Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: June 2021

June saw a return to normalcy that was unexpected: not only did session end on May 31, meaning that my busy season is over, but masking protocols and social distancing mandates were largely dropped in Nevada, meaning that life feels awfully similar to the way it was before March of 2020. It's an odd feeling, being vaccinated and no longer having to feel significant concern that other people breathing on me could lead to severe illness and death! But a good one, I'd say.

In Books...

  • Tooth and Claw: This book answers a question one may not have been aware was ever asked, namely, "what if a Victorian novel, but dragons?". In Jo Walton's hands, it turns out the answer is "unexpectedly delightful"! I enjoyed the wide cast of characters Walton created, and the way she dealt with Victorian concerns over female purity by having lady dragons literally change color at sexual awakening. If you enjoy both fantasy novels and classic novels, this will be a treat!
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist: I adored Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel, Exit West, and this one was just as wonderful. It traces the story of a young Pakistani immigrant, Changez, and the way his relationship to America changes after his attendance at Princeton and acceptance of a fancy analyst job in the wake of both 9/11 and a romance with Erica, a beautiful, troubled classmate. It's told as a dialogue and is just incredibly rendered. 
  • Throne of Glass: When I first started book blogging, this book (and its sequels) were everywhere! I finally got around to seeing what all the hype was about, and while I found it entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages, it also definitely feels like the debut novel it is. I've heard the series gets better, though, so I'll likely pick up the second at some point. 
  • The Death of Vivek Oji: I really wanted to get into this book club pick about the life and untimely death of a young queer person in Nigeria, written by an author who is themself non-binary. But it didn't quite grab me...the central character is hypothetically compelling, but that's undercut by being virtually only seen through the eyes of others, and I never really connected with the viewpoint characters. 
  • Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: This is a bit of an atypical historical fiction, being set not in a royal court but a small village in medieval Germany. It's based on real events, in which the mother of an imperial mathematician was accused of witchcraft. Katharina, the mother in question, is a funny, vivid character that makes this book compelling despite the underlying sadness of the narrative.
  • American War: Oh man this was bleak. It's the story of a child whose experiences during a second American Civil War (fought over an abolition of fossil fuels in the wake of climate change-driven sea rise) turn her into a revolutionary and it's a very realistic psychological portrait of the effects of war...which also means it is a huge downer.


In Life...

  • A little bit of relaxation: Now that session is over, I'm really enjoying having time to read again, and just generally having a less hectic schedule than I have recently. We're also been planning some travel for later this year, which definitely feels like another big step towards a return to normal.  
  • Fifth wedding anniversary: We're officially been married for half a decade (and together for close to a decade now) and I remain the luckiest lady in the world!

One Thing:

When you grow up on a lake that freezes over, your mom buys you and your sister pairs of used skates every year and tosses you outside to figure out how to ice skate/entertain yourselves for a while! But while I absolutely love watching figure skating, I'd never taken actual lessons until now! I've started Learn to Skate (at Basic 1, no need to get ahead of myself) and am having a lot of fun...I'd definitely recommend trying it out if you have a rink near you!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Books of the Second Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, the subject we do twice per year and I whine about but ultimately suck up and do...most anticipated new releases for the rest of the year! I do not tend to read new releases until they've had some time to collect reviews, but here are ten that look promising.

The Council of Animals (July 20): This one seems right up my a world where humanity seems to have been wiped out, animals are in charge. But when they find a pocket of humanity, what will they do with them?

Once There Were Wolves (August 3): This one is also focused on animals, but in a very different way. It's the story of two sisters with a mysterious past who go to Scotland to reintroduce wolves...only to run into issues when a death is attributed to the pack.

The Human Zoo (August 10): One of the reasons I enjoy reading is the opportunity to discover more about the world, so I am really interested in this book that explores both the history and present of the Philippines.

Dog Park (September 21): I'm always interested in things set in the post-Soviet era, and this book sounds dark and insightful about the ways in which women's bodies have been used over time. I'm also trying to read more literature in translation, so this fits that bill too.

Mr Cadmus (September 21): If a book is about the seemy underbelly of small-town life, I am always interested! This explores the relationship between cousins when a new resident moves to the cottage between the ones they own, and things go very sideways.

