Saturday, December 17, 2022

Time To Face The Facts

When I had my son in February, I thought I'd have a hard time for a couple months maintaining the blog, but it didn't really even occur to me that I wouldn't be able to get through such a period fairly easily. I'd followed other book bloggers through becoming mothers, several others were mothers already when I found them. Clearly book blogging and parenting weren't mutually exclusive for them, why would they be for me?

Well, he's ten months old now can see for yourselves the state of things around here. I tried to keep up with at least bi-monthly summary posting but even that's falling off now. I totally blanked on doing my Year in Review post at all this year on my birthday! And if I'm really honest with myself, it's simply not a priority anymore. I'm not at the same spot in my life that I was when I started this blog in 2015. If I find myself with free time, I've got a bunch of things I need to be doing, and if it's time where I get to do what I want, I'd rather be actually reading than writing about reading. I batted around the idea of just going on an indefinite hiatus, but I came up with another idea instead.

I've migrated everything that's been here to a new space: A Portable Magic. When the mood strikes me, I'll write about books. I may also write about parenting, or travel, or whatever else feels right at the time. I'm not intending to hold myself to any sort of schedule. As this blog itself is hosted through Blogspot and my only expense for it is the domain name, I intend to keep it up for a while. Thank you so much for reading here and leaving comments, having conversations with internet strangers about books has been such incredible fun over the years! If you're inclined, I hope I see you again over at my new spot. Either way, happy reading!

Friday, September 30, 2022

Two Months In The Life: August and September 2022


And now it's the end of September! Everyone told me that time flies when you have a kid but I don't think I really realized how fast it would go! This time last year my pregnancy was just starting to really show and now I have a baby who can sit up unsupported and babbles and laughs!

In Books...

  • Z: This was a book that had been on my list for a really long time, and it was obvious to me as soon as I started reading it that I'd actually grown past this phase as a reader. I would much rather read an actual biography at this point than a fictionalized one. Perhaps for this reason, it didn't do much for me. I didn't find Zelda herself all that compelling, and while her actual relationship with Scott was fascinating, it flattens here into high spirited wife v. controlling alcoholic husband in a way that's just not very interesting
  • Intimacies: I would describe this book as spare. Kitamura's writing is spare, the characterization is spare, the plot is spare. I don't necessarily mean this in a bad way. It largely works. But there were times I wanted more than mere hints at depth, so this was good rather than great for me. 
  • Candide: Historically, satire has not worked super well for me. This was one of the more enjoyable ones for me, but that's not saying a lot. It was fine. 
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin: A classic of American history, but whew. I often had to remind myself that it was less intended as a novel than as a persuasive piece to convince Christian white women of the immorality of slavery. It is often deeply patronizing and problematic, but it was seeking to portray Black people as human beings with souls in a way that was revolutionary at the time. 
  • The Bird Artist: A book club pick that was already on my TBR, this fell flat for me. The character names are ridiculous and the dialogue is studied and stilted. Margaret is a fascinating character, but it's hard to tell if that's organic or because she's the only one that resembles an actual person in the novel. 
  • Romancing Mister Bridgerton: I just do not have the time and mental energy to really sink into a big sprawling epic while I have a small baby, so this is definitely the time for romance novels in my life. This fourth entry in the series was much much better than the third, which I hated, but never really went anywhere besides "pleasantly diverting". 
  • Chime: I didn't have particularly high hopes for this, the cover was cheesy and I couldn't remember how it had gotten on my list in the first place. But it turns out I loved it! It drops you right into the middle of its world in a way that I suspect will make it a no-go for some readers, but I absolutely loved the prose and added Fanny Billingsley's other works to my list! 


In Life...

  • More solo parenting: I'm getting the hang of it, I think. There were a few days in August and then almost a week in September for the Lake Tahoe convention I've always gone with my husband to in the past but this time stayed home during.  
  • Fire season: We had a terrible week and a half or so of smoke coming over the mountains from a wildland fire in California, with air quality often hitting hazardous levels. Thankfully a storm system moved in that dumped a bunch of rain in the area or who knows how long this one might have lasted. I'm just glad to be able to take my baby on walks now that it's not a million degrees outside and/or smoky!
  • My husband started a new job: After seven years at his former gig, my husband got a new job! It has different hours, but it was time for something new and we're adjusting to our new normal as a family.

One Thing:

A Pure Barre opened up about a five-minute drive from my house and I think I'm a convert! It's done a lot to help strengthen my core again post-partum and I enjoy the low-impact but high-intensity aspect. Yoga and pilates often don't feel like enough effort to make me really feel like I've worked out but that isn't a problem here! I often have to stop to rest midway through sets but I can feel myself getting stronger!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Two Months In The Life: June and July 2022


I'm just going to stop pretending I'm going to do these updates more often than every other month. I'm not reading enough, and I'm too busy. Hence why the actual posting is so erratic! I actually have several months worth of pre-written reviews but I just can't get the other bits together. Turns out having a baby is time-consuming!

In Books...

  • The Viscount Who Loved Me: I'd heard that the second Bridgerton book was better than the first, so I went ahead with the series and it turns out I'd heard correctly. It was entertaining enough, though silly in parts, and made an easy, fun read.  
  • Wojtek The Bear: I was interested in this book initially just because of the humor of the idea of a beer-swilling, cigarette-loving bear who goes to war in real life. But it's actually a more sensitive story than I'd expected. The bond between the bear and his Polish comrades, the trauma that all of them's very moving and I'm glad to have read Wojtek's story.
  • Violet & Claire: This story about an intense friendship between very different teenage girls was something I expect I would have very much enjoyed when I myself was a teenage girl and experiencing those big emotions firsthand. But as a thirtysomething it just felt very overwrought. 
  • Dataclysm: This was a fun nonfiction read! It's from the former data chief at OKCupid and is all about interesting trends that can be gathered from the data internet users put out there, particularly the one he used to work on. It's entertaining but also honestly pretty light/forgettable.
  • Bookends: A bit of a spiritual cousin to Bridget Jones's Diary, this is the story of Cathy, a single thirty-something Londoner who, successfully but unhappily employed, decides to open a bookshop with the wife of one of her good college friends and develops a connection with the real estate agent who helped them find the location. There are honestly too many plot threads in this book, with some of them feeling like they don't get the weight they deserve. It's more or less fine but it's hard to muster any enthusiasm about it. 
  • The Graveyard Book: I'm not usually a fan of stories told as a series of vignettes, like this one is, but Neil Gaiman can do anything. I just love his storytelling. A very small child, given the name Nobody Owens, is taken in by the ghosts of a graveyard after his family is brutally murdered, and gets into some typical childhood mischief in a very unorthodox way as he grows up. I just loved it. 
  • An Offer From a Gentleman: The worst Bridgerton book I've read so far (which is just the three). Quinn goes directly for a Cinderella story, and while Sophie is a perfectly enjoyable heroine, Benedict is mostly pretty unpleasant so there's no real enjoyment in the way the love story unfolds. Not surprised to hear they're skipping this book for the TV adaptation. 
  • Concussion: I quite like watching football, particularly college football, but it's become harder in recent years to enjoy the sport in the wake of the research about the damage done to the brain by playing the game. I was really interested in reading more about how that research came to be, but this was mostly a miss for me. It's as much an uncritical biography of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who made the discovery of the tangles in the brain that result from multiple concussions, as it is a science story. I wanted much more of the latter and less of the former.
  • Binti: A novella is a challenging form and hard to do right (Capote and Sparks come to mind as authors who really have a feel for what makes a good novella). This is a good story, but I wish it were a novel rather than a novella. I super enjoyed Okorafor's world-building and wanted more! I also feel like it would have given the character of Binti herself, and the events of the story, more time to breathe and get comfortable. I'm definitely reading the sequels though!


In Life...

  • My husband went out of town for the first time since our son was born: It was just a few days, and I'd had a trial run of solo parenting when my husband had COVID and we were trying to isolate, but whew it's exhausting trying to handle everything myself and so much respect to single moms who do this every day.
  • I've starting planning some trips of my own: I'll be taking some long weekends at the end of October and the middle of December to spend time with my good friends! It's both really hard to think about leaving my baby and really exciting to think about sleeping without a baby monitor on!

One Thing:

This story was fascinating, and also in a way mundane. I feel like every girl who ever went to high school remembers the one teacher who gave off weird vibes and seemed to get a little too close to his students.

Gratuitous Baby Picture:  

Monday, June 13, 2022

Book 326: Polite Society


"As Dimple waited for Fahim, she doubted Ania's wisdom for the first time. There was no convincing reason why Fahim would be attracted to a woman like her, obviously provincial, still at times cloddish, when he had the pick of those sophisticated gazelles at media parties. Ania had kept insisting that she could see the signs. but Dimple was worried about the dangers of being wrong. It had taken her months of discipline and training to calm the anxieties that assailed her—worries about her position as some kind of interloper—and now her equilibrium was again wrecked. Ania was too fearless and her friendship too effortless, spilling from her without consequence, leaving a trail of easy generosity and advice. For Dimple that same friendship offered elation and play, but also apprehension and uncertainty, a fear that it would all collapse and crumble to dust."

Dates read: July 9-12, 2019

Rating: 7/10

A few years before I started this blog, I started making a concerted effort to read the much-bemoaned classics. I wasn't an English major (Psychology for me!), so apart from the standard high school mandatories like Gatsby and Mockingbird, I had read actually quite few of them. And what a surprise it was! While some of them deserve their boring reputations, many others have survived the test of time because they're wonderful reading experiences. Turns out I love Jane Austen! Who knew?

When she wrote Emma, Austen famously described her as a heroine that she didn't think people would really like. A smart, pretty, rich girl isn't exactly the most sympathetic of heroines. Clueless proved that Emma could hold up well to adaptation, so when I read that Mahesh Rao had decided to transplant the book to modern-day India in Polite Society, I was curious. Instead of Emma Woodhouse, we have Ania Khurana, beloved daughter of wealthy businessman Dileep. Ania is bored with her socialite life in the most elite circles of Delhi, and when she successfully sets up her spinster aunt Renu, she decides her next project will be her new friend Dimple, who works in PR. Dimple grew up in the country, and though she met a nice guy, Ankit, when she first moved to the city, finds it hard to resist when Ania tries to steer her towards up-and-coming reporter Fahim.

While many aspects of the original are here, Rao puts his own, darker spin on some of the side characters: both the Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax types have very different storylines than Austen gave them, and Dileep is drawn dangerously into the thrall of a faith healer type called Mr. Nayak. The broad strokes of the story play out more or less as expected, though: Fahim does not fall for Dimple and marries impulsively shortly thereafter, Ania grows closer to her longtime family friend Dev (standing in for Mr. Knightly) even as she develops a flirtation with the Frank substitute, Dimple and Ankit come back to each other eventually. But while Austen wraps things up neatly and happily, it's much more unsettled at the end of Polite Society.

Taking a beloved story and adapting it is a tricky thing to do...too close to the original, and it barely seems worth the effort, but too far away and you risk enraging fans. I think Rao struck a good balance, adding plot twists that gave the story new complexity. I especially liked the addition of perspectives besides that of Ania, which had the effect of giving Dimple, Dileep, and even Fahim so much more richness and interest. I appreciated the generally edgier tone and the way it undercut a story that has a lot of romantic wish fulfillment and froth built into it. The story the book tells is compelling, and I think would work even without having read Emma (though the understanding that the heroine is supposed to be kind of annoying is definitely helpful to come in with).

While I enjoyed a lot of what this book did, it was not entirely successful. Rao's prose lacks the wit and verve that really mark Austen as a master of her craft, and is less charming as a result of the inevitable comparison. And while many of the side stories were a welcome addition, it felt like there were too many to give them all time to really develop. The generally lightweight tone of the book (even in the heavier way Rao rendered it) would be compromised by the addition of too many extra pages, but I think another 50 or so would have given it all a little more room to breathe. Overall, though, I found this book very good and would recommend it both to those who already love Emma and those who haven't experienced it yet!

One year ago, I was reading: The Death of Vivek Oji

Two years ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Three years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Four years ago, I was reading: Love Medicine

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

Six years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Book 325: Washington Black


"How strange, I thought, looking upon his sad, kind face, that this man had once been my entire world, and yet we could come to no final understanding of one another. He was a man who’d done far more than most to end the suffering of a people whose toil was the very source of his power; he had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name. He had saved my very flesh, taken me away from certain death. His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it."

Dates read: July 5-9, 2019

Rating: 6/10

It's been shown time and time again that dehumanization is a crucial aspect of the commission of atrocities. Calling other people animals, or insects, thinking of them that way, makes it easier to rationalize cruelties towards them. But we don't as often consider the other side of it. To be dehumanized has recognizable effects on the perpetrator, but what about the recipient? How do people come to absorb that conception of themselves?

What would it mean to be born into a system where your humanity wasn't recognized, to have no "before" to remember your full self existing in? Esi Edugyan's Washington Black explores the life of the titular character, called "Wash" for short, born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by a cruel man called Erasmus. His life changes forever when he's 11, when Erasmus's brother Christopher ("Titch") comes to visit, and Wash and his mother-figure, Big Kit, who work in the fields, are asked to help serve dinner in the house. Titch asks for the use of Wash while he's on the plantation, to assist him in his experiments, and this leads to the first time in his life that Wash is treated at all like a person. While Titch has tasks for him to perform, he's allowed to get regular sleep, to think about whether he likes the food in front of him, and a previously undiscovered talent for drawing is developed and acknowledged. But then there's a death, and Wash is blamed, and he and Titch are on the run.

Once they read the United States, Wash is given the opportunity to be transported to freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad. But he sticks with Titch, and the two of them are pursued by a slave hunter while trying to uncover what really happened when Titch and Erasmus's father disappeared and reportedly died. Eventually, they are separated, and Wash is on his own for the first time in his life. He ends up in Nova Scotia, where he meets Tanna, the daughter of an oceanographer, and their growing bond, as well as Wash's gift for illustration, earns him an invite to travel with them to England, where Wash plunges deeper into a search for answers about his life.

The coverage I'd heard of this book before I picked it up made it sound like an adventure story, which I was not particularly excited about. And it partly is: the portion of the book where Titch and Wash are on the run, making up much but not all of the first half, is quick-paced and the atmosphere of suspense that Edugyan creates as they try to stay ahead of their tracker was engaging. But the back half of the novel becomes much more languid, turning inward as Wash begins to really examine himself and build a self-concept. This is usually the kind of thing I eat up, I love novels rooted in psychological realism! But I think the pacing of the book was damagingly uneven. After the brisk energy of the first half, the slow-down makes the book feel like it's dragging and it began to seem like a slog to get through.

Which is unfortunate, because Edugyan is a beautiful writer. Her prose is elegant and insightful, and she does wonderful character work with Wash, whose journey towards personal understanding is moving. I do wish she'd done more with the character of Tanna, who starts out dynamic and winds up in a role as Wash's emotional supporter that feels cliche and reductive. Once Titch leaves the narrative, though, so does much of the tension driving the plot forward, and to have that momentum built and then lost unfortunately undermines the strength of the work as a whole. It has brilliant moments, and I'd still say it was pretty good, but the pacing issues kept it from greatness. I'd look forward to reading more work from Edugyan in the future, and this book does have merit and is worth reading if you're interested in it, but it's too unbalanced to really affirmatively recommend.  

One year ago, I was reading: Throne of Glass

Two years ago, I was reading: The Moor's Account

Three years ago, I was reading: There There

Four years ago, I was reading: Motherless Brooklyn

Five years ago, I was reading: In The Skin Of A Lion

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

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Book 324: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle


"But even so, every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o'clock in the morning." 

Dates read: June 27-July 5, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Sometimes I feel like living in the era of technology has robbed the world of its magic. Anyone with an internet connection can have access to what once were locals-only "secret" places. A rational explanation for something odd is almost always just a google away. You can have access to scads of information about almost anyone you meet in minutes. There's so little room left for actual mystery.

I remember reading somewhere that Haruki Murakami's books are among the most-stolen from bookstores. I'm not sure why that is, but there's no denying that the Japanese author has very devoted fans. Reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was my first experience with him, and left me both sort of getting it and sort of not. It's a hard story to describe: there's a guy, Toru Okada, who lives outside of Tokyo with his wife, Kumiko, and their cat (which they've named Noboru Wataya, after her disliked brother) has gone missing. Toru has recently left his longtime job in a lawyer's office, but is unemployed while he tries to figure out what's next. Kumiko wants him to find the cat, and his searches for it lead him to strike up an acquaintance with a strange teenage girl, May, who lives down the block. That's when the phone calls start.

First, there's a woman who says she knows who he is and starts talking dirty to him. But then there's a psychic, a woman named Malta Kano, who explains that Kumiko has reached out to her to help with locating the cat. Kumiko and her family believe in things like psychics, having previously arranged for Kumiko and Toru to spend time with an old man called Mr. Honda, allegedly for spiritual consultations...but all that actually happens is that he repeatedly tells them about his experiences as a soldier in Manchuria during World War II. Toru meets with Malta Kano, and her sister, Cresta, but before long Kumiko herself disappears. She sends Toru a letter explaining that she's left him for a coworker with whom she's been having an affair, but he doesn't believe this and decides to try to find her, which brings him into contact with even more strange people, including a mother and son who he calls Nutmeg and Cinnamon. And appearing throughout is the sound of a bird, that sounds like something mechanical being wound.

This is a weird book, and I'm not sure I entirely understand it. It's one of those that you finish and almost want to flip right back to the beginning and start again, to see if it makes any more sense the second time through. I think there will be a second time through, though certainly not now. And there will definitely be more Murakami. If I had to chose a single word to describe it, it would be "dream-like". The way Murakami uses language and builds the world of the book create a feeling of constant loose connection, almost a structured free association, in which the concept that would tie everything together is just tantalizingly out of reach. It works well, and I found myself turning the pages and getting drawn further and further into it, though I suspected (correctly) that not everything was going to be tied up in a neat bow by the end.

Honestly, though, once I finished it, though I felt like I liked it, I have had a hard time articulating exactly why. It was obtuse, the female characters were largely underdeveloped (though I did love May), and it felt like some storylines were just dropped like hot potatoes. But despite its flaws, it's strangely compelling. There's something magical and mysterious about the world as Murakami creates it, and it did get me thinking about some of the deeper themes that were explored, like our obligations to each other as people and the nature of power in relationships. It's intellectually engaging despite the kind of haziness about it. If you're ready for something non-traditional, I would recommend this book.

One year ago, I was reading: Tooth and Claw

Two years ago, I was reading: Year of Wonders

Three years ago, I was reading: Delirium

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Six years ago, I was reading: Spinster

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Two Months In The Life: April and May 2022

I had such good intentions of getting back on a regular posting schedule! But life with a new baby is unpredictable so here we are again at the end of two months of radio silence, and this time I am not going to be dumb and promise anything about my posting schedule going forward! Things have been happening and I have done at least some reading though, so here's what's been going on.

In Books...

  • Bluebeard's Egg: I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but I AM a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, so I've acquired several of her collections. Like most short stories, I found these uneven, but her writing is so good that even the lesser stories are still very solid. 
  • Tuck Everlasting: Since my brain is still a little overwhelmed, I've been more inclined than usual towards less complex books. This is a childhood classic that I never actually read, and while I think middle school me would have found the question it raises about immortality to be powerful, adult me found the central romantic attraction between a 12 year-old and a 17 year-old to be kind of creepy. 
  • Everyone Wants To Be Me Or Do Me: I've long enjoyed Tom and Lorenzo's fashion blogging, so I was curious about their first book about celebrity culture, published nearly a decade ago. That it was pretty harsh, more so than is currently in vogue, wasn't surprising given the tone of their commentary at that point. What was surprising in a disappointing way was that it just...wasn't very funny. It was the same joke, essentially, throughout the entire book and it got old fast.
  • The DUFF: While there's definitely YA out there that has strong appeal across age lines, this is definitely one that will likely appeal most to actual teenagers. It's evident from the beginning where things will end up, and the drama feels silly in a way that's dumb even for high school.
  • The Princess Saves Herself In This One: I will freely admit that I am Bad At Poetry, but I really liked this collection, framing trauma through a fairy tale lens. It got a lot of flack for being more form than substance but I found it affecting.
  • Pointe: This is actually a great example of YA that's doing a bit more. In fact, my main criticism of the book is that it has a few too many layers. Theo is one of the very few students of color in her high school, the only Black ballerina at her studio, has a history of disordered eating, has a best friend who disappeared and suddenly returns, is coming to terms with the idea that the relationship she had with an older guy when she was 13 was not the consensual love affair she thought of it as, and is developing feelings for a classmate with a girlfriend. I wish it had been pitched as an adult novel, and given more room to breathe, because it's good even though it's a little underbaked in some respects.
  • The Virgin's Lover: I usually enjoy Philippa Gregory's Tudor books in a guilty pleasure kind of way, but this one was a miss. It dramatizes the love triangle of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, and his wife Amy Dudley. Amy was a doormat, Robert was smug, and Elizabeth was a wreck, none of which makes for a compelling character.


In Life...

  • We all got COVID: After two-plus years of pandemic and vaccines and a booster shot, we finally ran out of luck and the virus went through the house. The baby actually had the easiest time of all, a brief low fever and sniffles. I felt like I had a bad sinus infection. My husband felt like he had a bad flu. But we all recovered, and I'm hoping with continued precautions we don't have to go through this again.
  • I went back to work: I was actually supposed to end my maternity leave the week I got sick, so I had an extra week at home with C. It's been weird to be back, in both good and bad ways. I'm quite lucky in that my retired in-laws are taking care of the baby, so I know I'm leaving him with people who love him very much, but of course I miss him terribly...but also appreciate being able to talk to adults about things besides diapers.

One Thing:

I love magazines but am terrible at actually reading them so I had a million back issues of Vanity Fair piled up that I started working my way through during maternity leave and honestly it's my favorite magazine...especially once I gave myself permission to skip the articles about things I don't really care about. But it's hard, because even if I think I don't care the writers for VF are GOOD and sometimes I wind up caring after all!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: