Thursday, September 23, 2021

Book 303: The Stranger

 

"I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so?"

Dates read: March 16-19, 2019

Rating: 4/10

I like to think of myself as a "thinker". But I don't really go for philosophy. Which doesn't mean that I've never enjoyed books that have a philosophical bent. I loved Sophie's World! But the art of arguing about questions to which we can never know the answer gets old after a while. I'm the kind of person who went to law school because I like to be right, and when it comes to fundamental human nature or why we are here in the universe, no one can ever be right. We just don't know.

I remember my high school humanities teacher assigning us Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (the last part of it anyways). But I'd never read anything more by Camus until I picked up his classic The Stranger. It's a very short book and tells a seemingly straightforward story: a French man living in Algeria, Meursault, shortly after the death of his mother, falls into a relationship with a coworker, Marie, and a friendship with his neighbor, Raymond. When on a trip to the beach with Raymond and Marie, Meursault is walking on the beach alone when he encounters an Arab man, part of a group that had previously confronted him, and shoots him. He's put on trial and convicted, and an appeal seems unlikely to succeed. That's it, more or less. There's not a lot of story there.

As a novel, I don't think this is a success. Meursault is a strange character. He's detached from essentially everyone and everything...he seems to feel little sadness about his mother's death, his appreciation for Marie seems primarily carnal, he drifts into a connection with Raymond mostly because he doesn't have anything better to do. He has no depth, and it's impossible to connect with someone so disconnected from his world and even himself. Others fare no better. The plot lurches forward without much energy or tension. And the prose is uninspiring. But it's hard to know if "as a novel" is even the proper mechanism for evaluation.

As a philosophical treatise, though, I don't know that I think it succeeds either. If the point is to illustrate the tension between the human urge to seek meaning and the inherent meaninglessness of life (as posited by Absurdists like Camus), it does do that, but it fails to be at all compelling. If the point is to frustrate the reader by putting forward a text bereft of meaning, therefore pushing the point about the struggle to impose order upon chaos...it also does that, but not in a way that I found especially interesting as a reader who isn't a philosophy student.

It is interesting to think about this in contrast to Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which takes pretty much the opposite viewpoint. Both men accept the idea as the world as a place where the events that transpire are not necessarily connected to the actions people take: good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, and there's no way to understand why, or how. For Camus, comfort comes from embracing this meaninglessness and accepting oneself as at the mercy of the whims of fate. For Frankl, comfort comes from identifying a purpose and working toward that purpose, regardless of the obstacles that life puts in one's path. I personally probably tend towards the latter, but understand the idea behind the former. And would have without ever having read the book, which I didn't like and don't recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: Naked

Two years ago, I was reading: Soon The Light Will Be Perfect

Three years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

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

Five years ago, I was reading: David and Goliath

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall 2021 To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our upcoming to-be-read books. This fall, like most seasons, I've got a variety of reads coming up...a biography, some short stories, fantasy, a memoir, and the continuation of one of my favorite young adult series of all time!



Alice: Teddy's Roosevelt's oldest child was reportedly the source behind one of my favorite quotes ("If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me"), and lived a fascinating life as a demi-celebrity, political wife, and behind-the-scenes puller-of-strings.

French Concession: This is a noir novel set in 1930s Shanghai, and the English-language debut of a highly-regarded Chinese author!

Land of Big Numbers: Another China-based book, this is a collection of short stories by a Chinese-American writer and like most short story collections I read, is a book club selection rather than something I picked for myself.

Uprooted: I've heard wonderful things about this adult fantasy book, set in eastern Europe, so I'm really looking forward to it!

The Lace Reader: This genre-blender (a little bit mystery, a little bit fantasy, a little bit historical fiction) was a recommendation from a good friend.

The Night the Lights Went Out: I love Drew Magary's writing on Defector (and what he wrote previously on Deadspin) and remember following the story about his unexpected medical episode as it was happening so I'm really interested in reading his recounting of it!

Cleopatra's Shadows: Like many other basic bitches before me, I've found Cleopatra's life and legend to be fascinating for years. This historical fiction looks at the legendary queen through the eyes of her younger sister Arsinoe.

Dumplin': Even your favorite lover of bummer books needs an occasional upper, so this story about the overweight daughter of a beauty queen who starts dating a cute, popular boy and enters a beauty pageant for herself promises to lighten the mood.

Clariel: The books of The Old Kingdom trilogy were some of my very favorites as a teenager (and I'm still pretty fond of them). Author Garth Nix took quite a bit of time off from the series before he returned with its fourth installment, which I am both nervous and excited to read.

Shadowshaper: This urban young adult fantasy got some good word-of-mouth when it was released, and it's been living on my list ever since.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Book 302: The Club

 

"Long before that evening, in my first boxing lessons, I’d learnt that it’s not the punch that hurts, because skulls are hard: it’s the humiliation. And because I was a small man who no one would expect to beat a hundred-kilo hulk in a light blue blazer, I could only win. You can’t box well if you’re afraid."

Dates read: March 12-26, 2019

Rating: 6/10

There's a reason there's so much media focused on the elites: our culture is both fascinated and repulsed by them in equal measure. We love to read about and watch the ways the rich are "just like us" and then, at the end, not like us at all. The teenagers at the exclusive Constance Billiard School on Gossip Girl want to be liked and accepted and fight with their friends and worry about grades like every teenage girl, but The Great Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan is able to just...move on with her life after committing vehicular homicide. And even as many of us proclaim that we like our lives and wouldn't want the scrutiny and pressure that wealth and fame brings, we all buy lotto tickets when the jackpot gets high enough.

In Takis Wurger's The Club, we first meet our protagonist Hans as a young boy, solitary at heart but happy, living with his parents in a small town in Germany. But when both of those loving parents die in quick succession, his only living relative is his strange aunt Alex, a professor at Cambridge University. She sends him off to boarding school, where one of the teachers helps him to channel his depression into athletics and he becomes a skilled boxer. When he graduates, his aunt approaches him with an offer: she will get him into Cambridge, in exchange for his agreement to infiltrate the Pitt Club, one of the campus's private social groups.

Once Hans reaches England, Alex arranges for him to meet up with Charlotte, one of her graduate students. At first, Charlotte is necessary for Hans to gain entry to the Pitt Club's world, through her wealthy and well-connected father, but the two form a genuine connection. Hans gets drawn deeper into the Club as his pugilistic talents cement his place inside of it. But Alex didn't ask him to become one of them for his own enjoyment...she has plans to expose a secret and revenge a wrong in a way that could bring it all crashing down.

Look away if you're not interested in spoilers! Though it hardly feels fair to talk about it as such. The secrets here are not too difficult to guess at: there's no surprise that groups of young, privileged men engage in drug use and sexual assault, and then manage largely to escape consequences for it. What makes this particular account of this phenomenon more interesting than many is its air of reality: Wurger himself attended Cambridge and was a member of the Pitt Club before leaving the university. And the book is lucky that it has that additional angle, because as a mystery/thriller it isn't really successful...the plot development is straightforward and goes pretty much exactly where you expect it to go.

Which isn't to say that it doesn't do some things well! Wurger's technique of narrating the story through multiple perspectives (Hans is the most prominent, but Charlotte, Alex, fellow Club member Josh, and a Chinese student desperate to be accepted are heard from, among others) is effective and keeps the story moving forward briskly. Hans, drawn as a self-sufficient introvert, is a refreshing character to spend time with...while he certainly does appreciate the finer things in life he's able to access once he's inside, we don't get the dazzled-then-disillusioned arc typical in this kind of work. The subject matters feels timely and relevant. If you like these kinds of books, you'll likely find this solid yet unremarkable. If you're looking for something to take you somewhere unexpected, though, look elsewhere.

One year ago, I was reading: Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.

Two years ago, I was reading: Empire Falls

Three years ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

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

Five years ago, I was reading: The Wolf in the Attic

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Numbers In the Title

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books with numbers in their titles. This was actually a topic just about a year ago, but since I did books I'd already read for that one, this time I'm digging into my own to-be-read list. I tried to go in numerical order here, but nothing in my gigantic list has either nine or ten in the title so I skipped those two!

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Two Old Women

Three Junes

Four Queens

Five Days at Memorial

Six of Crows

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Eight Pieces of Empire

Eleven Hours

The Twelve-Mile Straight

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Book 301: Man's Search For Meaning

 

"Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind."

Dates read: March 9-12, 2019

Rating: 7/10

One of the interesting/terrifying things about the world as we know it is the amount of information we have access to at any given time. We can learn about virtually anything we want, whenever we want. We can see the world's greatest art works on demand. And we can see the worst things that people are doing to each other all over the globe. If you start looking, the tragedy in your hometown alone could break your heart.

In the face of profound despair, it can be easy to wonder what the point even is. The Holocaust, of course, is one of the worst events the world has ever seen. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist living in Austria when Hitler came to power, and like most European Jews, he ended up in a concentration camp. He survived Auschwitz, though, and wrote about how he did so in Man's Search for Meaning. The book is divided roughly in half: in the first, he tells his own story, and in the second, he expounds upon the therapeutic technique he used to make it through, which he calls logotherapy. Essentially, logotherapy consists of finding meaning in one's life, no matter how meaningless it might seem.

Like most Holocaust memoirs, this is difficult to read. Frankl's pre-existing training in psychology is obvious, as he breaks down the ways in which people were psychologically broken upon entering the camps. The procedures used by the Nazis to strip their prisoners of their humanity, their sense of personal dignity and purpose, were brutal and effective. And then, of course, there were the actual physical dangers of the camps: starvation and overwork, which took away strength and energy. For those that did manage to survive, their liberation was not the end of their story. They had to go on to live in the world, and Frankl also talks about the difficulties of re-adjusting to life on the outside.

While not "enjoyable" per se, the portion of the book concerned with Frankl's own experiences is the most compelling and powerful. The actual detailing of logotherpy in the back half of the book feels almost superfluous, because it's both described and demonstrated in how he used it to survive. The more it's described, honestly, the less impact it has...it boils down essentially to the power of positive thinking, to refusing to succumb to the darkness. While it clearly was tremendously important to Frankl, and has surely been helpful to others in their own struggles, it's not all that interesting or novel to read about. If you're looking for a Holocaust memoir with unique psychological insight, this is something you'll really get a lot out of. Just...skip the part at the end with all the psychobabble.

One year ago, I was reading: The Good Soldier

Two years ago, I was reading: Seeing

Three years ago, I was reading: Juliet Naked

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

Five years ago, I was reading: The Other Side of the River

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Will Make You Feel Good

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is actually "books guaranteed to put a smile on your face", but I LOVE a downer so that would be a struggle for me. My heart doesn't particularly care for warming. So I'm trying to go with a more attainable goal: books that will make you feel good!


Pride & Prejudice: I feel like Jane Austen gets dismissed by people who haven't read her as fluffy, but once you actually read it you're treated to razor-sharp social satire...but also love stories! We have all at the very least seen an adaptation at this point, so it's no surprise to say that at the end, three sisters are wed (two of them happily) and it's all very charming.

The Rosie Project: If you want feel-good, romance is a genre that will probably offer what you're looking for...after all, if there is no Happily Ever After, some people don't think it's even a romance at all. I'm not usually particularly compelled by the genre, but found this one quite enjoyable!

Matilda: A childhood classic, but if you don't feel good by the end when Matilda and Miss Honey are both free from their unpleasant family members and have each other as chosen family, you have no heart.

Fangirl: This one isn't quite a straight romance, it's as much (or more) a story about a young woman coming of age, but there's such a sweetness to the central love story that it's hard to not feel good about it.

Less: This is a book I recommend all the time, because it is funny and feel-good without being light or treacly. Like the Oscars, the Pulitzers rarely reward comedy, which just goes to show how good this one is seeing as how it won!

Stardust: This is a modern-day fairy tale (not modern-day in setting, but in authorship), so while there are witches, and magic, and ghosts, and evil, there are also unicorns and of course true love, for a book that is ultimately uplifting.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: There's a lot of dark stuff in this book: alcoholic parents, heartbreak, a girl being held back because of her gender. But it is still fundamentally hopeful, with just enough wins for Francie to counter her losses, and ends on an upbeat note.

About A Boy: Nick Hornby is a little cynical on the outside, but usually pretty sentimental on the inside. I appreciate that he avoids the kind of expected angle of getting the titular child's father figure and actual mother together, but it's still big-hearted and ultimately sweet.

A Wind in the Door: While I think all of the books in the Time Quartet are ultimately pretty feel-good, the central theme of this book in particular is the importance of human connection, even (and maybe especially) with those who you may not like.

Emma: I usually try to not include the same author more than once, but I was not joking about my fondness for bummer books, y'all. There are some definite similarities, plot-wise, between Emma and P&P, including a high-spirited heroine who thinks she knows best but has her assumptions and self-regard challenged pointedly but without cruelty and, of course, a clearly-meant-to-be couple who do get together at the end. But Emma has charms all of its own and is a fun read!

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Book 300: If Beale Street Could Talk

 

"The world sees what it wishes to see, or, when the chips are down, what you tell it to see: it does not wish to see who, or what, or why you are."

Dates read: March 5-9, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I thought I understood the world at 16...didn't we all? When you grow up in a small homogenous town, things seem so simple. I was so sure that affirmative action was bad, undocumented immigrants getting deported were getting what they deserved, and that everyone who was in jail belonged there. Since I held those kinds of beliefs, I've left my hometown. I've lived life, gained experiences. I am about to be 36, and the person who thought that way feels so long ago.

My AP English course was the only one that exposed me to African-American literature, and I wish that curriculum had included James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. Reading it at 33 was powerful. Reading it in high school would have been that much more so. The story it tells is simple yet indelible. Tish and Fonny are teenagers who've grown up in the same neighborhood in New York City their whole lives. They've always been friends, but as they approach adulthood they both come to realize that their bond is love. They're happy, looking forward to starting their lives together, scoping out a loft in which they can live and has space for Fonny to pursue his dreams of being a sculptor. But then there's an accusation: a woman claims that Fonny raped her, and he's jailed pending trial.

Shortly after he's sent away, Tish discovers she's pregnant. Her warm, loving family accepts the news with joy, as does Fonny's father, but his primly religious mother and sisters disapprove. The urgency of Fonny's plight escalates enormously: Tish and her unborn child need him home. Their loved ones undertake extraordinary efforts to gain his release as Tish gets closer to her due date, and she reminisces about how they found themselves in this predicament.

I tend to find, in stories about young lovers, that the lovers themselves are often the least interesting part of it, and it was true for me here as well. While Tish and Fonny's story and the forces that play upon them are powerful, neither of them is an especially vivid character. They're sweet, their love is pure, and it's easy to feel outraged about the injustices visited upon them. Thankfully, Baldwin has surrounded them with an engaging supporting cast. The way Tish's family mobilizes to secure a lawyer for Fonny, and her mother's trip to Puerto Rico to try to find the woman who accused him in particular, create intrigue and drama that keep the story moving forward.

I'll be honest, though: the plot, as thought-provoking and heartwrenching as it can be, isn't the main attraction here. It's the writing. This was my first Baldwin book, and I fell in love with his powerful, lyrical prose. It's not dense, but it is a book that encourages you to read it slowly...each word is chosen with obvious care, and the way he strings them together is masterful. The book may be relatively short, but there's a lot there. I can already tell this is one I'll return to and be able to get even more out of with subsequent readings. I would recommend this book widely, it's beautifully written with a message no less relevant today than when it was published.

One year ago, I was reading: Yakuza Moon

Two years ago, I was reading: Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: Paint It Black

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Life Itself

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Fictional Crushes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the characters from books that make our hearts go pitter-patter and give us little fictional crushes. I'm going to split my list and first talk about the characters that I had crushes on as a teenager (when I read the most books that had swoony characters) and then ones that appeal to grown-up me!


Calvin O'Keefe (A Wrinkle In Time): A cute, popular boy who's super into the angry, awkward teenage heroine? Definitely something teenage me hoped (and failed) to find. 

Logan Bruno (The Baby-Sitters Club): This is another one where a cute boy was into the "nerdy one" and I'm starting to see a pattern here.  

Dave the Laugh (On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God): Robbie was the dreamy, older musician, but Dave is the one Georgia actually likes and that makes her, well, laugh. Even teenage me knew that was a better deal than the dude who's super cute but you can't talk to. 

Will Parry (The Amber Spyglass): I have to admit I'm not sure how much of my teenage book crush on Will was related to being all that interested in the character rather than investment in the love story Phillip Pullman tells for him and Lyra, but I definitely got all heart-eyes emoji. 

Edward Cullen (Twilight): I am not proud of this one, but years of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer primed me to think that an immortal vampire obsessed with a teenage girl is romantic and not creepy! I know better now!

Morozko (The Bear and the Nightingale): These books only came out after I was an adult but I looooved this character even though there is a similar kind of "immortal being obsessed with teenage girl" vibe...except that Vasilisa is given actual agency and I'm not sorry about this!

Eric Northman (Dead to the World): Okay, but these are mostly the closest things I've read to romance novels and the storyline in this book is like, designed to make the reader fall in love with Eric.

Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings): I'm sure this has been influenced by seeing Viggo Mortenson in the movies so many times at this point, but an adult man in literature who is responsible and faithful is pretty hot stuff. 

Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion): I just re-read this recently and while he's a little bland, the romantic letter at the end would many any lady swoon. 

Andrei Bolkonsky (War and Peace): Apparently becoming an adult means that reading about handsome men who are mature and kind-hearted is what makes for a crush!

Monday, August 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: August 2021

 


A big month! We took our first significant vacation since before the pandemic, and were able to celebrate some big news with friends and family, which was super nice. Also nice: being able to breathe normally outside! But it was only a week, and now we're back in the smoke with no end in sight. Keep the emergency personnel fighting the Dixie and Caldor fires in your thoughts, y'all...it's been a long summer for firefighters in the West and their work is nowhere near done.

In Books...

  • The Sisters of Versailles: Based in actual history, this is the story of four sisters (out of five) who each become mistresses of King Louis XV of France. It's an entertaining, relatively fluffy read that moves pretty quickly, though characterizations tend to be flat and a lot of the same notes are hit again and again. I would LOVE an actual high-quality biography of the de Nesle sisters, but this is fine for what it's trying to be
  • On The Move: My love for Oliver Sacks is well-documented, and I am happy to report that his second memoir (covering much of his adult life, as his first focused on his childhood) is wonderful. He recounts his struggles to live his life fully as a gay man, his love for motorcycles, living his life in the United States while never becoming a citizen, weightlifting, and professional difficulties in practicing medicine which ultimately culminated in his extraordinary writing career. I loved it.
  • The Man Who Killed Rasputin: This was my first time reading Greg King, who writes a lot about Imperial Russian history, and I was surprised that he seems to be a bit of a Rasputin apologist. He's much less charitable towards his actual subject- Prince Felix Yusupov, the fabulously wealthy and often impetuous aristocrat who was the ringleader of the group that carried out the titular assassination. I appreciate that he explored multiple accounts how events unfolded, though he seems to give unusual credence to some sources (like Rasputin's daughter, who was not present) that would not tend to be overly reliable. I'm now more interested in reading Yusupov's own memoirs.
  • The Walls Around Us: This book seemed to have less of an actual plot than just...vibes. It's successful at creating a unsettling atmosphere, but not as much at telling a coherent story. I'm often a sucker for a ballet book, but the parts of this story that could have been the most interesting to me (the actual details of how one of two best friends that might have been suspects in the murder of two of their classmates ends up in detention, while the other escapes suspicion) are glossed over. It's not what Nova Ren Suma was trying to do, and I get it, but that didn't make it any more satisfying to me.
  • The Human Zoo: This was a new release and I was intrigued by the idea of reading more about The Philippines from someone who had actual spent several years living there. The framing device is that a writer, whose mother is from the Philippines and who had spent many years of her childhood there, is trying to write a book about natives who became part of human zoos while she deals with the realities of the leadership of a Duterte-type figure. But I found the protagonist too passive of a figure to really get invested in, which meant the book didn't quite work since it's much more about her relationships than anything else.

 

In Life...

  • I'm having a baby: In February of next year, my husband and I will become parents! We're very excited, of course, and also a little bit freaked out about how much our lives will change. I know my reading pace is going to fall off quite a bit for a while there, so my monthly posts will likely be pretty boring for a bit! I do plan to integrate kid-centric content in here every so often, but that's not really the point of the blog so it won't be constant.
  • Vacation to Michigan: Besides a brief spin back for my sister's baby shower last September, I hadn't been back to Michigan with my husband for two years! We had a lovely week visiting with family and friends (and meeting our little nephew, who is eight months old and ADORABLE), and hope that the COVID situation allows for us to do the same next year as well.

One Thing:

The Caldor Fire may be wreaking havoc on Reno's air quality, but it's tearing through small communities in the Sierra Nevadas at an alarming rate and the people who live there are losing everything. While there are always many worthy causes out there (Hurricane Ida's impact on New Orleans will be devastating for the residents of that city for some time to come), if you'd like to join me in making a donation to support victims of the Caldor Fire, I'm supporting the El Dorado Community Foundation.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Book 299: Going Clear


"Scientology is not just a matter of belief, the recruits were constantly told; it is a step-by-step scientific process that will help you overcome your limitations and realize your full potential for greatness. Only Scientology can awaken individuals to the joyful truth of their immortal state. Only Scientology can rescue humanity from its inevitable doom. The recruits were infused with a sense of mystery, purpose, and intrigue. Life inside Scientology was just so much more compelling than life outside."

Dates read: February 27- March 5, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I was not a popular child in my catechism class. When we learned about the transubstantiation of the host during communion, I asked if eating the literal flesh of Christ made me a cannibal. I was not shy about raising the hypocrisy of church leadership who engaged in the Inquisition while ignoring their own long history of sin. I suspect no one was disappointed when I finally stopped bringing a book to Mass and just ceased to attend entirely.

Lots of religious beliefs, like the aforementioned communion issue, sound really weird when you take them out of contexts. But it's difficult to top Scientology for oddball beliefs. It's hard to understand why public figures like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Laura Prepon and Elisabeth Moss would subscribe to a faith that features ancient aliens in volcanos and a galactic overlord named Xenu. Lawrence Wright's Going Clear takes a hard look at Scientology, the life of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and how the new religious movement took root and grew into the David Miscavige-controlled version we know today.

Much of what the book recounts is eyebrow-raising: Hubbard clearly was not entirely mentally well, and embellished his biography at best (at worst, he compulsively lied). His pride, his vanity, his use of the Sea Org as personal indentured servants are grotesque. But worst, and sadly, least surprising of all is his truly awful treatment of the women in his life. And things didn't get better when he passed on and control of the organization passed to Miscavige. If anything, they managed to get worse, with the harassment of critics and defectors taken to astonishing levels.

This was a fascinating book, full of information that was new to even someone like me who has enjoyed tabloid coverage of the faith (though I will say a lot of things that I used to read in The National Enquirer, which I loved in high school, were in here as well). Wright has clearly done his homework: his portrait of Hubbard is in-depth and revealing. He has a harder time with Miscavige, who would seem to have taken action to ensure that details about his life are difficult to come by. As such, the book loses some steam after Hubbard's passing. It's a story with enough drama that it doesn't unduly detract from it, but the focus is diluted.

One of Wright's primary sources for information about life inside of Scientology is Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis. As such, we end up getting quite a lot of information about Haggis' life, and to be honest this is the least compelling part of the book. Every time the narrative returned to Haggis, I groaned. Leaving the church behind isn't easy to begin with, and to do so knowing full well the kind of targeting he would experience by speaking to a writer working on something destined to be less than glowing is brave, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the details of his personal story are all that interesting. As a whole, though, if you've ever been interested in new religious movements, or Scientology in particular, I would definitely recommend this book, as it manages to be both readable and thorough, a tricky feat.

One year ago, I was reading: The Moonstone

Two years ago, I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes

Three years ago, I was reading: Oryx and Crake

Four years ago, I was reading: The Idiot

Five years ago, I was reading: Bel Canto

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books we wish we could open for the first time all over again. I'm a big re-reader, but there is something magical about discovering where the narrative is going as you read along, so here are ten books that I'd love to experience for the first time again!


The Secret History: I first read this as a senior in high school and it was so completely unlike anything I'd ever read before, it just blew my mind.

The Bear and the Nightingale: I'd always been interested in Russia, but this book spurred it to a full-blown obsession and it was just so rich and magical and I love it!

The Queen of the Night: I read this as an advance review copy so I had NO idea where it was going and each twist and turn of the plot surprised me.

The Amber Spyglass: I remember how excited I was to read this book, to find out how the story that had been told through the first two books would be wrapped up...and I was not at all disappointed!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: I really wish I could go back to the time before I knew that J.K. Rowling was a transphobe and just enjoy the magic of these books.

1984: I'm pretty sure I was 12 or 13 when I read this for the first time, launching a lifetime love of dystopian stories.

Gone Girl: I did NOT see that twist coming and it completely melted my brain.

Wicked: I read this at some point during high school and it introduced me to the concept of retellings for the first time ever, which has become a mini-genre of books that I really enjoy.

The Remains of the Day: I had no idea how much this book was going to emotionally wreck me until the end and going in blind made it hit that much harder.

A Wrinkle in Time: For me, this book was special because it was the first time I felt like I really saw myself in a work of fiction...as an angry, awkward, smart-but-underachieving middle schooler, Meg Murray was EVERYTHING.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Book 298: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

"She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed."

Dates read: February 24-27, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Like everyone who's ever been to school, I've had teachers that run the gamut. Most of them were decent. Some were awful. Some were great. There was my fourth grade teacher, who was personally offended that I would read during class because I was bored and made it her mission to embarrass me by catching me not paying attention (she never succeeded). And then there was Mrs. Helppie, my AP English teacher who single-handedly taught me to write with anything approximating skill and would make us kettle corn and show us movies based on books/plays on Fridays. I will never forget her or her truly impressive selection of jewelry.

For most of us, our formative teachers are people whose influence on us was in the classroom, where their inspiration was related to learning about the world. In Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, things are different. The titular Ms. Brodie cultivates a group of girls at their school in Scotland, seeming to be one of those "inspirational" teachers often idealized in books and film: she believes that what happens outside of the classroom can be just as important if not more so than what happens inside of it. She invites them (brainy Monica, pretty Jenny, sporty Eunice, sultry Rose, observant Sandy, and the poor scapegoat, Mary) to her home, takes them on cultural outings. But along with art and history, Ms. Brodie is also a big fan of fascism. And her interest goes beyond just being a role model for her girls...as they grow up, she begins to manipulate them.

Ms. Brodie is a single woman, and falls in love with Mr. Lloyd, the married art teacher. Their mutual affection is never consummated, so even while Ms. Brodie carries on a relationship with the bachelor singing teacher Mr. Lowther, she schemes to get one of her girls to have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her stead, confiding in Sandy about her plans. While Rose is her intended proxy, it is Sandy who winds up sleeping with him, and who adopts his Catholic faith and becomes a nun. It is from the convent that she is recounting her youth and the role Ms. Brodie played in her life.

This is a brief work, only about 150 pages. As such, many of the characters are flat, even most of the "Brodie set" outside of Sandy. But generally speaking, it paints a vivid portrait of a time, and a place, and the people involved. Jean Brodie is a character who soars off the page, complex and interesting and so deeply flawed. For all her bluster and bravado and determination to avoid pity, she's ultimately a pitiful figure. And one who's careless of the damage she causes, inspiring a student to run away to fight for Franco, which leads to her death. On a lesser level, Sandy's assignation with her art teacher does not leave her without damage.

I was of two minds about the length. On the one hand, I wish there had been more time to develop the other girls, and the relationships between them as well their connection to Ms. Brodie. On the other hand, I don't know that the plot would have the same power, the same feeling of a drive toward the inevitable conclusion, if it had to persist over a longer period of time. This is a solid book, and an unusual twist on the stories about teachers who change lives. I'd recommend it for a quick, engaging read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B

Two years ago, I was reading: The Forgotten Sister

Three years ago, I was reading: Life After Life

Four years ago, I was reading: Mildred Pierce

Five years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Book 297: The Silkworm

 

"Pain and fear were making him angry: fear that he would have to give up the prosthesis and resort to crutches again, his trouser leg pinned up, staring eyes, pity. He hated hard plastic chairs in disinfected corridors; hated his voluminous notes being unearthed and pored over, murmurs about changes to his prosthesis, advice from calm medical men to rest, to mollycoddle his leg as though it were a sick child he had to carry everywhere with him. In his dreams he was not one-legged; in his dreams he was whole."

Dates read: February 28-24, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Like any people pleaser, I'm always both desperately curious about and deeply afraid of learning what other people really think of me. I try to be a person that I myself would like, but you never know how it's coming off. Do people think I'm fake? Irritating? A disastrous social experience my freshman year of college made it hard for me to trust my own perceptions of how I'm actually thought of by others. It's one of the reasons they say you shouldn't snoop: you might not like what you find.

In Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling's second entry in the Cormoran Strike mystery series, The Silkworm, private detective Strike is hired to investigate the disappearance of small-time novelist Owen Quine. Quine seemed right on the verge of potentially making it big: he'd written a "poison pen" novel revealing the secrets of all his acquaintances, including the ones much more famous than he. But as Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, are busier than ever in the wake of solving the Lula Landry murder, Owen's wife Leonora approaches him to help find her husband. He's always been mercurial and has disappeared before, but she needs him to come back home, and blithely assures them that his agent, Elizabeth Tassel, will pay for the investigation. Intrigued despite himself (and despite the fact that Tassel does not in fact want to pay him), Strike digs in.

What he finds is first the body of Owen Quine, and then, as the investigation continues, the remnants of the life of a very unhappy man. Quine was unfaithful and often cruel to his wife, and bitter about the success his former friend Michael Fancourt had experienced as a writer. The manuscript of his latest work, the "poison pen" one (called Bombyx Mori, the silkworm of the title), is utterly rife with contemptuous portraits of others. And perhaps that is why his body is grotesquely disfigured, the result of a certainly painful death. As Strike and Ellacott get closer to tracking down who might have killed Quine, they find themselves increasingly in danger.

If you liked The Cuckoo's Calling, you'll also enjoy this. They proceed in a similar way: interview-by-interview investigation, with occasional indulgences of the writing "hiding" the answers from the reader in a trope that I tend to find highly irritating. Because we did a lot of the introductory work in the previous entry in the series, Rowling is able to better flesh out the characters: both Cormoran and his family and Robin and her fiance Matthew get more layers to them this time. I particularly enjoyed that Rowling gives Robin stunt-driving skills, as they play against the "spunky but ultimately passive" type I thought the character was starting to fall into.

I have liked reading both of the books in this series, but not enthusiastically. Part of it is that the genre doesn't especially appeal to me. I'm just not big into mysteries. Part of it is the way she characterizes Cormoran as someone who thinks of himself as ugly but has no problem attracting attention from women, which is something I do not care when either men or woman are written that way. The prose and plot are mostly fine, though I did think this had a few too many characters. There's obviously plenty good here, as you can tell by my rating, but I don't know that this is going to be a series that I feel compelled to closely follow. I do recommend it, but be prepared for some gruesomeness in the text.

One year ago, I was reading: Ivanhoe

Two years ago, I was reading: Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams

Three years ago, I was reading: The Informant

Four years ago, I was reading: The Sense of An Ending

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

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Book 296: Daisy Jones & The Six

 

"'She had written something that felt like I could have written it, except that I knew I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t have come up with something like that. Which is what we all want from art, isn’t it? When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you?'"

Dates read: February 15-18, 2019

Rating: 9/10

I've read enough Hollywood memoirs to know that being talented isn't necessarily a ticket to automatic success, fame, and happiness. First of all, there are plenty of talented people who never make it at all because they just didn't get the right break at the right time. And if you do get that break, the team that surrounds you can help leverage it in the right direction...or the wrong advice can send it all crashing down. And then, of course, there are the things you get access to once you've made it to a decent level of success: the sycophants, the drugs, the partying. So many chances to go wrong.

Told in the style of an oral history or Behind The Music special, Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & The Six gives us the story of a band who create a legendary album...and break up right in the middle of the tour, never to perform together again. Daisy is an LA girl who mostly raises herself, and rises above her It Girl beginnings through the strength of her talent as a singer and songwriter. The Six are a band rooted in the collaboration between the two Dunne brothers (Billy the lead singer, Graham the guitarist), with the remaining four drawn into their orbit over time. After some initial minor success leads Billy down the road of partying, sex, and drugs, his wife Camila helps him get clean for her and their new baby daughter. The band seems destined to work steadily but never really break out until their shared label puts Daisy on a single with The Six. It's such a hit that a joint record seems the only logical next step.

It's the writing and recording of that record, Aurora, which forms the core of the narrative. The tensions between Daisy and the already established The Six (who have internal fissures of their own) roil, over who will be writing the songs and how the album will be put together. And Daisy's own drug use, already established but increasing as things progress, adds another layer of complications. And most problematic of all, the chemistry that makes Daisy and Billy compelling co-writers and duet partners isn't just in the recording booth. Once it all comes together, the album is an undeniable smash, but a confrontation tears it all apart.

This book was optioned for a series adaptation before it was even released to shelves, and it's not hard to see why: there are vivid characters, plenty of storylines, and real drama. I was at first put off a bit by the lack of actual narrative structure (the entire book consists of snippets of interviews laced together), but the style wound up suiting the story, for me. It gives the reader the chance to get to know characters through both their own perspectives and the perspectives of others, and it keeps things moving along quickly. It's easy to devour large portions of the book in one sitting, easy to convince yourself that it won't take too long to read 10 more pages, which becomes 20, and then 50. I got so emotionally invested in the characters that even though the actual plot varied quite little from where I thought it would go, I wanted to see how it all played out.

Though it was a fantastically enjoyable book, it wasn't without flaws for me. For one thing, Daisy's slim frame, acknowledged to be at least in part owed to her addiction issues, is fetishized in a way that felt weird. And it didn't quite stick the landing...the reveal of the person behind the interviews felt inorganic, and the actual closing note also rang false. But mostly, I thought it was textured, layered, and enormously entertaining and compelling. I really loved it and would highly recommend it to all readers!

One year ago, I was reading: The Thirteenth Tale

Two years ago, I was reading: Marie Antoinette

Three years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Four years ago, I was reading: Party Monster

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Covers That Made Want to Read/Buy the Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a pretty covers week...we're talking about books we decided to read because we liked the cover! I don't know that the cover has ever actually been the deciding factor for me, but I won't lie that the good ones catch my eye and make me curious about what they might be about...which sometimes results in a purchase/read! 

 

A Tale For The Time Being 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Interestings

Sabriel

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

The Fountainhead

Stardust

The Luminaries

Shantaram

Saturday, July 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: July 2021

 


The summer after session is a glorious time...there's still work to do, of course, but it's such a dramatic stepdown from the headlong rush of the session that it all feels very leisurely. It would be a great time to hang out on the deck outside, but unfortunately, Reno is not really cooperating with those sorts of plans. It has been beastly hot, so we are very grateful that our air conditioning is working at least!

In Books...

  • The Snow Child: I love stories based on folklore, and had heard good things about this, so I was really excited to read this take on the Russian tale of "Snegurochka". An older couple who can't have children move to Alaska to forget their woes, and after a night where they build a snowgirl together, they start seeing a child in the woods. I just never got drawn in and thought the attempts to play both sides as to the child's origin worked against the book.
  • Pachinko: I came into this having gotten tons of hype from friends, which can be a double-edged sword, but it delivered for me. Multi-generational family stories often appeal to me, and this one taught me quite a lot that I hadn't known about the relationship between Korea and Japan while telling a powerful story. I really loved it!
  • Homeland Elegies: Another month, another book club selection that didn't quite come together for me as a reader. I'm always a little leery of autofiction, and this was the sort that I tend to find irritating (where the memoir-esque elements are very strong). And while I understand the vignette-type structure, I rarely enjoy reading it and that held true here as well. 
  • Dreamland: In 2021, we're reading headlines about players in the pharmaceutical industry settling enormous, multi-state lawsuits. But in 2015, when this book was published, the opiate epidemic was really just starting to fully come into focus. This is sometimes repetitive and bounces around a little too much for my personal taste, but it's a wide-ranging look at the factors that came together to create one of the most devastating public health crises of our time. 
  • The Council of Animals: This is a short little book, about several animals trying to decide what to do with a small group of surviving humans that have been discovered after a never-specified-but-human-caused Calamity. I was worried it was going to go hard in an Animal Farm direction, which it didn't, but it also failed to really capture my attention. Pleasant enough but insubstantial. 
  • Nabokov in America: I'd been looking forward to getting to this one for ages but honestly, I was really underwhelmed. Lolita is one of my all-time favorite books, so reading about the author's time in America (where he wrote the book) seemed like it would provide an interesting perspective, but this was criminally boring. I'm always wary of a non-fiction book that constantly excerpts large chunks of its sources because it seldom has much original to say, and books like this are why.


 

In Life...

  • It is smoky and disgusting outside: Wildfires are a fact of life in the West in the summer, but it feels a little early for it to be as bad as it is. This is especially dismaying because recent research has shown that the smoke makes COVID symptoms worse and COVID numbers in Nevada (mostly in Clark County where Las Vegas is, but in northern Nevada too) aren't looking very good recently

One Thing:

I've long had mixed feelings about the current state of YA, a genre I read heavily as a teenager but only occasionally now. It seems like virtually anything with a teenage central character (particularly a girl) is labeled as "young adult", even when it seems much more directly targeted at an adult audience. This article, written be someone who was a literal teenager at the time the YA boom really started taking off and writes about what it was like to be in the Twitter community around YA, allegedly the intended consumer, and experience the intensity and harassment of the adult participants. It's a really interesting read!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Book 295: Forest Dark


"All day long people busy themselves with understanding every manner of thing under the sun—themselves, other people, the causes of cancer, the symphonies of Mahler, ancient catastrophes. But I was going in another direction now. Swimming against the forceful current of understanding, the other way. Later there would be other, larger failures to understand—so many that one can only see a deliberateness in it: a stubbornness that lay at the bottom like the granite floor of a lake, so that the more clear and transparent things became, the more my refusal showed through. I didn’t want to see things as they were. I had grown tired of that."

Dates read: February 10-15, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was a kid, I frequently complained that something that was happening wasn't fair. And I was right! Life isn't fair. Nor is it really logical. We tend to impose narrative on our experiences once they're safely in the rearview. We shave off the parts that don't quite make sense, that don't fit. But how much good do we really do ourselves with this kind of approach? What if some things are just beyond understanding?

Nicole Krauss' Forest Dark tells two stories, that maybe intersect in the smallest, most casual way at the end but then again maybe don't. Both concern American Jewish people making trips to Israel, but their purposes could not be more different. Jules Epstein is a retired lawyer, who after a lifetime of doing the things he was supposed to do (be successful in business, get married and start a family) starts to come apart in the wake of his own parents' death. He divorces his wife, starts to give away his money...and then one day he goes to an event where a charismatic rabbi speaks. He goes to Israel, determined to do something to honor the memory of his mother and father, and encounters the rabbi again. Nicole, on the other hand, is a writer and the mother of two young children. She feels uncertain, of her life choices and marriage, and so decides to return to a favorite familiar place: the Hilton in Tel Aviv, where she spent happy hours as a child, ostensibly to work on her next book.

Both become involved in quests, of sorts. Jules becomes involved a movie that the rabbi, and more specifically, the rabbi's young and attractive daughter, is trying to make about the life of the biblical David. Nicole, for her part, is introduced to a man that wants her to work on a book about the life of Franz Kafka...who he contends didn't die under the circumstances generally accepted, but lived on for several decades in Israel. Both stories take unexpected twists and turns...and only one character returns to the United States.

This book is as much, maybe more, a writing exercise as an actual book. She subverts the expectations we bring in to picking up a novel: she herself is a character in the book, the narratives we expect to join or at least parallel never do, and she refuses to tell a story with any structure in the traditional sense. Instead, we get two stories that, to be perfectly frank, make no real sense and have nothing to do with each other besides the broadest of descriptions. But she's clearly making a point: as people, in the stories we tell to others and and want to have told to us, we create a narrative. There's a set-up, build-up, climax, and denouement. But actual life, as it's being lived? Has precious little of that. We sand away the rough edges, omit details, inflate the importance of events to make it fit into the package we expect it to conform to.

