Friday, December 31, 2021

A Month in the Life: December 2021


What a year! 2021 has been a real roller coaster. There were like six weeks in the spring where it seemed like once the vaccines went wide, life might go back to something pretty close to normal. It feels so naive now to have thought like that, as new variants continue to emerge, but I will get as many shots in the arm as I need to protect myself and my community even if I hate needles with a burning passion. It was also just a big year for major life events: my husband and I bought our first-ever home! And I got pregnant! I'm due in just about a month and a half, which feels too soon and yet not nearly soon enough as I am incredibly uncomfortable. But we're so excited to meet our son in the new year! Enough about the year for now, though...let's look back at the past month, shall we?

In Books...

  • Dragnet Nation: This would have been a much better read if I'd gotten to it closer to when it came out (2014), I think. In 2021, the idea that we are being constantly monitored by both private enterprise and the government is unsurprising, though the challenges faced by Angwin in her quest to make herself less traceable drove home how essentially impossible it is to do so unless you have good connections within the privacy community and significant mental real estate to devote to the task. 
  • Metamorphosis: I'd actually never previously read Kafka, but found this short work to be surprisingly compelling. I can also understand both why English teachers love it (there are many different ways to read the story and interpret its meaning), and high school students forced to read it hate it (there are many different ways to read it, none of them are necessarily right, nothing actually happens). But reading it on my own as an adult I found Gregor's drive to retain some humanity more affecting than I expected. 
  • The Storied Life of AJ Fikry: I think it's been well-established on this blog that I love a bummer book, so lighter and more feel-good fare is something I'm often a little skeptical of. If that's the mood you're going for, though, this is a very solid option, with lovably-flawed characters and literature references galore. Does it go anywhere unexpected or particularly interesting? Not really. Is it very pleasant reading? Yes! 
  • The Nickel Boys: This is my third Whitehead book, and at this point it seems like the only real conclusion I can draw is that while I definitely highly recommend his work and will continue to read it eagerly, I struggle to really get drawn into his stories even as his mastery of his craft is obvious. I admire him more than love him, if that makes sense. This is definitely a bummer book, being rooted in real-life abuses perpetrated at a reform school in Florida. 
  • How To Read Literature Like A Professor: This is a pretty straightforward review of how allusion and symbolism work. I will freely admit that I am an extremely literal reader and tend to miss out on a lot of symbolism, so this wasn't an unwelcome refresher, but it's also not especially compelling.
  • The Ballerinas: I am a sucker for a ballet book, so I was super excited for this. It started off well, establishing both a trio of three teenage elite dancers in Paris and a second timeline, when one returns as a choreographer after over a decade in Russia and the friendship has clearly been badly strained. But things came apart in the second half, with several plotlines resolving rather too neatly.
  • The Wilderness: The 2016 Republican primary was...well, wild. This book takes a look at several of the contenders as they started trying to make their marks (and leave their stamps on the party) in the wake of Mitt Romney's 2012 loss. It's easy to tell who gave journalist McKay Coppins the most access because they get the most in-depth coverage, but this is my kind of political book because it really tries to dive in and get at the personalities and motivations, which I find fascinating!
  • Winesburg, Ohio: I got a recommendation for this book from someone in their mid-20s, when I was in my mid-20s, and I think maybe if I'd read it then I might have found the magic in it? It's a series of interconnected vignettes about people living in small-town Ohio, set about a century ago, and the gist of it is that they are deeply lonely and desperate for connection that they fail to find despite their clumsy attempts to do so. I found it repetitive and kind of boring. 


In Life...

  • I had my baby shower: Baby arrival is getting closer and closer (a fact of which I am reminded of daily by my increasing discomfort), and my mother-in-law put together a lovely event to celebrate his impending debut! My mom (who also helped out with the shower), sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and best friend came out from Michigan to celebrate with us, along with quite a crew of Nevadans, and it was really wonderful!

One Thing:

When I'm doing Christmas cookie baking (or any baking, really, which I love to do!), my secret, passed on my grandmother, is to double the spices. Just trust me. Also trust me here: those spices have to come from Penzeys. I've been using them since forever, they're good quality and very reasonably priced! I actually just went ahead and ordered more so I don't have to resort to McCormick's next time I run out!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:  

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Book 316: The Lives of Tao

"He would have to go shopping for a new wardrobe to fit his new role. Roen imagined a long trench coat like Neo, with cool sunglasses and a big gun hanging at his waist. Maybe he could have a secret weapons locker built in his closet, or by the laundry hamper. Or better yet, it could be a compartment that opens once he turned some hidden lever. Turn the faucet left two turns, pull Brave New World on the shelf, tap the alarm clock twice; bam, machine gun!"

Dates read: May 15-20, 2019

Rating: 5/10

What is it that makes for greatness? Not just normal high achievement, but the people whose names go down in history. I mean, obviously having been part of a dominant culture helps (if you're on the vanquished side, it likely won't matter how amazing you were because no one will survive who ensures your story lives on). And talent is crucial, too, though also subject to the flukes of opportunity. But it's something different that pushes the great to the the top, even as the merely talented and/or skilled fall into anonymity.

In Wesley Chu's The Lives of Tao, it seems that what often bridges the gap from being good at something to true greatness is the help of an ageless, symbiotic alien race called Quasings. When they crash-landed on Earth, the different gravity/atmospheric pressure rendered them unable to exist without a host, and the best hosts were the most powerful creatures on the planet: humans. Over time, the Quasings split into two camps: the Prophus are sympathetic to humans, and want to work with them to achieve their goals, but the Genjix are ruthless, wanting only to return home by any means necessary. When we meet the Prohus Tao in Chicago, his longtime host is Edward Blair, with whom he's developed a deep and trusting relationship, and who is highly trained for the espionage that the war between the aliens requires. But Blair is killed, leaving Tao precious little time to find a new place to live. Who he finds is Roen Tan, who is lazy and out of shape and unhappy with his life as an IT worker, and so a new partnership is born.

Roen isn't especially pleased, at first, to have a bossy alien suddenly living in his head, particularly one whose presence means that Roen is now targeted by the Genjix. But there are upsides: Tao helps him to become extremely good at his job, have more confidence and finally ask out his longtime work crush, Jill, and starts getting him in shape through combat training with a fellow Prophus host, Sonya. Tao also shares with Roen the lessons he learned (and imparted) during the experiences he had while connected to Sun Tzu and Genghis Khan, among others. The training becomes the most essential, though, as Tao's leadership role among the Prophus means that Roen needs to be ready to go into battle much sooner than he would have liked.

This book manages to be complicated and kind of dumb at the same time. Thankfully, in large part because of Chu's ear for snappy dialogue, it's charming enough to sort of get away with it. The heart of the book is the relationship that develops between Tao and Roen, the slow growing of fondness and trust. Both characters can be a little one-note: Tao tends to be pedantic, remote, and impatient, while Roen is often whiny and immature (he does have a "growing up" arc, but it's not sold especially well). But when their banter gets to a quippy bicker, as it often does, it's enjoyable and reads quickly. Indeed, the whole thing reads quickly, because many of the beats, like the training montage and the first battle, feel very familiar to anyone who's ever watched an action movie.

In the end, though, there was just too much plot and too much sloppiness in executing it for the book to actually succeed. While Chu's enthusiasm for the world he created shines through, there's way too much backstory about the Quasings without nearly enough reason to care. It feels like he has so much story that he wants to tell that he forgets to give any of it room to breathe, rushing frantically from event to event without really taking time for the character moments that would give it heart. If you're looking for a light-hearted, science-fiction action story, you'll probably get a lot out of this. It would be an easy airplane or beach read. If you're looking for something with more character focus or substance, though, give this a pass. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Wife Upstairs

Two years ago, I was reading: Catch-22

Three years ago, I was reading: Margaret Beaufort

Four years ago, I was reading: Fourth of July Creek

Five years ago, I was reading: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Six years ago, I was reading: The Creation of Anne Boleyn

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read In 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our best 2021 reads. Like always, I have elected to focus my list on 2021 releases rather than the universe of everything I read over the course of the year. I didn't read as many new releases as I often do, as my overall reading total was down as well, so some of these I didn't actually like very much at all. They're in order from most-to-least enjoyed, though, so the ones at the top were the best.

Dog Park: This book, translated from the Finnish, is about a woman living in Helsinki and working as a housekeeper, who often goes to a local park to watch a couple and their children in the park. Her connection to that family, as well as to another woman who suddenly arrives and knows all about her former life in Ukraine, unravels slowly over the course of the novel. 

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: The oral history format that worked so well in smash hit Daisy Jones & The Six is applied to a deeper, more interesting story. Opal and Nev were an unlikely rock duo, a bold and brash Black girl from Detroit and a shy songwriter from the UK who teamed up to make music together until an incident at a show with a Confederate-sympathizing band that created an iconic photo and sent the two on very different paths. As a reunion is teased, the true story of what happened that fateful night might just change everything.

The Night the Lights Went Out: I've long loved Drew Magary's writing for the internet and remember full well when reports that he'd had some sort of medical episode from which he might not recover hit Twitter. He did, happily, recover, and wrote this book about his experience of having and recovering from (to the extent possible) a massive brain hemorrhage. It gets a little repetitive by the end but he's a very talented writer and it's quite good. 

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: If you think you don't like historical fiction, this might be a good book for you despite the fact that it's exactly that. It doesn't concern royalty, or feature steamy love affairs. Instead, it tells the story of how one acerbic old woman living in a small village in Germany comes to be accused of witchcraft, and how this effects not only her but her son, a court official. It's funny and smart and loosely based on real-life events.

Forget Me Not: I loved Alexandra Oliva's debut, The Last One, and so was really excited for her sophomore effort. It's a twisty thriller-type story, set in the near future, about a girl who grows up on an isolated estate and finds out only after she escapes as a teenager that she was meant to replace a previous child, a sister, who died. Her early life, and background as a subject of internet interest, means she can't ever really trust anyone's intentions towards her...but when there is a fire at the property she grew up on, she can't resist the urge to go back and uncover what might have been lost. It's uneven and never really clicked for me.

The Ballerinas: Three young ballerinas, two French and one American, train together and become best friends at a prestigious ballet school in Paris. At some point, two of them do something bad to the other, and one of them all-but-disappears to Russia for over a decade. Making her return to her native France as a choreographer at the same ballet where she once danced, we follow two parallel timelines to figure out what happened way back when...and how it'll play out now. The first half is strong, but the second loses steam and gets very predictable.

The Wife Upstairs: A southern-fried retelling of Jane Eyre, this seemed to be something right up my alley as a fun read, but while some of the winking to the original text is clever and the story is entertaining enough, the present-day Mr. Rochester seems fishy from the start and the slow burn of the growing romance with Jane that makes the original so very compelling all these years later is absent. 

The Human Zoo: This book tells the story of Ting, a woman raised in both the Philippines and the United States who returns to the former from the latter as her marriage is dissolving, ostensibly to research a book about a Filipino who was exhibited throughout the US as a part of the title traveling show, but mostly to rest and recharge among her family and friends. She's drawn back into life in Manila, including the orbit of an ex-boyfriend who continues to pursue her despite his marriage, but can't ignore what a Duterte-like dictator is doing to the country. It never really goes anywhere despite some well-crafted characters. 

All Girls: I am always looking for books to scratch that "dark academia" itch, but this book (more interconnected vignettes than a proper novel), though set at a boarding school, didn't hit for me. There's an ostensible through-line about an attempt to uncover a sex scandal that the administration is trying to hide, but it's mostly about teenage girls attempting to navigate the kinds of expected obstacles their environment presents them with: simmering racial and class tensions, the difficulties of relationships, sexual assault. It's fine, just unspectacular.

Madam: Another attempt at dark academia, this one at least meets the criteria a little more closely. This, too, is a boarding school story, but there's an appealingly gothic element to the isolated Scottish setting and the young teacher, Rose, who is drawn there as a rare outside hire by the prestige of the school and the commensurate paycheck. Alas, the "mysteries" of the school are pathetically easy to guess at and the plot is often ridiculous.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Book 315: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"That’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough." 

Dates read: May 11-15, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times best-seller

I grew up in an entirely female household. My mother single parented my sister and I. She had serious boyfriends every now and again, but it was almost always just the three of us. Perhaps it's understandable, then, why I have always favored books by or about women. I know what a femininity crisis looks like, feels like. Men and their concerns have tended to feel slightly alien, like something to study that I'll never be able to fully comprehend.

To say that Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is testosterone-heavy is an understatement. It's a profoundly masculine piece of work. The book tells the life story of Oscar (whose real surname is not "Wao", a mocking mispronunciation of "Wilde", but rather "De Leon"), who is born into a Dominican family and grows up in New Jersey with his mother Hypatia and sister Lola, and is dead by his mid-twenties. Whether that death was avoidable, or whether it's the result of a fuku, a curse, on the De Leon family, whose history is explored in-depth along with that of the Dominican Republic as a whole, is left up to the reader to decide.

Starting when he's a child, the only thing in life Oscar wants is a girlfriend. Not only does he feel pressure to live up to a machismo Dominican ideal, he's the kind of guy that thinks he's in love if a girl smiles at him on the street. Unfortunately for Oscar, he's overweight, awkward, and a big science fiction nerd. This does not render him attractive to most of the girls he knows. The situation does not improve when he goes to college, where he briefly rooms with Yunior, his sister's boyfriend and the narrator of the story. Profoundly depressed, he makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, after which he's sent to the DR and falls in love with the girl next door, who happens to be a prostitute. She seems to return his affections, but she's already in a relationship, and thus is created a situation doomed to an unhappy ending.

First things first: Junot Diaz is a fantastic writer. The narrative voice he creates for Yunior is like nothing I've ever read before. Diaz's prose is so lively it practically bursts off the page, and is filled with joy and sadness and anger and humor. It's also full of footnotes, Spanish, and pop culture references, and though I dutifully tracked down translations and explainers I honestly think you'd be okay if you just used context clues to figure it out, because otherwise you stop reading and being able to give your full attention to the narrative is the better option. Diaz's storytelling skills, the way he balances all of the elements of the book so it never drags or stumbles and sweeps you along, are a rare thing.

The elephant in the room: Junot Diaz is definitely not a feminist. He's been accused of sexual harassment and the writing in the book would tend to confirm that he has misogynistic tendencies. Yunior is presented as sympathetic although he continually cheats on his partners (including Lola). Oscar's quest for a girlfriend treats the women he desires as objects to be wooed and possessed. A portion of the book focuses on Hypatia's backstory, but presents first and foremost sex and violence. I'm sure it's easier for Diaz to have told the story the way he told it, but with his talent I would have hoped for better. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic book, which I very much enjoyed reading and want to read again someday. Be prepared for some issues with the presentation of women, but otherwise, I would recommend reading this book. 

One year ago, I was reading: Mindhunter

Two years ago, I was reading: Without A Prayer

Three years ago, I was reading: The Prince of Tides

Four years ago, I was reading: The Power

Five years ago, I was reading: Moonlight Palace

Six years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

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

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a seasonal TBR, which feels kind of weird because these are likely to be the last books I finish before I have a baby, and that's if I manage to get through all of them! From what I understand, I'm in for an extended period of low reading numbers, but that's okay! The books will be there when I have time again. 


The Wilderness: This is a book about the 2016 Republican presidential primary...I'm not sure whether this will benefit or suffer from being read quite a while afterwards, but that was a fascinating time!

Winesburg, Ohio: This was actually a favorite of someone I dated in law school who constantly told me I should read it and like 12 years later I finally will!

Beyond The Pale: This is an exploration of albinism, which I admit I don't know much about but would like to know more.

Tender is the Night: I've been meaning to read non-Gatsby Fitzgerald for a while, so I was happy that my book club chose this for next month.

A Long Way Down: I've read enough of Hornby's fiction at this point to no longer have unqualified enthusiasm, but I'm always cautiously optimistic!

The High House: I do love a good post-apocalyptic story, and this one about a group of four trying to survive after climate disaster looks up my alley.

Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center: I've had this book on my shelf for forever, but after bell hooks's death, it feels even more right to be getting ready to read this one soon!

Northanger Abbey: This is the only Austen I haven't read yet!

Founding Mothers: We hear all the time about the dudes who helped found our country but I, for one, am read about the ladies.

The Inheritance of Loss: I have loved a lot of Indian literature I've read, and I've also loved a lot of Booker Prize winners, so I hope I love this book too!

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Book 314: Battleborn

"P.S. On second thought, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives."

Dates read: May 7-11, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I've lived in Nevada for nearly a decade now. I first came to the state during the brief period in the late 90s when Las Vegas tried to market itself as family-friendly, and my mom brought my sister and me there as part of a trip where we also went to the Grand Canyon. I didn't return until college, when I came out to visit the guy I dated off-and-on for years during a summer break at his home in Reno. We had another one of our spectacular bust-ups (which didn't stick), but I tearfully vowed at the airport to never return. Then in 2012, I got a job as an organizer in Nevada, and opted for the more hospitable northern end of the state over the southern end in July. Then I met my husband, and here I still am.

Though I will always be a Michigander at heart, after almost ten years, I'm very loyal to my adopted state. How can you tell a Nevadan? If you call the state "Nev-AH-da" around them, they will either smile politely and scream internally, or find themselves unable to help blurting out that it's "Nev-AD-a". Though the state's official motto is "All For Our Country", it's the unofficial one, "Battle Born", that lent itself to becoming the title of native Nevadan Claire Vaye Watkins's collection of short stories, being elided into one word as Battleborn. Each story is connected to the Silver State, its rich history, and its mythos.

Watkins is extremely talented, and shows that off by writing a variety of styles and scenarios: there's a story ("The Diggings") about a family caught up in the mining booms on either side of the Sierra Nevada that's long enough to be a novella, there's one ("Rodine al Nido") about a girl, with whom we're drawn into troubling complicity by the way Watkins names her only as "our girl", who leads a friend into a bad situation with men in a Vegas hotel room, there's one ("The Past Perfect, the Past Continues, the Simple Past") about a young Italian man who winds up at a brothel after his friend disappears in the desert, and seven more. What connects these stories is not only their Nevada setting, but a sense of loneliness and alienation that's sharpened by that environment: the endless sky and open landscape can leave you with a feeling of being untethered to the world around you. Outside of the two major population centers (Reno and Las Vegas), Nevada is a largely rural state, with some areas so far off the grid they're actually referred to as "frontier". It's also quite large...there's about 8 hours of desert between those two urban areas. To be alone in such a place presents both a certain kind of security and a terrifying vulnerability, the tension between which Watkins deftly explores.

As always with a short story collection, there were highlights and lowlights, though this book was among the more consistently high-quality ones of its kind I can remember reading. The ones I've highlighted above were probably my favorites, with "Rodine al Nido" the one that lingered in my head long after I'd turned the pages. I don't think any of them were actively bad, but some of them (like "The Archivist" and the epistolary "The Last Thing We Need") weren't especially memorable and only came back to me as I flipped back through the book to refresh my memory before writing about it. It's impossible to doubt either Watkins's gift or her craft after reading this collection, and I'd recommend it very highly, particularly for short story-lovers or Western enthusiasts. 

One year ago, I was reading: Men Explain Things To Me

Two years ago, I was reading: House of Cards

Three years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch

Four years ago, I was reading: The Lady of the Rivers

Five years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Six years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Gifts I Hope Santa Brings

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I have what even I would categorize as too many books, so I'm mixing up a couple actual books here with book-related things that I would love to find under the tree.

An ornament for the tree: As new homeowners, we've officially gotten ourselves a Christmas tree for the first time! We do have some ornaments we've collected over the years, but we're definitely going to be collecting more and this one is super cute!

How To Read A Dress: I am super curious about the history of fashion and this book talks about the ways that women's dresses have changed over the past several centuries so it's right up my alley!

A personalized leather bookmark: I love a nice bookmark and can always use more.

Queens Of The Crusades: I love Alison Weir's royal histories and this is the second in a series that I'd like to continue. 

A book stamp: I want to start marking the books in my library as my own and this embossing book stamp would be perfect!

Braiding Sweetgrass: I've heard so many good things about this book, I really want to read it!

Anna Karenina book poster: I loved this book and would love to have a print of it up on the wall.

Very Important People: This book is by a former model and talks about the role that models/beautiful young women play in the international party scene and thinking critically about that kind of thing is very much my jam. 

A Wrinkle In Time t-shirt: One of my all-time favorite books!

Reaganland: Rick Perlstein's presidential histories are fantastic and gigantic and best-suited to print.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Book 313: First


"She had an intuitive, almost uncanny sense of just how far to go—in almost any realm of human endeavor. Her deftness was useful in navigating the politics of the Junior League, but it was obvious to everyone, including the Junior Leaguers, that larger stages beckoned. She did not appear to chafe at the limited opportunities available to a young Phoenix society matron in 1965; rather, she made the most of them. But her ambition was palpable, if not articulated or yet fully formed."

Dates read: April 30- May 7, 2019

Rating: 7/10

When I was a little girl, my mom got me a set of encyclopedias for kids. I was (and am) a big weirdo, so I read those things cover to cover, and that's the first place I remember reading about Sandra Day O'Connor. I was fascinated with the story of the little ranch girl who grew up to be the first female Supreme Court Justice. I decided that I wanted to be one of those, and got all the way to being a lawyer and actually practicing before I figured out that maybe that might not be my destiny. But even after I left the legal profession, O'Connor's dignity and pragmatism meant that she remained one of my role models.

When I took Constitutional Law in law school, I found myself both often agreeing with but then frustrated by Justice O'Connor's jurisprudence. I felt that she usually reached a correct (or at least defensible) result, but the balancing tests she created often could be argued to support a decision that went either way. The law loves a bright line, but Justice O'Connor loved a compromise. The life that led her to be that kind of thinker is detailed in Evan Thomas's First, for which he was granted access to many family sources, as well as the expected interviews of friends and colleagues. What emerges is a portrait of a woman whose early years gave her a toughness, whose intelligence was innate and considerable, who had her ability to know when to charm and when to push honed by the political arena, and who never let go of her conviction that an attractive middle ground could be found on almost every issue.

Most people who are fans enough of O'Connor to pick up a book like this know at least the rough outlines of her life: childhood on the Lazy B ranch in Arizona, excellence at both Stanford undergraduate studies and law school being unrewarded with job offers suiting her skills after graduation, marriage to dynamic fellow attorney John O'Connor, motherhood, service in the Arizona Legislature, then moving up the judicial ladder to the Supreme Court, where she became the first female Supreme Court Justice. After decades on the bench, she left to spend more time with her husband, but his dementia was too far advanced to give them much time together before he needed more intense care than she was able to give. She championed the cause of civic engagement in her post-Court life until announcing her own Alzheimer's diagnosis and taking a step back to live as a truly private citizen for the first time since she was a young woman.

I wanted this book to be more than it was, and perhaps my disappointment is my own fault for having expectations that it was never written to match. I was hoping for more psychological insight, more historical context...less a recitation of life details than a work that sought to explain her as a person and as a figure in the public imagination. To call First a mere catalogue of personal facts would be unfair. It's clearly intensely researched, and the people Thomas spoke to and accessed records from would be the ones who would be able to provide a look into the human behind the dignified portrait we all know. But either they were unwilling to divulge information that might paint a fuller picture, or she was truly so private that few people knew her well enough to give it. What this makes for is a book heavy on the who, what, and when, but light on the why.

I'll admit part of my opinion was shaped by my perception that Thomas has an ideological bent to his work. Obviously, O'Connor was a Republican, and Thomas seems to also have a conservative outlook. But when he announces early in the work that he believes her to be the kind of woman who would (this is a paraphrase) roll her eyes at the feminists of today and their objectives, it rankles. There is certainly a conversation to be had about the various waves of feminism and how their goals and methods have differed from/been in conflict with others, and O'Connor may or may not have even thought of herself as a feminist, but these and several other little editorial comments certainly irritated me while reading and made me wonder how well-rounded of a biography he was really seeking to create. In the end, if you want a thorough biography of the quietly trailblazing first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, you'll find a lot here. If you want a more nuanced or complex look at the person she was though, I'd skip it. 

One year ago, I was reading: Brideshead Revisited

Two years ago, I was reading: The Woodcutter

Three years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch

Four years ago, I was reading: The Games

Five years ago, I was reading: The Wonder

Six years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Book 312: Jackaby

"The chief inspector did not seem like the sort of man who could ever be overwhelmed by empathy. He would fit right in to the crime adventures in my magazines. He held the little pad like a shield, stoically barricading himself from the human tragedy. I wondered why Jackaby didn’t carry a little notebook. It struck me that a detective should have a little notebook." 

Dates read: April 26-20, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Sometimes I feel like I pigeonhole my own reading. I try to read across genres, but often gravitate towards the serious stuff ("literary" fiction and non-fiction) because I just assume that it's more likely to be something I'll enjoy. And while I do like a lot of the kind of things that tend to win writing prizes, that doesn't mean it's the only sort of thing for me. I am a creature of habit, especially in my reading habits, but breaking out of a slump often reaps rewards.

What if you took a Sherlock Holmes type, made him someone sensitive to magic and occult rather than the "real world", and then gave him a plucky female Watson? Well, you'd get something much like William Ritter's Jackaby. The titular fellow (that's his last name) is the aforementioned supernatural detective. The high-spirited lady sidekick is Abigail Rook, newly arrived in Victorian-era New England from Britain. She's fled the fancy upbringing she had back home, first trying to follow in her archeologist father's footsteps, ultimately winding up in America. She needs a place to stay, which means she needs money, which means she needs a job. But no one in the town of New Fiddleham seems willing to hire her...and that's when she sees an advertisement for a detective's assistant, which leads her to Jackaby.

On her very first day, she and her new employer find themselves a case to investigate: a murder. The police (with whom Jackaby has a rocky relationship) think it probably has a mundane explanation, but the detective thinks otherwise. Abigail's keen eye makes her a valuable asset as the murders continue and the team investigates, and a budding flirtation between her and young policeman Charlie Cane keeps them clued into the official inquiry as well. There are ghosts, werewolves, banshees and more as they race against time to try to stop the killer before the next victim falls.

This isn't anything that could be called literature by any stretch of the imagination. But it's not trying to be. It's trying to be an enjoyable, easy-reading fun supernatural mystery story, and it largely succeeds. The vibe between Jackaby and Rook will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever watched Doctor Who (and if you do watch and enjoy that show, this book will definitely be right up your alley), and is blessedly free of romantic tension. Abigail's story, while definitely a familiar one, is well-told, and she feels like more than just a stock character due to Ritter's characterization. Indeed, of everyone in the story, it's Jackaby himself who feels the flattest...his aloofness renders him challenging to understand or particularly like. I think it's supposed to come off as being mysterious and Holmesian, but for me it just made him boring.

Another area where this doesn't quite succeed is as an actual mystery. I am legit terrible at figuring out the who-dun-it question in virtually every mystery I've ever read, and I was calling the big twists by about halfway through the narrative. I think it was supposed to be a fun and exciting mystery more than a genuinely suspenseful and thrilling one, but it could have leaned a little more heavily towards the latter without giving too much ground on the former. On a writing-quality level, Ritter's prose (like much in this genre) is unspectacular, though he does have a pretty good ear for dialogue. So while going into this expecting greatness, or even very-good-ness, is likely to set you up for disappointment, if you just want a tasty little snack of a book, something light and engaging, this is for you. I did enjoy reading it, enough to download the second one in the series to read later, so as long as you know what you're getting going in and keep your expectations reasonable, I'd recommend this!

One year ago, I was reading: Can't Even

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sisters of Henry VIII

Three years ago, I was reading: Once Upon A River

Four years ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth

Five years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Six years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Memories

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I've been a little lax on these lately, sometimes the topic just doesn't quite work for me, and a few times I've just run out of time to finish the post. This week, we're talking about our bookish memories. I try really hard to come up with ten things usually, but for this one I couldn't get there so here are five!

The exact layout of the Little Professor bookstore in Brighton: This was the closest local bookstore when I was growing up. I spent hours in there, from childhood on, first in the kids/young adult areas (which were up a little staircase to the right after you came into the store), and then in the full fiction and nonfiction spaces. I bought so many books there, from Goosebumps mysteries to my reading list for AP English when I was a high school senior.

Being dropped off at the library while my mom ran errands: This isn't as bad as it sounds, I was probably 12 or 13 so not a tiny child, and she would usually take my sister with her and they'd both come back and spend time in the library as well after the shopping was done. I would use the computers for the internet, look at so many books in the nonfiction section (especially the astrology books), and pick out some YA to take home.

The excitement of the book order (and the day it would arrive): I can still feel the leap in my heart I felt when the book order forms got passed out. I would go through and circle everything that looked appealing and my mom would tell me that was too many but end up buying me a ton of books anyways. I always had the biggest haul from the book order!

Going to a midnight release party for the final Harry Potter book with my sister: We were big Harry Potter fans and the Borders in Brighton was having a midnight release party. We got there at like 9 or so, I think? It was fun for the first like hour and change and then really boring until the books started getting taken out. But there was some kind of mix-up and it was taking so long to get the books out that several people left and went to the Meijer just down the road and got a copy there.

The satisfaction of finding a Baby-Sitters Club or Animorphs book that I didn't already have at the bookstore: The days before online shopping were rough! You had to go to the store and just...see what they had in stock. And there wasn't a bookstore in my actual small town, so we didn't usually place special orders because my mom was disinclined to have to make a second run in a short period of time, so I had to walk in and hope that the next BSC or Animorphs book just happened to be there at the same time I was. The agony!

Monday, November 29, 2021

A Month In The Life: November 2021


And the holiday season has begun! We had a fairly busy month, actually, and then next month has some stuff as well, and then it's time to hunker down and wait for the baby to show!

In Books...

  • Dumplin': I'm a little older than the target audience for this young adult book, but I found it mostly pretty charming. I thought Willowdean was a well-rendered teenage girl, full of contradictions, but her relationship with Bo was too flat to really center the narrative the way it might have. 
  • The Lying Life of Adults: Giovanna, too, feels like a realistic teenage girl, particularly in her righteousness and spitefulness. But I couldn't actually get invested in her story, Ferrante never gave me a reason to care about her. The Neapolitan setting feels rich, but the language is clunky and the narrative has no drive. 
  • Clariel: I love the original Old Kingdom trilogy, so when Garth Nix announced that he was returning to the world to write additional novels I was really excited! This was released several years back now, so I'd heard the disappointed feedback and...I don't get it? Is it quite up to the standard of the first few books? No. But it's not far off, and I found Clariel herself to be an interesting character. I liked it!
  • Shadowshaper: I didn't realize that I'd read so many books focused on teenage girls this month until I put this list together! This, for me, was the weakest one. I loved the setting, but found Sierra a deeply under-written character and the magic system to be also inadequately built out. I wanted to like it more than I actually did, I mostly got bored with it.
  • Underground: I knew vaguely of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, but had never read about it in much depth. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's way of writing about it (by conducting interviews with various people who were on the trains about their experience) was intriguing and compelling in its own way, and the interviews he did with former members of the Aum cult who carried out the attack were an interesting way to look at how it operated.


In Life...

  • Weekend getaway to Las Vegas: My husband has access to Raiders tickets through his work, so we took advantage of that and did a quick trip to the other end of the state. The stadium is gorgeous, and even though neither of us are invested in the team, it was fun to watch live sports! This is probably our last trip away, just the two of us, for a while so I'm glad we did it!

One Thing:

I've been living for the past few months in Old Navy's maternity leggings. I can't speak to their durability since I won't be wearing them for an especially long period of time or anything, but they go over the bump, they're comfortable, and they have pockets, which are surprisingly impossible to find on, like, any other maternity leggings south of $100.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Book 311: The Lowland

"The future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator. Each year began with an unmarked diary. A version of a clock, printed and bound. She never recorded her impressions in them. Instead she used them to write rough drafts of compositions, or work out sums. Even when she was a child, each page of a diary she had yet to turn, containing events yet to be experienced, filled her with anxiety instead of promise. Like walking up a staircase in darkness. What proof was there that another December would come?"

Dates read: April 20-26, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I tend to believe Tolstoy when it comes to that stuff about unhappy families. Except that I think that there are so few truly happy families that we can safely exclude them from the data set. Pretty much every family has its own special kind of unhappiness. All of our parents screwed us up in their own ways. And their parents screwed them up, and we'll screw our own children up. The only thing to be done is to do your best to keep the damage minimal.

In Jhumpa Lahari's The Lowland, brothers Subhash and Udayan are so close that they're often confused for twins despite being a few years apart. They have a more or less happy childhood, building radios and playing in the marshy lowlands near their family's Calcutta home. As they start to grow up, they start to grow apart. Udayan becomes political, part of the Naxalite movement being repressed by the authorities. Subhash, on the other hand, turns towards school, eventually leaving India to study marine biology in Rhode Island. Separated by thousands of miles, the brothers do still write letters to each other, and Subhash is surprised to find out in one of them that his brother has gotten married. In defiance of expectations for his parents to chose a bride, Udayan has married a college student, Gauri, for love. Not too long afterwards, though, Udayan is killed.

When Subhash returns home for his brother's funeral, he finds an untenable situation: Gauri is pregnant, and his parents are planning to take the child to raise and kick her out after the birth. There's only one way out that he can see: he'll marry her, bring her back to the United States, and they'll raise the child as a family. With nowhere else to go, Gauri agrees. But this doesn't mean that everything's suddenly okay. Gauri gives birth to a daughter, Bela, and Subhash devotes himself to being a father. Gauri, though, is still traumatized by the death of her husband and the second marriage she had no real choice but to go through with. As Bela grows up, the family's tensions stretch to the breaking point.
This book is epic in scope, tracking Subhash through nearly his entire life and other characters, like Gauri and Bela, through much of theirs. Lahiri does her usual beautiful character work here...Udayan doesn't get a lot of narrative time until a flashback near the end, which leaves him feeling slightly unrealized, but the rest are developed in a way that feels achingly real. Gauri makes a decision that leaves her probably the least sympathetic of them, but the way Lahiri builds up to it, and what happens after, make it understandable. I also appreciated Bela's arc, the way that it seemed like she would grow up to become one sort of person because of the environment she was raised in, and then other events leading her to become a very different sort of person instead. All three of the major players were fascinating and I wanted to spend more time with them.

This is definitely one for people who prefer character over plot. Little actually "happens" besides a family coming together and coming apart. There's a more dramatic bit at the end, the part that goes back to the events leading up to Udayan's death, but I almost wished it hadn't been there or it had been told in its proper place in the chronology. I tend to think that Lahiri's writing is elegant almost to the point of being restrained, and having this part at the end feels out-of-character. That emotional remove, though, is what kept me from enjoying this novel more. It's a sophisticated work, but it deals with big emotions, and it felt like Lahiri was more devoted to keeping that style over letting the book really breathe, letting those feelings really build and explode. As it was, I admired it but didn't really connect with it. Still, it's a very well-written novel and one that I would definitely recommend to others.

One year ago, I was reading: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Two years ago, I was reading: After The Party

Three years ago, I was reading: The Possibilities

Four years ago, I was reading: In The Woods

Five years ago, I was reading: The Girls

Six years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Book 310: The Fever


"As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference. She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this. Lying on the floor, her mouth open, tongue lolling, Lise hadn’t seemed like a girl at all."

Dates read: April 15-20, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Teenage girls can be sociopaths. With many of the same destructive urges as boys, but less access to sanctioned casual physical aggression, we end up with a capacity for true interpersonal viciousness. I know I did some totally ice cold mean girl stuff when I was in high school, and wound up on the receiving end of something similar as a college freshman. I cut off my best friend for years over a dust-up I can't even remember. I was awful to my own little sister. Those emotions, the bad ones just as much or more than the good, are so close the surface at that time of life. I look back on it now and feel a lot of regret, but I remember how right it all seemed at the time.

I might have had smoother skin and been much thinner, but I wouldn't go back to being a teenage girl and feeling all those feelings again for anything. It's such a confusing and heady place to be, and Megan Abbott's The Fever really digs into the murky territory that friendships at that age can turn into. Deenie Nash and Lise Daniels have been best friends since they were small, but things are starting to change. They've recently started hanging out with Gabby, who a parent would probably euphemistically describe as coming from "a troubled home". And Lise has grown from a cute little kid into a pretty teenager. This has not escaped notice by Deenie, or her older brother Eli (himself the subject of significant attention for his looks), or even her father Tom, a teacher at the high school. This is all putting strain on Deenie and Lise's friendship, and then one day during class, out of nowhere, Lise falls out of her chair and has a seizure.

This alone is troubling, but then Gabby has a seizure too. One girl having a mysterious medical episode in a small town is cause for concern. Two is cause for alarm, especially as the doctors can provide no answers. Deenie thinks it might have been caused by a lake, rumored to be unclean, that all the girls spent time in together shortly before the episodes began. She worries that she might be next. Parents want to protect their daughters, start looking for a culprit. Hysteria starts to build as yet another girl is stricken, much of it focusing on the HPV vaccinations that the school mandated for the girls. The entire Nash family find themselves drawn further and further into the mystery and when it's finally unraveled, it's a doozy.

I won't spoil anything, but the real villain of this book is teenage sexuality. Specifically, teenage girls having sex. That's what the real terror of the parents over the HPV vaccine is driven by, the idea that their daughters might be sexually active. But it's not just the parental fear. The book is steeped in sex in a very realistically teenage way: girls worrying about who's having it, who isn't, if the boy you like is sleeping with someone, if you think he might want to sleep with you, wanting to do it, not wanting to do it. For all I know, boys probably have the same kinds of thoughts, but having been a girl, I know that for all of the innocence that's attributed to female-shaped persons, they are often consumed with questions of sex. Like Deenie with Lise and Gabby, you measure yourself against your friends: who's the desirable one? Who's the innocent? Who's the slut?

Thematically, this is a potent work. Abbott beautifully captures the atmosphere of small town paranoia and the thrill and terror of being what Britney Spears would call not a girl, not yet a woman. But reading this book had its frustrations as well: the tension ratcheted up too high, too soon, leaving it nowhere to really go once things got really dramatic. The plot felt slightly underbaked and the pacing was kind of stop and start. And I thought having the dad, Tom, as a main character didn't really work. I appreciated the inclusion of Eli, the perspective on teenage boys and sex made the book as a whole feel more balanced, but Tom didn't add much for me. All together, I think this was an interesting, well-written novel and I'd recommend it if teenage psychological thriller is a genre you enjoy!

One year ago, I was reading: Plain Bad Heroines

Two years ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Three years ago, I was reading: Uncle Tungsten

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Six years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Book 309: Lilah


"And now, when I close my eyes and dream of beauty, of the milk and honey I thought I saw when we arrived, I cannot help weeping. Why is it that the most magnificent flowers conceal the deadliest of poisons?"

Dates read: April 11-15, 2019

Rating: 4/10

I've been book blogging for quite a while now, 6 years in fact! As much as I enjoy it, one of the things I sometimes regret is that I made it part of my whole deal to blog about literally every single book I read. While there are definitely upsides to this (it forces me to really think about the books I read and what works for me and what doesn't!), it's probably not hard to understand what the downsides are. Sometimes a book is just neither good enough to rave about nor bad enough to rant about, and there's just really not that much to say about it.

When I was in high school, I read and loved The Red Tent. Revisiting it on audio recently (it holds up) made me curious about other biblical fiction. Marek Halter has actually written several books based on biblical women, including Lilah. I was a little disappointed to find out that she's apparently not actually a character in the Bible, but it's not actually important that she be mentioned in order for the world she lived in to be explored. She and her brother Ezra, both Jewish, have been raised by their well-to-do aunt and uncle in Babylon after the death of their parents when they were small. Lilah enjoys her life of privilege and has fallen very much in love with Antinoes, the Persian boy who was the siblings' best friend growing up. Ezra, though, has renounced contact with the secular and gentile world, and has gone to live in the Jewish section of the city to learn from the rabbis.

When Antinoes proposes to Lilah, despite her delight, she refuses to accept until she has the permission of her closest male relative: Ezra. She loves her brother despite their vast difference in chosen life paths, but she knows he won't assent to her marriage outside the faith. Ezra has come to believe that he's meant to lead a journey of the Bablyonian Jewish community back to Jerusalem, and so Lilah endeavors to use her connections to the royal family to make that happen, as his departure will leave her free to wed. But while she does secure permission for Ezra to leave, the scheme backfires on her and she's forced to come with him. The journey is long and arduous, and it changes Ezra. Her good-hearted brother becomes more and more fanatic, and eventually demands that the Jewish men leave behind their gentile wives and children. Lilah leaves the last bit of privilege she has left to go with the abandoned families.

This book was...okay, I guess? Lilah was an appealing enough character, though not deeply realized enough to really make much connection with. She was high-spirited in a way that felt appropriate for her time in history, and I appreciated the sex-positivity of her story arc, but it didn't seem like she got much past surface level. Everyone else in the book was much worse off...Ezra's development from pious to zealot is predictable and not very interesting, Antinoes is never more than a cardboard idealized love interest, and side characters were sketched very thinly. As a character-focused reader, this did not bode well for my enjoyment of the novel.

With the underdevelopment of both plot and people, I was puzzled why the book was so short! It's less than 300 pages long...bumping it up to about 350 would have given Halter more room to create well-rounded characters and give events more momentum. There's not even much rhetorical flair to spice things up, so the book kind of just trudges along until it's over. It's not bad, nothing here was actively offensive to my sensibilities as a reader, it was just mediocre. Allegedly, this is the weakest of his biblical narratives, so I'll give Halter another shot, but I just can't affirmatively recommend this book.  

One year ago, I was reading: The Yellow House

Two years ago, I was reading: The Great Mortality

Three years ago, I was reading: Everything Under

Four years ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Five years ago, I was reading: Invisible Man

Six years ago, I was reading: Kramer v Kramer

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Book 308: The Last Romantics

"Some people will choose, again and again, to destroy what it is they value most."

Dates read: April 7-11, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Like most of the oldest children I know, I tend to feel responsible for other people. I'm always wanting to know where my husband or coworkers or friends are heading off to, and I think that's a bit rooted in growing up knowing that I needed to know where my sister was. I also tend towards bossiness and overachieving in a way that's typical of oldest kids. I'm not sure that I 100% buy into birth order theories as a whole, every family is different, but I do think there are some broad generalizations that can be made and that will turn out to be accurate more often than not.

I had just one little sister to be responsible for. There are four Skinner siblings in Tara Conklin's The Last Romantics. Renee is the oldest, the responsible one. Caroline, the next oldest, is soft-hearted and traditional. Then Joe, the only boy, the gifted athlete, the apple of everyone's eye. And finally Fiona, the baby. The Skinners are a happy family until they're not: when their father dies in an accident, their mother Noni finds out that they're not as well off as she thought, and the loss of not only her husband but the life she thought she had achieved pitches her into a deep depression. They downsize, and Noni takes to her bed. Not for a week or two, or even a month on two, but for a couple years. The Skinner children are more or less left to raise themselves during what they come to call The Pause.

The seeds of what will become of them are planted during The Pause. Renee takes her responsibilities to take care of the others seriously, and becomes dedicated to achieving at a level that will keep anyone from guessing what's going on at home, setting her down a path towards becoming a doctor. Caroline falls in with a neighbor family, forming a bond with one of their boys that will deepen into romance and marriage. Joe's talent and good looks ensure that his outward needs are met, even if he struggles to process his trauma. And Fiona learns to observe, a skill that comes in handy as she becomes a writer and poet. Noni does recover, and the family seems more or less intact, but the damage that's been done can't be undone.

I was biased towards this one from the start: this kind of following-a-group-of-characters-over-time thing is something I absolutely love in a book. I tend to find that the books that stay with me the most are ones where character is first and foremost, and this book is all about character. The siblings and their relationships feel complicated and real. Though they all had moments of being their worst selves, their behaviors felt rooted in how their experiences, particularly during their childhoods, interacted with their innate personalities. I also appreciated that the book never felt the need to have there be a dramatic confrontation between the children and their generally leaned away from melodrama rather than leaning into it, and I think there are plenty of families that do just try their best to forget the bad moments and move on.

As much as I loved this book for the most part, there were some plot elements that kept me from considering it truly great. First was that The Pause could go on for multiple years without anyone really noticing. As much as Renee was able to serve in loco parentis to her younger siblings, there are things like doctor's visits and parent-teacher conferences and signing up for extracurriculars that seem like they could have been patched over for a while but not for as long as Conklin asked us to believe. And then there was the framing device, which featured a very elderly Fiona (in a world where global climate change has changed things for the worse) interacting with a young woman who might have a connection to the Skinners. This did strike me as a little too convenient and neat. On the whole, though, this is a lovely book about the bonds between siblings and would be perfect for a reader who loves well-realized characters. I very much enjoyed it and highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: George, Nicholas, and Wilhem

Two years ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

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

Four years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

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

Six years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Sunday, October 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: October 2021


October is always my favorite month! It's the one with my birthday and my husband's birthday, after all. And, now that I live in Nevada, Nevada Day (which is technically today but we celebrate on the last Friday of the month to make a three-day weekend). Usually we can count on October for some lovely weather in the upper 60s and low 70s to enjoy the last of the long days, but once the heat broke, it plunged firmly into the 50s and 60s so it's definitely been a properly "fall" fall.

In Books...

  • Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the first child of Teddy Roosevelt, and his only child with his first wife, who died within days of her birth. She had a fascinating life, exerting a lot of soft power in Washington, DC, with her background as a First Daughter and wife of the man who would one day become Speaker, but dealt with plenty of darkness as well. This biography is competent enough and definitely provides a solid overview of her life, but has a hard time sustaining itself and kind of drags by the end.
  • French Concession: This was a noir thriller set in 1930s Hong Kong, and was the first book translated into English of a successful Chinese writer so I decided to try it despite not being a particular devotee of the genre. This was a mistake, I found it needlessly complicated with characters too thinly sketched to actually care about.
  • Land of Big Numbers: I think this is the last time I read short stories for book club, y'all. I just don't like them. This collection set mostly in China or featuring Chinese characters, written by a Chinese-American journalist who spent several years living in China, is fine. I found none of the stories interesting, either in a good or bad way. They were all just kind of there.
  • Uprooted: I had high hopes for this book, which I've had recommended to me several times, and they were mostly satisfied. It's a standalone adult fantasy (adult here in the sense of "not-young adult", not "x-rated") based in Eastern Europe, rooted in the journey of a young woman, Agnesiezka, discovering her magic under the tutelage of a wizard known as The Dragon, who finds herself having to fight to save her home and kingdom. There's a little too much plot here, I wish just a bit had been edited out to make room for a couple character moments to fully develop, but it's very good and I enjoyed reading it.
  • The Night The Lights Went Out: Drew Magary is one of my favorite writers on the internet, and I remember following along with reports on Twitter when he had a bad accident in late 2018 that it seemed like he might not recover from. He did recover, though, and wrote this memoir about his experience with traumatic brain injury and the long process of recovery. I found it strongest in the first half, but Magary's skill with words makes the second half (in which he tries to cope with the fallout of a loss of his senses of hearing, smell, and taste) work despite being often repetitious. It's definitely something to read if you like him/his work, but otherwise might not be especially compelling. 
  • Cleopatra's Shadows: This is an unusual take on a Cleopatra-era historical fiction about Ancient Egypt, in that Cleopatra herself barely features as a player in the drama. Instead, it concerns itself with the story of her older sister, Berenice, and younger sister, Arsinoe, during the brief reign of the former prior to the death of Cleopatra's father. I appreciated that it was a side of the story we rarely see considered, and it was written well enough to keep my attention and interest though wasn't more than solid-to-good. 

In Life...

  • I turned 36: Birthdays do get much less exciting as we get older, don't they? Turning 36 felt like the opposite of a big deal, so we just watched college football and ordered Mexican food take-out. This is the first major milestone where I keep thinking that the next time this one rolls around we'll have a kid!
  • I went to Skate America: My best friend and I love figure skating, so we went to Las Vegas for Skate America, the first major international competition of the season that will end with Worlds in March (though few but the hardcore will pay much attention once the Olympics are over). It was super fun, we got to watch some incredible skating from everyone from Russian teenage phenoms to 30something multiple-time Olympians. This was our second time going and we definitely want to make it a tradition!

One Thing:

I'm trying to stay healthy and at least somewhat active during this pregnancy, which feels increasingly important but also increasingly challenging as I approach the third trimester. I'm too paranoid to go to the gym and risk COVID exposure (at least until I get my booster shot in a week!) so I've been working out from home and really appreciate the workouts put together by BodyFit by Amy. She has a TON of home workouts for every kind of fitness need, but it's surprisingly hard to find good pregnancy-friendly workouts that I like so I especially appreciate her list of workouts for those of us growing tiny humans. I definitely intend to continue using her material even after I have evicted my passenger!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Book 307: Princess Masako


"Here is an ambitious, intelligent woman who cannot bear the stifling constraints of life as a royal puppet; a woman from a family with a tradition of public service denied a real role in life; a woman with a Harvard education, a master of languages, who is denied meaningful discourse, and urged to amuse herself with pursuits such as the dissection of catfish or the study of medieval barges."

Dates read: April 3-7, 2019

Rating: 4/10

One of my guilty pleasures is royal-watching. I spend more time than I should reading about/looking at pictures of the world's royal families, analyzing their fashion choices, gazing longingly at their jewelry collections. It's not that I covet their lives, though I do covet many of their wardrobes, and just putting a tiara on my head once would be one of the highlights of my life. I've read the comments on the royal Instagrams, I've seen how nasty people are about the women in these families. It's just fun to imagine being one of them for a day, and then back to normal.

Though the British royal family sucks up most of the oxygen when it comes to coverage of royalty, it's not the oldest one. Not by a long shot. The oldest is the Chrysanthemum Throne, the seat of the Japanese emperors. Naruhito currently occupies that role, with his wife Masako filling the role of Empress. But like the women married to the British princes, Masako Owada wasn't born into nobility. She grew up in Russia, Japan, and the United States as the daughter of a diplomat. She herself even worked as a diplomat. But once she accepted then-Prince Naruhito's marriage proposal, her entire world changed. Unfortunately, as Ben Hill's Princess Masako explores, it hasn't always been necessarily for the better.

Allegedly, Masako didn't accept the first time Naruhito asked her to marry him. Nor even the second. She was smart enough to know that a life as the consort of the Crown Prince would require her to give up everything she'd earned for herself and accept a tightly circumscribed and entirely domestic role. It seems Naruhito promised her that they'd find a way to loosen restrictions and modernize, but those promises weren't able to be kept. Cut off from her former life and under immense pressure to get pregnant, Masako seems to have become significantly depressed. When she finally did become a mother, she faced a fresh round of criticism for having given birth to a girl instead of a boy, as only men can inherit the throne. Prior to her elevation to Empress, Masako basically became a recluse, appearing in public very infrequently.

There's a lot of (fairly educated) guesswork here, because sources about what Masako really thinks/feels aren't exactly forthcoming. Japanese media culture does not reward the sort of tabloid speculation that sells papers in Europe, and perhaps that is why it seems like Hill's sources were not as strong as one might have hoped. The people he talks to about Masako, who knew her before she became a princess, are either pretty far removed from their last contact with her or never knew her very well in the first place. A behind-the-scenes kind of book like this should feel rooted in firm reality with sources just remaining anonymous to protect themselves, but pretty much everything that's supposed to be revealing in here feels like speculation.

There's no sense of fun, either, which is half the point of picking up this sort of book. On the one hand, it's hard to imagine how this story could be anything but tragic, but on the other hand, letting that sense of sadness pervade the book makes the gossip-y tone feel like rubbernecking at a car accident. I did learn more about the Imperial Household Agency, the courtiers that control the royal family, and got a bit more context on the relationship between the Japanese people and their royalty, and the way it's changed in the post-WW2 era. But as a whole, the book never took off and I didn't feel like I got much besides a straightforward account of the biographical details of Masako's life. If you're really into the Japanese royals, then you might find something worthwhile here, but don't count on it for dishy intrigue. Otherwise, there's no real reason to pick it up.

One year ago, I was reading: Looking for Alaska

Two years ago, I was reading: Patron Saints of Nothing

Three years ago, I was reading: Seduction

Four years ago, I was reading: The Book Thief

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

Six years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Horror Books On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a Halloween-themed freebie, and so I'm going to be listing ten books on my TBR list that are in the horror genre. I'm not much of a horror person generally (I don't like being scared!), and I know the definition of what qualifies as horror can vary, but I pulled these from Goodreads lists of best horror that happen to coincide with books I've already put on my list!




The Haunting of Hill House

World War Z

Swan Song

The Terror

The Passage

The Omen

The Other

The House Next Door

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Book 306: All The President's Men


"The August 1 story had carried their joint byline; the day afterward, Woodward asked Sussman if Bernstein's name could appear with his on the follow-up story - though Bernstein was still in Miami and had not worked on it. From the on, any Watergate story would carry both names. Their colleagues melded the two into one and gleefully named their byline Woodstein."

Dates read: March 27- April 3, 2019

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I'm a bad liar. Which isn't to say that I don't everyone else, I do, but I make an active effort to do so less often than I could. Not because I'm more morally righteous than anyone else, but because being bad at lying means I'm more likely to get caught. It's just mentally exhausting to keep track of who you've lied to, about what, and the stress of how to handle it if two people who each know different versions of the story start to talk to each other is too much for me to handle. I'm more likely to keep secrets than I am to lie, but even that's dicey (I'm a compulsive confessor when I've had a beer or two).

It's hard to think of someone more closely connected in the popular imagination to secrets and lies than one Richard Milhous Nixon. On his way to virtually certain re-election, he just couldn't resist the urge to direct a break-in to the Democratic National Committee office, and the cover-up cost him not only the presidency, but his legacy forevermore. It was the reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that really pushed the story forward, and their book All The President's Men recounts how they came to be major players in the scandal. The book is less about the underlying events than one might think, instead focusing primarily on the reporting process.

It turns out that the process of reporting a major story, involving many sources, is...kind of boring? Woodward and Bernstein try to track down sources, find them, talk to them, go back and talk to the same people again to try to get more information out of them, get referred to new sources, and then lather, rinse, repeat. The tension should build towards the next story, then the next, then the next, but it felt more like a trudge than anything else. I have to imagine that it often felt that way to report, little pieces fitting into a larger puzzle here and there, rather than a swelling towards a crescendo. But realistic or not, it doesn't make for very exciting reading. Especially when the biggest mystery of the book, the identity of Deep Throat, has been solved for those of us reading today.

I found myself wondering as I was reading if this story wouldn't have been better served by having someone else tell it. Obviously I understand why Woodward and Bernstein wanted to write the book about their own deeds, but either they're not particularly gifted at narrative-crafting or they're too far inside of it to see the forest for the trees. They recount giddily the editing that led the placement of sentences within a paragraph, making it clear that as reporters this was a fraught and tense process. But as a reader, it holds little excitement. A book that recounted their investigation and placed it in its context of what was happening at The Washington Post and in the Oval Office in a broader sense would be one I'd be very interested in reading. This one, though, left me mostly feeling like I'd really like to watch the Kirsten Dunst/Michelle Williams comedy Dick again, because if this was the real story the other one is much more entertaining. If you love newspaper/political reporting, or have a deeper interest in Watergate and the Nixon administration, this will be something you'll find it worthwhile to read. If you're looking for more dynamic nonfiction, this may be a classic but it is very skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: The White Princess

Two years ago, I was reading: The Line of Beauty

Three years ago, I was reading: Detroit

Four years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

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

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