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'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!

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: