Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: March 2021


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

In Books...

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


In Life...

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

One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Book 277: Dark Places


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

Dates read: November 19-22, 2018

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: White Teeth

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Funny Book Titles On My TBR

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


A Confederacy of Dunces

I Woke Up Dead At The Mall

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero

A Field Guide to Awkward Silences

Don't Worry, It Gets Worse

Everyone Wants To Be Me Or Do Me

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Solutions and Other Problems

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Book 276: Uncle Tungsten


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

Dates read: November 14-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Lost Children Archive

Two years ago, I was reading: The Stranger

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Five years ago, I was reading: The Nazi Hunters

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2021 TBR

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madam: I'm a sucker for dark academia.

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

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

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Book 275: Everything Under


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

Dates read: November 11-14, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Court Justice

Four years ago, I was reading: City of Thieves

Five years ago, I was reading: American Gods

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Precipitation in Their Titles

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

Snow in August

The Snow Child

Snowflake, AZ

Moon of the Crusted Snow

Snow Crash

The Rain Heron

History of the Rain

Fifty Words for Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain

June Rain

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Book 274: The Gathering

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

Dates read: November 7-11, 2018

Rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Going Clear

Three years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Four years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Five years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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