Thursday, March 31, 2022

Two Months In The Life: February and March 2022


 

Well, that was an unexpected hiatus. I thought to myself surely that I'd still have the time to work on the blog once the baby was here since so much of my content is pre-written and OF COURSE I'd be able to steal a little bit of time here and there for the rest of it. Ha. Hahaha! My life is lived on whims that are not my own so posting is going to be realllll slow around here for a while.

In Books...

  • Founding Mothers: This account of the Revolutionary War era based on the lives of the women (wives and mothers, usually) of the Founding Fathers was interesting enough but never actually compelling. I did learn more about what a crap husband Ben Franklin was (extremely) and was introduced to Eliza Pinckney, who was genuinely fascinating, but the reality is that there are few enough documents by these women in their own words that the ones for whom the most exist, like Abigail Adams, dominate the narrative.
  • The Inheritance of Loss: I had high hopes for this one, as a Booker Prize winner written by an Indian author (a micro-category that has historically worked well for me!). But it turns out it is mostly one straightforward thesis (more or less that colonialism/imperialism are bad because they teach the oppressed to love their oppressors and hate themselves) turned into a nearly 400-page novel with thin, underdeveloped characters and little in the way of actual plot. There are occasional beautiful turns of phrase, but not enough to salvage it.
  • Luster: This was a book club pick that I missed the discussion for because I was in the hospital! I found it to be more interesting in theory than actuality, if that makes sense. The idea of a story about a young self-destructive and underemployed Black woman who ends up in the middle of a white couple's open marriage feels rich, and while the narrative occasionally lives up to its potential, it also seems to rely a lot on the reader filling in additional context and nuance.
  • Made-Up: I don't know what I was expecting from this book that bills itself as addressing beauty culture in our current era, but it wasn't a collection of very short essays that touch as much on Grimes and the first child she had with Elon Musk as they do on YouTube beauty gurus. The writing quality is high, but the essays are too short to ever really go anywhere and often feel repetitive. 
  • The Duke & I: I knew I wasn't going to have a lot of time for my preferred ponderous bummers, so before I had the baby I downloaded a couple collections of the books that are the basis for the Bridgerton series on Netflix, which I very much enjoyed last year. The first book was honestly much less interesting than the show, which had more nuanced and complex characters. I've heard the second one is much better so I'm going to keep reading the series because my brain needs fun stuff right now.
  • Fire On Ice: This was the autobiography Sasha Cohen, one of my all-time favorite skaters, "wrote" (it seems like probably mostly dictated to a ghostwriter) after her silver medal in Torino. Y'all, it's basically a book-length Wikipedia article. No tea is spilled, no secrets are shared. The most interesting thing in it is that Sasha loves ice cream. 
  • Small Spaces: I loved Katherine Arden's Winternight series, so was curious about her MG/YA series and her writing has lost none of its charm despite the obvious reduction in narrative complexity. It's a kind of horror-lite (like, Goosebumps-level scary) with strong emphasis on family bonds and unexpected friendships. Definitely a book I would recommend for the actual audience that adults can appreciate as well!

In Life...

  • I had a baby: Cal was born on February 15th and he is the cutest and most wonderful and also most time-consuming. He's six weeks old and we are exhausted but happy that he is here with us!
  • Home repair hell: We had an interesting time of it after we got home with Cal! First our dryer went out, and it turned out it was because the heat sensor got tripped because there was a tiny fire in the lint vent! Scary! And then after that, our water heater (which we knew was old but found out was from 1996!) went on the fritz and it took about a week for it to get replaced through our home warranty and do you know how much it turns out you need hot water for when you have a newborn? It turns out a LOT! 

One Thing:

Let's talk about post-partum mood disorders, y'all. I have a long history of depression, and that was a part of what I felt after Cal was born, but more punishing than that was the incredible anxiety I was going through. I was terrified that every decision I made was the wrong one, that I was going to put my baby in danger because I wasn't washing my hands often enough (I was washing them so often I gave myself broken and scaly patches), or wasn't sterilizing bottles after every wash, or wasn't watching him closely enough and he was going to slump wrong and suffocate. I talked to my OB and was put on medication and I don't feel 100% again, but I feel like a person who is anxious rather than a bundle of anxiety with legs. I am a better mom because I'm not crying all the time. If you've had a baby and feel like you're not in a good headspace, there's help. Talk to your OB or pediatrician, or reach out for support. It's hard, but it's the first step down the road to feeling better.

Gratuitous Baby Picture (don't worry, we'll be doing pug pictures again too):



Thursday, February 17, 2022

Book 323: Amsterdam

 

“As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning.”

Dates read: June 25-27, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Lists: Booker Prize, The New York Times best-seller

Few things are more satisfying than boiling hot self-righteousness. If there's a drug that gives you that feeling of someone else being not just incorrect, but morally wrong, and being about to shove it in their face that you're a better person than they are, please no one tell me. I will become an addict. Of course, we all know that it is almost inevitably followed by realizing that you are not quite in fact as heroic as you felt, nor is the other person the literal spawn of Satan. But it's a heady rush while it lasts.

Even long-standing friendships aren't immune from misunderstanding and resentments. In Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, two old friends meet at the funeral of a woman they each had loved once. But it isn't the free-spirited Molly, now gone after a brief but terrible bout of dementia, that drives apart Vernon, the editor of a struggling London newspaper, and Clive, a respected composer. They've long since come to terms with that part of their lives. Neither of them can much understand what she ever saw in another one of her former lovers, who also attends the funeral: Julian, a conservative politician whose policy stances would seem to be anathema to Molly's guiding principles of love and acceptance. Nor can they understand why she married George, who seemed bent on controlling her and molding her into conventional respectability. Like many friends, Vernon and Clive have gone through cycles of being more or less close over the years, and the funeral pushes them back into each other's orbit. Spooked by the circumstances of Molly's death, each promises that if the other were to be in a similar state of decline, they would help the end come quicker.

Not long afterwards, both men find themselves in a position to have to make a moral choice. Vernon is given photographs that Molly took of Julian during their relationship...photos that his support base would find shocking. These photos would solidify Vernon's position at the paper by boosting circulation and catapult him into the spotlight after a lifetime of toiling away in relative obscurity. Clive has received a prestigious government commission to compose a piece to celebrate the millennium, and struggles for inspiration until, when taking a hike while out of town, he sees a man attack a woman on the trail. Finding himself suddenly able to see where he wants his symphony to go, he ignores the situation and doesn't report what he saw to the police. Clive is aghast that Vernon would even consider publishing the photos of someone else's private, intimate moments. Vernon is insistent that Clive report what he saw and face responsibility for his failure to intervene on behalf of the woman and keeping what he witnessed from law enforcement. The two are bitterly estranged.

This book is so short as to practically be a novella. That doesn't limit the impact of McEwan's satire, though. If you have ever known a pompous middle-aged man, Vernon and Clive are pitch-perfect. Both ruminate on the clarity of the situation facing the other, while running themselves ragged in the mental gymnastics required to justify their own choices. Each can only see the ways in which they themselves have been good, devoted friends, while the other has taken advantage of their generosity. But that's kind of one of the issues: character. While obviously something this brief and with this perspective isn't out for a deep character study, Vernon and Clive are basically the same person. And George, who shows up to create havoc throughout, seems more like a plot device than a human. I never found anyone compelling enough to really care about how it would end up.

How it ends up is a little too tidy and convenient, for that matter. And the pacing is odd...it drags and feels bloated (despite its brevity) in places, but the conclusion feels rushed. It's not without its clever moments and witty turns of phrase, but it really feels like an excellent short story concept that got padded into a decent-but-unspectacular short novel. It's worth a try (the upside of having such a low page count is that even if it doesn't work, it shouldn't take long to finish), but there are sharper, funnier satires out there. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Eyre Affair

Two years ago, I was reading: The Year of Reading Dangerously

Three years ago, I was reading: Daisy Jones & The Six

Four years ago, I was reading: My Name is Venus Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Six years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Book 322: American Psycho

 

"There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why—I couldn’t put my finger on it." 

Dates read: June 21-25, 2019

Rating: 6/10

The trouble with having grown up prior to the YA boom is that when I was a teenager, once you ran out of the Lois Duncan, R.L Stine, and Sweet Valley High books, there wasn't a lot left. That's a bit of an oversimplification (the excellent Speak came out when I was in 9th grade, and obviously the Harry Potter series as well), but not too much. So I read a lot of adult literature. Some of which was just too complicated for me (I gave up about 60 pages into Anna Karenina), some of which went over my head, but a lot of which enriched my mind and expanded my boundaries! As a result of that experience, I've always been strongly opposed to any sort of censorship of teen reading...making sure you know what your kid is reading and talk to them about it, sure, but the reading is the important part.

I didn't think I would ever read anything that would make me think that an age restriction for a book could be realistically justified. And then I read Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Patrick Bateman (older brother of The Rules of Attraction's Sean Bateman) is a New York City banking bro in the 1980s. It would seem like he has a pretty great life: his job is prestigious and pays well, he has a pretty fiancee, he works out regularly and is in good shape, he has a nice apartment. But what Patrick also has going on is a gnawing emptiness at his center, and violent urges he's not quite able to control. He lashes out at first against the powerless: poor people, prostitutes. But his need to hurt people escalates farther and farther until he's committing actual atrocities against even people he knows, while somehow still trying to keep it together enough to go to work and live his life as normally as possible.

I'm not usually overly puritanical about depictions of sex and violence in books. Sex and violence are (fortunately and unfortunately, respectively) parts of life. And I'd seen the movie! I thought I had a handle on what was in store. But this book doesn't just flounce right over the line of being gratuitous, it goes into actively stomach-churning territory. There are things I read in this book that gave me pictures in my head I will never unsee and honestly gave me heaves. And part of it, I think, is deliberate...besides being just gross, the book is also a razor-sharp satire. A recurring motif are Bateman's much-stressed-about trips to the video store, where he rents violent pornography which desensitizes him both towards normal sex and violence against women. Living in a culture where depictions of outlandish acts of sex and violence are easy to access means that it requires yet more extreme examples to achieve the titillating/disturbing effect...examples, of course, that the text itself provides. It's clever, if also very off-putting.

I had a really hard time deciding how I felt about this book. As a cutting send-up of the consumer culture of the 1980s, particularly in the heart of the NYC finance scene, it was extremely effective and often entertaining. The agonies about getting a table at the latest bougie restaurant serving the most unappetizing-seeming "exotic" food combinations were dead on. The way the book played with identity, with Patrick both constantly mistaking people he sees for people he knows and being wrong, and himself being called by the incorrect name, because as seriously as he takes his outfits (most of which are described in detail), the end result is that he looks just like everyone else, was smart and insightful. I would be pulled in and admiring the craft of it...and then there would be a gruesome murder and I would pulled back out again.

Even just skimming much of the over-the-top portions of the book (it gets worse and worse as it goes along), it was a reading experience I found really difficult. This book has age restrictions for access in several countries, and I'm actually not mad about it. I might have found one of the few things I actually don't think a teenager should read without an adult having to be a part of the process. I don't know that I would affirmatively recommend that anyone read this book, it's that messed up. Which is a pity, because the parts of it that are satirical are incredibly well-executed (pun sort-of intended) and effective. But the rest of it is just too much. Yes, it's worse than the movie. Much, much worse. If your interest in still piqued and you have an iron stomach, there is merit here. But be prepared. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Leftovers

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Three years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Four years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Five years ago, I was reading: Between the World and Me

Six years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Book 321: The Coming Plague

 

"Overall, Swine Flu and Legionnaires' Disease boiled down to the same set of troubling perceptions for the American public, and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian, Mexican, Australian, New Zealand, and European publics: something new and very scary was coming; nobody was sure what it was, but the experts were certain it was dangerous; the federal government seemed quite distressed about the matters, but the experts and authorities didn't seem to agree as to what, if anything, should be done to protect the public; and it was all costing taxpayers a pretty penny. In both cases, public apprehension would eventually yield to impatience and allegations of incompetence, even scandal."

Dates read: June 10-21, 2019

Rating: 7/10

I just want to kick off this review by noting that I read this book well before "covid" was a string of letters I'd ever think to put together. I considered going back and re-writing this based on what we know now, but I thought it was more genuine to preserve my reaction to the book as of the time I read it. Anyways! Of all the times I've ever been sick, I don't know that anything has been as unpleasant as the times I've had the simple flu. The soaring fevers, the aches, the blocked up sinuses that make sleep so difficult...it's several days of feeling just utterly wretched, followed by several more where you just feel weak like a kitten. But of course, I've never been really sick. I've had the odd bout with pneumonia, which I also do not recommend, but generally I've been in good health. I do appreciate living in the world of antibiotics.

Once upon a time, a simple strep throat or upper respiratory infection could literally kill you. And it wasn't even that long ago, really! Penicillin was discovered less than 100 years ago. What it might be like to return to a world in which there were not effective antibiotics is one of the many topics covered in Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague. In this large volume, Garrett investigates how the world continues to be vulnerable to infection, the consequences we might face for the widespread overuse of antibiotics in the modern world, and the way in which our own actions continue to bring us into contact with new agents of disease. She takes a broad look at trends in epidemiology: the emergence of Ebola, the discovery of Legionnaire's Disease, toxic shock syndrome, and of course, the spread of AIDS. And she doesn't shy away from an examination of the underlying systems that help perpetuate the spread of infection, particularly among the poor.

I found the most compelling portion of the book to be its examination of the AIDS crisis. I came of age in a world where AIDS was just a fact, and this is the first time I really got a sense of the fear that the beginning of the epidemic created. Hemophiliacs and gay men just...dying, in large and inexplicable numbers. The way that no one knew what was happening, or how this new disease spread, and (heartbreaking) the difficulty of getting government systems, controlled by conservative Republicans, to care about an illness that was affecting a group of people that they were just not interested in helping. There's an urgency there which really comes across strongly and made it hard to put down.

Garrett is a journalist by trade, and it shows in the writing of the book. The Coming Plague is strongest when she's focusing less on the recitation of facts (like she does when she talks about the process through which some microbes become antibiotic resistant, which feels like struggling through a science class) than on telling a story about people. There are some dynamic personalities, like Dr. Joe McCormick, that show up again and again in the fight against emerging infections, and this work shines when she lets them and the patients they treat take center stage. For the most part, she does keep the focus on people and the systems in which they operate in a way that keeps the book moving along, but it does occasionally bog down when she tries to get too heavily scientific, and in a book this long, it's a tricky bog to escape from.

I found myself wondering as I was reading this book who exactly Garrett had in mind as the target audience. It's got over 600 pages of text before endnotes, and the print on those pages is not large. It seems too long, and too detailed, to get wide traction in the general population of readers. But it's not scholarly or academic in nature, either. I'm a reader who is prepared to do some intellectual work, especially when reading nonfiction, and by the time I had only 150 pages left I was ready to be done even though the material I was reading was just as good as what had come before it. If she'd cut out some of the more science-oriented material, I think it would have kept the book moving better and more accessible to readers. As is, this is good, particularly if you have any interest in epidemiology, but feel free to skim through the more dense portions if they're not catching your interest. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Secret Life of Bees

Two years ago, I was reading: Whores of the Devil

Three years ago, I was reading: The Mind's Eye

Four years ago, I was reading: Thank You For Smoking

Five years ago, I was reading: Orange is the New Black

Six years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Character Names In the Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books with character names in the titles. I've pulled these ones off my to-be-read list, and honestly it seems like this was more of a thing with the classics? SO many old books are named after their main characters!


Madame Bovary

The Last Temptation of Christ

Frankenstein 

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Violet & Claire

The Brothers Karamazov 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Doctor Zhivago 

Hild

Monday, January 31, 2022

A Month in the Life: January 2022


 


I'm not even pretending with the new-year-new-me stuff in 2022, y'all. The world is still in the depths of a pandemic that has so profoundly disrupted our lives that the "normal" I once imagined getting back to feels strange. I'm going to have a baby in the next few weeks here at some point. I have no idea what my life is going to look like three months from now, much less at the end of the year. I'm just here to keep on keepin' on.

In Books...

  • Beyond The Pale: This was an impulse Kindle sale purchase, written by a folklorist about having a child with albinism. I thought it was going to take a more academic view of the condition, but it's a pretty standard "sick kid" memoir about coming to terms with the diagnosis and exploring her own family history to discover where it might have come from. I found it pretty boring.
  • A Long Way Down: Another Nick Hornby I found disappointing. This one tells the story of four strangers who meet on a rooftop that they've all come to jump from, and the subsequent tensions between them after they decide not too. The problem is that those conflicts don't really grow or change, just repeat, and virtually none of his characters is actually compelling. Dialogue, as always, is a high point but it's about the only one.
  • Tender Is The Night: I wish this classic, which I read for book club, was a straight-up depiction of the extremely complicated relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda instead of a thinly-veiled one. It's good, honestly, but not nearly as good as Gatsby.  
  • Olga Dies Dreaming: This started so well, with the story of two 40-something siblings of Puerto Rican descent living in New York living outwardly successful lives while continuing to reckon with the pain of their mother's abandonment when they were teens to pursue revolution catching me almost immediately with wit and well-drawn characters. It lets its storytelling fall by the wayside for a bit in the middle in favor of info dumps, but the ending was pretty strong. 
  • Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center: I'd never read bell hooks before, or taken any sort of gender studies course. This is an excellent book, which meaningfully conveys the major issues feminism as a movement was confronting at the time it was written (1984) in a way that's both rigorous and accessible. It was also kind of infuriating to realize how much these issues still plague the women's movement, nearly 40 years later.  
  • Northanger Abbey: This was my last unread Austen! It's interesting that it's one she apparently wrote when she was younger, though it wasn't published until after she died. Its humor is less sophisticated, broader, but honestly in many ways just as if not more actually enjoyable for all that. And I think Henry Tilney might be my favorite of the Austen men.


In Life...

  • Last full month before parenthood: It's hard to believe that by the end of next month, I'll have a baby! I can imagine few things less pleasant than going into labor while Covid-positive, so I've been kind of a hermit lately and go few places other than to the store.

One Thing:

Being extremely pregnant is extremely uncomfortable! A surprising number of my pre-pregnancy tops still fit, but bottoms are another story. My beloved Old Navy leggings are still going strong for daytime wear, but at night...leaving the waistband untied is not really cutting it anymore in the late months. I'm not sure how long they'll hold up, but these Amazon Essentials lounge pants have been my lifesaver for just hanging out being cozy at home. They are not thick or luxurious, but they're comfortable and have pockets and to be honest that's enough right now.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Thursday, January 27, 2022

Book 320: There There


"He moves in front of the mirror and his feathers shake. He catches the hesitation, the worry in his eyes, there in the mirror. He worries suddenly that Opal might come into the room, where Orvil is doing..what? There would be too much to explain. He wonders what she would do if she caught him. Ever since they were in her care, Opal had been openly against any of them doing anything Indian. She treated it all like it was something they could decide for themselves when they were old enough. Like drinking or driving or smoking or voting. Indianing." 

Dates read: June 7-10, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: American Book Award

DNA tests can do cool things these days. Not only does mine show me that I'm part Polish, it can even identify the area in Poland where my family came from! Does it actually matter, at the end of the day? Well, no. If I ever do visit Poland, it would almost certainly be to go to one of the major cities, not the tiny village in Podkarpackie Voivodeship that my great-grandfather left over a century ago. But it's interesting to be able to confirm that tie to the past, to get a better sense of where I come from and what my family's story is.

For Native Americans living on reservations in a community that includes elders, a sense of connection with the past is probably more tangible. But of course, that's not where all Native Americans live. Plenty of them live in cities, and it's an attempt to put together a pow-wow in Oakland that brings together the characters of Tommy Orange's debut novel, There There. Through changing point-of-view chapters from a wide cast, the book tells the story of how the pow-wow brings people together in unexpected ways...and what happens when a group of young men eye the prize money for the dance competition as a target for robbery. Common throughout are the questions the characters have about identity, and what it means to be an Indian in a large city.

The character wrestling most with identity and meaning is Dene Oxendene, who wins a competition for grant money that he intends to use to record Indian people telling their own stories about their lives. He sees the pow-wow as an opportunity to film many people at once. But there's also Edwin, whose interest in participating in the event, and breaking out of his self-imposed social isolation, is sparked by the discovery of his Indian father via social media. The internet is also how teenage Orvil tries to connect with his culture, as his stern grandmother Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield (who was taken to the AIM takeover of Alcatraz as a child, along with her sister Jacquie Red Feather, by their unstable mother) who is raising him and his brothers refuses to talk about being Indian with them. Orvil learns tribal dances from YouTube, and plans to enter the dance competition. But the internet also provides a group of young men (including Tony Loneman, angry at the scorn he's received because of his fetal alcohol syndrome) with the schematics to 3D print guns from plastic that could be snuck past the metal detectors at the pow-wow, so they can get money to remedy a drug deal gone wrong.

Tommy Orange is a dazzling talent and this is a very good book. I would say that the only thing holding it back from greatness, for me, is that I wished it was told with a more traditional story structure. While each character's perspective was distinct and important, I found it hard to keep track of who everyone was in relation to everyone else, and a more well-delineated central narrative thread would have, for me, made the book's impact even more powerful. But the reality is that it's powerful anyways. I really cannot overstate how good Orange's writing is. These characters feel like they actually exist in the world, like each one of them, no matter how small a part they play, have full lives and histories that we're only able to get hints of. He switches back and forth between first- and third-person perspective, and even writes one chapter in the second person, which didn't add anything narratively as far as I was concerned as much as feeling like the exuberance of an artist pushing at the boundaries of what he can do.

In a way, this felt like an answer to one of the most well-known writers of Native American adult literature today: Louise Erdrich. While Erdrich's work focuses primarily on women, particularly older women, on reservations in the northern Great Plains, Orange's novel highlights men, especially young men, in a large Californian city. What they share is a story structure in which there are multiple characters that are the focus of one chapter at a time in a non-chronological narrative, as well as a focus on how to live in the world as an Indian today. Erdrich, who has won the National Book Award and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is a big name to invite comparisons with, but Orange lives up to it. This book is a must-read, and I can't wait to see what Tommy Orange does next.  

One year ago, I was reading: All Girls

Two years ago, I was reading: Followers

Three years ago, I was reading: Bad Blood

Four years ago, I was reading: Mansfield Park

Five years ago, I was reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Six years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-Me Authors I Discovered in 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Even as a power reader, I am always surprised at how many authors I end up reading for the very first time in any given year...and I'm not just referring to debut authors, who I don't count for these kinds of lists. 


Agatha Christie: I can't believe I'd never read any of her work before! I started with Murder on the Orient Express and was so impressed by her cleverness and storytelling that I can't wait to read more!

Elena Ferrante: I actually ended up reading two Ferrante books this year, the first of the Neapolitan Quartet as well as The Lying Lives of Adults. I liked the former much better than the latter so I'm glad I read it first or I might not have picked it up, but I do plan to continue the series!

Jasper Fforde: I'd seen his Lost In A Good Book series recommended on lists for forever, and finally got around to reading the first one this year, which I enjoyed enough that I'm intending to keep reading them/his work!

Sarah J Maas: I'm not much of a young-adult reader these days anymore, as I approach 40, but you can't participate in the bookternet without knowing about Maas and her multiple enormously successful series. I started the Throne of Glass series, which I enjoyed, and I also plan to try out her Court of Thorns and Roses series as well!

Ken Liu: Here's an author I tried for the first time that I don't think I'll be going back to. I'd been super excited to read a fantasy novel that worked outside of the familiar "medieval Europe" tropes, but found The Grace of Kings to be much too shallow on character-building to hold my interest.

Jo Walton: I'd heard good things about her fantasy and alternate history novels, and found her debut, Tooth and Claw, which is a Victorian novel of manners starring a cast of dragons, to be very charming and enjoyable. I'm definitely planning to read more of her work!

Awkaese Emezi: I'd had their novel Freshwater on my list for forever but my book club read The Death of Vivek Oji first. I'm actually not sure that based on Vivek Oji alone I'd be super interested in continuing to read their work, but since I have a copy of Freshwater I'm going to tackle it one of these days.

Naomi Novik: One of my favorite recent reads was the Winternight series, and I constantly read that if you like them, you should try Novik and her book Uprooted. I would have made some different choices in editing the book, but I generally liked the storytelling and am looking forward to her other work!

Maggie O'Farrell: Her novel Hamnet was so incredible that I'm absolutely going to read her entire backlist.

Drew Magary: This one is kind of cheating because I've been reading him on the internet (at Deadspin and Defector, among other places) for forever, but this year was the first time I read one of his published books so I'm counting it!

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Book 319: Good Riddance

 

"I was never someone to let things go, and I wasn't going to start now. Besides being furious and impatient, I was worried that word would have gotten around Pickering. What if some bigmouth wrote to my father with misguided congratulations about how his late wife's yearbook had made the big time?" 

Dates read: June 3-7, 2019

Rating: 2/10

I think Facebook has destroyed the high school reunion. Where once upon a time people might have shown up to find out who got married, who got divorced, who succeeded and who didn't, now all of that information is available online on demand. If I want to know if the girl who was awful to me my freshman year had her life turn out okay, I can click over to her profile and see what she looks like and her husband and kids and where she works. It takes the mystery out of it. And once you get that primal gossipy urge satisfied, is there really a reason to go? Aren't you probably still in touch with the people from that time in your life that you want to be in touch with?

I do still have all my yearbooks, and when I go home I like to fish them out from my mom's attic or garage or wherever she has them now and look back at them, at the teams and the teachers and the classmates who managed to avoid social media, and read the notes from the people who I sat next to in fifth period Spanish and then never spoke to again. In Elinor Lipman's Good Riddance, Daphne Maritch inherits her mother June's cherished yearbook after she dies and isn't really sure what to do with it. It isn't from her mother's own high school years...rather, she served as the faculty advisor for the yearbook staff for the class of 1968, when she was herself a very young teacher, and kept detailed annotations on the lives of the students of that class. In a fit of decluttering, Daphne decides to toss the book. Only to have it turn up back on her doorstep, in the arms of a neighbor, Geneva, who thinks she wants to make a documentary out of it.

Though initially upset by the purloining and potential commercial exploitation of her mother's once-prized belonging, Daphne agrees to accompany Geneva to the next reunion so she can begin research into the students in the class. While there, she learns a secret about her mother that calls into question everything she thought she knew about who her mother was. With the help of her cute, younger across-the-hall neighbor Jeremy, things escalate into increasingly wacky hijinks as she tries to stop Geneva's plans from moving forward...and tries to help her now-widowed father cope with his move to join her in New York City and maybe find love again himself.

There's a good story to tell based on this general concept, I think, but it's not this one. I've always maintained that truly funny books are some of the most difficult to write, because it's so easy for the humor to land wrong, for the balance of real feeling necessary for people to care about characters and the funny stuff to wind up off. Lipman's book is not all successful in finding a balance, mostly because it seems to forget that it needs to be grounded in reality at all. She gives Daphne a sympathetic story (swept away by a charming man...who, it turns out, needed to be married to fulfill a condition of inheritance and had no interest in anything like fidelity, and so is now divorced), but barely gives us any time to get to know her or care about her before getting into the machinations of the plot, so I never connected with her. Which meant that I didn't really care about her relationship with her father, or her budding relationship with Jeremy, or if she'd ever put a stop to Geneva's yearbook schemes.

I can tell the plot is supposed to be madcap and absurd in a funny way, but it turns out the idea of having life-changing revelations delivered to characters in bathroom stalls with virtually no build-up just doesn't really work. The stakes are too high to be this breezy about it. It at least moves along briskly, but that's more because it doesn't seem to care to develop any of its plot threads in favor of just making new things happen instead. And the prose, while not actively bad, is deeply mediocre. There's hardly any wit or verve. I don't know who the target reader is for this kind of book, but I know it's not me. I hated it and wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

One year ago, I was reading: American War

Two years ago, I was reading: Mozart in the Jungle

Three years ago, I was reading: A Tale for the Time Being

Four years ago, I was reading: An American Marriage

Five years ago, I was reading: Snow

Six years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday: 2021 Releases I Was Excited to Read But Didn’t Get To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the releases that hit the shelves last year that we were really pumped for and just never got around to actually reading. I like to give new releases a little time to settle, so these are the ones that I'm still the most hyped to read!


The Rain Heron: One of my best recommendation sources (Jacyln Day) gave this five stars so I will read this book about two lonely people coming together.

Intimacies: This book, about an interpreter getting lost in a world where meaning is increasingly in question, seems to attract strong opinions, but enough people have fallen on the "good" side of the ledger that I'm excited to read it.

The Babysitter: The reviews of this one haven't been mind-blowing but I'm still just intrigued enough by the concept of this memoir (finding out as an adult that someone who babysat you as a child was a serial killer!) that I'm going to read it.

A Net for Small Fishes: I mean, frenemies at the British royal court is just something I have to read.

Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine: This is a book in translation, something I am trying to read more of, and it promises the kind of dual-timeline structure that I love so much when it's done well.

Dava Shastri's Last Day: If you knew you were going to die at a particular time, wouldn't you be curious to see if you could finagle a way to find out how you'd be remembered? Reviews for this are mixed but I'm too curious about the angle to abandon my plans to read it.

Assembly: America is, of course, far from the only society that wrestles with the impact of racism and this book deals with the relationship between a Black woman and a wealthy white man in the UK. I don't always love everything Maris Kriezman loves, but she has interesting taste and really liked this one.

Once There Were Wolves: This book, about a woman reintroducing wolves into Scotland and drama ensuing when they are blamed for a death, has gotten good word of mouth with people I know so I'm really excited to read it!

Ariadne: It's a Greek myth retelling. I will read it.

What's Mine and Yours: This book is a character-driven story about school integration, and it's gotten good reviews so I definitely want to make sure I get to it.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Book 318: Delirium

 

"Love: a single word, a wispy thing, a word no bigger or longer than an edge. That’s what it is: an edge; a razor. It draws up through the center of your life, cutting everything in two. Before and after. The rest of the world falls away on either side."

Dates read: May 29- June 3, 2019

Rating: 5/10

In a way, I wish I'd had my first serious relationship in high school. I had some big crushes then, but didn't fall in love for the first time until I was in college. It was an often dramatic relationship, and without much experience of dating, I had no idea how to really manage my feelings. Which meant that I usually let important things, like my social life with my friends and school itself, take the hit while I was trying to figure it out. I survived, I learned, but I think having had less at stake while I was floundering around would have been a better case scenario.

There have to be more songs written about love than about anything else. Love of family, love of country, and most of all good old fashioned romance. It's a powerful force, which is why the leadership of the society in Lauren Oliver's Delirium has sought to outlaw it, defining it as a disease to be avoided and/or cured. They've developed an operation (basically a lobotomy) that divorces people from their emotions, and Lena can't wait to have it. Her mother had refused the procedure and died by her own hand when Lena and her older sister were young, leaving them alone in the world, to be raised by their aunt and uncle. Lena's sister has had the procedure, is married, has a child and a normal life...just what Lena wants for herself. She's always afraid of putting even a toe out of line and drawing negative attention, so even though her wealthy and beautiful best friend Hana rebels in small ways, Lena stays on the straight and narrow. But on the day Lena is to be evaluated to determine her future, she meets Alex, and everything changes.

Alex, it turns out, is an Invalid...he did not have the procedure performed, and though he's disguised himself so he can "pass" in normal society unsuspected, his true home is the area outside the border fence, called the Wilds. Despite her fear of falling in love and developing the deliria, Lena is drawn to Alex, and as they continue to spend time together she begins to fall for him. She tries to continue towards the normality she's always craved, but as the date of her operation draws nearer, she's less and less sure that she wants it after all. And when a secret about her family is revealed, she knows she can't stay. But how do you escape from a police state?

It often seems that teenage-girl oriented young adult lit has a pattern: a vulnerable heroine, a totalitarian regime in a dystopian future, a love story. And there's a reason for that...it's an appealing story structure! I sometimes regret a little that I grew up in a time before the real YA boom, because I would have read and relished so many of these kinds of books. As an adult, though, there starts to be a same-y quality to reading them. One of the ways Oliver sets this one apart is that the person who seems like the "typical" heroine, the high-spirited Hana, is just the best friend. Lena herself is quiet, introverted, fearful. It's not a personality type that usually gets to play a starring role, and I think that'll be appreciated by the less-assertive girls who read this and get to see themselves reflected on the page as capable of daring and bravery.

Despite some bright spots, this was still too formulaic for my personal tastes. It's engaging, though, without being especially intellectually demanding, so it would be great for a reader looking for something like a beach or airplane read, or who simply doesn't have a lot of extra mental energy for a book and just wants to be entertained. There are sequels, but I wasn't invested enough in the world Oliver created to feel like I need to pick them up despite the cliffhanger ending. If you're looking for something immersive or complex, this isn't for you. Otherwise, keep your expectations reasonable and this could be a pleasant, easy reading experience!

One year ago, I was reading: Go Went Gone

Two years ago, I was reading: Queen of Scots

Three years ago, I was reading: Astonish Me

Four years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Five years ago, I was reading: Americanah

Six years ago, I was reading: Approval Junkie

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Additions to My Book Collection

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the latest books we've added to our possession. I am really trying to slow down my acquisition of hard copy books, so I'm including five of those along with my five most recent Kindle purchases. 


How To Read A Dress: Amazon gift cards for Christmas mean I buy myself books off my own list.

Queens of the Crusades: See above.

Reservoir 13: This book, about the impact of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a small town, compares itself to The Virgin Suicides, which means I'm curious.

Death in Spring: This was on a list somewhere of greatest Catalan works available in translation.

This Must Be The Place: I loved Hamnet so much I want to check out more of Maggie O'Farrell's work!

Win At All Costs: I remember reading some pieces in the media about how toxic and gross Nike was with its female runners and finding them super interesting so this sounds fascinating!

Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough: I love biographies of Old Timey Scandalous Women.

The Chosen and the Beautiful: This Great Gatsby retelling has gotten good reviews from people I trust! 

There Is Power In A Union: I don't know enough about American labor history and I'd like to know more. 

Never Saw Me Coming: I've been interested in this since I first saw the premise (a group of sociopaths being studied in college) even though I'm not always a thriller person.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Book 317: Midnight's Children


"Does one error invalidate the entire fabric? Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort everything—to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role? Today, in my confusion, I can't judge. I'll have to leave it to others. For me, there can be no going back; I must finish what I've started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began..."

Dates read: May 20-29, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, Time's All-Time 100 Novels

I have many issues with how history is taught in public schools, but one of the biggest is how little time gets spent on the Eastern hemisphere. Lots of America, obviously, but outside of learning about the Fertile Crescent and Ancient Egypt again and again and again, we don't get into much besides Europe. I have to imagine that most countries focus heavily on themselves and their immediate neighbors when they study the past, but some of the oldest, richest civilizations in the world are on the other side of the globe and we barely study them! I wish it were otherwise, but sadly I am not in charge of things.

The more books I read set in India, the more I wish I had a firm grasp of modern Indian history. Indian independence, and the partition that followed, continue to resonate not just in literature, but on a global political scale. Salman Rushdie explores these momentous events through his Booker Prize-winning epic, Midnight's Children. The novel tells the story of Saleem Sinai, born at the moment India begins post-colonial self-rule, and tracks his life as it, and his country, develop. But its more ambitious even than that: it begins with his grandparents and their youth, then tells the story of his own parents, and only then turns its full attention to its own protagonist.

Saleem is born to Ahmed and Amina Sinai, well-off Muslims living in Bombay, at exactly midnight on the day the British officially surrender the country, at the same moment as another child, a Hindu boy called Shiva. It turns out there are 1,001 children born in that first hour of India's modern life, and each of them have a gift, a magical power...and the closer to midnight, the stronger that power is. Saleem doesn't discover his until he is nine, when he begins to hear voices in his head: those of the other "children of midnight", who can speak to not only him but each other as he psychically hosts them. He eventually loses this power, but develops the ability to smell the feelings of other people. As he continues to grow, his fate (along with those of his parents and his little sister Jamila, called "The Brass Monkey" as a child for her hair color) is tied to that of his homeland.

There's much, much more than that, of course. Even attempting a brief outline of the twists and turns of Rushdie's tremendously complicated plot (and enormous cast of characters) would take several paragraphs. It's truly a stunningly ambitious novel, and what's even more stunning is that it mostly pulls it off. Characters come and go organically, storylines are fully developed and have solid payoffs. Rushdie writes the story to be narrated by Saleem himself to a female companion from roughly the modern day (when the book was written), and superbly uses that technique to frame it and give it momentum. It's deep, and rich, and beautifully written and constructed.

While it is undisputedly a masterwork, though, I don't know that I actually loved it as much as I respect it. Part of that is that I simply don't have enough context for it. Even as an educated person, my understanding of modern Indian history is thin and this book is the kind that requires a higher level of knowledge to really comprehend everything that it's doing. And while Rushdie mostly maintains the plot's progression nimbly despite the text's density, by the end there have been just so many characters and the scope is so vast that I found myself a little burned out and ready for it to end. It is not a book that should be read in snippets here and there, it demands and requires full and sustained bouts of attention. If you're ready to read a modern classic that's going to need a lot from you as a reader and reward the work you put into it, I'd highly recommend it. If you're looking for something on the easier side, though, leave this one until you're really ready to sink your teeth into something. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Satanic Verses

Two years ago, I was reading: Native Speaker

Three years ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch

Four years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Five years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Six years ago, I was reading: The Serpent King

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Books Releasing In the First Half of 2022

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's the new year, so this week we're talking about upcoming new releases we're excited for! Like I do literally every time this topic comes up, I'm going to whine about how I read well over 80% backlist so am not entirely hip to the universe of new releases, but here are ten I'm interested in that come out before July 2022. 


Olga Dies Dreaming (January 4): This book, about two siblings of Puerto Rican descent who are dealing with their mother's disappearance during the childhoods and sudden reappearance during their adulthoods, feels like the kind of character-driven family drama that usually really works for me. 

The High House (January 4): Found families and environmental dystopia, this seems intriguing!

Very Cold People (February 8): I do enjoy stories about the rot behind upper-class communities.

Cherish Farrah (February 8): This one is also meant to be rooted in class tensions, but also racial ones as two Black teenagers in a mostly-white community become closer but things are not as they seem. 

Ocean State (March 8): This book, apparently, does one of my favorite things...tells you the what (a murder!) and the who immediately, and then tells you all the why. This can go very wrong, but when it goes right, it's fantastic!

Home Or Away (March 29): Turning to books that will probably be able to keep my attention while dealing with a newborn, this is a book about two women who are both Olympic hockey hopefuls who grew apart when only one of them went and the coach's impropriety that tore them apart but may bring them back together as adults.

I'll Be You (April 26): Twin sisters, former child stars, who have grown apart before one of them disappears at a mysterious spa...this sounds like the kind of thing that will be entertaining during maternity leave!

Remarkably Bright Creatures (May 3): I find octopuses incredibly interesting, and though this book seems more sentimental than my usual fare, maybe my cynical heart will be less so once the baby is here?

The World Cannot Give (May 4): Dark academia, I will give you a chance to disappoint me yet again!

Cult Classic (June 7): This is being billed as a kind of mix of rom-com and thriller, about a young woman who starts encountering all of her exes one night out of nowhere. I'm definitely intrigued by that kind of combination!