Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Month In The Life: December 2016

Today is the last day of the year! 2016 has been a crazy year: I started out the year in January with a trip back to Michigan for my best friend's baby shower (she had the baby in March and he's the cutest!), I got married, went to Chicago on our honeymoon, I made my first (hopefully not last!) trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and read, well, a lot (101 books at final count)! This month in particular hasn't been especially hectic, but here's what I've been up to:

In books: I spent most of this month doing my annual holiday re-read of a book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series...this year, I re-read A Storm of Swords. Maybe by the time I catch up, The Winds of Winter will finally be out, eh? Anyways, it slowed my pace a little as I went back through it while I was reading my new books, too!
  • Freakonomics: How much you buy into a lot of these statistical quirks depends on how much you buy into the idea of behavioral economics as a whole. It's all about the hidden incentives that act upon our decision-making, and while the theories are interesting (his linking of abortion access to crime rates was something I found myself nodding along to), I regarded much of it with skepticism. 
  • Seating Arrangements: The writing quality was wonderful, and I enjoyed it overall, but I wished this story of New England rich people behaving badly over a wedding weekend had focused less on the father character. I found him mostly irritating and wished the story would get back to virtually anyone else when it centered on him (which was, sadly, most of the time). 
  • The Wonder (ARC): This was our book club read for the month, and while I had high hopes for it, I didn't end up liking it much at all. I found that it had pacing issues that significantly undermined characterization and plot development, by my standards anyways. I know other people liked it, but it wasn't for me.
  • The Red Queen: I wasn't super hot on the first entry in Philippa Gregory's series on the Wars of the Roses, The White Queen, because I found Elizabeth Woodville's characterization completely boring. But this book, focusing on Margaret Beaufort, did a much better job creating an interesting-if-not-really-likeable character, and I enjoyed it much more.
  • The Moonlight Palace: This book is pretty light and fluffy, about a young royal descendent living in a decrepit palace in Singapore in the 1920s. It was short and while it wasn't good, per se, it was pleasant enough.
  • The Guineveres (ARC): So many books get compared to one of my all-time favorites: Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. This time, though, I thought the praise was legitimate. A delicate yet powerful story about four young women, all improbably named Guinevere, who end up in a convent in their teens for wildly different reasons is sensitive and well-told. An auspicious debut.  

In life:
  • Went rock climbing for the first time: The indoor kind, of course. One of my work friends and I have been trying to get together to do lunch and activities every so often, and after I took her to a pole class, she took me rock climbing! I've never done it before and wasn't quite sure what to expect. It was HARD! But I liked it and think I want to try it again.
  • Holiday parties: 'Tis the season, after all. Drew's work had their holiday party, and then of course we had our holiday parties with my in-laws. Lots of togetherness and happy feelings and wine (and missing my own side of the family on the other side of the country).

One Thing:
  • After having been a longtime audiobook resister (I just don't think it's reading, for better or worse), I found my niche: nonfiction! So this month I've been really getting into Overdrive through my local library system, and have listened to some really interesting stuff, like the official biography of the Queen Mother and a chronicle of Basque history. 
Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book 57: The Winged Histories

"I don't think writing is sorcery, something forbidden. I think it's more like a comb, it separates your hair more easily than you could with your fingers. It's like riding a horse to go somewhere instead of walking. You go to the same place, but you can carry more. I think writing is a horse. Or it might be a knife. An axe."

Dates read: May 29-June 1, 2016

Rating: 8/10

I am nothing if I am not a creature of habit, and one of those habits is that I refuse to jump into a series from anywhere but the beginning. Books, TV, movies...I don't care if everyone says the first one is bad, boring, or even just not necessary to understand what follows, I read/watch it. Which makes Netflix dangerous for many TV shows to watch right from the beginning! Usually that just means I get choice paralysis and decide to read instead.

Why this particular quirk of mine matters at all is that Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories is technically a sequel, though more in a "take place in the same world as" and less "follows directly the characters from", as I understand. I wanted to read A Stranger In Olondria, but my local library system didn't have a copy and so I figured that from what I'd read about the book, I'd probably be okay this once not following my own rule and just picking it up. Which I'm kicking myself for now, because I think I would have gotten more out of The Winged Histories if I'd had some background in that world going in.

Which isn't to say that I didn't get anything, or even much, out of The Winged Histories without that background. On the contrary, I found the book beautifully written, and once I got myself grounded in its world, incredibly compelling. It follows four women: the warrior Tavis, Tialon, the daughter of a priest, Seren, a singer and Tavis's lover, and Tavis's sister Siski, a noblewoman, as the Olodrian empire is engulfed in war and rebellion, both internal and external. They're besieged by a neighboring civilization, one of their conquered territories is trying to break away, and a new religion is fighting for dominance with the traditional one...with rumors of people transforming into vampiric monsters growing in the countryside.

I don't usually read war stories, which tend to be men's stories. Endless descriptions of battles and tactical maneuvers make me lose interest quickly (they slowed down my reading of War and Peace significantly when I tackled that one in the summer of 2015). But this one was different: besides Tavis's necessarily martial perspective, the rest of the story dug into how the battles resonate far beyond the fields on which they are fought. The lives of each of these women is thrown into turmoil by the unsettled situation of their world: Tavis flees to the army to escape being used as a political pawn in marriage, Tialon suffers at the hands of her religious fanatic father, who ushers in the new religion and converts the emperor, Seren is a member of the people on whose behalf the civil portion of the war is being fought but who suffer for their "victory" as much or more than anyone, and Siski drowns her sorrow at being parted from the sweetheart of her youth in a hard partying lifestyle. These are technically spoilers, but if I hadn't read a similar summary as I was getting started I would have gotten completely lost in who meant what to whom and what was going on.

It does take a while to get into it and adjust to the setting and situations of the story. Until then, fortunately, the writing sustains interest. The writing is just gorgeous...lush, poetic, and emotionally evocative. There's very little "this happened, and then that happened" going on here, each of the four segments is written in loose clusters of interconnected plot points, full of flashbacks and questions raised that don't get answered until a later part of the story. By the end I could barely put it down. The book is a rich reward for a patient reader.

Tell me. blog you like war stories?

One year ago, I was reading: Hood

**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Small Beer Press, through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and honest review**

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Best Books of 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: the ten best books of 2016! I don't read a bunch of new releases, but I read enough this year that I was able to pull together a list of my ten favorites. Many of these aren't up yet and won't be for quite a while yet, but they are all books I've read this calendar year that were published this calendar year!

The Last One: This story of a woman who doesn't know that there's been a massive pandemic while she's struggling to make it on a big-budget wilderness survival show is well-written and totally unputdownable. One of those books where you promise yourself just a few more pages before bed and then it's 3 in the morning.

Enchanted Islands: I loved the lifelong female friendship that formed the emotional core of this novel, and that it focused mostly on a woman's life after 40 and the adventure she had then. It's not a compulsive page-turner, but it's subtle and wonderful.

The Serpent King: I don't tend to read extensively in the YA space, but this novel about three outcasts going through their senior year in small-town Tennessee sucked me in and broke my heart.

The Guineveres: I'm still working on this debut novel, about four young women named Guinevere all being raised in a Catholic convent for different reasons, but I can already tell that it's magnificent. Such fantastic writing and well-developed characters.

And After Many Days: The deterioration of a Nigerian family when their oldest son disappears is paralled with the destruction that Western corporations wreak in Africa in this well realized,

Mr. Splitfoot: I didn't actually rate this book that highly when I first read it very early this year, but it's stuck with me in ways I didn't anticipate. It's weird but beautifully written and haunting.

The Big Rewind: I've plugged this book a million times this year, but I loved it so I'll plug it again! A female-centered High Fidelity-esque novel (with a little mystery story nestled in there too) for the millennial set, it's a really fun, charming read.

Private Citizens: This dark, biting satire of the Silicon Valley tech boom scene features brilliant young people totally ruining their lives in a way that's half hilarious, half horrifying.

The Queen of the Night: This book, about the life of a European opera singer, is totally insane and totally awesome and I've been recommending it to everyone lately.

The Girls: Less of a novel about the Manson cult as it's often billed and more of one about the painful experience of being a 14 year-old girl, it's full of passages that resonate with anyone who's ever lived through that particular hell.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Book 56: Shylock Is My Name

 "I the Jew, they the Christians- no two ways about it, no weasel words. Was it better like that, he wondered. A naked antagonism. No pretending that fences could be mended. An unending, ill-mannered, insoluble contrariety. Did it mean that all parties at least knew where they stood? That at least you knew your enemy. And would go on knowing him until the end of time."

Dates read: May 27-29, 2016

Rating: 2/10

When something is written about 400 years ago, it's likely that however good it is, it's also problematic. So even though Shakespeare's classics have endured over time, there are some portions of them that take your breath away a little reading it in modern times. Like in one of my favorites, Much Ado About Nothing, a couple we're supposed to be rooting for as endgame has a man who publicly humiliates his fiancee on their wedding day because he has been misled into believing she's no longer a virgin. After she's been dumped at the altar, her own father believes the man over her and tries to do violence to her and to himself for the shame of it all. These two do marry at the end of the play and we're meant to be pleased by this reunion. Um, what? And then there's The Merchant of Venice, which contains both one of the most poignant speeches on our shared humanity I've ever come across as well as an astonishing amount of anti-Semitism. But in England in the 1600s, anti-Semitism was par for the course.

Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name is another entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (like Vinegar Girl), updating the just-mentioned The Merchant of Venice. This presents a definite adaptation challenge...while open hatred of Jews was common in Elizabethan England and Italy, where the play is actually set, and anti-Semitism is definitely still alive and well today, it's not really the same world we live in anymore after the Holocaust. There's some interesting ways you could go with the sentiments underlying The Merchant of Venice, probably most obviously anti-Muslim sentiment in a post-9/11 world, or any country with ethnic disputes over a contested border. But Jacobson chooses to set his work in modern-day England and keep the play's original dynamic in place. Not only that, he wholesale imports the original character of Shylock the moneylender himself.

During most of the book, it's unclear whether Shylock is a hallucination seen only by Simon, our protagonist, but eventually other characters interact with him as well. How exactly this works is never explained, which is confusing because Shylock is a pretty major character. Why Jacobson chose to gloss over this detail while including an entire section about Simon's failed first marriage to a Gentile woman is a choice I found confusing and kind of off-putting. What I found far more off-putting though, was Simon's relationship with his daughter Beatrice, which is at the center of the plot. He spends an awful lot of time thinking about his daughter's sexuality, whether it's the boys she's sleeping with (and whether or not they have a foreskin) or thinking about his daughter's body in ways that seem way too close to the line of impropriety for a father. I'm a reader who really looks for character-driven dramas, and none of the characters, including Simon, Shylock, and Beatrice were particularly well-developed or interesting.

Ultimately, I just felt like this book wasn't for me. And by that I mean that besides my own quibbles with the writing choices, it was very concerned with Jewish male identity, particularly as it relates to fatherhood. As a childless Gentile female, the long discussions between Shylock and Simon about their shared religion/culture and their struggles as fathers to young Jewish women were just things I have no frame of reference to appreciate or understand. Since that was a central conceit of the novel, I never connected with it and unless those are issues that are relevant or appealing to you, I can't imagine that many people would enjoy reading it. I pushed myself to read it as quickly as I could so I could move on to the next thing.

Tell me, blog you need to connect with the characters somehow to enjoy a novel?

One year ago, I was reading: Still Occidental Mythology

**I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review**

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Leaving Under My Tree

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: books we wouldn't mind seeing under the tree! While my house is filled to bursting with books as it is and I'm really trying to slow the progress of more books into the house, there are always books that I'm looking to get my hands on a physical copy of. Here are ten books that I'd figure out a way to make room for.

Elizabeth's Women: I'm 100% here for all things Tudor, and this book, examining the various women who played a role in the life of Queen Elizabeth I, seems pretty much right up my alley.

My Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsberg is my HERO. I love her. This book collects many of her writings and speeches and I want to read all of them.

Thug Kitchen 101: Fast as F*ck: I've got a handful of cookbooks, but I find as much of my cooking inspiration online as in pages these days. I know there's a whole backlash with these people since we found out they're actually white, but their recipes are tasty and totally vegan...even if I'm not and sometimes have to reverse-engineer flax out of recipes because I'm allergic, I'm always down for a quick meal!

Version Control: I actually read much more non-fiction than fiction in hard copy, but this is one of those relatively few novels I actually want to own on paper. I actually don't know too much about the plot, just that it's about time travel and living in the age of the internet and it's gotten great reviews from sources I trust and I want it.

Strangers In Their Own Land: I grew up in small-town, quasi-rural Michigan and spent three years of my life in college-town Alabama, so I've been surrounded by Republicans for most of my life. Like most Democrats, most Republicans are decent people, and this book taking a coastal elite liberal sociologist to Louisiana to meet and understand the people on the other side seems like something I'd get a lot out of.

White Trash: America likes to pretend like it doesn't have a class system, and while it might not be as rigid as the one in the U.K., we definitely do. I'm really interested in reading this book that looks at white American history and really examines the way society has been organized, and who ends up at the bottom of the ladder.

Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon: I've known pit bulls who leave me wary, and I've known pit bulls like the one my pole studio owner has that think they're a lap dog. There's a lot of fear out there about this breed, and as a long-time dog nerd, I'm really curious to learn more about them.

Goldenhand: I've written about how much I love the Sabriel series more than once, and this is the fifth book in that series, so obviously I need to own it like I do all the others.

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: My fondness for books about royalty should make it pretty obvious that I've got a soft spot for books about out-of-touch rich people. This look at Huguette Clark, who inherited a massive fortune and died alone, seems totally fascinating.

Bad English: One of the great things about English, in my opinion, is its rapaciousness...the way it grows, absorbing parts of other languages and changing with the times. People like to get fussy about using "proper" English, completely ignoring the way that the English they speak would have been regarded with abject horror only a few generations back. A book about the way people try to keep English from evolving is something I think I'd just love.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book 55: The Devil In The White City

 "Every day he saw them stepping from trains and grip-cars and hansom cabs, inevitably frowning at some piece of paper that was supposed to tell them where they belonged. The city's madams understood this and were known to meet inbound trains with promises of warmth and friendship, saving the important news for later. Holmes adored Chicago, adored in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had ever existed, save perhaps a blade-thin track of perfume amid the stench of dung, anthracite, and putrefaction."
Dates read: May 20-26, 2016

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

Even growing up in so-called "flyover country", I still lived just a 5 hour drive away from the third largest city in the country: Chicago. I'd been there a handful of times, but never for more than a weekend and not for quite a while (I actually had plans to visit with one of my good friends before I impulsively decided to move to Reno in 2012). I've always wanted to go there with more time to explore, and so when Drew and I were trying to figure out where to spend our honeymoon (he's not into the lazing-on-the-beach scene, I'm not into the sleeping-in-a-tent-in-the-woods scene), we finally settled on Chicago as a place with lots to see and do and eat. It was a wonderful time and it's a great city and I can't wait to go back and see even more of it someday!

Well over a hundred years before our trip, though, Chicago hosted an event of arguably more importance: the 1893 World's Fair. The Fair brought to America for the first time things that we still use today: alternating current, the moving walkway, and the Ferris Wheel (which was actually created to rival the prize jewel of the Paris World's Fair four years before: the Eiffel Tower). Almost 30 million visitors passed through its gates to see its wonders. It was also home to H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on young single women. Erik Larson's Devil In The White City takes the stories of how the Fair came to be and Holmes' activities and winds them together to create a book that looks at the at the Fair but also outside of it.

I was super looking forward to this when I started it: with the huge amount of praise it got, and how much I enjoyed Larson's most recent Dead Wake, it seemed like it was going to easily be a new favorite. But I just didn't get really into it the way I was hoping. Which doesn't mean it wasn't good! It was, quite good in fact. But Larson's threading together of the different stories wasn't quite as skilled as it was in Dead Wake. Since I was in the middle of being stressed out about planning my own event as I was reading it (less than a month before my wedding), the long recounting of the delays and problems of planning and building the Fair just gave me anxiety. But I think even without my personal baggage, I would have found this portion of the book a little overlong. I get what Larson's trying to do: you know it did come together and was successful in the end (he tells you that much right from the beginning), and as he recounts mishap after mishap, it's supposed to keep you hooked and wonder how in the world it got pulled off. But at a certain point I just wanted to the Fair to start already because I knew it was going to and I was tired of hearing about how it almost didn't.

The part of the story about the Fair is so dominant that the part about the serial killer (which was honestly the part I was most interested in) gets a little bit of the short shrift. Holmes and his story kind of lurk around the outside edges, which I suppose is appropriate since lurking around the edges of the Fair is exactly what Holmes did in real life. But every time the book turned back to the Fair from Holmes I groaned a little inside, because I found the latter so much more compelling. The book effectively ends by devoting itself to wrapping up Holmes' plotline, and it was the first time I felt reluctant to put the book down since I started it. On the whole the book is well-written, interesting, and definitely worth a read, but don't go in expecting it to be mostly about one of America's first serial killers or you might be a little disappointed.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been to Chicago?

One year ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'm Looking Forward To For The First Half Of 2017

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: books I'm looking forward to in the first half of the new year. I'm going to take this as most-anticipated books being released from now-end of June I'm sure you've sussed out if you read here somewhat regularly, I'm not much of a new-release reader, so these are very unlikely to be books I personally read in the first half of 2017. But some are books I have an ARC for, and some are books I'm going to want to get around to one of these days!

Selection Day: I loved the brilliant dark wit of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger when I read it earlier this year (review forthcoming), so I'm definitely excited for his follow-up!

Young and Damned and Fair: I love stories, both fiction and non, about Henry VIII and his wives. Anne Boleyn tends to be the one that gets the most attention, but they're all worthy of interest in their own right. This book examines Katherine Howard, his fifth wife, who is usually dismissed as very young and rather empty-headed, so I'm curious to see what the take is on her this time.

The Road to Jonestown: Cults- how they form and the personalities at the center of them- are fascinating to me. Jim Jones and the People's Temple are well-known enough, but I've never read a full book-length treatment about that situation and I'm desperately curious.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes: You can take the lady out of Michigan, but you can't take Michigan out of the lady. I'm a sucker for anything Great Lakes.

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve: This is basically analytics applied to literature, so dorky interest one meets dorky interest two. Sold!

Four Princes: I've always enjoyed non-fiction about both royalty and general history. This one brings them together, focusing on the reigns of Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Ottoman ruler Suleiman, and how their actions and interactions have played out over time. 

Our Little Racket: When you hear about pyramid schemes and other kinds of white collar crime, you always wonder (or at least I do) about the families. Did they know? Did they just turn the other way? This novel explores the ramifications of the downfall of a finance world bigwig on the women in his family, so I'm intrigued. 

Different Class: I've always enjoyed a good boarding school novel, and Joanne Harris' Chocolate remains among my favorite books, so I'm looking forward to reading her take on it!

The Leavers: I've read a few articles fairly recently about Asian adoptees raised by white American parents and how they feel about their stories now that they're grown up. It's an interesting tension, and this novel promises to explore it.

In The Name of the Family: Medieval corrupt religious institutions are something I tend to like reading about, so the Borgias (who are the focus of this novel) are always compelling to me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Book 54: Hidden


Did people's lives really change this quickly? Years of sameness, and then a few hours, a few moments, and everything's different? But yes, of course they can. It happens all the time."

Dates read: May 18-20, 2016

Rating: 3/10

I have never, to my knowledge, been cheated on. Given that I'm getting married less than a month after I write this, I hope I never will be. But that doesn't mean I haven't thought, over the years, about what I would do if I were to find myself with a boyfriend who cheated. When I was young, I was sure I would want to know right away. As I grew up, though, I became less and less sure: an emotional long-term affair was one thing, but what if it was an isolated incident (drunken hookup with someone we don't know or something like that), unlikely to recur and less likely to result in a breakup? Like I said, I've never had to put it to the test, but I wonder what I would really actually want in a situation like that.

Catherine McKenzie's Hidden puts this dilemma in front of the reader: how much do we really want to know? The novel kicks off with Jeff Manning being struck by a car, stressed out and not thinking about looking both ways before crossing the street after a bad day at work. The news of his demise devastates two different women: his wife Claire, and his colleague Tish. It's obvious quickly, from the depth of her grief, that Tish has a relationship with Jeff that's above and beyond just coworkers or even just friends, but what was actually there between them? Just some flirtation? Actual romantic feelings? Sex?

The story is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Claire, Tish, and a pre-death Jeff himself to explain just what is going on here. Before Claire was Jeff's wife, she was his older brother Tim's girlfriend. Although he's aware of that (obviously) going in, even long after they've married and had a son together, Jeff never quite gets over his jealousy. When one of Tim's rare trips home results in him making a move on Claire during a low moment in their marriage, when she's vulnerable, all of Jeff's old suspicions that he's merely the consolation prize come roaring back and fault lines open up between them. And when he meets Tish, who drifted as aimlessly into her own marriage as she did into her job in HR, their attraction sparks something more. When Claire discovers a text message from Tish on Jeff's broken phone before it dies completely, she finds herself putting together little pieces of evidence, seeing a picture that she can't be quite sure is there.

The whole point of the book seems to be whether or not Claire will find out what exactly there was between Jeff and Tish, a question for which the answer is held back from the reader as well until it's wound up in the epilogue. Which isn't really enough to sustain interest, honestly. McKenzie adds in a bunch of extra characters and situations to flesh it out, but at the end of the day, none of them contributes much to the actual story. I got bored with it and read quickly through the back half of the book so I could just be done with it already. Because once the level of Jeff and Tish's emotional entanglement becomes apparent, the question of whether it ever got physical was almost beside the point: they were cheating, whether or not they'd slept together. The book also suffered for McKenzie's failure to take advantage of the alternating narrators structure to create three different voices for the three people involved. They all sounded similar, Claire and Tish particularly so. And for this kind of story to actually resonate, all of the participants have to be sympathetic or at least interesting. But no one is all that interesting, and only Claire is remotely sympathetic. There's nothing especially rewarding to the reader to be found in Hidden: the writing is just decent, the plot drags, and the characters are one-note. It's not awful, it's just kind of a waste of time.

Tell me, blog you think emotional cheating is "better" or "worse" than physical cheating?

One year ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishThis week's topic: authors I read for the first time in 2016. I try to read a wide variety of books and so I've read a lot of different authors over the years. But each year brings new ones, and so here are ten authors that I'd never read before.

Malcolm Gladwell: On recommendation from my husband, I started listening to his podcast, Revisionist History earlier this year and really enjoyed it. And then I read David and Goliath, and it offered the same kind of interesting perspectives on conventional wisdom. I'll definitely be looking to read more of his stuff in the future!

Dave Eggers: I know a lot of people love him, but I'd never read him before. I'd been intrigued by The Circle when I read a description of it, so I picked up a secondhand copy and got to it. And while I found the ideas behind it interesting, I actually thought the writing was pretty bad. I've got a copy of another of his works already, so I'll read it, but unless I like it a lot more I'm not going to keep reading him.

Ann Patchett: I'd heard praise for several of her books, but Bel Canto is what I found in a local secondhand shop, so that's what I read. And it was really good: she creates well-rounded characters who relate to each others in interesting ways. But this book fell flat for me at the very very end. I enjoyed the reading of 99% of it so much that I'll definitely be looking to read more of them in the future.

Pat Conroy: Conroy writes a lot of books with a military theme, which doesn't tend to be my wheelhouse. But Lords of Discipline was a Kindle sale book that I bought on a whim, and I was happy that I did. Conroy's writing is powerful, and I found myself deeply invested in the story about a cadet at a military college simply through how well he told the story. I'll definitely be reading more of him!

Helen Oyeyemi: I'd heard wonderful things about Boy, Snow, Bird, and that one is on my shelf to read, but my book club's first read was her collection of short stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. I found it to be a more intellectually stimulating than necessarily enjoyable experience, but I did come away wanting to read her novel-length work!

Alison Weir: I'm finding myself drawn more and more to non-fiction as I get older, and there's no subject I enjoy more than royalty. The Six Wives of Henry VIII has an intimidating length, but Weir writes their stories with such clean, readable prose that it all but flew along. She's definitely among my favorite historians!

Don DeLillo: He's an incredibly renowned author that I'd just never come across before. But then I got an ARC of Zero K and while he's got magnificent command of language and the ability to create a strong sense of mood, I just didn't get it. I'm still interested in reading White Noise, because I've heard it's his best, but it's always good to remember that just because "everyone" likes an author doesn't mean you have to.

Erik Larson: Devil In The White City has a great reputation, and I read that one too, but I actually started with Dead Wake, in which he tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania. Of the two, I actually prefer Dead Wake, but both are well-researched narrative non-fiction stories well worth the read!

Lionel Shriver: I remember seeing the trailer for the movie version of We Need To Talk About Kevin and being interested in maybe seeing it someday (I haven't yet). And then I came across a secondhand copy of it and figured I might as well read it. It's incredible, and I've got a couple other of her books on my TBR now that I know what a great writer Shriver is.

Jhumpa Lahiri: I've actually had a copy of The Namesake on my shelves for's a little torn up in one of the corners because one of my mom's dogs tried to eat it at one point. But it wasn't until this year that I actually sat down and read it and I just loved it. I'm far from the only one raving about Lahiri, but she's worth it, y'all!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book 53: We Need To Talk About Kevin

 "I'm no longer sure whether I rued our first child before he was even born. It's hard for me to reconstruct that period without contaminating the memories with the outsized regret of later years, a regret that bursts the constraints of time and gushes into the period when Kevin wasn't there yet to wish away." 

Dates read: May 14-18, 2016

Rating: 10/10

Columbine happened when I was in the eighth grade. I remember how it rocked all of us (the students, our parents, the teachers) in the small town I grew up in, the kind of place (like Littleton, Colorado, probably once thought) where it seemed like bad things just didn't happen. There was a brief security craze, where we had to have our backpacks searched on our way into school every day for a few weeks or a month or so, but eventually that died down and normality more or less resumed. I know that Dylan Klebold's mother recently wrote a book about her experience with her son before the shooting and what happened afterwards. I've read some good reviews, even, but I can't find much interest in actually picking it up. It seems too raw, too real. Fifteen years later, but it's still too soon somehow.

But I was interested in picking up Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, a fictionalized account of a mother's life before and after her son perpetrated a hideous act of school violence. There's just something about real life actual tragedy that's harder to read about, even if it's much less graphic than a fictionalized account. I've read one book about a sexual assault survivor's experience (Alice Sebold's Lucky, which was mandatory reading for a college class or else I likely would never have thought about reading it), but several novels about the same kind of thing without blinking an eye. Fiction, it would seem (at least for me) draws a veil between the reader and the story recounted that insulates it a little, even when the book is about things (like rape) that are horrifyingly commonplace and may well have been inspired by an author's own experience.

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, main character Eva Khatchourian isn't a very good mother. She would (and does) admit that freely. She never had a burning need or desire to be a mother; she was mostly content with her marriage to Franklin Plaskett, their life in New York City, and her position as founder and CEO of A Wing And A Prayer, a series of backpack travel guides. But all her friends were having kids, and Franklin really wanted one, and she'd been feeling like her life needed a bit extra spark for a while, so she agrees to have a child. It's rough from the start: she chafes at the restrictions foisted upon her as a pregnant woman, she has a long and difficult labor, and when Kevin is finally born, he refuses to nurse or even drink her breast milk from a bottle. She suffers from post-natal depression, and when Kevin proves to be difficult at best throughout his entire childhood, she fails to bond with him. Not only that, but as he grows up, she comes to see malice behind nearly all of his actions and regard him with suspicion and fear. Just before his sixteenth birthday, he kills a teacher and several classmates at school. So she was right about him all along...wasn't she?

Eva, whose story is told by Shriver as a series of letters from her to Franklin a year or two after Kevin's school rampage, is a classic unreliable narrator. While she's unafraid of presenting herself in a negative light or admitting fault, she's also our only source of information about Kevin. The incidents she relates about his conduct are often unsettling and worrisome...but they're hand-selected, by a woman who has had all her worst thoughts about her offspring confirmed by what he did. But while there were plenty of people Kevin alienated throughout his life besides his mother (a succession of childhood nannies, kids in his play groups, school classmates), Kevin did have people in his corner, most significantly his father, as well as a high school teacher who ended up among his victims.

The question the novel raises and never answers (but gives you lots of food for thought in both directions along the way) is the age old one: nature or nurture? Kevin was difficult from the moment he was born, but if he'd been able to bond with his mother, would he have been just plain difficult, instead of a murderer? Eva herself is prickly and sometimes, even often, unlikeable. Maybe he just takes after his mother that way. How much does Kevin's pushing back against her result from her aloofness and reserve from him? On the other hand, if he is truly evil, like she sees him and his own murders tend to indicate, what could she have done to change that? Eva and Franklin cared, were present, took an active interest in him and his life. There are a lot of kids who don't even have that. I found myself changing opinions as I read, sympathizing with Eva, then Kevin, back and forth. Shriver doesn't let either of them off the hook, nor should she. There's plenty of culpability to go around. This sucked me in and haunted me after it was done. I'm sure I'll continue to think about it in the future. It's disturbing subject matter, but it's phenomenally well-written and I highly recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...nature or nurture?

One year ago, I was reading: All The King's Men