Thursday, April 2, 2020

Book 227: The Kingmaker's Daughter

"I am fifteen, I have been married and widowed, the daughter-in-law of a Queen of England and then the ward of a royal duke. I have been a pawn for one player after another; but now I am making my own decision and playing my own cards."

Dates read: April 20-24, 2018

Rating: 7/10

That men and women continue to not be truly equal, in this day and age, is hard to understand. But it's reality nonetheless. When I get frustrated about it, though, I remind myself that as far as we still have to go, it's still much much better than where we've been. It was only just about 100 years ago that the right to vote in the United States was extended to women. For hundreds of years before that (and still to this day, in some places), women didn't own property, we were property: bought and sold and traded by the men around us.

The usual way that women are bartered is the grand old institution of marriage. Before it was idealized by Disney movies as the end state of True Love (I mean, who cares what happens after, amirite?), it was more a business transaction than anything else. They might have had sweet gowns, but no one was more vulnerable to being the glue in a new family alliance than the daughters of medieval nobles. Philippa Gregory's fourth novel in her Cousin's War series, The Kingmaker's Daughter, focuses on just this: the way the Earl of Warwick, one-time beloved mentor of York King Edward IV, uses his two daughters, Isabel and Anne, as pawns in his game of power. Though the girls knew every comfort their father's considerable wealth could bring them, they were ultimately helpless to do anything but marry as they were told.

For Isabel, that meant wedding Edward's younger brother George, the spoiled favorite always looking for a way to depose his brother. When an attempted rebellion in his favor was quelled, Warwick allied himself with the Lancasters, and married his younger daughter, Anne (whose perspective this book follows) to Edward of Westminster, the only child of the deposed Lancaster King Henry VI. The uprising in support of the old king and then the young prince ultimately failed as well, and Anne was taken in by her sister and brother-in-law while her husband was executed. While Isabel eventually died in childbirth (as was unfortunately common in those days), Anne married her other brother-in-law...the youngest of the York sons, Richard. Richard eventually becomes King Richard III, making Anne the queen of England, as her father had once dreamed...but this triumph was undermined when her son, her only child, died around age 10. Anne's own death followed not long thereafter.

This is a solid, unspectacular entry in Gregory's series. She's helped by the fact that Anne's life was kind of bonkers, with her father's shifting alliances, her marriage into a family that she had known as sworn enemies her entire life, her lengthy confinement at her sister's hand and the escape she had to plot to marry Richard, the fact that she and her sister declared her mother legally dead and imprisoned her so they could seize their inheritance, her struggles to conceive, brief happiness on the throne and then a fade-out, made all the more sad by her husband's attention to his beautiful young niece, Princess Elizabeth York. Gregory doesn't give Anne a particularly big or compelling personality (she's kind of blandly plucky and determined), so it's fortunate there's a lot of plot to weave around her. Reading it just made me reflect on how trapped women of that era were in a lot of ways: Anne is constantly put into situations she doesn't want to be in because the men in her life (her father, her first husband, her brother-in-law, her second husband) decide to do whatever is best for them, and she just kind of has to deal with or plot to undermine them as best she can.

There are some quibbles I had with the way Gregory told her story: I thought the witchy woo-woo stuff with the Woodvilles that I find irritating was a little overdone, though it does track that a woman like Anne would have believed in it. And like I mention above, Anne's characterization isn't especially strong despite her position at the center of the story. For the most part, though, the plot trots along briskly and it's engaging and entertaining. If you're this far into this series, you've probably figured out what you're going to get from it, and this book neither delights or disappoints. Solid historical fluff read!

One year ago, I was reading: All the President's Men (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Freedom

Three years ago, I was reading: Innocent Traitor

Four years ago, I was reading: A Great and Terrible Beauty

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Signs That You Love Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the signs that you're a lover of books! If you're reading this, you're probably one too, so you might see yourself in this list! I had a hard time with this one, so there's only eight here. Apologies!

You write a book blog: I read enough of them to know that there a lot of book blogs out there...some are focused on young adult, some on romance, some on nonfiction. But if you care enough about books to write about them on the internet, you definitely love books!

You always have a book on you: I joke that I have two things in my bag at any given time...a koozie and a book. You never know when you're going to get stuck waiting for something and have a couple minutes to get a couple pages in!

They exist in piles around the house: If you have an actual library, I am super jealous. I have several bookshelves, but it's not enough! There are piles of books everywhere you look.

You're a member of a book club: I've been a part of a book club at my local indie bookstore for the past several years now and I love it! I've really appreciated the incentive to pick up books I otherwise might never have read and I love having the chance to talk about them in real life!

You've become the go-to book recommender for your friends: You know you're a book person when your friends and acquaintances turn to you when they're looking for their next read!

You find yourself saying "it reminds me of this book I read": Global pandemic? Got a book for that (Station Eleven). Reality show contestants not knowing that a pandemic is going on because they've been isolated, like the German Big Brother thing? Got a book for that too (The Last One)!

You get a bookstore gift certificate as a go-to present: If someone isn't sure what to get you, and what they think will be a safe gift is a gift card for the local bookstore, you're probably a book nerd!

Your friends send you book memes: Every time there's a new bookish meme making its way across the internet, I get about six texts from people who know me being like "look, it's you!"

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Month In The Life: March 2020

What a month. The world is a very different place than it was just 31 days ago, and it remains to be seen how this all shakes out. My husband and I are fortunate enough that both of our jobs are secure and able to performed remotely, at least in the short term. But it's hard to be on the other side of the country from my family, which includes my nurse sister, my pharmacist mother, and my immunocompromised father. We're all in this together, though, and I hope those of you reading this are safe and healthy.

In Books...
  • Brother of the More Famous Jack: This coming-of-age classic which fell out of print only to be revived by zealous fans is a very slow starter, and I had a hard time initially connecting with protagonist Katherine. But it picks up momentum as it goes, and the writing is just lovely, and I wound up quite enjoying it.
  • We Are Our Brains: I'm a sucker for books about neurology, so thought this would be right up my alley. It's broad in scope and there's some interesting stuff here, but I found myself put off by the righteous tone and the way Swaab kept referencing reactions to his own well as the lack of citations in a book that's supposed to be based on science. 
  • 'Til the Well Runs Dry: This book was the kind of multi-generational saga I tend to find very compelling, following the lives of a Trinidadian family. It's engaging and well-paced, though the adult characters remain underdeveloped. Where it really stumbles is in its constant parade of tragedy: there's incest, sexual violence, police corruption, underage prostitution, human trafficking, and even just got kind of exhausting to read.
  • Lost Children Archive: I started reading this book right as the coronavirus situation really started to escalate quickly here in the United States and turned out to be poor timing. The writing is beautiful and rich, but my attention span was just not where it needed to be to really engage with it. There were some style and technique choices I found grating, not to mention I really did not enjoy the perspective shift that happens late in the book, so this just didn't end up working for me.
  • The Magical Language of Others: That E.J. Koh is a poet by trade is not surprising, reading her prose. Her writing is elegant, restrained, evocative. But in this memoir, based on her experience as a teenager having her parents move to the other side of the world, leaving her in the care of her older brother, there's a little too much polish. She holds the reader at a remove, which made it hard to connect with the book.
  • White Teeth: This book takes on a lot of weighty subjects, like family, religion, colonialism, and race, but never feels heavy. That it was a debut (published when Zadie Smith was just 25!) makes this all the more impressive. Not everything really develops or is executed as well as it could be, but she draws vivid characters and paces her slightly overstuffed plot well, which makes this an engaging read.

In Life...
  • Social distancing: Like everyone else, I've been staying home and social distancing. As a natural extrovert, I've been going a little bit bonkers. I miss going into the office, I miss my friends. It's the right thing to do and things will be better in the long run for all of us if we stay home, but I am ready to get back to something approaching normal when we can!
One Thing:

My husband loves video games, but I have the hand/eye coordination of a below-average four year-old, so I play them very infrequently. That is, until Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out. It's laid back and requires just enough attention to distract me from everything while not being at all mentally taxing, which is exactly the kind of entertainment I'm looking for right now. I'm hooked!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book 226: Chosen Country

"But his abiding concern was with the same thing preoccupying the townspeople at the meeting in Burns, a desperate and totally genuine love for an idea of a communally minded and free-living western way of life that corporate agriculture and federal regulations were supposedly squeezing out of existence. I don't think you have to idealize this sort of thing, support the Bundys, or believe in a glossy magical cowboy past to take this kind of love seriously."

Dates read: April 17-20, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I never thought about public lands before I moved to the West. Michigan has some National Forest land, a National Lakeshore. But I'd never even heard of the Bureau of Land Management, and wouldn't have been able to tell you what it did before I moved to Nevada and starting working in politics. I guess I would have figured most states were like Michigan, if I'd bothered to think about it at all. Turns out that the federal government owns and administrates upwards of 80% of the land in Nevada! In the West, I think one of the only things as controversial as water rights is the issue of federal ownership of land.

The first controversy over federal land I followed after I moved to Nevada was the Bunkerville situation, orchestrated by a Clark County rancher, Cliven Bundy, and his sons Ammon and Ryan. Not too long after that incident, Ammon and Ryan led the takeover of Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge. It's still mind-boggling to me that a group of armed men occupied federal government property and this was only sometimes referred to as terrorism and only ended in one death. I try to imagine what might have happened had those men not been white and it doesn't seem likely that a protracted stand-off would end with no loss of life beyond one man who tried to break a roadblock. Reporter James Pogue was in and around the Refuge during its occupation, and turned his experience with it into a book: Chosen Country.

Pogue half-heartedly tries to tie the Malhuer episode to the greater scope of the dying out of the "traditional" ranching culture of the West and the long-standing libertarian streak of the people here, their sense of independence and alienation from a bureaucracy so far away. I say half-heartedly not because the connection is tenuous, but because it's poorly explored. There's a rich history here, but Pogue only glances over it, completely leaving out incidents like Ruby Ridge (which aren't tied into the lands dispute, but definitely inform the prickly relationship between people who live in the rural areas and the federal government), so that he can spend more time talking about the relationships he built with the men who occupied the refuge and the things he did with them. In this choice, I really feel like he fails his readers, who I imagine are mostly picking up this book out of curiosity about the larger movement and Malhuer's place within it.

Pogue also stumbles in his organization of the book. Perhaps if I'd been reading a hard copy rather than an e-book, it might have been easier to flip back and forth and have a better sense of who he was talking about when, but Pogue tends to introduce a person (and there's a fairly large cast of them) and then go on to never again place them in context. For some of the more prominent people, like the Bundy brothers and LaVoy Finecum (who was ultimately killed), that's probably not necessary, but I kept forgetting who everyone was and their relationships (if any) to each other. He also jumbles his timelines quite a bit between Malhuer, Bunkerville, and a smaller incident he highlights involving a dispute over a mining claim. He's constantly ping-ponging back and forth in time and place without re-orienting his reader and it's confusing.

I know that's a lot of negativity, but I didn't hate the book. I mostly was disappointed in it...Pogue is talented at his work and paints a captivating portrait of Ammon Bundy in particular, as well as Finecum. His reporting for Vice about these events is very worth reading, and I can understand why he was able to pitch a book on the strength of it. I don't regret having read it, but I wish it had undergone more vigorous editing and done a better job of illuminating the environment in which the takeover took place. Instead we get stories about how Pogue understands why people value public lands so much after he takes a bunch of drugs while he camps in BLM land. Instead of reading this book, I'd recommend finding his original articles, which cover much the same territory without feeling like a padded-out term paper.

One year ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

Three years ago, I was reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

Four years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Collections

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a genre freebie, so we get to chose our own topics! As I've written about before around here, essay and short story collections don't tend to be my favorites...but that doesn't mean they all need to go in the trash bin. There are some great ones out there, and in a time when you might find yourself more easily distractable than ever, they make good books to pick up and put down.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: Mindy Kaling's writing style is breezy and relatable, and these essays about her life and the kinds of things that preoccupy 20somethign women are amusing and enjoyable. 

Me Talk Pretty One Day: It's hard to go wrong with a David Sedaris collection...he's so witty and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny a way that's rare for me reading something in print.

Bossypants: I love Tina Fey's sense of humor, and while not every essay in this collection is a total winner, overall it's one of the funnier books by comedians I've read!

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: I love pop culture, and refuse to apologize for loving it, and if you're the same way, Chuck Klosterman may be for you.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: This collection by Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen explores the way society punishes women for stepping outside of the social boundaries it otherwise sets.

Battleborn: I have to admit that I'm biased towards a story collection set in and figured in the state where I live (Nevada), but this is truly an amazing piece of work.

A Visit From the Goon Squad: This is billed as a novel, but it's much more a collection of short stories so that's what I'm calling it. Anyways, it's very very good.

The Things They Carried: I'm not usually very into war narratives, but this collection about a group of soldiers during the Vietnam War is a classic for a reason.

There There: This is another one that calls itself a novel but is actually interlinked stories from various perspectives and features some absolutely incredible writing.

Olive Kitteridge: I am from small-town America, so this collection about a little town in Maine and a difficult woman who lives there really resonated with me.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book 225: Sex At Dawn

"The anachronistic presumption that women have always bartered their sexual favors to individual men in return for help with child care, food, protection, and the rest of it collapses upon contact with the many societies where women feel no need to negotiate such deals. Rather than a plausible explanation for how we got to be the way we are, the standard narrative is exposed as contemporary moralistic bias packaged to look like science and then projected upon the distant screen of prehistory, rationalizing the present while obscuring the past." 

Dates read: April 14-17, 2018

Rating: 6/10

The general proposition that men and women think different ways, and value different things, seems undeniable. Men have more testosterone in their system, and women have more estrogen, and both biochemicals have impacts on our nervous systems. But is it as easy as the old cliche about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Do all men really just want to get out there and propagate their genes, while all women want to hunker down and raise their children? I think most of us would say of course not, that's a reductive and stereotyped way to think about human behavior, but it's hard to get out of our minds anyways.

In the field of evolutionary psychology, there's a basic proposition that seems to be taken as a fundamental tenet. In any male-female pair bond, the two halves have diametrically opposed interests. Men, in an effort to spread their DNA as widely as possible, are interested in multiple casual affairs, and are most threatened by physical infidelity, because it might mean they are duped into spending their resources on what are actually the offspring of other men. Women, on the other hand, have to invest heavily in each of their children because the energy-intensive gestation and feeding of infants falls to them. They want relationships that last so that they're able to ensure the best environment for their kids, and are most threatened by emotional infidelity, because it might lure away their partner for good. In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and his co-author, Cacilda Jetha, critically examine these ideas by looking at the behavior of our nearest animal relatives to come to an entirely different conclusion.

The way Ryan and Jetha see it, humans are naturally polyamorous and best served in a group where sex is exchanged frequently and without possession or jealousy. They make the point that while researchers searching for the roots of human behavior often compare humans to chimpanzees because of the closeness of the genetic relationship, we're equally as closely related to bonobos, who have much different social structures. They look to these and other members of the ape family as they compare and contrast things like vaginal position, common copulatory positions, size and shape of the male reproductive organs, and female vocalizations during intercourse (and more) in an effort to determine how human sexuality has actually evolved over time and what it means for society today.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I thought they made some good arguments, but the language often got a little jokey informal trying-to-be-cool. Either you're trying to make a serious argument or you're trying to write a book aiming at a pretty low common denominator to get more sales, and this seemed like it was trying to be both. It's possible to write about important concepts in an accessible way, I just wrote about how well Silent Spring did that exact thing, but this doesn't hit the mark. I also thought they came off a little one-sided in their highlighting of the few examples of cultures that don't subscribe to the monogamous or polygamous models, portraying them as nearly utopian. The reality is that for most people in most cultures in modern history, marriages are between one man and one woman with the expectation of exclusivity. That hasn't always worked well in practice, but it's likely that even members of cultures that don't follow the mainstream experience unhappiness and strife in their personal relationships. More frustratingly, they don't really present a solution beyond "burn it all down and start over". It's an interesting look at the other side of evolutionary psychology, if you enjoy that sort of thing, but I wouldn't recommend it widely or whole-heartedly.

One year ago, I was reading: Inside Edge (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Three years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Four years ago, I was reading: Private Citizens

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Spring 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is another seasonal TBR. It's officially spring as of Thursday, so let's look at the books I'll be reading over the next several weeks (or maybe faster, if I'm stuck at home without much else to do for any extended period of time!).

The Magical Language of Others: This is a memoir by a woman whose Korean parents, after having immigrated to America with their children, went back to South Korea and left them behind...her mother wrote her letters, and Koh went back and re-read them as an adult to try to make sense of it all. This sounds heart-wrenching and amazing.

White Teeth: I've somehow never read Zadie Smith before, and this story about two war buddies coming back to England and changing as the world changes sounds like a great place to start.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: This environmental non-fiction won a Pulitzer, so I'll read it.

Shatter Me: I don't read much YA, but this book is supposed to be fun and I could use some brain candy right now.

The Perfect Son: I'm a sucker for a family saga and this one has very solid reviews.

A Beginning at the End: I would actually probably skip this pandemic-based post-apocalyptic story right now but I feel bad enough about being late to get to this review copy!

Cutting for Stone: Another family saga! This one has been recommended by people I trust so I'm going to try it out.

Bird Box: I've had this hanging out on my Kindle forever, long before the Netflix movie came out, and I'm finally going to get around to reading it!

The Son: I'd heard good things about Jo Nesbo's work and found this one secondhand before I found the first of his Harry Hole series so figured I might as well start here.

The Weight of Silence: This was a book that looked good during a browse of what was on sale for the Kindle, so we'll see how it plays out (suspense isn't always my fave).