Friday, August 31, 2018

A Month In The Life: August 2018

The end of August always makes me think about back-to-school time. Growing up in Michigan, I never went back before Labor Day...but here in Reno, they've already been back for nearly a month! And anyways, it still feels like summer since August temperatures were mostly stuck in the 90s. A record-setting 56 days in a row this summer above 90, actually, which honestly was pretty gross. But it's finally trending downward a bit and I am READY for sweater-and-boots season.

In Books...

  • Shantaram: There are two kinds of books that climb to 900+ pages: actual epics or overstuffed vanity projects. While this giant novel is not without merit, it's definitely the latter rather than the former. Based on the author's own experiences, this book is about an Australian man who escapes from prison and flees to India, where he gets involved with a wide variety of people, from a kind-hearted tourist guide to a prominent crime lord. It could have lost 300 pages through just editing out the purple prose and pseudo-philosophical rambling and would have been better for it. 
  • Less: Book club picks have been inconsistent for me, but this one I really enjoyed. I would not have thought that the concerns of an aging gay writer would particularly speak to me, but this tale about an only somewhat successful novelist staring down both his 50th birthday and his longtime sort-of-boyfriend's impending wedding to another man who decides the only way to deal is to accept a bunch of ignored invitations to make a trip around the globe was funny and touching and sweet. 
  • The Informant: The so-strange-it-has-to-be-true story of a corporate executive who exposes an international, multimillion dollar price fixing scandal...all while embezzling millions of dollars from the company and pathologically lying every time nearly every time he opens his mouth. They made a movie out of this, a comedy even (which I haven't seen), but on the page it's very dry and flat and I never really got into it.
  • The Butcher's Daughter: I'd grabbed a review copy of this on a whim and was so glad I did! This historical fiction tells the story of Agnes, a young woman in Tudor England who falls pregnant out of wedlock and is sent to an abbey, where she finds some real satisfaction in her place as a nun. But the religious turmoil of Henry VIII's England is not a good time to be of a religious house, and so as the abbey is closed down, she needs to find a new place for herself. Agnes is a great character and I found her story very compelling indeed. 
  • Life After Life: I wish I'd read this without the hype that set sky-high expectations for me. It's an imaginative, entertaining book that takes the unusual tack of presenting a female character for whom familial rather than romantic bonds are paramount, which was refreshing. As Ursula Todd's life begins over and over again after she dies in a variety of ways, she's always deeply connected to her older sister Pamela and younger brother Teddy, and Atkinson skillfully explores the bombing campaigns of World War 2 from many perspectives and with a poignant humanity. It's a very good book, but I was expecting a great one and for me, it wasn't quite there. 
  • Oryx and Crake: I love Margaret Atwood, and am generally interested in post-apocalyptic stories, so this was a natural fit for me. Though there are some things that make it really obvious this book was written over 15 years ago now (the emphasis on email and disc-based storage feel anachronistic), for the most part it feels frighteningly prescient. I wish the main female character had been better-developed, and I'm always annoyed at a book that ends in a clear cliffhanger for the next in the series, so it didn't blow me away but I very much liked it and intend to continue the series! 

In Life...

  • Tried not to melt and/or die of smoke inhalation: It was hot, and it was smoky. The wildfires that raged in California sent their smoke right on over into northern Nevada, where it settled in the valleys and choked us all for weeks. Add in those long 90+ degree days and it was miserable. It's been a smidge cooler lately thank goodness.
  • Veterinary drama: The gratuitous pug I like to show you every month has been a frequent flier at the vet lately! We started out with a significant number of tooth extractions, and no sooner was he on the mend from those than he gave himself a hot spot on his face from scratching and had to get dragged back to get antibiotic ointment and a week in the cone of shame. He's totally fine now, but here's hoping we can skip the vet's office for the rest of the year.

One Thing:

One of my guilty pleasures (honestly I don't feel that guilty about it) is reading about royal families, particularly the British one. What can I say? I'm basic. I'd heard about a failed attempt to kidnap Princess Anne in the 70s, but didn't know that much about it until I read this truly delightful short piece from Oh No They Didn't. Some of the dialogue is profoundly hilariously English and Anne is a BOSS.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book 144: Friday Night Lights

"Considering the circumstances of their lives, how could they be expected to accept the harsh reality of studies showing that of the 30 million children taking part in youth sports in the United States, only about 200 go on to become professionals in any given year?”

