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