Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Brightly Colored Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Continuing with the colors-type theme of last week, this week we're looking at books with bright covers. And why not? It's springtime! Here are ten books on my TBR list with vivid covers!

 

Here Comes The Sun

Looking for Alibrandi

Homegoing 

The Star Side of Bird Hill

Where The Line Bleeds

Trainwreck

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Foreign Gods Inc

Home Fire

The Impossible Fairy Tale

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book 280: Once Upon A River


"For another hour they talked. Every detail of the day’s events was gone over, the facts were weighed and combined, quantities of surmising, eavesdropping, and supposition were stirred in for flavor, and a good sprinkling of rumor was added like yeast to make it rise."

Dates read: December 1-4, 2018

Rating: 9/10

What makes a good story? As a person who spends a lot of time writing about my reading, I think about this question a lot. It has to have compelling characters, and it has to have an interesting plot, and it has to be skillfully told. If one of those things doesn't quite come together, the experience of the story doesn't work as well as it could. But there will always be dissent on the best stories, because not everyone thinks the same things make them care about the characters, or get them involved in what's happening to those characters, or are pleasing from a audience perspective.

How to tell a good story is at the heart of Diane Setterfield's Once Upon A River. She sets her action in and around a tavern called The Swan, set along the Thames River in a generically old-timey version of England. This tavern, you see, is famous for its storytellers. One dark midwinter's night, when there are just a few people left at the tavern telling each other tales, there's a great commotion at the door. A man bursts in, bloodied and bruised, holding what at first seems to be a doll. Upon closer inspection, she's revealed to be a little girl, beautiful but dead. Her vitals are checked by Rita, a local medic of sorts, but there's no hope...until suddenly her heart begins to beat again, and her chest to rise and fall with breath. However, she does not respond to any questions about her provenance. 

Three families believe she could be theirs: Helena and Anthony Vaughn, a young couple whose little daughter was kidnapped and never recovered; Robert and Bess Armstrong, who believe the child could be the hidden offspring of their wayward son Robin; and strange, lonely Lily, who thinks the child could be her long-lost little sister. The girl silently accepts being initially placed with the Vaughns, and while Helena is ecstatic, convinced that this is her own child returned to her, Anthony remains skeptical. And Rita, who has long lived alone, finds herself drawn closer and closer to the girl she continues to monitor as she also helps the photographer who brought the girl into their lives recuperate. The tension between what all of these people want to believe and the truth keeps growing as the real history of the girl continues to elude everyone, until (of course) the stirring climax.

There's magical realism here, which isn't always my favorite, but it's applied with a light and nimble touch, serving the greater emotional truth of the story. And in a book focused on storytelling and the ways that a well-told story can entrance a reader, you're conscious of the emotional manipulation going on, but it's done so well and so satisfyingly that it doesn't matter. It feels very much like a fairy tale, with characters who manage to both be broad enough to be recognizable as archetypes and specific enough to get invested in. And there are callbacks to classic literature (Great Expectations comes particularly to mind) that add to the pleasure for the reader familiar with them, but aren't necessary to understanding or enjoying the book.

Setterfield's prose and plot work beautifully together to grab and keep attention. I honestly found it difficult to put down, but when I did and then picked it back up, it was easy to get reoriented and swept back up in it. If you're someone who's driven batty by a failure to get all plot points resolved, be warned that this book does wind up with some ambiguities. For my part, I thought it was refreshing to have a little mystery left. I really loved reading this and would highly recommend it to all audiences, it's a wonderful book that I think would have a lot of appeal to a wide variety of readers.

One year ago, I was reading: A Beginning at the End

Two years ago, I was reading: The Fever

Three years ago, I was reading: Sex at Dawn

Four years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Five years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That Sound Like They Could Be Crayola Crayon Colors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books on my TBR with titles that also sound like they could be Crayola crayon colors. This was fun to think about, I've never really considered book titles this way!

 

Cinder (very dark grey)

Night (blue-black) 

Lagoon (dark blue-green)

Tiger Lily (rich orange)

Purple Hibiscus (light purple)

Silk (yellowish white)

Heat and Dust (reddish brown)

Midair (bright clear blue)

Gold Fame Citrus (golden yellow)

Oblivion (pitch black)

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Book 279: Messy

 

"On television, big, revealing statements always elicit loud gasps, and then a lot of background whispering with hands clapped to open mouths, while the truth-teller stands by looking refreshingly liberated. But TV is a dirty, dirty liar. Because there were no dramatic sound effects for Max's confession, no slow clap, nor a handy background music swell to let everyone know she'd just done something courageous. There was just silence. And then, fury."

Dates read: November 27- December 1, 2018

Rating: 6/10

As much as I aim for authenticity in this space, there's no denying that I think carefully about what I'm putting up here. Everything gets edited after drafting. There's plenty that I think that never even makes the draft. I don't have my whole name or the most pertinent personal details about myself on here, but it would probably not be at all difficult to find me if you put even a little bit of effort into it, and people that I know in my real life read it. So I have to be mindful of how I present myself, how it reflects on me and the people in my life. Thankfully, there's not much controversial about a book blog!

Curating an online presence is something basic to the life of a millennial. So when teenage wannabe starlet Brooke Berlin is trying to build her profile in Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan's Messy, she seizes on the idea of a blog. She wants it to be witty and dishy and make her seem like the kind of sassy and smart girl that people want to see onscreen. The only problem is that she's not an especially talented writer. She puts up an ad, prepared to pay a generous salary (with an action movie megastar for a father, she's got the resources to make it happen), only to find that the best applicant is her nemesis, Max McCormack...who just so happens to be her sister's best friend.

Max has no real interest in making Brooke look good, but she does need some funding for an NYU summer writing program, so OpenBrooke.com is soon up and running. In order to get the material she needs, Max is forced to spend quite a bit of time with Brooke, including on the set of the Nancy Drew movie Brooke has been cast in the lead role for. A flirty friendship develops between Max and Brady, who's been cast as Brooke's love interest, but when Brooke takes an interest in him, Max finds herself having a much harder time taking those checks and letting everyone think that Max's witty, irreverent personality is actually Brooke's.

This book is a kind of sequel/companion to Cocks and Morgan's debut, Spoiled, though that book's lead character Molly (Brooke's sister) takes a backseat in this one. While I found Spoiled a little too breezy for a book about a teenager who finds herself in the middle of celebrity LA after the death of her mother and the uprooting of her entire life, that same tone works much better here for a story without that kind of heaviness. Messy is funny, and packed with pop culture references that will delight those of us who grew up in the 90s. There's even a makeover montage! And in a nod to Cocks and Morgan's day jobs (they write GoFugYourself.com), we even get excerpts of the blog posts that go up, which are themselves a snarky treat.

The biggest downside here is how predictable it all is. Pretty much as soon as the plot starts to get set up, it's obvious where it's going to go. There isn't much in the way of subverted expectations, which could have elevated this from "fun fluff" to something more. That's not to say this isn't enjoyable, it very much is! But it's so light as to be almost completely forgettable. This is a perfect beach/airplane read...it doesn't require much attention and it's entertaining. If you're looking for that, you've found a great option! If you're looking for anything more, though, look elsewhere.

One year ago, I was reading: Amateur

Two years ago, I was reading: The Last Romantics

Three years ago, I was reading: Silent Spring

Four years ago, I was reading: Moonglow

Five years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Gladly Throw Into the Ocean

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is books we would gladly throw into the ocean. I'm not big on the idea of book destruction, I'll admit. Even if the book isn't really my deal, I'm not usually ready to condemn it for all time. These ones, though...these ones tempt me.


American Psycho: Truly the most disturbing thing I've ever read. It's a razor-sharp satire and I appreciate Ellis's talent, but honestly I don't think anyone should read it.

The Circle: This book had the potential to say interesting things about social networking and the way it has changed the way people relate to each other...but instead it told a very simple story about people who are awful in deeply boring ways.

The Sisters Chase: I read this for my book club, and found it manipulative and profoundly unoriginal, but I DID enjoy the experience of ripping it apart in discussion.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: There are not words for how deeply and profoundly I loathed this book.

The Grapes of Wrath: If flat, two-dimensional characters, moralizing, and incredibly obvious metaphors are for you, you'll love this! I read it for AP English and it still makes me angry that I wasted my time on it to this day.

Atlas Shrugged: One of the few books I've ever given up on, during the like 100-page monologue by John Galt. I've actually read the rest of Rand's works and will argue that We The Living is actually pretty solid, but this book is just purely a piece of political propaganda.

Ask The Dust: That the author hated women was very obvious almost immediately, and I never really felt like there was a point to this story at all.

Crime and Punishment: Can you kill someone without feeling guilty? Spoiler alert: no. That's the book. 

The Sun Also Rises: Hemingway's writing just generally don't do it for me, but add in the relentless misogyny and it's a big "no thanks" from me.

Don Quixote: I don't love satire generally, but found this one in particular so very tiresome. It has like three jokes endlessly repeated over what felt like a billion pages.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Book 278: The Possibilities


"Afterward, I had touched my abdomen. I pinched my skin. I thought it was possible that that moment, that particular choice, would hurt me for the rest of my life. Or maybe it wouldn’t. I would never know. Everything just becomes a part of you. Gets woven into the tapestry. The next day was an ordinary day."

Dates read: November 22-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Even though it's now been nearly a decade since I practiced law, both of my parents still want me to go back to it. I feel extremely comfortable with my decision to leave it behind. I was so miserable, and while a significant portion of that misery was related to the exact situation I was in, I figured out enough about the general situation of your average litigator to know that it wasn't for me. Some people thrive under constant pressure, find it exciting and stimulating to never know what the next day will bring. Not me. I crack. Before it was over, I was crying in the shower every morning, terrified of what might be facing me at the office that day. Getting out was 100% the right call and I am very happy doing what I do now.

My parents just want the best for me. They want to see me put that legal education that I paid for to full use, to get to the earning potential that would make it easier to pay off those student loans. They want a life of success and comfort for me because they love me. But children have a way of turning into their own people. In Kaui Hart Hemming's The Possibilities, reporter Sarah St. John is struggling with the recent loss of her son, Cully. In his early 20s, he'd recently moved back in with his mom in their hometown of Breckinridge when he was caught in an avalanche while out on the slopes and killed. A few months after his death, as Sarah is trying to figure out how to start living in, she finds herself confronting the reality that she might not have known him as well as she thought.

First, she and her best friend, Suzanne, find evidence that Cully was selling pot when they're cleaning out his room. But more importantly, a young woman called Kit turns up on Sarah's doorstep out of nowhere. She's pretending to be making some extra cash shoveling snow, but it turns out she was the girl Cully was seeing when he died. And she's pregnant. As his family (Sarah, her father Jack, and Sarah's ex/Cully's father, Billy) prepares for a final celebration of his life, Kit's pregnancy and uncertainty about what to do about it stirs up powerful emotions.

Hemmings clearly has an area of interest in her writing: much like the Kings in The Descendants, the St. Johns in The Possibilities are a family coping with the loss of a loved one in a setting of intense natural loveliness. Each family has a quirky member who serves as empathetic comic relief (foul-mouthed child Scottie in Descendants, here QVC-addicted Jack), and each family deals with an outsider connected to the loved one as they grieve. Ordinarily I wouldn't think it quite fair to compare two of an author's works quite so closely, but the parallels between these books are so strong that it doesn't seem avoidable to do so. Hemmings is far from the only author who writes books that feel like variations on a theme (Jane Austen, for example, wrote wonderful books that aren't actually all that different from each other, plot-wise), but for these two to directly follow each other makes the feeling that this is a bit of a retread even stronger.

And to be honest, of the two, this one is worse. A lot of the elements feel a little half-baked, like Sarah and Suzanne's friendship, and the tension between Suzanne's desire for sympathy for going through a divorce and Sarah's continuing grief. And while the decision Kit wrestles with about her pregnancy is obviously supposed to be the source of great dramatic tension, I never really felt a great deal of suspense about how it would play out. The book does have highlights: Hemmings writes lovely, poignant prose, and for the most part she builds compelling characters and lets them shine. This is a perfectly pleasant book, and if I hadn't read and loved The Descendants before I picked it up, I would probably have liked it more. But it suffered for the inevitable comparison, and I'd recommend the other much more heartily.

One year ago, I was reading: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Two years ago, I was reading: All the President's Men

Three years ago, I was reading: Freedom

Four years ago, I was reading: Innocent Traitor

Five years ago, I was reading: The Group

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: March 2021

 


It's springtime in northern Nevada, which is actually a little worrisome...we didn't get as much snow as it would have been ideal to get in the mountains during the winter, and while the end of March in the Reno area certainly doesn't mark the final end of the snowy season, it's closer to the end than the beginning. We've already had our first 70-degree day! Meanwhile, my reading pace has taken a hit as the challenges of a remote session mean that I am super busy!

In Books...

  • Forget Me Not: I absolutely loved Alexandra Oliva's debut novel The Last One, so was really eager to get to her follow-up. It's in the general same kind of literary-minded thriller style, but it just did not grab me the way her first did. In part, that's a high bar to meet, but also I guessed a major plot development very early on and I am generally very bad at guessing these sorts of things. Definitely would make a very good beach/plane read!
  • The Romanov Sisters: I love Russian history, and I love royals, so this scratched two itches at once! It's well-researched and engaging, but I found it to be as much about Alexandra as it was about her daughters themselves. There were some historical aspects that went unexplained that I thought would have benefited from getting a little more attention. It's a solid read, but I was hoping to be wowed and I wasn't.
  • Black Tudors: When we think about or see depictions of Tudor England, it tends to be exclusively Caucasian. But though there were certainly lots and lots of white people, that doesn't reflect the real world at the time...Black people lived in cities, in the countryside, and participated in sea voyages. This book looks at the stories of ten different Black Tudors from all sorts of walks of life, and though it leans a little academic, I found it truly interesting!
  • The Grace of Kings: I was really excited for this fantasy epic, which instead of being based on medieval Europe like so many of them are, is based on the Warring States period of Chinese history. The plot takes a while to get going, and while I wouldn't have had an issue with that if the character-building was better, it's actually pretty weak (perhaps because there are just too many of them). It was reasonably engaging, but could have been so much better. 
  • Bad Feminist: I've always enjoyed Roxane Gay's writing, but this was the first time I'd read the essay collection that was a big deal a few years ago. I absolutely loved this book, she is so funny and smart and insightful.

 


In Life...

  • Session continues: We're just about halfway through session now, and as deadlines approach, the challenges of a digital format are becoming more and more apparent. We're all trying our best, but I for one will be glad when we can go back to being in person even if I have to admit that I do not at all miss the commute down to Carson City.

One Thing:

I don't know how much more bananas I would be if I wasn't still working out regularly despite not having stepped foot in a gym since last March. Since October, I've been using Team Body Project workouts, and I appreciate how many low-impact options they have because I have sensitive joints. They have several of their programs on YouTube, which is a good starting point to see if their style works well for you.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Places In Books I’d Love to Live

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about places in books that we'd love to live. Not all of these are necessarily places I'd want to live forever, but would enjoy spending at least a long weekend!

 

Hogwarts (Harry Potter): I mean, of course, right? I think everyone who read these books as a teenager dreamed of their own four-poster bed in the castle!

Pemberley (Pride and Prejudice): Austen is full of covetable houses, and the one so beautiful that it overrides the heroine's reluctance to seriously consider the hero is probably the best one, eh?

Gatsby's mansion (The Great Gatsby): This place hosts a new totally incredible party constantly, I want in on at least one of them!

Highgarden (A Song of Ice and Fire): There hasn't actually been a scene set at the seat of House Tyrell in the books yet as I recall, but it is frequently described as a particularly lovely part of the Seven Kingdoms.

The Abhorsen's House (Sabriel): The Abhorsen's house is where Sabriel meets Mogget (pretty much my favorite character in the series), and I love the idea of the Charter Magic sendings who are so old they just do what they want.

Darlington Hall (The Remains of the Day): The guests that were in attendance there were not ones I'd like to mix with, but the old English country estate itself sounds beautiful.

Rivendell (The Lord of the Rings): It IS the Last Homely House East of the Sea.

Hampden College (The Secret History): I think Ann Arbor was a lovely place to go to school, but there's always been a part of me that wishes I'd gone to a college in the northeast!

Brideshead Castle (Brideshead Revisited): For all of Charles's attachments to the Flyte family, it feels like what he's in love with as much as anything is their beautiful ancestral home of Brideshead Castle, and it's described as so lovely that it's not hard to see why.

Manderley (Rebecca): There's plenty of darkness within, of course, but Manderly was so beautiful to look at that it was on postcards, so I think it would be worth a visit.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Book 277: Dark Places

 

"I am a liar and a thief. Don't let me into your house, and if you do, don't leave me alone. I take things. You can catch me with your string of fine pearls clickering in my greedy little paws, and I'll tell you they reminded me of my mother's and I just had to touch them, just for a second, and I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me. My mom never owned any jewelry that didn't turn her skin green, but you won't know that. And I'll still swipe the pearls when you're not looking."

Dates read: November 19-22, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was in high school, I tore through true crime books. I loved the sense of controlled fear they gave me...sure, people did terrible things, but I knew the police got them in the end. My mom always thought it was a little macabre that I so frequently came home from the library or bookstore with an Ann Rule anthology. These days, though, true crime is big business. Not just books, but the first season of "Serial" kicked off the podcast boom...in particular, those revisiting old crimes. Some of them are more respectful than others (I'm side-eying you, My Favorite Murder), but as a culture, there's no denying we're obsessed with these mysteries, both solved and unsolved.

It wasn't that long ago, though, that people on the whole viewed true crime more along the lines my mother did: kind of morbid. So, in Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, when Libby Day, the only survivor of the murder of her entire family (besides her absentee father and the murderer himself), finds herself hard enough up for cash to attend the meeting of a group of true crime enthusiasts, the people she meets are very weird. The testimony Libby gave as a child put her older brother, Ben, behind bars, where he's been for the 25 years since. Little Libby had attracted donations for her future, and spent years living off of the proceeds, her unhealed psychological wounds (and not especially high levels of motivation) keeping her out of the workforce. But when she encounters the group, she's flat broke, and they offer her money to go back and talk to the people that were around back then...they believe Ben was innocent, and want Libby to help prove it.

The book is told through three perspectives: Libby in the present day, as well as Ben and their mother Patty in the past. We learn about the poverty the four Day children lived in on the family farm, their father's cruelty towards them, their mother's despair. We watch Libby's certitude about what happened on that terrifying night begin to erode as she digs deeper into the story, becomes invested despite herself. And we finally learn the truth of what happened, and Libby finds herself in danger of not surviving this time.

If you've read Flynn's enormously-bestselling Gone Girl (and you probably have, everyone has at this point, right?), you know that she really enjoys writing unlikable characters. Dark Places is not different on that score: Libby is prickly and angry, and although she obviously suffering from untreated PTSD and depression, it doesn't make her a pleasant person to spend time with. Teenage Ben has an inexplicable relationship with his rich and mean high school girlfriend, and a deeply problematic involvement with an elementary school girl. Patty is probably the most sympathetic, but her inability to protect her children from their father and the consequences of her own decisions make her difficult to really emotionally invest with. Everyone here is miserable and unable to cope with it, and while they do all feel realistic, it's very dark to spend time with them.

Unpleasant though they may be, the characters are richly realized, and Flynn's writing is compelling and vivid. The plot mostly hangs together through its twists and turns...at least, until the end. I'm not going to spoil it, but the ending feels incongruous with the rest of the book, taking a very different tone, and feels very out-of-left-field in a bad way. I'm not big into mystery/thrillers, so I'm not really sure how this fits into it and who exactly Flynn was writing for. It, like Gone Girl, is very interested in exploring female rage, and it feels by virtue of its character development more literary than typical for the genre. But it's also very bleak, with very little humor or lightness to break it up. It's well-constructed and interesting, but was not especially enjoyable for me to read. If what I've written sounds like something you're interested in checking out, I'd recommend it. But if it doesn't sound like it's for you, I assure you this is not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: White Teeth

Two years ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction

Three years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Funny Book Titles On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're taking a look at books with titles that give us a giggle, so here are ten books on my to-be-read list with titles I think are kind of silly!


Bonk

A Confederacy of Dunces

I Woke Up Dead At The Mall

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero

A Field Guide to Awkward Silences

Don't Worry, It Gets Worse

Everyone Wants To Be Me Or Do Me

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Solutions and Other Problems

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Book 276: Uncle Tungsten

 

"My own mood had been predominantly scientific for four years; a passion for order, for formal beauty, had drawn me on—the beauty of the periodic table, the beauty of Dalton's atoms. Bohr's quantal atom seemed to me a heavenly thing, groomed, as it were, to last for an eternity. At times I felt a sort of ecstasy at the formal intellectual beauty of the universe." 

Dates read: November 14-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes I wonder how much our family has to do with who we turn out to be. Would I love reading so much if I hadn't grown up in a household where it was heavily encouraged? Then again, I do love TV even though my mom didn't let us have very much of it when I was growing up. And you hear all the time about nerdy kids who grew up in Sports Families (and vice versa). I guess the only thing I feel comfortable concluding is that raising can encourage latent tendencies in a child that already exist.

That being said, though, is it any surprise that Oliver Sacks grew up to be a scientist? The world-famous neurologist was himself the son of doctors, and had several aunts and uncles who made their living from science. The title personage of Sacks' memoir Uncle Tungsten was an uncle who owned a lightbulb factory that made filaments from, well, tungsten, and gave young Oliver the inspiration to study chemistry, which persisted through his London childhood. As Sacks got older, he became more and more engaged in studying the periodic table, and the book uses its development as a framework for Sacks' own.

In many ways, his recollections are tales from a lost world...not just the major historical events like the Blitz (which sent Sacks and one of his brothers to a boarding school in the countryside where they were treated with cruelty), but of a time when a child could get himself to the chemistry supply store and just buy the things they needed to perform their own experiments. Sacks built himself a chemical lab station in his room and happily produced minor explosions without much in the way of adult involvement. He recounts these experiments, along with the development of the periodic table and the discovery of new elements, in sometimes-tedious detail, but by the time he reaches his story's end, he's entered his teenage years and his interest in chemistry is no longer as all-consuming as it once was.

Much to the consternation of my own pharmacist mother, I never really took to chemistry. I found it dry and complicated in a way that did not engage my brain. This book's emphasis on the subject, therefore, kept me from being as fully immersed in it as I'd hoped to be. It is as much a book about how the elements were discovered and organized as it is about the childhood of Oliver Sacks. I actually found it fairly interesting despite myself, at least until it got later on when the naturally occurring elements were all on there and it turned towards the chemically derived ones.

On the whole, though, if you're inclined to like Oliver Sacks, you'll likely enjoy this memoir. In both this book and A Leg To Stand On, he treats his own experiences much like those that he recounts of his patients in his other work...with kindness and genuine curiosity. A lesser writer would have used the pathos of the awful boarding school experience he had to manipulate the emotions of his readers, but Sacks recounts it straightforwardly and without dismissing its ultimate importance, lets it slide mostly into the background. At the end of the day, this book recounts the childhood of a well-off British Jewish boy, surrounded by high achievers, who became deeply entranced with chemistry and grew up to be a neurologist. Very little exciting actually happens, but Sacks' skill with words and the obvious delight he takes in learning and sharing his knowledge, it ends up being a compelling read. I'd recommend it for anyone, especially Sacks fans and people who enjoy memoirs.

One year ago, I was reading: Lost Children Archive

Two years ago, I was reading: The Stranger

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Five years ago, I was reading: The Nazi Hunters

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With the first day of spring (at least, on the calendar) right around the corner, it's time to take a look at some of the books I'll be reading this season!

 

Bad Feminist: I love Roxane Gay's writing and am excited to read this very well-regarded essay collection!

The Girl on the Train: One of those books that was very trendy a few years ago and I still haven't actually read.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: I'm really excited about having gotten an advance review copy of this, which sounds like it'll mine similar territory to Daisy Jones and the Six but with more complexity and thoughtfulness.

Endzone: Always read John U. Bacon on Michigan football.

Fangirl: This is one of the Rainbow Rowell titles I see most often recommended and I'm very curious to try it!

The Golem and the Jinni: I loved The Bear and the Nightingale so much, I am definitely interested in other fantasy stories inspired by folklore!

The Royal We: Super excited for this book by the Fug Girls, very loosely inspired by the British Royal Family!

Madam: I'm a sucker for dark academia.

The Robber Bride: I am also a sucker for Margaret Atwood.

Tooth & Claw: A family drama...with dragons!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Book 275: Everything Under

 

"But I love you, you say to me in the supermarket, and I want to say it back but I can't, not yet; I can't give you that. And I want to tell you that I think we made it. Whatever it was that pressed through the cold, calm waters that winter, that wrapped itself around our dreams and left its clawed footprints in our heads. I want to tell you that it might never have been there if we hadn't thought it up."

Dates read: November 11-14, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes I feel like all the old versions of myself are fitted inside me like nesting dolls. The child I was, and teenager, and young adult aren't gone, they're just each obscured by the next layer I added. But they're never far away. I've never lost that excitement over going to the local ice cream shop in my hometown, it makes me feel like a kid again. Feeling socially rejected brings out that high-schooler who never felt cool enough. Sometimes just being back in my childhood home brings out the snotty teenager. If I get too much new information too quickly and feel overwhelmed, it takes me back to law school and how scary it was to not just instinctively "get it" like I always had in classes.

Gretel, in Daisy Johnson's debut novel Everything Under, seems to live a very normal life. She's a lexicographer in her early 30s, living alone in a normal home in England. But her childhood was very different than you might expect: she and her mother, Sarah, were river people who lived on a houseboat. There was no school, so Sarah taught her out of encyclopedias and dictionaries while they moved around, constantly wary of a threatening presence they call "the bonak". Briefly, a young man called Marcus stayed with them, but he mysteriously vanished. When Gretel was sixteen, her mother abandoned her and never returned. Gretel has never stopped looking for her, and frequently calls local hospitals and morgues in case she's turned up somewhere. Then, one day, she gets a call that leads her to an area near where she grew up and the pieces of her past start coming together.

We learn that she finds Sarah, and brings her home to care for her as something isn't right. And we also learn about Marcus, and what brought him into their world. The resulting story is a modern-day twist on the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus. It's difficult to share more about the book, both in an effort to avoid spoilers and because the book does not lend itself to being related straightforwardly. It's told from multiple perspectives, and across multiple timelines in a way that isn't always easy to understand.

This book is a very impressive debut in some respects. Johnson's prose is confident and thematically rich. The atmosphere and imagery is lush and vivid. Water, its depths and the way those depths can hide things, runs throughout the book (yes, that pun is deliberate). So too does the theme of language, the importance of the act of naming. I loved that the thing Gretel and Sarah are trying to flee, the source of their dread is called "the bonak". It just sounds like something that goes bump in the night. And, like the play that inspired it, it spends a lot of time playing with the idea of fate. How much do we make our own choices, as compared to being helplessly buffeted by the winds of circumstances that surround us? There's a sequence in the book where a woman, touched with foresight, helps avert crisis situations...only to find that every bad thing she thought she prevented just came back around in the end, that's so poignant that it remained in my head long after I closed the book.

As promising as the book might be, though, there are some major issues that kept me from being able to properly enjoy it. It manages to feel both overstuffed and underbaked in under 300 pages. The plot structure was often confusing, making it difficult to figure out what timeline the book is meant to be on, who is referring to who when they use pronouns. Though it was clearly meant to have the heightened drama of an ancient tragedy and not be strictly realistic, some of the decisions Johnson made for her characters were so jarringly odd that they didn't work. A few of the direct callbacks to the original Oedipus play, like the riddle book, felt shoehorned in, and it sometimes seemed like she was leaning both on our cultural knowledge of the play and her own evocative language to kind of "do the work" for her in a sense. I longed for an editor that could have shaped what is a powerful narrative by a gifted writer into something cohesive that really landed the big emotional punches it was swinging, but it missed as often as hit for me. This is a difficult book to read, featuring child abandonment and incest, and I would not recommend it for younger readers. Even for mature ones, though, it might prove unpleasant, and I found it off-putting enough that I can't affirmatively recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Til The Well Runs Dry

Two years ago, I was reading: Man's Search For Meaning

Three years ago, I was reading: Court Justice

Four years ago, I was reading: City of Thieves

Five years ago, I was reading: American Gods

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Precipitation in Their Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a "spring cleaning" themed freebie, so I thought I'd focus on the precipitation that washes the sidewalks clean in this season...and since I live in a place where early March is very much still winter, half of this list is books with "snow" in the title, and the other half is "rain"! These aren't books I've read yet, they're all on my to-be-read list!


Snow in August

The Snow Child

Snowflake, AZ

Moon of the Crusted Snow

Snow Crash

The Rain Heron

History of the Rain

Fifty Words for Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain

June Rain

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Book 274: The Gathering



"I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass."


Dates read: November 7-11, 2018

Rating: 5/10

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

It's weird what I do and don't remember from my childhood. There are moments that stand out in my mind clearly, the feeling of swinging on the swingset at home and launching myself into the air, of jumping on the trampoline, of the stinging black flies on the shores of Lake Superior. And then there are things that I know happened but I couldn't provide a clear recollection of if you paid me. And then there are some in-between, neither clearly recalled nor completely blank, that almost feel like memories out of dreams. Did they actually happen? Was I just told about them so many times I feel like the memory is my own now? Or did I just make them up playing pretend and they stuck?

Human memory is deeply fallible. Being a psychology major who went to law school, I was and continue to be horrified at the credibility of eyewitness testimony. We think of memories as files in a cabinet or videos that can be played on demand, but in actuality they're as malleable as clay. The unreliability of memory is key to Anne Enright's The Gathering. In it, Veronica Hegarty is reuniting with her large family in Ireland for the funeral of one of her many siblings...Liam, with whom Veronica was particularly close. She meditates on her current unhappiness while also trying to figure out her brother's, who died from alcoholism, and to what extent the way their lives have turned out is rooted in a hazy memory from their childhood.

To explain what might have happened, Veronica spins stories about her grandparents. She does not know to what extent any of them might be true, but she's desperate to explain the complex bonds between them that might shed light on what occurred later, when she and Liam were living with them. In the meantime, her own marriage is struggling to survive, and going back home and dealing with all of her relatives again further stresses her. It's a portrait of a woman at a loss, trapped in her own ruminations, needing a path forward but (to borrow a line) borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Anyone who's wondered if we can ever really escape from ourselves and our pasts will appreciate Enright's work here. Her language is lush and evocative, and Veronica's struggle to understand her family history and her own life is rendered powerfully. That feeling of childhood memory, the way the details get harder to recall the more we try, and the challenge of trying to extract meaning from it is also captured poignantly. Veronica's heartache feels real, wanting neither to fall into the easy trap of blaming everything on family but unable to figure out how much blame to assign where.

While I appreciated aspects of Enright's craft, I did not like this book. It's often confusing to read, moving back and forth in time without clarity. When we're introduced to Veronica's imaginings about her grandparents' early lives, it's not clear until later on that these are rooted in nothing more than her own imagination. And while I'm no prude, I have never read a book so fixated on describing erections in my life and hope I never do again. While it kind of made sense, based on what's revealed over time, it was awkward and honestly unnecessary. It took me out of the book entirely. And although it's less than 300 pages long, the book honestly feels like it's been puffed out and was in real need of editing. Usually the Booker is a good list for me in terms of books I'm likely to enjoy reading, but this one just did nothing at all for me. I do not recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: We Are Our Brains

Two years ago, I was reading: Going Clear

Three years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Four years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Five years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters Whose Jobs I'd Love To Have

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about characters with jobs we would want to have. I don't read a lot of books that take place in the workplace, but here is what I came up with! 

  

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): Who doesn't want to be handsome, clever, and rich...and bored enough because you don't need to do anything productive that you start playing matchmaker with your friends?

Margo Manning (Death Prefers Blondes): I mean, I don't know that I would have ever come up with "ringleader of a group of drag queen catburglars" as a job description, but now that I know it's out there I want it. 

Daisy Jones (Daisy Jones and the Six): A beautiful, talented singer developing a slow burn attraction to a hot, talented musician? There are worse jobs to have!

Selin (The Idiot): I sometimes wish I had the chance to go back to college and do it over, I feel like I would pick more interesting classes! Being a college student again, especially at Harvard, would be so interesting.

Georgie McCool (Landline): I don't know that I think I would be any good at it, but working as a TV comedy writer sounds like fun! 

Maud Bailey (Possession): There's a part of me that always wishes I'd gone into academia, which may be one of the reasons I think longingly about being a college student again. Honestly, the idea of getting to research my interests all day every day is the dream!

Tess Durbeyfield (Tess of the D'Urbervilles): It's not so much that I think I have any natural gift or even longing for outdoor work, but the book makes Tess's experience as a shepherdess feel so idyllic that I want to give it a try.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): I don't actually have any particular fondness for eating chocolate, though I do love the smell, so I think I might make a good chocolatier. At least I wouldn't be tempted to eat my wares!

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo): Being a genius hacker helping solve mysteries and take down hateful people wouldn't suck.

Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs): Doing criminal profiling for the FBI was at one point very much my dream job!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Month In The Life: February 2021

 


Well, we made it through February! Since we're in a remote session, I'm not making my commute down to Carson City, which is good from the sense of weather but bad from the sense of cutting into my audiobook time! The 40-minute commute each way makes for speedy progress through my listens. And in other news, today is my mother's birthday! Happy birthday Mom!

In Books...

  • The Secret Life of Bees: I don't read a lot of what might get categorized as "chick lit", but I found this story about a 14 year-old girl who finds family and community in a place she might never have imagined to be sweet and an easy read. It wasn't challenging, and I didn't find it especially moving or lovely, but sometimes something nice to read and satisfying hits the spot. 
  • Shuggie Bain: This book is definitely depressing, but it's also definitely incredibly good. The bond between young Shuggie, whose sexuality already marks him as different even from a young age, and his beautiful alcoholic mother Agnes in Thatcher-era Scotland is beautifully, heartbreakingly rendered. It's not just tragedy porn, there are little nuggets of hope in there too that keep it from collapsing in under its own weight. 
  • The Leftovers: This book is ostensibly "about" the world after a Rapture-like event, but is actually about the differing ways in which a family deals with trauma. It was interesting enough but never really captured me in the way I was hoping it would. 
  • The Eyre Affair: This fast-paced genre hybrid kind of confused me, but it entertained me quite a bit while it did so. It's difficult to explain, but essentially our heroine is detective-type Thursday Next, who lives in an alternate history world in which jet propulsion was never invented and dodos have been restored through genetic engineering. When a supervillain threatens the titular character of Jane Eyre, she's off on a quest to protect one of England's most beloved heroines. Fforde doesn't do a great job of fleshing out his world, but it was fun enough to read that I mostly just kept turning pages without asking questions. 
  • Vivian Apple at the End of the World: Another Rapture story, but so different than The Leftovers that it didn't feel like too much of the same. This one is really more of a young adult novel, in which the titular Vivian finds herself on the road with her best friend and a boy she likes after it seems like the world might be ending on the schedule predicted by a powerful preacher. It's charming and engaging.


 

In Life...

  • The beginning of my fifth session: It seems hard to believe that I'm on my fifth go-round with a Nevada Legislative Session, but here I am! In this case, there "here" is at home...like I said, we're not making the commute down to Carson. It feels very odd to be trying to do this job from a distance, and I miss my session friends, but man being able to work in sweatpants is not the worst.

One Thing:

This is where I usually talk about something I like or find interesting, but this month I'm switching it up to talk about something I didn't find interesting...namely, the new Tiger Woods documentary on HBO. Tiger has lived an interesting life, and something looking at his experience through the lens of child stardom, or the invasiveness of the paparazzi during the era in which they were at their peak, or his self-destructive spiral would have been compelling. Instead, it tells a story immediately familiar to anyone who has ever watched a bio-pic: there's talent, and hard work, and a skyrocketing rise. Then a self-inflicted fall, followed by another rise. It was like watching a movie of a Wikipedia entry.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book 273: In Defense of Food



"What would happen if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in systems we call food chains, or food webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species coevolve with other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of interdependence:
I'll feed you if you spread around my genes."

Dates read: November 3-7, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times Bestseller

Some of the weirder things about me are my food quirks. A dedicated lifelong picky eater, I have lots of what I refer to as my "weird food things". I don't like my food to touch. I have never liked milk in my cereal. I hate condiments of all kinds. Cilantro tastes like soap to me (this one is genetic). I've been a vegetarian since I was fifteen. As much as I know they're weird, I get touchy when people question them. The choices about what food to put inside your body are some of the most personal ones of all.

But also, the choices we make about food are influenced heavily by the processed food and nutrition industries. They're the ones who advertise our foods to us, who tell us what's "good for you". But what if those people are ignorant at best, or deceitful at worst? Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food examines the powers-that-be related to eating, and proposes his alternative to listening to the many voices who'd like to get our attention about what we're putting in our mouths. He sums up his philosophy right at the beginning of the book: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. He then proceeds to explain what exactly he means by each of those three tenets.

The bulk of the book is focused on the definition of "food". Pollan asserts that it's not what we might instinctively think, which would consist of pretty much everything we eat. Instead, Pollan rails against processed food, which he considers unworthy of even bearing the label. He also describes his issues with food science, which he criticizes as overly concerned with individual nutrients, too closely tied to the business of food, and for its history of inaccuracy. The latter two parts of his philosophy (not too much, mostly plants) are much more straightforward: we eat too much, both because our bodies do not recognize what we eat as actual food, and also because our rituals around eating have drastically changed. And plants are easily identifiable as real food, and very healthy for the body.

These are not bad ideas to keep in mind when thinking about one's own diet. More foods with little or no processing, more time and energy put into meals made of these "whole" foods, more fruits and vegetables. And there's no question that American diets are, as a whole, failing to keep Americans in good health. Obesity rates continue to rise, as do rates of diabetes and cancer. Clearly, something about the way we eat isn't working, and Pollan's suggestions make a lot of instinctive sense.

But I found this a troubling book in its own way, to be completely honest. Pollan gleefully dismisses science related to food and nutrition, leaving him free to assert whatever he wants without any pressure to support his positions, because after all, food science is bunk (he does use science to support some of his positions when he can find it, which is hypocritical). As science as a whole feels increasingly under threat, this is concerning to me. Also problematic is the amount of privilege reflected in Pollan's suggestions. The ability to access a place where fresh, whole food is sold, the ability to afford that same food, the ability to find the time to make that trip and spend that money, and then turn around and prepare the food, assumes a great deal about what people's lives look like. While he might tell readers to not eat anything that our grandmothers wouldn't recognize as food, I live a life that neither of my grandmothers would recognize as at familiar. So while the book did inspire me to think more critically about my own consumption patterns, I feel very comfortable in not taking it especially seriously. There are some decent ideas here, but I can't affirmatively recommend a book so dismissive of science.

One year ago, I was reading: Brother of the More Famous Jack

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Three years ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato

Four years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Five years ago, I was reading: The Guest Room

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about funny books. I have kind of an odd sense of humor, and seldom actually giggle at what I read, but here are ten books that managed to at least get a wry smile out of me.


Bridget Jones's Diary: Still the funny book against which I measure all funny books even though I first read it as a literal teenager and don't really like chick lit. 

My Booky Wook: I still remember cackling like a crazy person to myself reading Russell Brand's memoir on an airplane.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Honestly, same thing about giggling constantly on an airplane while reading this one!

Hyberbole and a Half: I loved Allie Brosh's blog, so between the old highlights and new favorites, this was a delight!

Angus, Thongs, And Full-Frontal Snogging: I love this whole series, but to be honest the last ones start to run out of steam a little. The first couple, though, particularly the very first, are truly hilarious. If you like Derry Girls-style "daft teenage girls" humor, you'll likely find these charming!

Good Omens: This end-of-the-world adventure has the wit that only the co-author team of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett could bring to it.

The Moonstone: This is actually a mystery, not a "humor" type book, but the section narrated by the officious Ms. Clack was so funny I actually laughed out loud while reading.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: I'm adding in some audiobooks because I really don't read very many funny books! This one is hysterical, and Samatha Irby is a great narrator of her own work.

Dear Girls: I love Ali Wong and even saw her live a few years ago (remember when we could go see shows?). Her book, structured as a series of stories dedicated to her daughters, isn't as funny as her stand-up but is still definitely amusing.

Believe Me: I'd been generally aware of Eddie Izzard, but had never seen her comedy. This is her memoir and she is both funny and moving.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Book 272: Seduction


"Howard Hughes was not the only mogul in Hollywood who profited off treating actresses as sex goddess flavors of the month, good for consumption in a brief window but disposable as soon as the next variety came along. As with so much in his career, Hughes did the same things that other men did—he just did them more crudely, and with even less of a regard for the person these actresses were before they came into his life, and what would become of them once he had moved on. And he always, eventually, moved on." 

Dates read: October 28- November 3, 2018

Rating: 9/10

If you're a girl, you've probably at some point considered whether you're a Marilyn or an Audrey. I was always a Marilyn myself...when you get bosoms early, you reconcile yourself to being a Marilyn. You lean in to "sultry", because that's the role everyone puts you in anyways. But I always admired the Audreys of the world, and of course Audrey herself. The elegance, grace, and reserve she projected onscreen seemed out of reach to me, and was something I wished I could be even though I knew full well I wasn't.

No matter who we are, female movie stars speak to us. They give us symbols to crush on, or idolize, or reject. For millionaire tycoon Howard Hughes, though, they were what he wanted to collect. Karina Longworth had put together several episodes of her excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, about women who'd been involved personally and/or professionally with Hughes, and compiled that information and more into Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes' Hollywood. For all that his public memory seems to be tied up with the Spruce Goose and being a famous recluse who at one point maybe wandered around the Nevada desert, he not only dated a string of Tinseltown's most famous women, but bought and ran a studio. He was a significant figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Longworth mostly eschews the trappings of traditional biography, except for a relatively brief discussion of Hughes' early life. She's not trying to write that book. Instead, she's trying (and succeeds!) in writing a book that focuses on his connections to the movie industry and the actresses who populated it. From his romancing of silent star Billie Dove, to launching the career of Jean Harlow when he cast her to be "the girl" in the long-gestating aviation epic Hell's Angels, to a serious romance with Katharine Hepburn, to his discovery of Jane Russell and controversial ad campaign for The Outlaw, the movie he made with her, Hughes was deeply immersed in cinema and its world. Through the purchase of the studio RKO, he was also able to gain enormous amounts of control over young women who dreamed of being stars.

This control, that he was able to exert over his contracted actresses and that he attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to exercise over his movie-star girlfriends, tells us a lot about the person Howard Hughes was, how he saw himself, and how he saw women. This is what Longworth bases her narrative on. A clear pattern emerges, of the type of pretty, busty brunette he tended towards, of the Madonna/whore dichotomy in which he placed them, of the way he allowed many of them to disappear from view because he didn't have anything to give them but didn't want anyone else to have them. Hughes was not alone among studio runners in his neglect of contracted talent, or his attempts to run the lives of those women to a certain set of standards. That was par for the (gross) course for the time, but his was especially exacting and rigid. Things come to a close for Longworth's purposes not long after he divested himself of the studio and left California for Nevada, though his marriage to actress Jean Peters and continued obsession with film give some shading to that part of his life.

I found this a truly well-crafted, engaging work of non-fiction. Though my tolerance for "boring" history is substantial, I always appreciate a lively narrative that does more than recite a series of events, and Longworth accomplishes that here. Her background with podcasting does show itself a bit in the slightly episodic form of the book (which I didn't think detracted from it at all), but it also shows itself in her ability to think about the work as a storyteller with an audience to engage. She's very skilled at structuring her material to match a narrative arc, and despite being over 500 pages long it doesn't get dull or drag. Rather, it's a fascinating and sometime enraging portrait of a man with profound psychological demons who was able to mistreat women without consequences because of his wealth and position in the world. I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys not just Old Hollywood, but the movies/celebrity culture in general...a lot of what we see today is different more in scale than substance.

One year ago, I was reading: The Holdout

Two years ago, I was reading: The Silkworm

Three years ago, I was reading: My Name Is Venus Black

Four years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Five years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Purple, Yellow, and Green Book Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is Mardi Gras, which I got to experience in person when I was in law school and was very fun, so we're looking at books with covers on theme, in shades of purple, yellow, and green! 

 

The Yellow House

The Girl With All The Gifts

Hyperbole and a Half

How To Be Good

The Color Purple

Pride and Prejudice

Exit West

Boy, Snow, Bird

A Storm of Swords

Bringing Down The House

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Book 271: Bringing Down The House

 

"Contrary to what many novices believed, the goal of blackjack was not to get the best hand possible; it was to beat the dealer’s hand."

Dates read: October 25-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Despite the fact that I've lived in Nevada since 2012, I can count on one hand the number of times I've gambled. Why? Well, I live here. I know how it works. Casinos aren't profitable because you make money. They're profitable because they make money. You may make money here or there, but on the aggregate, the house wins. That's how the system is designed to work.

But there are always people trying to find an edge, and sometimes they succeed (at least for a while). Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House tells the story of a group of people who did just that. Math nerds! In the 90s, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor developed a method for team-based blackjack play, and recruited students to take his style of card-counting to Las Vegas. Card counting technically isn't illegal, but casinos can and will boot players who engage in it from playing on their floors. So while the teams are winning big, they're ever-watchful for security and the consequences that might come.

Mezrich fictionalizes all of his characters, including the one through whom he tells the story, calling him Kevin Lewis. A senior on track to graduate with an engineering degree and a steady girlfriend, he's intrigued when two of his friends tell him about the blackjack team they're on and take him along for a weekend at the casinos with them. There's the glamour and flash, but there's also the appealing intellectual challenge of the whole thing. He gets drawn into their world, going through their recruiting process to officially join the team, becoming at first a supporting player and then a main figure on the team. He grows distant from his previous life, breaking up with his girlfriend and having less and less he can talk about with his family, just marking time back home between his trips to Las Vegas with his team.

But they've caught the eye of the powers that be, and they can feel the pressure ramping up. Asked to leave from more and more casino floors, they try disguises, have third parties like strippers cash out their chips once they've been busted and banned, and when even those measures fail, seek alternate gaming venues. Riverboats. Reservations. Even overseas, leading to an incident in which team members are roughed up by the locals. Trust fractures between the members, and eventually there's nowhere else to go.

This makes a solid airplane read (which is where I read most of it myself). Kevin is easy to like...he doesn't get in as deep as some of the other players, which makes him seem grounded and more identifiable. There's a kind of fantasy element to it, the idea that you could learn a straightforward (albeit difficult to master) skill that could make you enormous sums of money, have a regular life as a normal person but live it up in VIP style on the weekends. The tension keeps up nicely and the plot moves along quickly. The book doesn't ask you to do too much in the way of critical thinking.

And maybe it's hoping you won't, because it came out afterwards that many of the more salacious aspects of the book were completely made up. The dramatic try-out in an underground gaming parlor, the strippers cashing out chips, even the physical assault...members of the team on which the book is based have come forward to say those are all lies. Which undermines the impact of the book, and completely discredits Mezrich as an author. And on Mezrich's authoring, this book is no great shakes in terms of prose quality. Everyone besides Kevin comes across as a narrow stock character, and the whole thing is written in a "this happened, and then that happened, and then the next thing happened" way that doesn't allow the material (however exaggerated it might be) to really shine the way it could have. It's entertaining enough, if you take it with an enormous grain of salt. It's far from unmissable, though, and if you're not interested in reading the source material for the movie 21 or in stories about Las Vegas/gambling, it probably won't do much for you.

One year ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Two years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Three years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Four years ago, I was reading: Zealot

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Romance Books On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is Valentine's Day, so here are ten books on my to-be-read list that are all about swoony feelings!



Outlander: I've never watched the show but have heard plenty about it and it sounds like it is VERY dramatic and I think I might like the books!

The Fault in our Stars: The teenage romance/weep-y that has gotten raves, I feel like I owe this book a shot at least even though it's outside my wheelhouse.

Doctor Zhivago: I've seen the movie version of this with Omar Sharif at peak handsomeness and the central romance is epic!

Corelli's Mandolin: I have NOT seen the movie version of this because I have a hard time buying Nicholas Cage as a romantic lead outside of Moonstruck, but I've heard good things about the source material.

Bet Me: An actual, proper romance novel! I do not read much in the way of romance, I must admit, but this was recommended on a list of starter romance novels.

The End of the Affair: As the title suggests, this book centers on an affair, but that's still a love-oriented plotline so I'm counting it.

The Royal We: This book by the authors of fashion blog Go Fug Yourself is very loosely based on Prince William and Kate Middleton's romance, except the lady is an American to boot! It's supposed to be silly and sweet and fun.

The Proposal: I've heard great things about Jasmine Guillory's works, and this one starts out with a situation that has always made me wonder...a (failed) proposal on the jumbotron!

Fangirl: My first Rainbow Rowell wasn't mind-blowing, but this story about a romance that brews between two college students (one of whom writes fan-fiction) is one of her best-reviewed!

The Hating Game: This romance got a lot of positive reviews around the book blogging community, so I'm going to try it out!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Book 270: Detroit

 


"The city, what's left of it, burns night after night. Nature—in the form of pheasants, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs—had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day. The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren't covered in ash. We were alive."

Dates read: October 21-25, 2018

Rating: 6/10

I was born in Detroit. Not "Detroit", the way some people use it, to mean Royal Oak or Birmingham. But actual City of Detroit, in Harper Woods. My mom had lived there for her whole life, from the fifties when she was born until the late eighties when we left. When I was about three, we moved out to what had been her parents' summer lake house, about an hour away, and that's where I was raised. Though I barely lived there, and it was three decades ago now, I'll never stop rooting for my native city.

The City of Detroit's motto is "Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus", which translates to "We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes". Which sounds really on the nose for Detroit now, but actually dates back to 1805 and the aftermath of an actual fire. So how did a city once known for its prosperity and loveliness (called the "Paris of the West"!), turn into...well, Detroit as we know it? When reporter Charlie LeDuff returned to his hometown after spending more than a decade working at The New York Times, he started up at The Detroit News, and his attempts to answer that very question went into his book, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Detroit is a mix of a little bit of several things: part history, part investigation of public corruption, part memoir. The issues of the city aren't just abstract facts to LeDuff...he grew up there, watched his mother struggle to maintain her business and raise her family as the crime rate spiked, and his own sister became addicted to drugs and died young, leaving behind a daughter who's on the same path. He traces the city's boom, and then the white flight that began when the Great Migration brought Southern black people to the industrial north, and then the increasingly shady operations of the City Council. LeDuff began his tenure at the News as Kwame Kilpatrick's reign as Mayor was in its death throes, his misconduct and that of other City electeds like Monica Conyers finally becoming so blatant it could no longer be swept under the rug.

In the strongest portions of the book, LeDuff takes one aspect of the very real consequences of municipal mismanagement, the woeful underfunding of the Fire Department, and uses it as a microcosm of the larger problem. He introduces the firefighters, constantly called out into a sprawling, arson-happy city with trucks and equipment well past expiration dates. But they keep on going anyways, out of love for each other and a sense of duty to the residents, even though the conditions they're put in mean they're at much higher risk of death and injury.

These firehouse sections are so strong, in fact, I found myself wishing they had been the whole book. LeDuff's an undeniably talented writer, but his lack of focus made it less compelling than it could have been. I found the memoir-esque portions least interesting, and while his look at the malfeasance at City Council did grab my attention, it wasn't nearly fleshed out enough to paint a full picture. LeDuff's connection with the firefighters and sympathy for their Sisyphean task is obvious, and the work just comes alive when he's spending time with them. As it is, the book tries to do a little too much, and sacrificing its ability to do any of it to a level of true excellence. It's good, and if you're into reading about Detroit, it's well-worth your time, but if you don't have an underlying interest in the city, it might not be for you.

One year ago, I was reading: Whores of the Devil

Two years ago, I was reading: The Mind's Eye

Three years ago, I was reading: Thank You For Smoking

Four years ago, I was reading: Orange Is the New Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR Written Before I Was Born

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books from before we were born. I've decided to look at my to-be-read list and pick out ten books that were written in the ten years (one for each year) before 1985, which is when I was born!


1984- The Bone People: "Own voices" is not a new phenomenon, this Booker Prize-winner about Maori people in New Zealand was written by a woman who is herself of Maori descent.

1983- Winter's Tale: Fantasy does not often get critical recognition even when it deserves it, so this being a very well-reviewed fantasy novel definitely caught my attention!

1982- A Pale View of Hills: I love Kazuo Ishiguro and this was his debut.

1981- The War at the End of the World: I've always been curious about novels in translation (I read a decent number of them), and this one from a Peruvian writer about a conflict that took place in Brazil sounds fascinating and was included by Harold Bloom in his list of books that make up the western canon.

1980- The Transit of Venus: Everyone I know who has read Shirley Hazzard loves her work, and this and The Great Fire are her books that I see recommended most often so I am looking forward to getting to this!

1979- Kindred: A book I have been meaning to read for years now because I've heard such great things about it.

1978- Tales of the City: This in the first of a series of books about queer life in San Fransisco, and it having been adapted twice makes me think it must be quite good!

1977- Ceremony: Another own voices book, by a Pueblo woman about Pueblo people. It's a classic of Native American literature!

1976- Roots: Loosely (maybe even very loosely, according to historical experts) based on the story of Alex Haley's own family history, this was a huge bestseller and got good reviews as well.

1975- The Female Man: This is a feminist science fiction book that gets at how conceptions of gender roles are shaped by society, which is extremely my jam.