Dates read: May 5-12, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: The New York Times bestseller

Graduating from law school in 2010, it turns out, was one of the worst things I could have done for myself. There are articles about it and everything. After I moved back to Michigan and took (and passed) the bar, I started carpet-bombing the Ann Arbor area with resumes. Crickets. I came close a few times, getting to second interviews, but it wasn't until February, a full nine months after I graduated and five months after I passed the bar, that I got a job. Which meant I had a LOT of downtime. I did do useful things, but I also watched the entire run of a TV show that has become a barometer of true excellence in storytelling for me: Friday Night Lights.

I knew there'd been a book, and then a movie, and that the show wasn't especially closely related to either except in broad strokes. But I'd always harbored a curiosity about the book that had inspired one of my favorite shows of all time, so I picked up H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights to finally experience the source material. In it, Bissinger tells the story of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, in the late 80s. But he doesn't just tell the story of the the subtitle ("A Town, A Team, And A Dream") suggests, he places them in context. He tells the story of Odessa, of the boom-and-bust oil economy in Texas with which Odessa lives and dies, the racial tensions that are ever-simmering, and the way that a community needing something to cheer for and feel good about can place so much hope and feeling into a sports team.

That enormity of public emotional investment into the team has real ramifications for the people who make it up: the coach and his family, of course, but also the players. The coach (only very vaguely reminiscent of the beloved Coach Taylor) is at least a well-compensated professional, but the players are just teenagers. You can see the loose outlines of some of the characters who would make up the core of the show: the hot-shot, big-talking running back, the reserved, wary quarterback, the trouble-making, fast-living halfback. But the players themselves are kind of inconsequential: they are merely the bodies inside the uniforms that have such symbolic meaning. It's Permian that the crowd roots for year after year, even as the names on the jerseys come and go.

Reading this after seeing the show is the opposite of the usual reaction: the screen adaptation is so rich and beautifully realized that the book has a hard time living up to the comparison. Part of that is because they're telling similar stories in two very different ways. The book is more interested in looking at the broader social picture and the way that team fits into that picture as a whole, and only then in its component parts, while the show takes the opposite storytelling tack and focuses on the people and their relationships making up the team, filling in the charged atmosphere around them but leaving it as mostly background. So by nature the book is more impersonal, more clinical and removed. The show, on the other hand, focused on realistic character development in a way that even many authors I've read could benefit from learning from. Of the two versions, I'd recommend that literally everyone watch the show, but the book is good-not-great. If you like stories about football and/or small town life, you'll likely enjoy it. If not, it's skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite TV shows?

One year ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking

Two years ago, I was reading: Life Itself

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Assigned Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a back-to-school freebie! I know the phrase "assigned reading" makes some people break out in hives (there's something that immediately turns us off about being forced to read a book instead of choosing it ourselves, isn't there?), but a lot of the books they make us read are actually pretty good! Here are ten books that were required that I actually really loved.

Number the Stars: This book, which I read in middle school, about a young Danish girl whose family works to protect her Jewish best friend during the Holocaust is a well-told, engaging story.

The Giver: Another middle school read. I'd actually already read it before it was assigned in class, and even though it's pitched towards and able to be understood at that level, I still found it very solid when I re-read it as an adult.

Lord of the Flies: I think this one, about a group of British schoolboys marooned on an island who descend into chaos, was part of our tenth grade curriculum. I recently revisited it on audio and found its message about power and group dynamics still relevant and interesting.

The Great Gatsby: I hated this when I read it as a high school junior, finding it overly simplistic and boring. It wasn't until I got a little older and had more life experience under my belt that I recognized its elegance and genius.

The Awakening: I think I read this senior year in AP English, but it might have been at the end of junior year? Anyways, it's a story about a privileged Southern woman who becomes disenchanted with her life and the expectations foisted upon her as a wife and mother and it's excellent.

Cry, The Beloved Country: My AP English class led me to many wonderful books, including this powerful and poignant story of apartheid South Africa.

The Color Purple: Another AP English gem, this book about a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South coming into her own and finding happiness despite often miserable circumstances won a Pulitzer for a reason.

The Scarlet Letter: Guilt is a theme that gets explored in a lot of books, but I really did like what Hawthorne did with this one, which is much more interesting than you'd probably expect. Read this one in AP English too!

The Secret History: I've known almost no one who has failed to enjoy this twisty story of a group of Classics students who kill one of their own. It has something for everyone: it's well-written, has a suspenseful plot, and does solid character work. And it's yet another AP English selection.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: This I read in my honors Introduction to Psychology class and was so taken with it that I changed my major and got a degree in Psych instead of Political Science.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Book 143: The Highest Tide

"Olympia rain rarely calls for hats, much less umbrellas, but this was a waterfall. And by one forty-five in the morning I saw the auras of the remaining biologists, or maybe it was just backlit mist. What I do know is that I saw a blue light around every one of their heads. And Florence had taught me that people with blue auras are relaxed and ready for anything, which suited these people perfectly."

Dates read: May 1-5, 2017

Rating: 4/10

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dogs. OBSESSED. Like, I bought a copy of the AKC breed manual and read it like a book, cover to cover, over and over. I also went through a phase of intense obsession with mythology, even writing a letter to The Detroit News when they published a piece that misgendered Osiris. It seems like that's something we lose in adulthood, the ability to become passionately wrapped up in a single topic like that. We have so many other things to think about, it makes sense, but it still feels like kind of a loss, realizing those days of throwing myself wholeheartedly into something new are behind me.

In Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide, 13 year-old Miles O'Malley is a budding marine biologist. Not in the way of like, teenagers who think that means getting to play with dolphins all day for a job. But in the way where he reads and re-reads Rachel Carson's works on oceans, cares about the ecosystem, and regularly sneaks outside to kayak along the Puget Sound beach he lives on to explore what the animals who live in the water are up to. On one such adventure, early in the summer before he begins high school, he discovers a giant squid washed up on the shore. And so begins a season that will change his life forever.

Like so many adolescents, everything is changing for Miles. His parents seem headed toward an end of their long-shaky marriage, he nurses a desperate crush on Angie, the older, bipolar girl next door who used to babysit him, he becomes a figure of devotion for a local cult-type group, he feels queasy about the older man he sells aquarium specimens to, and he faces the increasing deterioration of his best friend, the old lady who lives next door. Miles is confused about virtually all of the above, not quite knowing how to handle any of it. On top of it all, he's extremely self-conscious about his diminutive stature and has very few friends his own age.

This is a fairly slim book (only about 250 pages), and the feeling I was left with at the end was that it tried to take on too much without doing any of it particularly well. There are too many plot threads and none of them are developed properly. Lynch sketches Miles as a sensitive, observant boy, and I wish he'd dropped some of elements he piled on (the shady animal dealer and the cult group in particular don't resonate well) and given the rest some room to breathe. In particular, I felt like Angie got the short shrift...I can see what the appeal of her would be to Miles, but I never got much of a sense of what the appeal of Miles would be to her. She's given an interesting story: daughter of a prominent local judge with not-adequately-treated mental health issues and a wild streak, but she's never realized as an actual character. Lynch's prose is adequate, but doesn't do anything in terms of making up for the plot issues.

Reading books like this, though, makes me reflect on the enduring popularity of the coming-of-age genre. I think the appetite for books in this sphere explains a lot of the appeal of the YA boom: people really like stories about growing up. In part, I think this is because even the culturally-recognized "growing-up" period has gotten extended...just look at how much later my generation is doing things like getting married and buying houses, in large part, that our parents' generation or even Gen X. And even now, firmly in undisputed adult territory, I still feel like I'm not done growing and changing yet. Maturing is a process that feels like it'll never really be done, and stories that reflect the sometimes-painful but always-necessary movement forward are very appealing. I wish The Highest Tide were a better example of the type, but not every book does it for every one. There's good stuff in this one, it's more frustrating than bad, but I still wouldn't recommend it when there are so many in this category that do it better.

Tell me, blog friends...what were your childhood obsessions?

One year ago, I was reading: The Idiot

Two years ago, I was reading: The Last One

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Pull You Out of a Reading Slump

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at reading slumps, and the books that will pull you out of one! This is honestly kind of tricky for me, because I don't really get into reading slumps, so I don't really know what I would look for to pull me out of one. But these are books that I think are enjoyable in a way that could work for someone who just can't get hyped to read anything else.

The Hunger Games: These books are compelling without being especially challenging...there's enough narrative tension here that you get sucked in, without having too many characters or excessive world-building to slog through.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: If you're still looking for something tense but are actually in search of something a little more complex that demands more of your focus, you can't go wrong with this trilogy.

Bridget Jones' Diary: But what if you're thinking you want something breezy? This book is very light and very funny. Since it's literally structured like a diary, there's not a sense of interrupting the plot if you want to put it down for any reason, which makes it an easy read.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Another funny one (the kind that makes you laugh out loud in public), structured as vignettes so easy to pick up and put down as necessary, and it's nonfiction if that appeals!

Stardust: If you do want to find yourself drawn into another world, this book feels like a fairy tale for adults...there's darkness here, but fundamentally it's sweet and often gently humorous.

Station Eleven: Post-apocalyptic stories are done to death, but this take, which flashes back and forth between our present and 15 years after a global pandemic, is slower and more meditative than most. It gives you characters to get invested in and big questions to ponder.

The Girl With All The Gifts: Still in the general fantasy realm but much grittier and with more momentum, this take on a zombie story is hard to put down even if you don't think you're that into zombie stories. There's a good balance of characterization and plot.

City of Thieves: How about some historical fiction? This book, set during the siege of Leningrad, is short but still full, with a strong coming-of-age story that develops a friendship you find yourself caring about. There's nothing "new" here but it's very well-executed.

Moonglow: World War II plays into the story here, but there's also a family saga told with warmth and humor likely to please readers who enjoy character-based stories.

Spook: Just to close out with something completely different, this book about ghosts/the soul/what happens to the not-body parts of "us" after we die takes on various beliefs about the afterlife with charming, infectious curiosity.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book 142: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

"Beth and I are still thinking it's too early to leave Toph with anyone but family, that to do otherwise would cause him to feel unwanted and alone, leading to the warping of his fragile psyche, then to experimentation with inhalants, to the joining of some River's Edge kind of gang, too much flannel and too little remorse, the cutting of his own tats, the drinking of lamb's blood, the inevitable initiation-fulfilling murder of Beth and me in our sleep. So when I go out, once a week, on a day Beth and I have chosen together, Toph gets his things together, stuffs them into his backpack, uses both straps, and walks over to her house and spends the night on half of her futon." 

Date read: April 24- May 1, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: New York Times Bestseller

By the time she was my age, my mom had already lost both of her parents. My grandmother died when my mom was just 25, and my grandfather had a massive heart attack in his sleep when she was in her early 30s. My dad, on the other hand, didn't lose his first parent until he was just about 50 and his second only earlier this year. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to lose two parents by my age like my mom did. My parents are still a big part of my life and there's so much more still to share with them.

Dave Eggers, though, had it worse than anyone I personally know. He lost both of his parents, to cancer, one just about a month after the other, when he was only a senior in college. In his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers recounts those deaths and his subsequent guardianship of his 8 year-old brother, Toph. The Eggers brothers leave their Illinois home behind and move to the Bay Area, in part to stay close to their older sister Beth, and in part for career opportunities for Dave as he tries to get a new magazine, Might, off the ground while also trying to figure out how to raise a child.

Before I even picked this book up, I was aware that it seems to inspire strong feelings. Some people HATE it and some people think it's magnificent. How you will receive this book depends entirely on how you feel about Eggers' writing. If you think his stream-of-consciousness, wildly tangential, constantly-on-the-verge-of-a-panic-attack style of narrative is great, you'll think this book is amazing. If, however, you want a straightforward, relatively linear narrative, you will think this is the worst thing you've ever read.

It feels beside the point to talk about story structure, because there isn't really any (it's very hard to tell how fast time is passing and there aren't really narrative beats to speak of), or character development, because there isn't really any of that either. Even for a memoir, a sense of story and character tend to be important, but neither is a priority for Eggers. While I'm usually fairly open to nontraditional narrative, this book is 100% style over substance. The most compelling part, for me, was the relationship between Dave and Toph, and Dave wrestling with both his fierce love and concern for his brother and his acknowledged resentment of being prematurely thrust into a parental role. However, I mostly found it tiresome. It held my attention inconsistently at best, I was usually bored long before a particular side riff was over. Eggers' flaw isn't that he's wildly self-absorbed (I think memoir is an inherently self-absorbed form since it's literally assuming that your own life is so compelling that other people want to read about it), but that he's not nearly as interesting as he thinks he is. I wouldn't recommend this book, but I wouldn't tear it out of anyone's hands and I can understand why some people really respond to it. I just didn't.

Tell me, blog you think your life is interesting enough to write a book about?

One year ago, I was reading: Mildred Pierce

Two years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Websites and Blogs

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting some of our favorite bookish places on the internet! I've split my list into half websites, half blogs. I follow a few dozen book blogs, all of which I really enjoy (or else I wouldn't follow them), but the ones I've listed are the ones I tend to pull recommendations from most often because my personal reading taste falls most in line with theirs.

Goodreads: There are certainly flaws to it, but I love keeping track of what I'm reading, seeing what other people whose opinions matter to me are reading and loving (or not!), and being able to create tons of shelves to keep things organized. People who have beef with it because it allows the plebes to have opinions about books that they can share widely (which I've seen a bit of lately) can step off with their gatekeeping nonsense.

LibraryThing: This is a great book cataloging site if you use it that way, though the interface hasn't really done it for me. It's also a great source of information about the books you read (it's where I pull the lists/awards section of my posts from!).

Libib: My preferred way to catalog my physical library. Super easy to use and tag your collections!

Thriftbooks: This is where I get nearly all of my books, because the prices are amazing and I've been able to get my hands on things I would have had to spend ages digging for at local thrift/secondhand stores. I have embedded a referral link for this one, so avoid clicking on it if you don't want to do that (you'll get 15% off your first order if you do, though).

Book Riot: SO much bookish content every day! I do scroll through a significant number of posts without reading them, but it feels like at least once a day I find myself adding something to my TBR because of a recommendation or list they post!

Sarah's Book Shelves: Sarah is like my book blogger role model! Great recommendations and lists, and when she reviews books she does such a great job of hitting the highlights and giving a sense of whether or not it would be something you're into. Our reading taste has significant overlap (lots of "literary fiction", with occasional forays into other genres) and I always appreciate hearing what she thinks!

Read All The Things!: I post at the most three times a week, but usually two, because that's about as much as I have creativity for. AJ, though, posts several times a week with interesting content and a great sense of humor. She's also primarily focused on literary fiction with a lot of backlist, so we read similar things.

So Obsessed With: Hannah reads more YA than I do, but she reads adult fiction regularly as well. Her voice is great, peppy and fun but not sugary sweet. What makes her blog go-to reading for me is that I appreciate the way she ventures outside the strictly bookish to post some lifestyle-type content that I enjoy reading because her voice is so relatable!

Sophisticated Dorkiness: Kim sometimes posts more and sometimes less, but it's always worth waiting for! Her reading mix is literary fiction, with a decent amount of backlist, and one of the few bloggers I follow who reads non-memoir nonfiction fairly regularly so she's a great source for recommendations for me in my favorite genres!

Broke By Books: A second Sarah on my list! This Sarah doesn't post much in the way of straightforward reviews, but she posts lists I don't see elsewhere and some really interesting discussion-type posts. She doesn't post super-frequently, but when she does I always look forward to it because her perspective is different than a lot of what's out there.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book 141: The Leavers

"What a relief it had been to find him, to have someone to come home to, letting the everyday concerns take over: lesson planning at World Top English and where to go to dinner, filling myself up with tasks and conversation and possessions until there was no longer space to think about you. This is what could happen in a city like this. A woman could come from nowhere and become a new person. A woman could be arranged like a bouquet of fake flowers, bent this way and that, scrutinized from a distance, rearranged."

Dates read: April 21-24, 2017

Rating: 5/10

A few years ago, I did 23 And Me. America is, by and large, a nation of people who came from somewhere else, and I was curious where my family came from. My dad's side of the family, especially my grandmother's line, has been in the country for a long time and they've kept good records tracing our family back to the old country. But my grandfather on that same side was the son of a Polish immigrant who had no records of his family, and my mom's side is a big question mark since she was adopted as an infant.

In Lisa Ko's The Leavers, Deming Guo doesn't need any help to know where he came from. Born in the United States to Polly Guo, who had herself smuggled to America to escape a dead-end life in China, Deming was actually sent back to his mother's home village for a few years to live with his grandfather while Polly worked endlessly to try to make some headway on her debts to the loan sharks that got her to New York City in the first place. When we meet Deming, he's in elementary school, living with his mother, her boyfriend, the boyfriend's sister, and her son, Michael, who's about the same age as Deming himself. Then, suddenly, after Polly starts talking about maybe moving to Florida for a job in a restaurant instead of the crushing grind of the nail salon she's been working in for years, she disappears. Already economically strapped, Polly's boyfriend and his sister can't afford to keep Deming with them for long, and he's soon adopted by a pair of white upstate professors, where his new parents dub him "Daniel", ostensibly to help him get along easier in the overwhelmingly white town he finds himself in.

We next catch up with Daniel in his early 20s, back in NYC and doing musician gigs after he dropped out of college because of an online poker problem. He's crashing with his bandmate, Roland, the only other person of color that he went to school with, and trying to figure out how to avoid going back to school like his parents want him to. He's never found out what happened to his mother, but after a chance reconnection with Michael, his curiosity is reawakened. As he starts to pursue the issue, the perspective changes and we get Polly's and why she came to have Deming, how and why she came to America, and what actually did happen when she disappeared.

I never DNF (do not finish) books, but if I did, I would have dropped this one after about the first 50 or so pages. While the way his childhood played out would give anyone emotional scars, Daniel himself is not an enjoyable character to spend time with. He's whiny, he steals money from his friends, he's a coward. I really did not enjoy reading about him. But when the story switched to his mother, the book took off. Polly is a dynamic, interesting character who practically springs off the page, and her story is easy to get emotionally invested in. I wish Ko had either started with more of Polly or just made her the primary focus of the book overall...starting with Daniel seems like asking to lose a decent chunk of your audience straight out the gate.

And to miss this book entirely would be a shame. Although it's uneven, there's really solid stuff here. Like I said, Polly's story is a great one: she's a fantastic character and her struggles to make it are compelling. Ko also had me cringing in recognition at the way she painted Daniel's adoptive parents and their friends, who adopted a baby girl from China...the self-satisfied pats on their own backs for helping their children "connect with their culture" through food and dance classes, the way Deming is renamed like he's a puppy they picked up at the pound instead of a person. By the end, Ko has developed Daniel into a more understandable character and I came around to appreciating the book, but it really makes you slog through some bad (not even just like challenging, but bad) content to get there.

Tell me, blog friends...does a bad beginning turn you off a book entirely?

One year ago, I was reading: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books To Read Together

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I'm taking a slightly different tack on this week's topic. We're supposed to be writing about books we'd like to mash together to make an epic story, but honestly I had no idea what I'd do with that. I don't read a lot of fantasy, and I know you could do it with other kinds of books but I wasn't feeling creative so here's what I came up with instead: books that complement each other when read together. Each of them portrays a "side" of a story, so putting them together makes for a more well-rounded look at it.

Gone with the Wind and Beloved: Margaret Mitchell's classic of the antebellum South did bring us the incredible character of Scarlett O'Hara, but made no attempt to critically examine the machine on which that society was built: chattel slavery. Toni Morrison's Beloved, the story of a slave who escaped to the north at a great price, makes the horrors of it viscerally real. We often romanticize the plantation lifestyle, and we need to reckon with the terrible cost, too.

Little House on the Prairie and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: I used to get in trouble in school for reading books while I was in class, and when I was a kid, Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories about her family's journey across the country were ones I tucked inside my textbooks to read again and again. But the westward drive of white settlers had a devastating impact on the people who'd lived there for hundreds of years, so Dee Brown's nonfiction recounting of the desperate, doomed fight of the Native Americans to retain their land and traditions is necessary to understand what the Ingalls family was actually a part of.

To Kill A Mockingbird and Native Son: That poor Tom is innocent of the charges against him is, of course, a critical part of the injustice Harper Lee's novel asks us to understand. But while Lee wraps it in a soft, white-savior narrative, Richard Wright's searing book is much less comfortable in its story of a young black man who does assault a white woman. It examines the social conditions of the Jim Crow era that perpetuated criminality in a very up-front way, really forcing us to consider our own complicity in the system.

Lolita and Speak: Don't get me wrong, I consider Vladimir Nabakov's tale of Humbert Humbert's obsession with the vulnerable Delores one of my all-time favorites. It's an incredible book and not nearly as salacious as most people expect. But it's the story of the predator, and for a story about the impact of being the very young prey of a rapist, it's hard to beat Laurie Halse Anderson's incredible YA novel about a teenage girl ostracized after she calls the police when she's assaulted at a party. Anderson makes her nightmare real, and she's not even dependent on her rapist as Lolita is on hers.

The Great Gatsby and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: I actually didn't love it when I first read it in high school, but F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece has come to be The Great American Novel in my eyes. It's come to symbolize the grandeur and excess of early 20th century New York City so thoroughly that people don't talk about having Roaring 20s parties, they talk about Great Gatsby parties. But for all that excess and wealth, there was also poverty and want, and Betty Smith's beautifully rendered coming-of-age story shows the struggle beneath the glitter.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book 140: The Children of Henry VIII

"There remained, however, the problem of what to do with the body. The Duke had hoped for a fortnight in which to gather his resources, but, since the weather was warm and the corpse already beginning to decay, this proved untenable. He could not leave the body in the King's chamber, yet nor could he risk an autopsy - which, in view of the current rumors, his colleagues might suggests which might reveal the arsenic in Edward's body."

Dates read: April 13-21, 2017

Rating: 7/10

The more I read about Henry VIII and the world into which he came, the more understandable he becomes. Instead of reading his serial marriages as the behavior of a man who refused to control his desires, it becomes obvious that, in significant part, the desire for a male heir to ensure the security of his bloodline was all-consuming and not unreasonable. After decades of brutal warfare between the Lancaster and York family lines, Henry was the product of a fragile new dynasty, and his failure to produce a viable heir could plunge England back into active hostilities. He needed a son, or better yet two, so that in the event that the first one didn't survive to produce heirs of his own (like Henry's own older brother Arthur), there would be someone to carry on the line.

These fears turned out to be both founded and unfounded. While he was absolutely correct to be worried about producing a son that would survive to adulthood, his failure to do so led directly to one of the most successful reigns in English history. In The Children of Henry VIII, Alison Weir focuses on the period between Henry's death and the beginning of Elizabeth's rule. This 11-year timespan saw three monarchs and a significant amount of instability, much of it driven by the religious schism between English Catholics longing to return to the old faith and Protestants wanting to protect their gains. With this book, Weir explores how Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey (Henry's grandneice), Mary I, and Elizabeth I interacted with each other, with the nobility, and with the levers of power.

In popular culture, there's a tendency to focus on Henry and then Elizabeth, with little if any thought to what happened in between. But there was a LOT of drama...Elizabeth's teenage sex scandal with her stepmother's husband, Edward's slow death from tuberculosis, complete with an artificial prolonging of his life to give courtiers more time to scheme to get another Protestant on the throne, Jane Grey's 19-day queenship, in which she was mostly a pawn to her parents and their co-conspirators, Mary's romantic obsession with her largely uninterested husband and her extended phantom pregnancy which everyone just apparently pretended never happened. Seriously! She went into confinement to have her baby and stayed there for months and then just disbanded it long after it should have been obvious that there wasn't going to be a baby.

As always, Weir has a keen sense of who her subjects are as people and gives them life rather than just dryly recounting the events of their life. We see Edward's haughty remove and strong religious conviction, Jane's helplessness as a pawn in a game she's not a player in, Mary's desperation to have a family of her own to love and fervent Catholic faith, and Elizabeth's intelligence and caution, constantly trying to balance on a wire. It's easy to see why Weir was inspired to write about Jane for her first stab at fiction, as her sympathy for the doomed teenager shines through brightly. She's clearly done her research and the book feels satisfying both as reading for information and reading for entertainment. I'd definitely recommend this book!

Tell me, blog friends...did you know that Elizabeth got into hot water with Katherine Parr's husband?

One year ago, I was reading: Butterfly Boy

Two years ago, I was reading: The White Tiger