The Night The Lights Went Out (October 5): My husband got me into Drew Magary's writing, and I still remember when sports media Twitter was abuzz about when he collapsed suddenly at an event. This is his memoir about the experience and I can't wait to read it!

MacArthur Park (October 12): Another auto-read kind of subject for me are long-term female friendships, and while this one sounds a little on the soap-opera-adjacent side (one marries the other's ex-husband and they end up on a road trip together), it also seems like it could be good!

Dava Shastri's Last Day (November 30): This seems like fun, juicy drama, in which a matriarch with terminal cancer fakes her early death so that she can read her obits...and finds secrets she thought long-buried are still alive and well.

The Ballerinas (December 7): If you tell me your book is about fallout from ballet school secrets, I will read your book.

Beasts of a Little Land (December 7): In Japanese-occupied Korea, a little girl sold into the sex trade becomes friends with an orphaned beggar boy, and their relationship impacts them both throughout the rest of their lives. This is very much up my alley!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Book 290: A Tale For The Time Being

"But since these are my last days on earth, I want to write something important, too. Well, maybe not important, because I don’t know anything important, but something worthwhile. I want to leave something real behind."

Dates read: January 19-24, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I've never been able to regularly keep a diary. I did in middle school, and my mom found and read it, which meant I stopped. But even once I got old enough that the risk of someone else finding and reading my innermost thoughts was unlikely, I've never been able to get back in the habit even when I've tried. On the one hand, I wish I had a chronicle of my past, so I could go back and revisit my own record of my thoughts and feelings about the things that I've done and lived through. On the other hand, though, sometimes I'm glad that I don't have the option to do so. The things that are important, I've remembered. The things that maybe felt like a big deal at the time that have faded away...maybe there's a reason for that and it's better for me.

But not keeping a diary means that if something were to happen to me, my thoughts (besides those captured here!) would be lost forever. When Ruth finds the diary of a young Japanese woman washed up on the shore of her coastal Canadian town in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, she assumes at first that it must be related to the tsunami. Of Japanese descent herself, Ruth (who shares virtually all of her personal details, including her name, the name and occupation of her husband, the small Canadian coastal island where she lives, and her profession as a writer with the author) starts reading it, intrigued by the life of diary-keeper Naoko, Nao for short. The teenager was born in Japan but mostly raised in America before her tech-industry-employee father loses his job and they go back to their homeland. She tells a tale of desperate unhappiness: behind in school, cruelly bullied by her classmates, worried about her father and his withdrawal from life. Her only comfort comes from her grandmother, a centenarian Buddhist nun called Jiko.

Ruth becomes more and more drawn in to Nao's story, distracting her from her own hopelessly mired writing project, a memoir based on caring for her mother in her end years, and drawing her more into the community on the island, which she's never felt connected to. She tries to find out more about Nao and her life, only to find herself mysteriously thwarted...until suddenly the boundaries between their times and worlds begin to blur. Can Ruth somehow save Nao, if in fact Nao needs saving? And can she find a way to solve her own existential crises?

I'm not always a fan of split narratives, since I think one side of the story almost always ends up being more compelling than the other(s). And there was a little bit of that here...Ruth's story wasn't especially boring or anything, but Nao's pieces were so much more interesting that I groaned a little bit internally when things went back to Ruth. And writing about writers (especially when that writer character is heavily based on the author themselves) often veers towards self-indulgence. Again, there was a little of this going on, but not to the extent that it dragged the story down past being mildly irritating every so often. It also steps into magical realism and meta-narrative when Ruth and Nao's stories intersect across time and space, and while the emotional truth of it comes through I'm not sure that it was entirely successful.

Basically, the book takes on a lot of potentially dicey elements and executes them competently-to-well, but not greatly. Even so, there's a lot to like here and I found it an intensely readable book, getting drawn into the mystery of what might have happened to Nao and whether Ruth would ever be able to find out. While I was certainly more engaged with Nao's story, Ruth was also a compelling character, and her issues were less dramatic but no less well-developed. The book is quite long, but it's paced well and doesn't drag or feel padded. It's easy to get drawn in and hard to put down, and feels like it will reward re-reading. Just as a heads up to readers, this book features a lot of very dark things, including merciless bullying and sexual assault, happening to a teenage girl and might not be the best choice for readers not ready for this kind of material for any reason. If you're able to deal with that, though, this is a very good book that doesn't quite get to greatness but is nevertheless a worthwhile read.

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of the Tearling

Two years ago, I was reading: American Psycho

Three years ago, I was reading: The Feast of Love

Four years ago, I was reading: Spook

Five years ago, I was reading: The Relic Master

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Book 289: Say Nothing


"Seamus started to ask around Belfast. Once, he ventured into a bar on the Falls Road that was known as an IRA hangout. But when he mentioned the name of his mother-in-law, the place went quiet. An old fellow slipped McKendry a bookie’s docket and asked him to go next door to make a bet. On the docket, the man had written: Get away."

Dates read: January 14-19, 2019

Rating: 7/10

We've all said things like "it looks like a bomb went off in here" or "it was like a war zone" without really thinking much about it. The reality is, of course, that most of us in the First World will never experience an active war zone, or see with our own eyes what the aftermath of an explosion looks like. Our lives are comfortably separated from those kinds of incidents. But as recently as the 1990s, there was a place in what's definitely the first world that knew street-level war: Northern Ireland. We saw some clips on tv, listened to U2 and The Cranberries, but (at least for me) knew actually quite little about what was going on and what life was like through the period called The Troubles.

In Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing, The Troubles are explored primarily through the lens of one disappearance: that of Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten. It opens with a startling scene: Jean at home in the evening, trying to relax a little after a full day of work, when masked figures turn up demanding entrance to the apartment. McConville's children try to resist them, but Jean is taken and goes with them. She never returns home. No one will say what's happened to her. We then go back, and forward, to examine how her abduction came to take place, and what became of all the players in the drama afterwards.

There's a lot of information in here: about the origins of the Irish Republican Army and the offshoots that came into being around the time of the fighting (like the Provisional IRA, the one you're probably thinking about when you think about the IRA), the leadership of that group, the eventual rise of Sinn Fein and end of active hostilities. But just as much, it's about people. Dolours Price and her sister Marian, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams from the IRA; and also Jean McConville and her family, how she might have drawn the attention of the IRA, the ways that the sudden and unexplained loss of their mother affected the children as they grew up.

I'll admit I struggled to get oriented in this book at first. I came in with very little background and a lot of the factual stuff, with often confusingly similarly named organizations and groups, is frontloaded. It was hard to get and stay engaged and I honestly found myself turning to Wikipedia quite a bit to get enough context for what I was reading to get my head around it. But once it finished with the set up and dug into the major figures tied up in the disappearing of Jean McConville, it found much more solid ground and got much more compelling. I was left with indelible impressions of Dolours, Brendan, and Gerry, figures who had been completely unknown to me beforehand.

The book prompted me to do a lot of thinking about the porousness of the line between terrorism and revolution, the astonishing power of pure conviction, and the potential of even violent people to turn over a new leaf and be a perfectly normal member of the community. That the members of the IRA thought of the violent methods through which they sought to achieve their aims as justified and that they were military rather than criminal in their killing of other people is obvious. Is this why people like Dolours were able to transition away from their former lives, because she didn't think of herself as a bad person? I always appreciate when a book is able to make me question my assumptions, and if you're interested in learning more about what happened during The Troubles, this book has a lot to offer. But do beware that the beginning is slow and may not provide enough information to really give the kind of context it's clearly looking to. 

One year ago, I was reading: Daughter of Fortune

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts

Four years ago, I was reading: Shattered

Five years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're previewing our upcoming reading for the season! I know for a lot of people, higher temperatures mean beach read season, but I am a weirdo, so here is what I'll be reading over the next couple months!

American War: This is a literary dystopian-style novel that I've been meaning to read for a couple years now.

The Snow Child: This seems to be loosely based on a Russian fairytale of the same name, but set in Alaska in the 1920s, and I've heard great things!

Pachinko: This book has been recommended to me SO many times!

Dreamland: This is nonfiction about the opioid epidemic, which is something I am always curious to learn more about as it continues to rage.

The Council of Animals: This is a new release, about a world where humanity seems to have wiped itself out and the animals are in charge, and they are faced with making a decision about what to do when they discover some leftover humans. It sounds fascinating!

Nabokov in America: I feel like people making all kind of assumptions when you say that Lolita is your favorite book, but it's one I love very much and this nonfiction work traces his road trips across America with his wife and how the country influenced him as a person and a writer. I can't wait to get into it.

The Sisters of Versailles: Probably the closest thing to an actual beach read on my list, this is another "historical fiction based on real events", about four sisters who each became mistresses of French King Louis XV. I need something dishy and fun every once in a while!

On The Move: Anyone who has read here long enough has seen me repeatedly mention how much I love Oliver Sacks, and this is the second of his memoirs about his life.

The Walls Around Us: A book about teenage girls, and ballet, and prison promises some really interesting drama!

The Human Zoo: This book tells the story of a young American woman who goes to her mother's homeland of the Philippines to do research on a book, but gets caught up in the tangled modern politics of the country. It sounds like a fascinating exploration of a country I'd like to be more familiar with!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Book 288: Astonish Me


"The motions. She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfected, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

Dates read: January 10-14, 2019

Rating: 8/10

If it's possible to fail out of ballet, I did as a child. First of all, I've been pigeon-toed my whole life, so a proper turnout was something beyond my capabilities. But mostly, I am just completely without grace. Despite my 5'2" frame, my dad nicknamed me "Gabezilla" at one point because I walk so heavily that I sound vaguely dinosaurian. My sister, on the other hand, had talent for lithe and lovely movements and did ballet until she graduated high school. I was always jealous, both of her elegance of movement and toe shoes.

Despite my own lack of capabilities, I've always enjoyed books and movies about ballet. Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me centers around the story of Joan, a young dancer in the corps of a New York company in the 80s when we first meet her. After a steamy romance with a Russian defector, Arslan, left her heartbroken, she reconnected with Jacob, the boy who worshipped her in high school. Now she's pregnant, ready to leave dance and move on. Joan and Jacob marry and move to California with their son, Harry, where he works in educational research and she tries to fit in with the other stay-at-home-mommies, but eventually opens a dance studio.

The story moves back and forth in time to reveal Joan and Jacob's high school friendship, her move to Paris with a ballet company in her early 20s, her role in Arslan's defection, her friend Elaine and her entanglement with the company's artistic director, and then later, after ballet, Joan's brief but unhappy friendship with a neighborhood couple with a daughter the same age as her son, the tension in Joan's marriage, where both parties are aware that she "settled" for him but it remains to be seen how happy that settlement was. Joan's role as a ballet teacher, her ambivalence about her son's interest in and obvious talent for dance, and Harry's own eventual growth into a man round out the narrative.

This book was an excellent example of why I always give an author two chances. Even if I really don't care for one book, if another one by the same author catches my eye, I'll give it a shot: not every book is for every person, after all, and sometimes a book just doesn't work for a reader because of reasons outside the quality of the work. I did not enjoy Maggie Shipstead's previous novel, Seating Arrangements, which mocked the well-off and grasping of Martha's Vineyard through dramatics over a wedding. But this one was wonderful! I found myself enraptured in Shipstead's tale, in the characters, in the various ways she looked at the relationships of artisans to their art. I'm not always big into non-linear narratives when it feels artificial, but the use of both this device and multiple perspectives really worked for the story she was telling.

The bits of this that didn't come together for me mostly happened near the end and while they kept the book from great rather than just good, they didn't derail the whole thing. I was too invested in the characters: Elaine, Jacon, Harry, his friend Chloe, and especially Joan. Joan was sometimes infuriating, sometimes enviable, sometimes mysterious, but always interesting. Her quest for fulfillment and happiness really resonated with me. If you're generally into books in which ballet/dance features prominently, you'll find a lot to like here. But even if what you're looking for is more along the lines of character-driven family drama, this is very satisfying. Highly recommended!

One year ago, I was reading: A Dirty Job

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: The Girl With All The Gifts

Four years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Five years ago, I was reading: The Name Of The Rose

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved that Made Me Want More Books Like Them

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that we loved so much we immediately started looking for the next thing that would scratch the itch. Here are ten books that I have been looking for "the next" version of (but haven't found yet). 

The Bear and the Nightingale: This gave me such a longing for more non-Western mythology (I know Russia can technically be considered Western, but there are equally compelling arguments that it's not) based stories. I haven't yet found anything that comes close.

The Secret History: Like so many others, I keep reading other books described as "dark academia" and they just keep being not as good as this book. 

Speak: I read this my freshman year in high school, and while there have been many books that aim for its blend of dark humor and emotional honesty, I haven't found any that quite measure up.

Stardust: This draws on the tropes of fairy tales to create something that feels both new and timeless in way that nothing else I've read manages to pull off.

The Remains of the Day: This book balances exquisitely restrained writing against big and powerful emotions. I don't think even Ishiguro himself has been able to match it since.

Wicked: Maguire has made a bit of a specialty out of these sorts of children's stories retold, but he hit a peak with this book that neither he nor anyone else has been able to fully replicate.

The Proud Tower: This spurred a deep and profound interest in the pre-WWI era that has driven me to buy and read several other books covering this time period, but none nearly as effectively.

1984: For me, this is the dystopian novel every single other one tries (and fails) to be.

The Red Tent: I have read a lot more Biblical fiction than one would expect for someone who is not religious, and it's because I keep trying to find something that matches this.

The Stranger Beside Me: This is great true crime, but it's made all the more compelling because of the author's personal connection to the killer and nothing else has managed to do it quite as well, for me.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book 287: The Winter of the Witch


"But still she crawled out of the cage, put her hands, then her face, into the fire, got to her feet. An instant she stood there, wavering, beyond fear, untouched by the flames. She’d forgotten they could burn her."

Dates read: January 6-10, 2019

Rating: 10/10

I took a creative writing class in college. I can't remember why, it must have been mandatory for my degree somehow, because I haven't ever had any real talent for the subject. It went about as well as anyone could expect given that my gifts lie elsewhere. We had to turn in a piece every week, and I got banned from haiku because I wrote so many. But I struggled hard any time I tried to write a short story, and always for the same reason: I never know how to end it, so it inevitably culminated in the tragic and unexpected death of the main character.

It's hard enough to write an ending to a story, I can't imagine trying to wrap up a whole series. How do you close the door on your characters and their world while making sure that you've done justice to your narrative arc? There have been plenty of authors who've stumbled trying to thread that needle. The first two entries in Katherine Arden's Winternight series have been some of my most-enjoyed books of the past few years, so while I was looking forward to the third and final entry, The Winter of the Witch, I must admit that I was nervous, too. What if the way she wrapped up the story fell flat? Luckily, we as readers have been in good hands so far and Arden proves that the success of the first two entries was no fluke.

As in the previous installment, Arden picks up her narrative right where she'd left off: Moscow is burning and Vasya is a wanted woman. After a narrow, dearly bought escape, she ventures into the realm of Midnight to seek out Morozko, the frost demon with whom she has an increasingly complicated relationship, and free him from the captivity he's been placed under. Meanwhile, her monk brother Sasha is trying to repair his relationship with the Grand Prince of Moscow, now on a seeming collision course for battle with the Mongols. Then there's the influence of the chaos demon Medved, whose interests suddenly have some alignment with Vasya's own. And Baba Yaga herself even shows up. As a decisive conflict draws ever-nearer, Vasya is fighting not just for Rus', but the preservation of the world of sprites and spirits she loves.

Arden has built a beautiful, enchanting world over the course of this series, and this book is a fantastic conclusion to it. I've gotten so interested in Slavic folklore over the course of my reading this series, and this entry added even more shading to this rich background. I was really curious as to how Arden would handle the slow-burning romance between Vasya and Morozko...she's never shied away from the wildly imbalanced power dynamics between them and I thought her resolution to their story hit exactly the right note. And the constant reference to political and religious power struggles within Rus' over the course of the series turn out to be more than just window dressing, introducing me to historical events I'd had no knowledge of beforehand.

There are some little things that I wished had been done differently...I found myself wishing for just a little reorientation at the beginning of the book (unless you've literally read the first two within the past couple months, you'll probably be a little bit lost, like I was). And I admit I'd hoped for a bigger role for Baba Yaga. She's such a prominent figure in Russian mythology that everyone knows she's got to make an appearance in this book, but I wish there'd been more of her. But honestly, this is one of the best series closers I've ever read, wrapping up the story in a way that felt natural rather than forced. This series is amazing and I recommend it to everyone! I can't wait to see what Katherine Arden does next!

One year ago, I was reading: The Moor's Account

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Riddance

Three years ago, I was reading: Boy, Snow, Bird

Four years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Five years ago, I was reading: Spinster