to investigate serious crimes, the charging philosophy of the District Attorney...all are relevant to what happened, or didn't happen. It's obvious that there were serious complications even from the start, with friends at the Ramseys having arrived at their home even before the police, with John apparently shutting the open basement window, with his discovery of his daughter's body and race with her upstairs. All of that destroyed valuable evidence, evidence that could have solved the crime maybe. Was clumsiness and shock at the root of the Ramseys' behavior? Or criminality?

We're presented with evidence both ways. At some points, reading this book, I was sure they'd done it, but at others sure they wouldn't have. I kept having to remind myself that I know full well, as a former attorney, that the parents absolutely did the smart thing by getting lawyers hired so soon and refusing to cooperate with the police. If I have one piece of free legal advice I ever give, it's that you should never ever talk to the police without counsel present. I would have done the same thing in their place. But it's so hard to reconcile this understanding with the gut assumption that refusing to talk to cops about the death of your daughter "isn't what an innocent person would do". It's easy to say they should have cooperated, but until you've been in their place and figured out that you're likely the number one suspect in a murder, it's hard to say what you would have done differently with their resources. To get back to the book, it's well-researched and well-developed. I could have done with less about the tabloid reporter, who Schiller clearly found interesting but I did not. It doesn't have much of a narrative flow, it's more a work of reporting than of story-telling, but it's organized and clear. I would definitely recommend it to those curious about the crime!

One year ago, I was reading: Marie Antoinette

Two years ago, I was reading: Less

Three years ago, I was reading: Party Monster

Four years ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Colors In Their Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books with colors in their titles. This was a hard one to do without repeating ones, and I had to cheat a little bit too.

The Scarlet Letter: I almost went for The Red Tent here, but I've talked enough about that book on these lists so decided to highlight this classic, which a lot of people did not like but I actually think is really good!

A Clockwork Orange: The title is actually referring to the fruit and not the color per se, but it's my list and I make the rules!

James and the Giant Peach: Another fruit-not-color, but peach also works as a color and I don't talk about this book very much although it was one of my favorites as a kid!

The Golden Compass: I'm lucky they changed the name for the American release of one of my all-time most frequently re-read books! 

Green Girl: I read this book a couple years back and while it wasn't especially good, I think about it every so often. There was an appealing rawness to it. 

Olive Kitteridge: Last one where it was definitely not meant to refer to the color but I'm taking it that way anyway! Olive is the name of woman who inspired some mixed feelings in me (as did the book as a while)

Island of the Blue Dolphins: I loved this book so much as a kid and still remember doing a book report on it in elementary school!

The Color Purple: This was the easiest one to think of! I haven't read this book since AP English in high school and loved it, so I hope to be able to revisit it someday soon.

Black Beauty: I like the book, of course (like every little girl who loved horses), but the movie was one of my absolute favorites as a kid!

The White Tiger: This is a sharp, funny satire and more people should read it.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: July 2020

Another month of mostly staying home down! I would hope that anyone reading this doesn't need to have it said again, but please, y'all, wear masks when you're out and about in public. I'm sure we all would like to get back to something resembling normal-ish life again soon and the way we do that is wearing masks to keep this disease from continuing to explode out of control.

In Books...
  • The Borgias and Their Enemies: This was very paint-by-numbers feeling...a lot of "this happened, and then that happened.". Italian politics of the era were extremely complicated and Hibbert did not do a particularly good job of illuminating them. His portraits of the the three most prominent members of the family (Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia) did not do much to make them come alive, though I do have to say I am now very curious to learn more about Lucrezia!
  • The Residue Years: This was the book club pick for the month, and it did not grab me at first. But the further I went with it, the more I was drawn into this autobiographical novel about a Black mother and son living in Portland in the 1990s. Mitchell S. Jackson tells the story of Grace and Champ, both caught in the drug trade, with powerful, beautifully crafted prose and just incredible character-building. This is a great book, but be warned that it is a downer.
  • Tampa: Wow was this not for me. It's like a cross between Lolita and American Psycho, but with none of the sophisticated, elegant prose of the former or devastatingly sharp satire of the latter. A beautiful woman in her mid-20s becomes a middle school teacher in order to get access to the 14 year-old boys she is exclusively attracted to so she can make one her victim. It makes grasps at saying something about our cultural obsession with youth and beauty but was mostly just full of sex in a way that just felt gross because of the whole statutory rape thing. 
  • Hidden Valley Road: I was a Psychology major in college, so I'm predisposed to like books in the general subject area, so this was on my radar even before Oprah picked it for her book club! It's the true story of a family from Colorado Springs, the Galvins, who have 12 children (10 boys, two girls), six of whom develop schizophrenia, and traces their history as well as the greater history of treatment for schizophrenia in the US. It's very solid, both well-researched and well-told, but never rose to greatness and kind of loses steam at the end. 
  • Cat's Eye: I will read anything Margaret Atwood writes. This book tells the story of an artist, Elaine, who returns to Toronto, where she spent much of her childhood before moving to Canada's west coat. She finds herself immersed in memories of her youthful friendship with three other girls, most especially Cordelia, who was the ringleader of an intense campaign of cruelty against her. I've always found tales of frenemies compelling, and Atwood is just a phenomenally talented writer and I never wanted it to end.
  • Pope Joan: The Catholic Church does not allow for female priests, but for hundreds of years it was reported that there had, ever so briefly, been a female pope during the Dark Ages. Most (but not all) historians now seem to believe that Pope Joan never existed, but this book hypothesizes how such a person might have existed. It's a decent book, but never more than that...everyone feels a little one-dimensional and I never got very invested in either the plot or Cross's prose.

In Life...
  • Special session: When your state loses $1.15 billion of its budget, the only way to deal with that is to bring in the legislators to figure out where to make the least damaging possible cuts. This was my fourth special session, but the first one where the Legislative Building was effectively closed: only electeds, staff, and press were allowed inside. So at least I didn't have to commute and was at home in my jammies as discussions went on past midnight.

One Thing:

I have often seriously contemplated canceling my subscription to The New York Times, but whatever my disagreements may be with some of their editorial decisions, their reporting is usually top-notch and they also run columns like the By The Book series, interviews with prominent figures (usually but not always writers) about the way they approach books and reading.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Book 244: The Feast of Love

"You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have."

Dates read: June 22-25, 2018

Rating: 5/10

What is it, exactly, that makes up "chemistry"? I'm sure many of us have sat through a date with a perfectly nice, reasonably attractive human being who just could not possibly be less interesting in a let's-fall-in-love kind of way. On the other hand, there's the stranger we were in the elevator chatting with for five minutes that lingers in our mind for weeks afterward. You can ignore it, but if it's there, you can't force it.

The sparks and romantic connections between various couples in Ann Arbor are the connecting thread in Charles Baxter's A Feast of Love. Most of them are connected through Bradley, a middle-aged man who owns a coffee shop in the mall but pursues his love of painting at home. Bradley's marriages, both of which end in divorce, are brought in, as are his young employees Chloe and Oscar, who are crazy about each other. His neighbors, a long-married couple struggling with how to deal with their drug-addicted son, are also players in the drama. The story is framed by the conceit that a friend of Bradley's, a professor and writer (meant to be Baxter himself), is interviewing all of the players one-by-one over a period of time.

There's not much in the way of a plot, per se. Each little story has its own rising and falling action...Bradley's first wife, who leaves him when she falls head over heels for another woman, is a bit player, but his second wife, who marries him mostly to spite the lover who refuses to leave his wife for her, has a larger role in the narrative. Chloe and Oscar's story, which appears steadily throughout the book and sees the couple dealing with his unbalanced father and a larger, more unexpected problem, provides probably the most straightforward structure in the whole thing. Also constantly recurring is the title, first as the name of Bradley's best painting, which then inspires the author-within-the-book to title his work in progress after it.

When this book is on, it has moments of real brilliance. The story I mentioned above, in which Bradley's first wife meets, falls for, and eventually divorces Bradley in pursuit of the other woman, feels alive with poignancy. A story Bradley relates about having to kidnap his own dog from his sister sparkles with dark humor. And it's more specific to me personally, but as an Ann Arborite in exile, I love reading about the city. Allmendinger Park, post-game traffic, the mall...all of these are deeply familiar to me and make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to see on the page. The experience of seeing places that are meaningful to me depicted in print is something I didn't even know could be as powerful as I found it.

Now for the critical part. I feel like I've read several of these interconnected-vignette style books lately and perhaps I'm just tiring of that presentation, but all of them suffer from a lack of traditional plot and tension. This feels more like a piece of writing than a book, if that makes sense. It feels stylized and over-written, and part of the issue is that the character work is spotty. Bradley's clearly meant to have a particular personality but it never really feels honest or consistent, and the way Chloe is written was extremely off-putting to me. She's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before that was a thing, insisting on a quirky pronunciation of her name and using some of the most cringey language to describe sex I've ever read. Anyone who writes a girl under 20 as using the phrase "lovemaking" to describe sex unironically has never really listened to a young woman talk about it, and that is far from the worst example. In the end, I just never really got invested in it. There's some very capable storytelling here, in parts, but it's not well-realized enough throughout to get an affirmative recommendation for me unless you're determined to read about Ann Arbor.

One year ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Two years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Three years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Four years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Biographies of Women I Can't Wait To Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so we get to pick our own topics! So I've decided to highlight some biographies I am really looking forward to reading. While the biography genre tends to be dominated by books about dudes, particularly white dudes, I am going to talk about biographies of women that I'm excited to dive into!

Madame Curie: Marie Curie was a scientific genius and the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes. This book was written by her daughter, so I am very curious to read more about her life from a voice inside her own family!

Get Happy: I know the outlines of Judy Garland's life...the child stardom, the weight issues that led to the studio pushing drugs on her that she was never really able to shake, the unhappy marriages. But I know very little of who she was outside of the Hollywood story and I want to change that!

Zelda: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were both writers and creatives, but of course he's the one that gets all the plaudits. I'm looking forward to reading more about her.

Empress Dowager Cixi: She was a concubine who maneuvered herself into position to effectively rule China as the power behind first her son and then her nephew, and I am excited to read about a royal woman outside of the European sphere!

Jane Austen: She wrote only six complete novels but all are regarded as classics of the English language. I actually know quite little about her life so I am really interested in finding out more.

If This Was Happiness: Gilda is an incredible movie, and no one who has ever seen it can forget Rita Hayworth's performance in it. But despite the glamour that that movie, or her high profile marriages to Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, her life was full of struggles and I am really curious to learn more about her.

Femme Fatale: Mata Hari is a name that evokes danger and intrigue...she was a stripper! She was a spy! She was actually Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, no more exotic than any other Dutch girl, but she was also both of the things she was accused of being and I want to learn more about her!

Catherine the Great: Had to get at least one member of Russian royalty in here! I have not watched the popular Hulu series based on her life because it is apparently just incredibly historically inaccurate, which is a shame because her life was actually incredibly interesting.

The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green was an incredibly rich, successful business woman during the Gilded Age, a time when "success" for women was usually defined as good marriage. She was also a legendary cheapskate. I am always interested in women breaking the conventions of their time!

The Duchess: I do enjoy biographies of scandalous aristocrats, and in her time Georgiana Spencer was pretty much as fashionable and dramatic as it was possible to be.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book 243: The Completionist

"I can't remember telling her my name. I can't remember breaking her arm. But no, I didn't break her arm. I would never harm a woman, not me, not myself. Yes, I've harmed women. I've damaged their brains, their hearing, their eyes, their skin. I've killed women; I'm sure I have. But that was different. I've never broken a woman's arm. I have two sisters. I would do anything for them, but I would never break a woman's arm." 

Dates read: June 19-22, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I can't think too hard about the amount of information the internet has about me or I get freaked out. I willingly upload the photos that could make facial recognition on any internet-connected camera possible. I tag myself in certain places, opening myself up to profiling based on my patterns of behavior. I click on emails advertising sales from my favorite stores, giving them valuable information about what percentage off I need to see to engage with their content. Even on this blog, I'm constantly talking about my life, my childhood, my past and my hopes for the future. I don't think of myself as a particularly public person, but I've got precious little privacy when push comes to shove all because of my own behavior on the internet.

For many of us, our phones might as well be glued to our hands since they're seldom more than arm's length away. In Siobhan Adcock's future-set The Completionist, they've just cut out the middleman and wearable devices are implanted directly into your arm and connected with your nervous system at a young age. They monitor your health, transmit messages directly, and all you need to do to figure out where your family members are is look, because your GPS position is uploaded automatically. So when his little sister Gardner disappears from the map, recently discharged Marine Carter Quinn is worried. His older sister Fred is even more so, and insists he try to find her. Fred would do it herself, but she's pregnant, which is something of a miracle in the post-apocalyptic Chicago they inhabit, especially since it happened naturally. Ever since the wars, when the water was poisoned and the precious artificial water was developed instead, there have been fewer and fewer babies being born, and most of them are the result of years of expensive fertility treatments.

Carter is glad to have something to do. Ever since he returned to civilian life from the outlying areas where soldiers fight to defend the shipments of water that keep the city alive, he's been having a rough time. It's not just the PTSD, which he treats with growing consumption of alcohol. It's some sort of bioweapon used against the enemy that he inhaled himself, which he can't figure out how to treat at all. He throws himself into the task of looking for Gardner, who was last working as a Nurse Completionist (a sort of midwife/specialized mother-to-be nurse) at a mysterious clinic, trying to track her down before Fred's forced marriage to the one-night-stand who knocked her up. But Gard remains out of sight while Carter goes farther and farther down into an underworld he didn't even know existed.

Let's start with a positive: I absolutely loved Fred as a character. Hard-driving and irrepressibly foul-mouthed, the book is strongest when she's on the page. While Carter and his father (one of the few other significant characters) generally seem mired in their own dramas, Fred comes in and actually moves things forward. In the back half of the book, we get a long series of past conversations between Fred and Gard before the latter's disappearance, and I wanted it to go on forever because she was such an entertaining, lively presence. I basically wanted the entire book to be from her perspective.

But it wasn't, and the choice that Adcock made to have Carter as the protagonist was a significant factor in the book's failure to launch, for me. He's not honestly very interesting, and spends most of his time either drunk or fighting off symptoms of his poison exposure, which makes everything that happen seem disconnected from reality in a way that was not effective. And, not to spoil the book, but the post-apocalyptic world it's set in, in which women who do get pregnant are subjected to almost impossible demands to care for their child literally as soon as its conceived, didn't hold up to scrutiny for me. It would seem that if babies are rare and precious, there'd be more support for the mother rather than punishments. I get the parallel she was going for with our own world, with the expectations we put on mothers and very real pushback they get for failing to meet them perfectly, but I didn't think it really worked in the way she tried to scale it up to official government policy in a world experiencing a fertility crisis. While I'm generally interested in the wave of feminist dystopia that's been pretty trendy in the book world lately, this is not a strong example of a genre and everything about this book apart from Fred is forgettable. It's not egregiously bad, but I don't really recommend it either.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress

Three years ago, I was reading: Station Eleven

Four years ago, I was reading: The Fugitives

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Events/Festivals I’d Love to Go to Someday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! As someone who lives far from a major literary hub and with a limited travel budget, I have never actually gotten to go to any book events. But here are seven (I honestly couldn't come up with ten) that I'd love to be able to once we can travel again!

Book Expo America: This is basically the Rose Bowl of the book world, the largest trade show in the US. It sounds like Christmas!

PEN World Voices Literary Festival: Like most Americans, I primarily read American authors. But I enjoy the work of authors from all over the world and would love to go to this celebration of international lit!

Chicago Humanities Festival: I will always have a soft spot for Chicago after spending my honeymoon there! And this festival deals of course with books but also other forms of art/media, which I am extremely here for!

Hay Festival: First of all, I would love to visit Wales! Second this is supposed to be an incredible event.

The LA Times Festival of Books: Like the Chicago festival, this one focuses on media broadly. Also it's at least on the same side of the country I am so it's more likely I would be able to make this one happen.

National Book Festival: This one is put on by the Library of Congress and held in DC!

Edinburgh International Book Festival: I'll be honest, while this event looks amazing I really just want to have an excuse to go to Edinburgh.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Book 242: Sloppy Firsts

"I told my parents not to even dare throwing me a Sweet Sixteen party. The very thought of ice-cream cake and pink crepe paper makes me want to hurl. Not to mention the fact that I can’t even imagine who would be on the guest list since I hate all my other friends. I know my parents think I’m being ridiculous. But if the one person I want to be there can’t be there, I’d rather just stay home. And mope. Or sleep." 

Dates read: June 16-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I have to admit I'm a little jealous of today's bookish teenagers. The absolute explosion in the number of books targeted toward young adults, which seemed to start to grow in the wake of Harry Potter and then skyrocket after The Hunger Games, means that they have so many books meant to appeal to them to chose from! I remember the YA section of the library when I was growing up having a lot of Sweet Valley High, and Fear Street, and Louise Duncan (all of which I read, of course) and not a ton else, so I started reading more adult literary fiction early. As much as that's been a good thing for me, by and large, I wish I'd gotten to experience the kind of peak YA that seems to be happening now.

Since I did like to read quality YA when I got my hands on it, I'm astonished that I managed to miss Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts until now! The first in a five-book series, it focuses on New Jersey teenager Jessica Darling, deeply miserable now that her best friend Hope has moved away. Jessica's left with the rest of her honors-classes friend group, none of whom she actually likes very much and who she refers to as the Clueless Crew in her head. Her dad drives her crazy trying to home coach her through track, and her mother and older sister Bethany are too wrapped up in planning Bethany's wedding to pay Jessica too much mind (not that she wants them to anyways). She's nursing a desperate crush on a senior who probably doesn't even know she exists. How is a girl to deal with her sophomore year in high school like this?

With snark, of course. She writes to Hope every month, filling her in on all the new drama...the girl from Manhattan who moves to town but isn't quite who she seems to be, the pressure she feels to date a guy friend that she doesn't like that way just to have a boyfriend, how torn she feels when she finds out someone's boyfriend is cheating on her but she's supposed to keep it secret. What Jessica doesn't tell Hope about is the growing connection she has with Marcus Flutie, who'd been best friends and drug buddies with Hope's brother before his death by overdose prompted Hope's family to leave town. The closer Jessica and Marcus get, the worse she feels about hiding it from Hope, and the more confused she is by what she wants out of it at all. Add in the family conflicts and it's no wonder Jessica's overwhelmed.

Jessica is the kind of character I would have loved as a teenager, and looking back someone who reminds me of myself at that age. She's smart enough to know that she should buy into "the game" if she wants to fit in more (not to mention please her mother), but too stubborn to actually do it. She wants desperately to feel understood even though she doesn't even really understand herself. She feels trapped in high school, but the taste of the more adult world she gets working at the Shore during the summer doesn't exactly thrill her. The life McCafferty gives her, and the issues she presents her with, feel pitch-perfect for a sixteen year-old in the year 2000, which, given that I was myself just a year or two younger, also took me back on a wave of nostalgia. I was worried I would be a little too old for this book at literally twice the age of the main character, but I was completely charmed.

I wonder if the cultural references, which hit home for me, will read as hopelessly dated to today's teens. They probably do, but we all have easy access to Google these days so I won't let that stop me from giving a wholehearted recommendation, for adults both young and well, not-young, and particularly of the lady variety (though don't think there's any reason a guy couldn't enjoy this, let's be real, it's written for a female audience). It's easy to read, written with wit and verve, but doesn't shy away from the heavier issues that high schoolers deal with, like sex and drugs. It neither treats these with kid gloves like Very Special Episodes nor glosses over them entirely, but presents them as just very much a part of life about which decisions need to be made. If the interior lives of teenage girls aren't compelling to you for whatever reason, this likely won't be for you. Otherwise, though, it's an enjoyable read!

One year ago, I was reading: The Man in the High Castle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: My Own Words

Three years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Four years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News