Thursday, September 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: September 2021


And just like that, we're within a stone's throw of the end of 2021! Tomorrow will be October, and from there it's practically the holiday season already! We're finally cooling down towards something resembling fall temperatures, though it's still pretty warm, and the skies have cleared of smoke for the most part, which is a huge relief.

In Books...

  • Absolute Monarchs: For a 500-page history of the papacy, this is pretty lively! I definitely learned a lot I hadn't known before, including about the long history of antipopes, the connection of the pope to the Holy Roman Empire, and how long it actually took for Italy to unify. But even though the writing isn't ponderous or dull, it still took me nearly two weeks to finish and occasionally felt like a slog.
  • The Wrath & The Dawn: This was kind of nice to have as a mental break after the active engagement I had to have with the pope book. It's YA fantasy based on the story of Scheherazade, and I'd read good things about it but it's honestly pretty bad. Thin characters, generically girl-boss type heroine, lots of repetition about things like people's eye color.
  • Hamnet: Honestly one of the best things I've read in years! It's historical fiction based on the actual life of William Shakespeare, whose son Hamnet (or Hamlet, names were kind of loosey-goosy at the time) died in childhood. It's actually quite little about Shakespeare himself, who is never directly named in the text, and more about his wife Ann, or Agnes. Just incredible, elegant writing and a deeply compelling character study.
  • My Brilliant Friend: I had been expecting to absolutely love the first book in this series that I feel like I'm the last one in the world to get to! And I did like it more and more as it went on and I got drawn further into the world that Lenu and Lila live in and the bond between them, but after how amazing Hamnet was it was hard to read virtually anything else and this one was a slow starter.
  • The Indifferent Stars Above: As someone who live in Reno, I've been to Donner Lake, driven over Donner Summit, and been to Donner Memorial State Park. But all I really knew about the Donner Party beforehand was that they'd gotten stuck up in the Sierras and had to turn to cannibalism to survive. This book was informative and very well-written, but also the word "harrowing" in the book's subtitle is there for a reason...Brown really immerses you in the world and experiences of the party and parts of it are incredibly hard to read. It's very good, but it's nightmare fuel. 
  • Dog Park: I thought this book, originally published in Finnish and newly translated into English, was going to be straightforward literary fiction about the commodification of the female body in post-Soviet Europe. And it's about that, but there are also strong thriller elements, and the story goes in directions I wasn't expecting. I found it interesting and propulsive!


In Life...

  •  Not a lot, honestly: This was a pretty low-key month. We usually have a weekend up in Tahoe at the beginning of September because of my husband's work convention, but that was canceled this year due to wildfire evacuations. Otherwise, my own work is steady but not madcap like it is during session and I'm just continuing to grow a little person.

One Thing:

Britney Spears's conservatorship has been back in the news with the new Netflix documentary and her recent engagement to her longtime boyfriend. I remember being in my first year of law school, following the gossip as closely as anyone as her life seemed to spin out of control. Celebrity gossip in that era was vicious, and no one was more savage than Perez Hilton. He, and other gossip bloggers of the era who have continued in the space, have apologized...but is it enough? On the one hand, I want to say no. Gleeful participation in, and profit from, the way they treated vulnerable young women is not something that a simple apology can make up for. On the other, though, there's complicity from the people like me who clicked those links. If there hadn't been demand for coverage, not just at the volume but in the tone in which he and others provided it, it would have died out. It was a vicious cycle, and while it seems to have gotten better lately I think there's still a cultural conversation to be had about what the relationship should be between celebrities and the media.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books In Translation On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we've got a freebie, so I've decided to highlight a type of book I'm trying to read more lately...literature in translation. Someone living in China, writing in Chinese (or any other native speaker living in their native country), has a perspective that might be different from but no less valid than someone who grew up outside of China, or whose family had the resources and inclination to ensure they learned to communicate in English. So here are ten books written by native speakers of other languages, translated into English, that I can't wait to read!


Woman at Point Zero (Arabic)

The Bridge on the Drina (Bosnian) 

Ladivine (French)

The Tin Drum (German)

The Door (Hungarian) 

The Leopard (Italian)

Confessions of a Mask (Japanese)

Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian) 

Captains of the Sands (Portuguese)

Secondhand Time (Russian)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Book 303: The Stranger


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

Dates read: March 16-19, 2019

Rating: 4/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Naked

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

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

Five years ago, I was reading: David and Goliath

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Book 302: The Club


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

Dates read: March 12-26, 2019

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Empire Falls

Three years ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

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

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Numbers In the Title

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


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Two Old Women

Three Junes

Four Queens

Five Days at Memorial

Six of Crows

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Eight Pieces of Empire

Eleven Hours

The Twelve-Mile Straight

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Book 301: Man's Search For Meaning


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

Dates read: March 9-12, 2019

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: The Good Soldier

Two years ago, I was reading: Seeing

Three years ago, I was reading: Juliet Naked

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

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Will Make You Feel Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Book 300: If Beale Street Could Talk


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

Dates read: March 5-9, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Yakuza Moon

Two years ago, I was reading: Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: Paint It Black

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Life Itself