The problem is that this becomes obvious not too far into the book, and then I felt stuck just finishing the book for the sake of finishing it without any actual investment in the people depicted or the events related. Which isn't to say that Krauss isn't a good writer...despite the fact that this book did not do it for me, her actual prose quality is high, and at moments the book seems like it might take off. There's a sub-story about a doorman who loses a painting he was supposed to sell that's told with skill and stuck in my memory even several weeks after I turned the last page. I'd be open to reading other work by Krauss, I've heard good things about her writing, but this book fell flat for me. If you're looking for something to give you material to noodle over about the ultimate chaos of life and the futility of our efforts to impose meaning on it, this might be for you. If not, though, skip it.

One year ago, I was reading: Pope Joan

Two years ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Three years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded On a Deserted Island

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books we'd want with us if we were to find ourselves stranded on a deserted island. For me, a desert island book has two main requirements: being decently long so it's not just something you can get through in a few hours, and having high re-read value. Here are the ten I came up with!


War and Peace: This book is super duper long and very layered, so every read-through will reveal more.

Lolita: One of my all-time favorites that I have read at least a half-dozen times and I never fail to find it an interesting reading experience. It's so brilliant there's always something new to appreciate.

A Suitable Boy: Another one that brings the pages. It's on my list to re-read one of these days but the time investment required means that a deserted island would be perfect for it!

The Secret History: Another one I've gone back to several times since I first read it as a high-school senior. The characters and story get me every time!

Vanity Fair: This one would be particularly interesting to read right before (or after) War and Peace, as they're both set during the Napoleonic Wars but in very different contexts. Also it's very lengthy!

Sabriel: This is by FAR the shortest of the books on this list, but it makes it because the re-read value is so high. I've definitely re-read this one over and over and it still entertains me.

A Game of Thrones: If it wasn't cheating to put the whole Song of Ice and Fire series up here I would, I love these books so much even if the last season of the show was a huge letdown.

The Queen of the Night: This book was so much fun to read that it would be a great diversion if I was just stuck alone on an island with my thoughts.

Americanah: This book is decently long and has a lot of depth to it so there's a lot to get out of returning to it!

A Tale for the Time Being: This one is kind of a wild guess but this book has definitely stuck with me since I read it a few years ago and it's different enough from everything else on this list to keep me from getting too bored!

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book 294: The Buried Giant



"She began to make her way towards the cairn, and something about the way she did so, her shoulders hunched against the wind, caused a fragment of recollection to stir on the edges of Axl's mind. The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness. She had talked of a long night spent alone, tormented by his absence, but could it be he too had known such a night, or several, of similar anguish? Then, as Beatrice stopped before the cairn and bowed her head to the stones as if in apology, he felt both memory and anger growing firmer, and a fear made him turn away from her."

Dates read: February 5-10, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was in middle school, I was on the swim team. I wasn't very fast, but I enjoyed being on the team and going to meets. So when I went to high school, I joined the team at that level. It was a whole different game: our local pool was closed for renovations most of the year, so getting to practices (an hour before school and two hours after) took a long time and I was perfectly miserable. I told my mom I wanted to quit. She insisted that I stay on the team, and I swore that if she didn't let me drop it, I would never seriously swim again. She thought I was bluffing. I wasn't. That was over 20 years ago and I haven't swum a lap since.

I don't especially regret this, I do still work out regularly and the way that chlorine dried out my hair and skin is something I don't miss at all. But more than a disinclination to swim for exercise, what keeps me away from the pool is remembering how angry I was when I had to keep swimming for months after I no longer wanted to. In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, remembering is a struggle for the residents of an immediately post-Arthurian era Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an older couple, Britons, who have been relegated to a restricted existence in the warren-like community they live in, but they don't know quite why. They're sure that they would get better treatment with their son, who lives in a neighboring community, so they take the highly unusual step of leaving to go to him.

Their journey takes an unexpected turn almost immediately. At their first stop, a Saxon village where Beatrice often goes to trade, there's a commotion. A young man named Edwin has been abducted by ogres, and though he's rescued by traveling warrior Wistan, the villagers are suspicious of a bite he's sustained during his captivity. Wistan and Edwin flee, taking Axl and Beatrice with them. They encounter, among others, an elderly Sir Gawain. Both of the fighting men claim to be on a quest to kill the dragon Querig, whose breath turns out to be the reason for the mist of forgetfulness that lays over the land...which could have surprisingly significant consequences if it were to go away.

Ishiguro loves a slow-paced, dreamy sort of narrative that reveals its secrets slowly, but there's an unfocused quality to this book that undermines the effectiveness of that approach. The story threads: Axl and Beatrice's marriage and journey towards their son, the Arthurian past, the simmering tensions between the Britons and the Saxons, and a quest to slay a literal dragon...they're not interwoven as tightly and neatly as they need to be to make the whole thing work. The characters have the level of complexity typical of myth and legend, which is to say that they're all quite shallow, more symbolic than realistic. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in them, despite the fact that Axl and Beatrice's love seems like it should be what roots the story in genuine feeling.

Although the story itself doesn't quite come off, Ishiguro does do solid work on hitting deep themes. The power of remembering (or alternately, of forgetting) on human relationships, both on the personal level, as between Axl and Beatrice, or the group level, as between the Saxons and Britons, is powerfully rendered. The prose is lovely and elegant. I get what Ishiguro was going for here, but the reality is that it just didn't really work. The idea of a fantasy-set novel from an author I love for his ability to evoke strong emotions turned out better than the actual execution. Unless you're really just determined to read everything Ishiguro has written, or you're really looking for a book that's all theme and not much else, I'd skip this one. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: Cat's Eye
 
Two years ago, I was reading: How To Be Good

Three years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress
 
Four years ago, I was reading: Me Talk Pretty One Day
 
Five years ago, I was reading: The White Queen

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Shortest Books I've Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically books we've read in one sitting, but I don't tend to read that way...I pick up books and put them down pretty frequently throughout the day. So I'm focusing instead on short books that really grabbed my attention, even if they took me more than one sitting to finish. 


Civilization and Its Discontents: Breaking the rules here almost immediately, as this isn't really a "one-sitting" kind of book despite being very short. If you've heard of Freud and have an opinion on his theories but have never actually read his work, this is a totally fascinating exploration of the tension between society and the individual.

Men Explain Things to Me: The concept behind the title essay in this collection has become widely recognizable as "mansplaining", but that doesn't mean the essay itself isn't worth reading, along with the others that touch on various aspects of the experience of being a woman in the world.

Number the Stars: A childhood favorite, I recently revisited this story about a Danish girl and the Jewish friend whose family her family helps to escape on audio and honestly I think it holds up.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The "life-changing teacher" is a stock character in media, but this book explores a much darker side of a charismatic educator influencing young minds. 

Lord of the Flies: A lot of people have hated this since they read it in school and had to analyze the obvious symbolism, and while there is certainly room to disagree with its premise, I found it a really interesting examination of the evolution of power dynamics. 

The Sense of an Ending: The story in this novel is the kind that some authors would have indulged themselves padding out to 350 pages, but the sparseness really makes it work.

A Clockwork Orange: Deliberately meant to be hard to get into because of the use of words from its own invented language but once you do get into it, it's great!

Exit West: This one I did come very close to reading in one sitting. The story of immigrants Nadia and Saeed just flew by.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: I love the movie, it's wonderful. The original novella is different...darker, and sadder, and just an incredible piece of writing.

The Awakening: This is one that has hung with me since high school...short, but elegant and powerful.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Book 293: The Mind's Eye

 

"Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms -it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well as to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion.The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections—a network particular, it seems, to the human brain."

Dates read: February 1-5, 2019

Rating: 6/10

I was one of those rare kids that needed neither glasses nor braces. I have plenty of issues on the tooth front (so many crowns!), but they grew in straight. And while my vision has declined some over the years, I still can see when I wake up in the morning without having to do anything besides open my eyes. If I'm anything like my dad, I'll probably eventually need reading glasses, but I'm not there yet. It's not until I spend time with people who do need glasses/contacts do I think about being fortunate that I don't have to rely on something else to be able to be able to comprehend my visual environment.

But of course, not being able to see isn't the only thing that can go wrong with the process of vision. Getting input is just one part of it. Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye takes his usual case study format and applies it specifically to disorders of visual processing...some of which deal with the actual mechanical part of seeing, but others about the part where we transform that information into something that makes sense. There's a pianist who can no longer interpret the squiggles on a page of music as notes, but whose ability to memorize and play back what she's heard allows her to continue to enjoy and be successful in her field, a writer whose ability to read deteriorates even as he continues to be able to write, and people for whom faces remain untied to the ones they know and love.

What's a bit unusual for this series of case studies is how prominent Sacks himself is among them. Not as a doctor, which is his usual role, but as a subject. In discussing prosopagnosia (face blindness), he uses his own experiences to describe the condition and the challenges it can create. But where this self-insertion becomes somewhat problematic is in his description of stereo-blindness. This disorder is at first described using a patient who has had the condition for most of her life, but who learns to train herself to see with depth and her wonder and delight at the new world that opens up before her is enjoyable. But then he goes into an extended discussion of his own health crisis, with eye cancer, that led to a loss of his much-cherished stereo vision. It's self-pitying and grating in a way that's not typical of his work, even that which recounts personal struggles.

This book, despite being the kind of case study collection where he usually shines, is not Sacks' best. There's the issue I described above, and there's just a lack of coherence and breadth. Even when describing diseases that lead to significant neurological deficits, there's usually a sense of curiosity about what's wrong and cheerful surprise at the adaptations that people are able to make, that's infectious and engaging. While the book starts off that way, by the time it wanders into Sacks' experiences it gets heavy and clunky, and I found myself much less invested in it than I had been previously. If you're intrigued by the ways that perception can go wrong, or you (like me) are an incurable Sacks completist, there's some good stuff here. But if you're not otherwise interested, I don't think the good outweighs the bad significantly enough to recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man In The High Castle

Three years ago, I was reading: My Own Words

Four years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Five years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That are Questions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting books that ask a question right in their titles! I've picked exclusively from my to-be-read list, so here are ten books I am planning to read with questions-as-titles!

 

What Do We Need Men For?

Who is Maud Dixon?

What is a Girl Worth?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Who's That Girl?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

How Should a Person Be?

Who Killed These Girls?

But What If We're Wrong?

Why Not Me?

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Book 292: Hausfrau


 
"The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how."
 
Dates read: January 28- February 1, 2019
 
Rating: 5/10
 
I know this probably makes me sound like a raging egotist, but when two people in my vicinity are communicating in a language I don't understand, I find myself thinking that they're talking about me. I realize that they're almost certainly not. I'm not that interesting. But when you can't comprehend it, it's so easy to assume the worst. This is something I try to work on when I find myself thinking like this, because it's not fair to either me or other people.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum's Haufrau, American Anna Benz has been living in Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, for nearly a decade. He's a banker, so he brings in enough income that she doesn't need to work outside the home, and they have three adorable children, two sons and a baby daughter. But despite her long-time residence in Switzerland, Anna speaks only basic German and virtually none of the Swiss German dialect that most people around her use to talk to each other. She's finally decided to take lessons, and it's here she meets Archie, with whom she begins a torrid affair. And it's not the first time she's done something like this.

In fact, Anna seems hardly able to resist a man who wants to sleep with her, as we quickly find out that her daughter was not fathered by her husband. Unlike the joyless, compulsive sex she has with other men, her relationship with her daughter's father was one where she had genuine feelings for her lover. Over the course of the therapy sessions Anna engages in over the course of the book, she reflects back on her upbringing, her marriage, her motherhood, and the profound emptiness she seems to feel at her core. When Anna makes a mistake and the delicate balance she has made of her life seems about to topple, it's only a matter of time before she finds herself at a tragic precipice.

Obviously, an unfaithful wife is rich literary territory, and the name of her heroine is just the beginning of Essbaum's allusions to perhaps the most famous of fictional cheaters: Anna Karenina. Indeed, although the book is relatively short, I found myself frequently wondering what new territory exactly was trying to be explored here. There's so little that's subtle: the fragments of therapy sessions we get are right on the nose, as are the flashes we get of Anna's language classes. The conclusion seems inevitable within the first few pages, so it's not plot tension that drives the narrative forward. And Anna herself, though perhaps meant to be a reflection of the despair that could come from lifelong untreated depression (which seems most likely to be at the root of Anna's disconnect from her own feelings), is just unpleasant to spend time with.

That's not to say there isn't anything worthwhile here. Essbaum's prose is witty and clever, and enjoyable to read. And her choice to make Anna so profoundly flawed, particularly as a wife and mother, the roles which we put a tremendous amount of pressure on women to perform highly in, makes her an unusual heroine. Male characters are allowed to shirk their responsibilities to their partners and children and still be redeemable. It was challenging to think about how much of the antipathy I felt for Anna was wrapped up in the expectations I brought to the table about the kind of female character I root for or get invested in. But at the end of the day, even recognizing that bias, Anna's joylessness was just exhausting. This book got a lot of buzz when it came out, but fell very flat for me. I enjoyed it so little that I can't recommend it. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: The Residue Years
 
Two years ago, I was reading: Washington Black

Three years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun