Friday, November 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: November 2018

What a month! When you work in politics, Novembers in even years are always big ones because of Election Day, and then there's the beginning of the holidays, and I'm actually on my way to my annual girls' trip with my high school besties right now! Busy end to the year around here.

In Books...

  • Seduction: I've been a longtime fan of Karina Longworth's podcast, You Must Remember This, so her book on Howard Hughes was one of my most-anticipated for the year. And it didn't disappoint, I totally loved it! The usual reliable research, insightful analysis, and solid storytelling...a must for fans of Old Hollywood!
  • In Defense of Food: I'm always skeptical when the premise for an argument is that the science in the given field is very conveniently means that you never have to prove your assertions. So while I do think there are some good ideas in here to consider, as a whole, I never quite bought in. 
  • The Gathering: The quality of the prose in this book, about a large Irish family coming together for the funeral of one of the siblings, is exquisite. But it's so busy being gorgeously-written that it forgets to tell a compelling story, and the whole thing feels very self-conciously "literary" in a way that I found off-putting.
  • Everything Under: This debut novel was written by the youngest-ever author to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And while the modern-day take on the Oedipus legend is solidly good, lushly atmospheric, and clearly the product of a very talented writer...I never got hooked into it the way I hoped I would. There were a couple of things that didn't quite come together for me, and kept it from greatness. 
  • Uncle Tungsten: This memoir focuses mainly on author Oliver Sacks' deep love for chemistry during his childhood, and honestly I hated chemistry in high school (sorry, Mom). But because it's Oliver Sacks, it's written with such warmth and humor and understanding that I rather enjoyed it. 
  • Dark Places: This novel explores a woman deeply damaged by the murder of her entire family when she was just seven...a crime for which her brother was convicted mostly on the strength of her testimony against him. When she becomes hard up for money, though, and agrees to investigate that night further for a local true crime enthusiast group, it throws everything she thought she knew into doubt. Bad people abound, including our protagonist, but they're interestingly bad and the novel is compelling.
  • The Possibilities: At first I was a little worried that this novel about a mother mourning the loss of her son, who connects with the girl her son was dating shortly after his death, would be too similar to Paint It Black, which I read only a couple months ago. Turns out, it's mostly similar to Kaui Hart Hemmings' own The Descendants, which shares its themes of families processing grief but does it better. It's fine, it just wasn't any more than that. 

In Life...

  • Election Day: When you do campaigns, this is a big deal. Months and months of stress and planning and work go in behind the scenes...and this year was a great one, because all our candidates won! I truly believe in our candidates and am thrilled they'll be in office!
  • The holidays began: Started off the holiday season with a nice long weekend, trying out a new dessert recipe for pumpkin bars, and a tasty dinner hosted by my in-laws. Thanksgiving weekend wasn't all good news though...both my husband and I watched our favorite football teams lose their rivalry games so that was a bummer. 

One Thing:

I'd seen both the masterpiece Judy Garland version and the kind-of-terrible Barbra Streisand version, so I had to round it out by finally seeing the Lady Gaga version of A Star Is Born this month. It's a familiar story, and Bradley Cooper's never been my favorite actor, so I was a little skeptical, but I really liked it! Cooper's never been better, Gaga was winning, and the songs were legitimately solid. I'm glad that I actually managed to see an awards contender before Christmas, and I'd honestly recommend it, it's very enjoyable!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book 157: My Antonia

"Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

Dates read: July 1-4, 2017

Rating: 5/10

There's something very powerful about childhood friendships. My best friends are still two girls that I've been friends with since elementary school, even though I live on the other side of the country from them...there's a special-ness to having history that's shared from the time you were really young, the way you got to know each other's parents at sleepovers, the field trips and dances and first relationships you were there for each other for. I feel like I know them, and they know me, in a way that would be almost impossible to replicate for people we've met later in our lives. We've been there with each other as we became adult people, through the fits and starts and steps backward and forward and sideways. It's a strong bond.

In Willa Cather's novel My Antonia, Jim Burden recounts his memories of Antonia Schimerda, the dearest friend of his youth. They arrive in rural Nebraska on the same train: orphaned ten year-old Jim going to live with his grandparents, fourteen year-old Antonia as part of her immigrant Bohemian (Czech) family. They tread similar but not identical tracks...while Jim's family is prosperous and steady, the Schimerdas quickly find themselves mired in poverty and struggle to make ends meet. But they live close to each other (by pioneer standards, anyways) and the two become close. Even when the Burdens move into town, Antonia's there before long, as a "hired girl" to do housekeeping. When Jim goes off to college, Antonia stays, and even so they easily pick up where they left off when they reconnect almost a decade later.

There's not much of a traditional story structure here. It's presented as an adult Jim's recollections of his friend, so it takes a loose and kind of winding way of presenting its narrative. I didn't take much issue with that, since the book is pretty short, honestly, and not super textually rich so it's not like it gets bogged down for the lack of standard-issue "rising action". Where I found myself losing interest was in the last third or so of the book, in which the lively Antonia largely vanishes and we're left mostly with Jim, who is pretty boring and whose straightforward path doesn't have any real tension. We see the world of the novel through Jim's eyes, but it's Antonia who gives it its animating force. I'd argue that Cather's strength isn't so much her prose, which didn't do much for me, but her characterizations. She imbues even relatively minor characters, like Otto the hired farmhand, or Antonia's mother, or fellow young immigrant woman Lena with a verve that makes them memorable. Too bad she couldn't do the same for her ostensible main character.

I will say that I'm glad this book was something I read as an adult instead of in high school. Teenage me would have HATED it because it's kind of boring, and while adult me would agree on the boring part, I was able to bring more life experience to bear that improved the reading of it, for me. I'm able to appreciate the way a significant friendship can loom large in your nostalgic reflections of childhood, and the hesitancy you can feel about reaching out even when you really want to reconnect. And one thing I did really enjoy and think still is criminally underrepresented in literature is the depiction of a genuine mixed gender friendship. As someone who's had strong, completely nonromantic friendships with men that I've really cherished, I feel like so often you only see those depicted as part of a family relationship or one of the two parties is gay, like there has to be some obstacle to "explain" why a man and a woman who enjoy spending time with each other would not want to sleep together. To see an actual friendship between a boy and a girl depicted as just that, in a novel published literally a century ago, is refreshing.

Tell me, blog you believe that men and women can be just friends?

One year ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth

Two years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Three years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Platonic Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! While romances may get the swoons, some of my favorite relationships between characters in books are families and friends. So without further ado, here are ten of my favorite platonic relationships I've read on the page!

Vasya and Dunya (The Bear and the Nightingale): The bond between the old nurse and her wild young charge is so warm and loving that it makes the horror of what happens near the end even worse.

Lyra and Iorek (The Golden Compass): The strange, sober bear king and the clever, high-spirited girl make a great team and develop a geniune closeness.

Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility): As the older sister myself, I identify with the steady Elinor, and I love her connection with her open-hearted little sister.

Mariam and Laila (A Thousand Splendid Suns): These "sister wives" suffer through an awful husband together and become each other's rock.

Siskel and Ebert (Life Itself): The real love Ebert felt for the co-anchor who was in many ways his opposite and with whom he sparred regularly just shines through the pages of his memoir.

Madeline, Celeste, and Jane (Big Little Lies): The way the friendships between the main women are built, the realism underlying even the more over-the-top aspects of the plot, really make this book work.

Sabriel and Mogget (Sabriel): The tension between these uneasy allies, the way they vacillate between mistrust and fondness, is an enjoyable aspect of this book and its sequels.

Meg and Charles Wallace (A Wrinkle in Time): The fierce, protective love Meg has for her otherworldly little brother, and his love for her, are the emotional core of this whole series.

Matilda and Miss Honey (Matilda): Obviously this book is wonderful, and this relationship is what makes it so great. Two kind-hearted, cruelly treated people who find in each other someone to care for!

Wilbur and Homer (The Cider House Rules): If this surrogate father and son relationship doesn't get you in the feels, you don't have any.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book 156: The Good German

"Clean. Hardworking. Just like us. Then they'd seen the camps, or at least the newsreels. How could they do it? The answer, the only one that made sense to them, was that they hadn't—somebody else had. But there wasn't anybody else. So they stopped asking."

Dates read: June 27- July 1, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Black and white thinking about the world is tempting. It would be easier that way, to separate it into good and bad without overlap or complication. But the world is a complication, and nearly everyone lives inside a shade of gray. Like most people, I like to think about myself as a good person, but of course (also like most people), I've been rude and thoughtless and even occasionally cruel. I mean girled a close friend in high school and made her cry. I stole a sweater that fell off of someone's laundry pile in college. I've said vicious things to my sister. Those aren't things a "good person" does, and the guilt I feel when I think about them inspires me to try to be better moving forward, to try to at least be on the lighter side of gray.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies found themselves trying to figure out how to deal with a whole mess of dark-gray-but-not-quite-black. There were a few obvious evildoers that were put on trial and executed, but what to do with the vast majority of German people who were on some level complicit with Nazi rule but didn't really do anything? And what about people who might have been more directly involved with the machinery of the Nazi state but have something valuable to offer? Joseph Kanon's The Good German is deeply steeped in these hard, serious questions, which serve as background to a complicated romance and a twisty thriller, both centering on American journalist Jake Geismar.

Geismar arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, but he's not new to the city. He lived and worked there for years, including the early years of the Nazi regime, before the war. His assignment might be to cover Potsdam, but he's really there to find Lena, the beautiful married woman with whom he was having a passionate affair before he left. But before he can find her, he finds something else: a young American soldier, floating dead in a lake with a bullethole through him and thousands of dollars still on him. His investigation of the dead man leads him back to Lena, but along with Lena come questions about her husband, Emil. Emil, a literal rocket scientist, has vanished and both the Americans and the Russians are very, very interested in what might have happened to him.

I've always enjoyed books that go right for the kind of moral relativity that can be very uncomfortable to contemplate, and The Good German is rife with it. Who is the titular good German anyways? Is it Lena and the thousands of others like her who tried to live their lives as normally as possible, pretending they didn't know what was happening, not speaking out or acting out against the regime but not really having done anything affirmatively to participate in it either? Is it someone like Emil, who did have more active participation but has skills that can help the victors achieve great things? Is it Emil's father, an academic who dropped out of public life with the rise of the Nazis but didn't do anything to actively resist? What about the former detective, very much a part of the Nazi state, but who helped his Jewish wife survive until she was spotted by someone else, and providing testimony against the woman who betrayed his wife to her death?

That the betrayer was, in this case, herself Jewish led me down a disturbing Wikipedia deep dive. I knew there was some level of individual Jewish cooperation with the Nazi state in situations like ghetto leadership, but I never knew there were Jewish people who helped "out" Jews that were in hiding to the Nazis. The novel's character seems to be loosely based on Stella Kubler, who initially began her work in order to protect her parents and husband, as well as herself. But even after they were deported to death camps, she continued to catch other Jews for two years! After serving time in Russia, she converted to Christianity and eventually ended up committing suicide but not until the 1990s. So I learned something completely new, which is always interesting.

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. It sounds like kind of a "dad book" (WWII-era, thriller, older male protagonist) but it's quite good. Kanon draws interesting characters and puts them into difficult situations, and with the thriller elements there's a nice balance of plot and character. I did get a little confused near the end trying to keep track of who was on what side and who was double crossing who, but on the whole the book was involving and prompted a lot of thought. I tend to be a little wary of World War II books because I feel like a lot of them go over the same territory again and again, but this one was a new take (for me, anyways), and is very much worth a read.

Tell me, blog you believe in moral relativity or is it more black and white for you?

One year ago, I was reading: In The Woods

Two years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Families I Would Not Want To Spend Thanksgiving With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Thanksgiving coming up this week, we're doing a turkey-day inspired freebie! So here's my spin on it...ten families I absolutely would not want to spend Thanksgiving with!

The Torrances (The Shining): The head of household is a violent alcoholic and/or possessed by an evil hotel, so...pass.

The Magnussons (White Oleander): Astrid's got a good heart, but Ingrid...I wouldn't trust anything she'd put on the table.

The Bertrams (Mansfield Park): Dad's kind of a doofus, Mom's useless, the girls are brats, the older brother's a dimwit, and Mrs. Norris is the wooooorst.

The Lamberts (The Corrections): Literally everyone in this book/family is a monster of selfishness.

The van Meters (Seating Arrangements): The family patriarch, Winn, seems like exactly the kind of dad who would get sulky if you didn't compliment his job cooking the turkey lavishly enough.

The Foxes (Where'd You Go Bernadette): Bee is a sweet kid, but Elgin and Bernadette are both so preoccupied with themselves and their own unhappiness that it would be a miserable experience.

The Kitteridges (Olive Kitteridge): Nothing about Olive's trip to New York to see her son made me think that there would be anything worthwhile about spending time around that.

The Chases (The Sisters Chase): Mary is a straight-up sociopath and no one needs that in their house to make the holidays more stressful.

The O'Malleys (The Highest Tide): The parents are like, Exhibit A in why staying together "for the kids" is not necessarily a good idea.

The Battistas (Vinegar Girl): The baby sister is deeply stupid, the older sister is a jerk, and the father is the type that would trade away his daughter in marriage to someone she hardly knows because it would make his own life easier. Yuck.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book 155: Spook

"If you do a web search on the initials EVP, you'll find dozens of sites with hundreds of audio files of these recordings. Though some sound like clearly articulated words or whispers, many are garbled and echoey and mechanical-sounding. It's hard to imagine them coming from dead souls without significantly altering one's image of the hereafter. Heaven is supposed to have clouds and white cloth and other excellent sound-absorbing materials. The heaven of these voices sounds like an airship hangar. They're very odd."

Dates read: June 24-27, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I think I've mentioned this before, but if I ever want to send myself into existential-crisis-land, I start wondering what exactly happens when we die. I get the biological piece, but what about the "me" part? Where does it go? Is there a soul, or am I just the sum of various electrical and chemical reactions in my brain? Of all the many thousands of years that there have been and will be humans on this planet, do I really only get to see these decades that I'm allotted in this life? Or is there another life where I get to see how it all plays out?

I've given myself anxiety just writing about it! Much like me, Mary Roach is a skeptic about life after death, and so decided to turn her science-oriented eye towards the various theories out there about what happens when we're gone. In Spook, she travels to India to meet people who claim to be reincarnated, she meets mediums and goes to a class to learn how to channel the dead herself, she goes to England to see Cambridge's preserved sample of what was alleged to be "ectoplasm", and she looks at the so-called research behind the popular theory that people lose 21 grams of weight at death when the soul departs the body.

In every instance, she's confronted with the gulf between what the heart wants to believe and what the scientifically-validated research says is real. Hindus frequently claim to know someone who is reincarnated, but their belief system encompasses this and reincarnations usually seem to occur in close proximity (i.e. the person who is now dead and their "new" body are usually within less than 100 miles of each other). On the other hand, the motives that one might suspect behind a dubious claim, like the desire for financial support, aren't usually present. There are frequent reports, in the United States, of people who have had near-death experiences feeling like they're floating away from their body and can see it recede below them as they go towards the light. But only in a very, very few of them did they report seeing anything that they wouldn't have been able to see from within their body before. Every attempt to replicate the 21 grams experiment has failed, including several of that researcher's own.

Much like A.J. Jacobs in last week's post, Mary Roach manages the tricky art of tone-setting for a work exploring an issue that tends to elicit strong and often irrational feelings. It comes clearly through that, like most of the audience that would be inclined to pick up this book, she's primarily fact-oriented but in her heart, hopes she'll find something there. The idea that when our bodies die, the person that we are inside that body just stops along with us is a harsh one, and the fact that virtually every belief system includes some sort of continued life demonstrates that people really don't want to believe it. The way she structures the book, too, into short chapters focusing on one theory each, helps keep it moving along and away from getting bogged down into tiny intricacies. In a subject area that can be heavy, this helps keep it light.

I will say that this might not be the book for the deeply reverent. Roach refuses to hold back from having a sense of humor about any of it and some may think she treats the sacred too cavalierly. But for anyone who has questions and wants a peek into what science tells us about the various and sundry ways that the dead have been said to interact with the living, this is a witty, enjoyable read.

Tell me, blog you let yourself go down the rabbit hole on this issue or do you manage to not think about it (if the latter, please tell me your secret in the comments)?

One year ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Two years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Items/Merchandise I’d Like to Own

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the book-inspired stuff we covet! I'll admit that I'm not much of a reading-accessories person, generally speaking, but no one is completely immune to the siren song of merch. Here are ten book-related things I'd like to have!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone t-shirt: It's not my favorite of the series (that's Goblet of Fire), but this cover is iconic!

The Great Gatsby closing line print: The last line of Gatsby is one of my favorite lines I've ever read, so having it to hang on a wall and admire would be delightful!

The Warrior Achilles candle: Inspired by The Iliad, this candle sounds like it would smell delicious.

A pug bookmark: One can never have too many bookmarks. Nor too many pug-themed items.

Charter symbol throw blanket: The Old Kingdom series is one of my favorites, and this fuzzy blanket covered in the symbols of its magic system would be perfect to get cozy under!

Custom bookplates: If you're going to lend your books out (which I sometimes do), you should probably make sure no one can forget which ones are yours!

Stack of book earrings: I do love wearing fun earrings, and these are so little and cute!

You Can't Read All Day... mug: I have probably more coffee mugs than I need, but I neeeeeeeeed it.

Reading is t-rexcellent sweatshirt: I can't help it, I love dinosaurs, and I love this sweater.

Moby Dick tote: Such a cool design!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book 154: The Year of Living Biblically

"The Bible says thou shalt not steal; I stole my neighbor's wireless signal. And now I'm limping around the house with a bum knee."

Dates read: June 21-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a senior in high school and remember being shocked at how many n-bombs there were. I'd heard the word used by white people maybe a handful of times in my life to that point (not that there weren't racists in my very white town, there were plenty, but they kept that kind of talk out of the public sphere) and here it was just all over this work of classic literature. The book tends to inspire challenges and protests for this very reason, and I'm definitely speaking from a place of privilege here, but I don't agree with campaigns to produce a version that has it censored out. All historical documents are a product of their time and place and working with that context is an important part of thinking critically about the world.

The Bible, for instance, is a historical document. The Old Testament dates back to hundreds of years before Christ, and the New Testament to within 100 years after his death. It's a holy book, but it's also the product of two distinct time periods, both very long ago. It's filled with rules, both specific and vague, that reflect the world of nomadic, desert-dwelling herding people rather than the world in which most Judeo-Christian people live today. Writer A.J. Jacobs decided to see what it would be like to actually try to live by these rules in the modern world in his book, The Year of Living Biblically. As Jacobs is a secular Jewish husband and father in New York City, wackiness ensues.

He's no stranger to offbeat projects...he'd previously written a book about his experience of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. But when he was doing prep work for this book and realized that the Bible contains over 700 rules, ranging from very specific things like fiber-mixing and beard trimming prohibitions to very general things like restraining from covetousness, he decided to focus on the Ten Commandments first and tackle as many of the others as he could, because he knew he couldn't do all of them every day. He also seeks out people who are devoted to their religious beliefs in their own ways, leading to a visit to Amish Country, the Creation Museum, to see snakehandling Pentecostals, and even an overseas trip to Jerusalem. This on top of a regular job writing for Esquire, parenting a small son, and being a partner to his pregnant wife.

Jacobs is witty without being snarky, which is a good tone for this book. There's sometimes a tendency among secular types to get condescending about matters of religious faith and belief, which is counter-productive at best. He admits that since he's deeply agnostic, one of the hardest rules for him to follow is regular prayer, but he gamely tries anyways and is honest about both his initial discomfort and the ease that grows after months of practice. After having a hard time, in a hyperconnected world, retreating into the quiet of the Sabbath, he comes to look forward to that time to unwind and recharge. While he can't quite get into the harshness of parenting his son from a "spare the rod, spoil the child" perspective, he knows he needs to be better about discipline and he starts taking steps in the right direction.

I found this book enjoyable, if a little on the lightweight side. Although it's necessarily from Jacobs' perspective, I found myself really curious about how his wife felt about this particular experiment and what it was like to live with someone doing this. It's pretty clear from what Jacobs writes that his wife was often irritated by the project, and his frequent absences while leaving her with their son to handle while she was pregnant with twins had to be absolutely infuriating. Then again, that Jacobs seemed to simply expect her to shoulder the mental and emotional burden of dealing with his choices isn't really out of line with the very patriarchal culture in which the Bible was steeped. Recommended for people curious about religion and/or with a sense of humor about their own.

Tell me, blog you think it's valuable to look at books through their cultural context?

One year ago, I was reading: The Underground Railroad

Two years ago, I was reading: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Backlist Books I've Added To My TBR Lately

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is technically about books we want to read that were released more than a year ago. But since that's well over 80% of my reading, I thought I'd narrow it down to the older books I've added to my to-read list the most recently.

Natasha: I've gotten more into classic Hollywood lately, so there have been several bios of major stars that have made my list. This one, about Natalie Wood, I haven't gotten yet but have my eye on.

The Opium Wars: The recent opioid crisis is just the latest in a long series of crises related to the poppy, so I picked up a secondhand copy of this book about the Opium Wars to get some perspective. 

Bluebeard's Egg: I am not usually a short story person, but Margaret Atwood can do little wrong in my eyes, so this is one of her collections I'm looking to add to my shelf. 

Call Me By Your Name: I really liked the movie version of this, and I've heard the book is different but still wonderful, so I'm going to pick this up one of these days. 

The Emissary: This was recommended on the book thread of one of my favorite subreddits and sounds fascinating, so it's on my list to acquire. 

The End of the Affair: I read recently that this is one of Reese Witherspoon's favorite books, and she's someone who's got pretty good taste in reading, so I'm happy to take her recommendation and grab it soon at the bookstore!

The Book of Salt: This was on that list I linked a while back of critics choosing the best books published since the turn of the century, and it's a Kindle Monthly Deal for November so I got it super cheap!

The Boys from Brazil: I enjoy Ira Levin, and this sounds like an interesting concept, so I added to a recent order of secondhand books!

The Wife: They're making a movie out of this, and Sarah at Sarah's Book Shelves has raved about it, so it's the one I bought at the bookstore during my recent trip to St. Paul!

Gated: Ever since my husband and I watched Wild Wild Country, I've been on a cult kick, and this YA novel on the subject has been well-reviewed, so I'm planning to buy it. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Book 153: Spoiled

"Brooke closed her eyes and exhaled. It was bad enough that Ginevra's pleasantly nasty little shoe-related blind item had been canceled out by Molly's popular appearance in the latest issue of Hey! Between the fact that her actors were operating at straight-to-DVD levels and all the gushy comments she'd heard lately about Molly's eyes, or her clothes, or that heinous backpack, Brooke's nerves were as frayed as a pair of tights on Taylor Momsen. She'd even been seen eating chips in public. Like a commoner."

Dates read: June 18-21, 2017

Rating: 6/10

My sister is one of my best friends. But it wasn't always that way. When I first found out I was getting a sister, I was...not excited. As a pathological attention seeker from the very beginning, I was perfectly happy to be an only child thank you very much. Not too long after she was born, my mom saw me carrying my sister toward the kitchen. When she asked me where I was going, I told her I was going to throw Amelia in the garbage can because she cried too much. Informed that this was not an option, I argued for a return to the hospital. The presiding judge/my mom ruled against me. It didn't get a lot better until I went to college and we were out of each other's hair and then we realized we actually rather liked each other and though of course we still fight because we're sisters and I've never been one to let someone be wrong without making sure they know they are, she's a deeply important part of my life.

If normal circumstances like mine lead to sibling rivalry, finding out when you're already 16 that you have a sister you never knew about, who's the same age as you, would be rough. In Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan's debut novel, Spoiled, they introduce us to Brooke Berlin, only daughter of Hollywood mega-star Brick Berlin. Brooke longs to be an actor and see her face in all the magazines like her dad and is gleefully planning the Sweet 16 party that will be her social debut...when she finds out that she's not actually Brick's only daughter. Right before he met and married Brooke's mother, Kelly, he had a fling with Laurel, a costume designer on a movie set, and only found out about her pregnancy after Kelly was pregnant too. Laurel went back to Indiana and raised her daughter, Molly, to believe that her father was a military man who died before she was born. But Molly finds out the truth just before Laurel passes away, and finds herself on her way to Los Angeles to live the father and sister she never knew.

That all probably makes this sound kind of heavy, but it's really not. What transpires from there is straight out of 90s/00s high school movie mashup heaven...Brooke and Molly squabble, and Molly finds herself in the middle of a long-standing rivalry between her spoiled brat of a sister and Shelby, the daughter of a tabloid king. She also finds herself torn between her long-time, on-again-off-again hometown boyfriend and the cute boy at her tony new prep school. All this set against the sisters being forced to work together on a production of My Fair Lady. The drama!

I've been a longtime reader and fan of Cocks and Morgan, who write one of my favorite blogs on the internet: Go Fug Yourself. They're very steeped in Hollywood and fashion, given that they write about those things literally every day, and have developed an irreverent, snarky-without-being-mean tone that worked perfectly for this little snack of a YA novel. There are all kinds of little details that are delightful: that Brooke's best friend is named Arugula, Brick's dim-bulb bon mots, a daft football player and his perky blonde girlfriend that are obviously heavily inspired by Kevin and Brittany from Daria. Coming off of reading two heavily-fact-based nonfiction books about Serious Issues, the breeziness of Spoiled really hit the spot. It's kind of like a candy bar: tasty and gone quickly and not especially memorable.

I know they were trying to ground their story in real emotions, but that the whole story takes off from Molly's mother's relatively sudden death from cancer doesn't really work. That this is very much a secondary plot point kind of strains credulity. A 16 year-old just mostly moving on from the death of her only parent without much in the way of emotional trauma? Although it's their feelings about their missing mothers (Brooke's mother has had no contact with her daughter at all in the years since her divorce from Brick) that ultimately forms the glue that bonds Molly and Brooke together in the end (spoiler, but not really because if you can see their reunification coming right from the beginning of their feud), I wish they'd found another way to force Molly out to California because it's jarring every time you're reminded of it. It's a significant false note in what's otherwise a catchy little ditty. Otherwise, this is a fun, silly, light book perfect for when you need an easy read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Two years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology