Thursday, December 5, 2019

Book 210: The Selfish Gene



"Eggs are a relatively valuable resource, and therefore a female does not need to be so sexually attractive as a male does in order to ensure that her eggs are fertilized. A male is perfectly capable of siring all the children born to a large population of females. Even if a male has a short life because his gaudy tail attracts predators, or gets tangled in the bushes, he may have fathered a very large number of children before he dies. An unattractive or drab male may live even as long as a female, but he has few children, and his genes are not passed on. What shall it profit a male if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his immortal genes?" 

Dates read: February 19-24, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I read books on a schedule. Apparently this isn't a popular way to do things, and most people read based on mood. And I'll admit that sometimes I wish I did cut myself more of a break when it comes to adding in impulse reading. But I know there are books that are interesting and good and will be worth my while that I'll probably never really be "in the mood" to read, and so my schedule goes on.

Richard Dawkins' debut book, The Selfish Gene, fit in that "want to read, but never really right now" category for me. And it turned out I was glad that I picked it up! It examines a fundamental question about human nature: are people naturally generous, or are we naturally selfish? And to what extent is altruism (or the lack thereof) transmitted through our genes? To answer these questions, Dawkins examines how complex organisms, up to and including humans, evolved, to what extent behavior patterns are genetically transmitted, how deeply we might be motivated to help others depending on closely we're related to/share genes with them, and even gets into game theory.

The fundamental premise of the book is that genes "want" (to the extent that inanimate bodily particles want anything) to be passed on. Which one might think would automatically mean that genes that encode for behavior patterns that are selfish/centered on one's own survival at the expense of others would win out, but it's not as easy as that. One's genes also have an investment in being helpful (to a certain extent) to those who have a high likelihood of sharing them: parents, children, siblings, and to a lesser extent aunts/uncles, grandparents/grandkids, etc. And then there's the reality that we'll all need help, of some form or another, at some point, so there's a benefit to providing it to others in the hopes that it'll be returned when needed. So while it's not true altruism, there is some level of unselfishness that's been built in to most of our genetic codes as well.

I read one of Dawkins' later works a few years ago (The God Delusion), and did not like it at all. I found his authorial voice pedantic and grating. But The Selfish Gene is a science classic, so I made myself read it even though I thought I might not like it...and I didn't notice the same kind of condescending attitude. In fact, I thought it struck a good middle ground between dumbing down the concepts to the point where it's so basic there's no room for nuance, and be so technical it ends up talking over the heads of a non-science audience. Instead, it boiled concepts down to a level I felt comfortable with (I may have a J.D., but I never took science beyond basic high school biology and chemistry because it just never much appealed to me) and honestly provided the first explanation of game theory (or at least The Prisoner's Dilemma) that actually took in my brain.

It's still a little bit pedantic, but as someone with a tendency to be a pedant myself I didn't really mind it. Some scientists convey a sense of wonder about the world that a lot of readers really enjoy, though, and if you're looking for something along those lines, this will probably not be for you. If your spiritual beliefs are such that you're going to want some room left for divine intervention as a factor in evolution, this again is unlikely to be a book you'll enjoy. Although he doesn't really touch on religion in this book, Dawkins is a militant atheist and this is strictly scientific. Otherwise, though, there's a lot to get out of this and I'd recommend it to readers interested in genetics and/or altruism!

One year ago, I was reading: Interpreter of Maladies (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Games

Three years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Which Make Great Gifts

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week we're talking about holiday reads. I am not generally concerned with books set at particular times of year, nor do I remember many holiday scenes beyond the ones in Harry Potter, so my take on this week is going to be a little different. I'm talking about ten books that make great holiday gifts! These tend to be my most-recommended books because they're widely appealing.



In Cold Blood: The true-crime classic is a masterwork of storytelling, truly representing the best of what narrative non-fiction can be.

The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer, and this book has had growing visibility in the current political climate and with the Hulu series. Surprisingly many people haven't read it, though, and it's very much worth reading.

Station Eleven: I actually just recommended this to my book club! It's a post-apocalyptic story for people who don't like post-apocalyptic stories, telling a tale of a world both before and 20 years after a pandemic flu, that both builds great characters and asks interesting questions about what we as people need to survive.

The Secret History: This has something for everyone! A twisty, engaging plot, vivid and interesting characters, fantastic prose. And Donna Tartt was only 28 when it was published which is mind-boggling.

Remains of the Day: Truly one of the most well-crafted novels I have ever read, this story of an English butler who is convinced that he's rendered service to a great man reflecting on his life is just astonishingly good (and will break your heart).

Less: The rare light-hearted novel to win a Pulitzer, this book about an aging minor writer who takes a trip around the world to deal with the fact that his sort-of boyfriend is marrying someone else is so charming and warm that it tricks you into not noticing how flawlessly it's put together.

Stardust: For someone at all open to fantasy, this tale about a young man who swears to catch a fallen star for his love interest, only to find out that the star is not at all interested in being taken anywhere, is much more accessible (and honestly, enjoyable) than Neil Gaiman's more well-known American Gods.

The Namesake: The son of Indian immigrants to the US is named Gogol, after the Russian writer, and his name is just one the sources of tension as he grows up and struggles to figure himself out. The character work is top-notch, and Lahiri's writing is just so strong.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: It's a coming-of-age story, but that doesn't mean it can't be appreciated by adults too! Francie Nolan's childhood in Brooklyn, growing up as the bookish daughter of a charming but unreliable alcoholic father and relentlessly pragmatic mother, is heart-warming at any age.

The Age of Innocence: I think the classics freak a lot of people out, but they're often much better and less intimidating than people think. Case in point: this is set among rich people in New York City's Gilded Age, but at its heart, it's a dramatic (but repressed) love triangle. Edith Wharton was writing about her own social set, and it shows in her sharp wit and insight.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: November 2019



We're in the homestretch, y'all! Just one more month between us and 2020, which is WILD. And while I've had some awesome experiences this year, I always find myself looking forward to the new one about this time. But first, there are holidays to enjoy!

In Books...
  • Patron Saints of Nothing: A Filipino-American teenager, Jason, goes to the Philippines to investigate his cousin's mysterious death amidst Duterte's drug war in this book that tries, but can't quite rise above Issue Book tropes. There's merit here, and a clear desire to raise awareness, but thin characterization and clunky exposition keep it from ever taking off.
  • The Death and Life of the Great Lakes: Given my strong emotional attachment to the Great Lakes as a native Michigander, this was always going to appeal to me. But the examination of the disasters that have transpired through human meddling is written with a clear-eyed urgency and ease to read that makes it especially compelling.
  • Slam: This almost seems like an experiment to see if the man-child attitude of a Nick Hornby character works better on an actual teenage boy. Honestly, it kind of does? Sam is a teenage skateboarder, himself the child of teenage parents, when he gets his girlfriend Alicia pregnant and she elects to keep the baby. I've always enjoyed Hornby's warm humor, but this book just doesn't really go anywhere. 
  • The Great Mortality: The Black Death was a historical event I didn't have much of a grasp on and wanted to learn more about, but this book proved to be a bit of a mixed bag. It was clearly well-researched, but John Kelly's writing style was so casual that it didn't really work for me. It shoots for being entertaining and lands too often on cheesy, which is a pity because I did feel like I learned from it and would have liked it more if it had been more restrained. 
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley: This movie is one of those that I always enjoy watching, so I was curious about the source material. It's different...the murder takes place much earlier, more time is devoted to Ripley's efforts to evade discovery, but it's still very good. Highsmith builds interesting characters and relationships even while keeping the tension humming. 
  • Offshore: This very short novel tells the story of a group of people living on houseboats on the River Thames, with a particular focus on a young wife and mother, Nenna, who is unhappily separated from her husband. The prose is lovely and she does excellent work creating characters without having a lot of pages in which to do so, but the plot didn't quite work for me and the ending left me cold.
  • After The Party: This book tells the story of Phyllis, who returns to England with her older husband and three children before World War 2 and gets involved with a movement both her sisters already belong to...the British Union of Fascists. Phyllis had some inconsistencies as a character, which was a problem because she was the narrator, but the prose quality is solid and the story is interesting, and a very different take on a WW2 tale.

In Life...
  • Winter begins: It was a pretty quiet November, but with this being Thanksgiving weekend, it's officially the holiday season. I baked a delicious Zingerman's coffee cake for dessert for the big meal, and we got our first significant snowfall of the season!

One Thing:

I was not an especially frequent visitor to sports blog Deadspin, though I look forward every year to Drew Magary's Hater's Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog. But even if you never loaded the website once, the way that it and other media outlets have been purchased and essentially pillaged by private equity is chilling. In a world where getting a reliable paycheck for writing and journalism is growing more and more difficult, the bravery of the whole staff for resigning in protest of the challenges made to their editorial independence is inspiring. Deadspin Forever.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book 209: My Name Is Venus Black



"In time, he'd discover that I'm not unlike the planet I'm named for. At a great distance, Venus is beautiful, the brightest of stars in the sky. But what NASA discovered when they orbited her is that she's actually an inhospitable planet, a boiling cauldron of poisonous gases. Come too close and you'd fry."

Dates read: February 15-19, 2018

Rating: 3/10

When my sister was only a month or two old, I tried to throw her away. True story! I announced to my mom that she was useless because she wouldn't stop crying, and tried to bargain that if we couldn't throw her away, couldn't we at least return her to the hospital? We fought like crazy growing up, but once I went to college we started to get along better and she's one of my best friends now. There's nothing quite like the bond between siblings.

Of course, this isn't everyone's experience (although it is the experience of quite a few people I know with brothers and sisters). Some people become estranged. Some are just never close with their siblings. And others have been close their whole lives. Venus Black, eponymous heroine of Heather Lloyd's My Name Is Venus Black, falls into the last category. Though her brother Leo is six years her junior and is autistic (since the book is set in the 80s, he's described as having "special needs", but he's clearly on the spectrum), and is only technically her half-brother, Venus adores him and nurtures him. But her ability to take care of him is forever changed when, at 13, she commits a serious crime. We're not sure what it is at first, the book opens in medias res while Venus is confronting her mother at the police station, being interviewed after it happens. It becomes clear pretty quickly that "it" is that she's shot and killed her stepfather. Why, though, takes a long time to come out.

Only shortly after Venus commits the murder, Leo is kidnapped by his small-time-crook of an uncle out of the backyard of a friend of his mother's. Venus is devastated when she hears that he's gone, even trying to flee from pre-trial detention to look for him. But her escape attempt is foiled, and she's sent to juvenile lock-up until she's an adult. When she gets out, she wants to just take on a new identity and keep her head down and try to figure out a way to get her brother back. She gets a job as a waitress under an assumed name, rents a room, and is trying to save up to go to California. But she can't really escape her past...a promising flirtation becomes risky when she finds out he's a cop and might be able to discover who she really is, and eventually her mother tracks her down too. When they get a lead on Leo, though, everything changes.

By the time this review goes live, this book will have been out for well over a year, so I don't feel bad about the fact that I'm about to "spoil" the "why-dunnit". If you'd like to remain in the dark, stop reading. I'm mostly going to spill it because the book builds up to it like it's some kind of revelation and honestly it is not at all: Venus killed her stepdad because he was peeping at her though a hole in the wall. She tells her mother, and her mother does nothing about it. It makes the rage she feels at her mother feel justified and there's absolutely no reason it needs to be hidden in the back third of the book. It's a terrible plotting decision to bury it, but that's only one in a series of bad decisions Lloyd makes in her debut novel. The characters she draws are paper-thin (with the exception of Leo, who I'll get to next) and feel not-at-all real. Venus and Leo's mother is a terrible person, but Lloyd makes her a struggling alcoholic in a way that feels like it's supposed to give her sympathy (it fails, she's still a shitty parent). There's some weird religious overtones that come out of nowhere in the end of the book and it feels shoehorned and unearned. And the ethnicity of a supporting character is constantly referenced in a way that makes it feel almost fetishistic.

The sole bright spot, really, is the portion of the story around Leo. Lloyd's ability to convey both Leo's intelligence and his limitations, the way he does love the people in his life but has a hard time expressing it in a way that they understand, is deft and well-realized. Unfortunately, that's literally the only thing that worked for me in this book. The plot is uneven, the prose competent but uninspired, the characters mostly don't work. It's not even a matter of needing a better editor...there's a story here that could be interesting, but nearly everything would need to be completely revamped to give it the telling it would need to really connect. This is a poor quality book and I don't recommend it to anyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Hate U Give

Three years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I'd Be Grateful To See New Work From

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Thanksgiving just a few days away, this week is a thankful-themed freebie! So here are ten authors I'd be very thankful to read new work from.



Allie Brosh: Like what seems like the entire internet, I loved her Hyberbole and a Half blog, which got made into a hysterically funny book. There was a sequel planned, but it got cancelled. Brosh seems to have stopped writing, and what I've been able to find makes it seem like her life has changed quite a bit and maybe she's in a better place without sharing her work with the internet. But I miss her and would love to see new work if it was the right choice for her!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah, which I loved, came out in 2013. She's published some essays in the meantime, but I want more fiction!

Elif Batuman: The Idiot was a very promising debut novel, and Batuman's voice is one I'd love to read more of, so I hope a follow-up is coming soon!

Michael Chabon: I'm still catching up on his back catalog, but his last novel was 2016's Moonglow, which I very much liked, so I'm curious to see what he publishes next!

Alexander Chee: I loved The Queen of the Night and while I have his other novel, Edinburgh, waiting on my shelves to be read (and he did just publish a nonfiction book last year), I would love to read another work of fiction from him!

Libby Cudmore: I so enjoyed reading The Big Rewind, I'm ready for her next one!

Jeffrey Eugenides: He releases work at the speed of a snail but it's so good when he does and I'm just waiting for more!

Gillian Flynn: Gone Girl was incredible, but she hasn't published a novel since that one in 2012! It's been almost ten years, so I am looking forward to reading the next one as soon as it appears!

George R.R. Martin: GIVE ME THE WINDS OF WINTER NOW PLEASE AND THANK YOU!

Kazuo Ishiguro: His Nobel Prize was well-deserved on the strength of Remains of the Day alone it was such a masterpiece. I'll be honest that his most recent, The Buried Giant, was more miss than hit from me, but he always has interesting ideas and I am eagerly awaiting new work!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Book 208: Wonder Boys



"I’d spent my whole life waiting to awake on an ordinary morning in the town that was destined to be my home, in the arms of the woman I was destined to love, knowing the people and doing the work that would make up the changing but essentially invariable landscape of my particular destiny. Instead here I was, forty-one years old, having left behind dozens of houses, spent a lot of money on vanished possessions and momentary entertainments, fallen desperately in and abruptly out of love with at least seventeen women, lost my mother in infancy and my father to suicide, and everything was about to change once more, with unforeseeable result."

Dates read: February 9-15, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was a kid, I was on the "gifted" track...or at least the closest thing my small district had to one. I tested in the 99th percentile for virtually everything except (much to my parents' chagrin) ability to do basic math in my head. I was in the 99th percentile on the ACT. I read at a 12th grade level in 4th grade. It has a way of kind of getting in your head, when you're constantly told how smart you are. It makes you feel like you're destined for greatness, when the reality is that you'll probably end up working a more-or-less normal job and leading a more-or-less normal life. Which ends up feeling underwhelming even if you're actually very happy, because what about that greatness that was supposed to happen?

Michael Chabon himself was a young phenom, publishing his debut novel when he was only 25. He found himself stuck when he tried to pen his follow-up, though, and from this experience he found the inspiration for what became his second book, Wonder Boys. The novel tells the story of Grady Tripp, a one-time literary wunderkind who's published two books to both critical acclaim and popular success but has gotten completely mired in his third. Tripp works as a professor at a small liberal arts school in his native Pennsylvania, and his life is a bit of a mess when we meet him. His agent, who has also been his best friend since college, is coming into town to talk about his book, which he is nowhere near finishing even though he's written over 2,000 pages. An odd but talented student, James, is exhibiting strange behavior. His wife, the third Mrs. Tripp, has just apparently left him. And his mistress, who is the dean of the college and who is married to the head of Tripp's department, is pregnant.

It makes for a wild weekend, as Grady tries to keep his agent from actually reading his manuscript in the hopes that he can figure out what to actually do with it, keep track of James, who turns out to be a bit of a pathological liar and compulsive thief, attend a seder dinner with his in-laws (with James in tow) to see if he can patch things up with his wife, and figure out what to do about his mistress's pregnancy. There's also a running plotline about the car Tripp is driving, which he won in a poker game and might actually be stolen, and Tripp's crush on the young student that rents out the basement in his house and is never seen without her red cowboy boots. In the end, somehow, improbably, it all turns out about as well as it could have.

I don't even necessarily think that's a spoiler there, because there is a movie version out there of this book and it's fairly faithful to the text, though it does cut out some plot threads while giving others greater weight. The movie bombed, though I actually quite liked it myself, and I honestly think it might work better in some ways than the book...mostly for its willingness to purge extraneous details. Chabon's a wonderful writer with a great sense of how to tell a story and clear, insightful prose, but there was really just too much going on here. Too many characters, too many "side quests" (so to speak), too much detail...it feels cluttered and starts to strain the bounds of credulity. How much weird stuff, after all, can happen to one guy over the course of one weekend?

While I've loved the two books of Chabon's that I've read before (Kavalier and Clay was my favorite of last year!), this one just didn't resonate with me. I think part of it was let-down, because what I've read from him before has been so good that I had very high expectations going in, and part of it is that I'm just not in a place where stories about overgrown man-children are especially charming to me. The thought of the amount of emotional labor a person like Tripp pushes onto the women in his life because he can't be assed to get himself together is enraging, so I actually kind of hated him. Comedy-of-errors-style plots like this one aren't my cup of tea either. I think my lack of connection with this book is as much about me and my preferences as it is about the book itself, though, so while I can't recommend it, I'm not going to affirmatively suggest avoiding it either. If reading this has made you think that this sounds like a delightful narrative, you'll probably like it. If not though, skip.

One year ago, I was reading: Dark Places (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Three years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Changes In My Reading Life

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about how our lives as readers have changed over the years. I'm not the same reader I was five or ten years ago. I'm definitely not the same reader I was in high school! Here are ten things about me as a reader that I've noticed a change in.



I read more: Just on a baseline level, I'm much more inclined to read for pleasure than I was when I was a younger adult. I do still watch movies and tv, of course, but I've turned into one of those people who always has a book with me. This is why I now read about 80 books a year.

Fewer series: Teenage me loved a good series, and it's not that I don't have any time for them anymore or anything, but I'm less compelled by the idea of starting a brand-new series than I used to be. I read much more stand-alones.

More non-fiction: I used to read a ton of historical fiction to learn about what life was like in the past. These days I'm more likely to pick up a biography of someone who lived during that time period instead.

More open to genre generally: I'll be honest, mysteries and sci-fi and romance aren't usually my preferred kinds of narratives. But of course there are gems in any genre, and I'm much less likely than I used to be to pass over a book I think I might like just because it's not the sort of book I usually read.

More likely to buy in paper rather than electronically: Don't get me wrong, I love my Kindle. I have HUNDREDS of books on it, and I think it's amazing that I can have thousands upon thousands of pages on a device smaller than the average magazine. But I really do gravitate lately towards having an actual book in my hands. This has created storage issues.

More interested in critical thinking about my reading: When I was in high school, it felt like analyzing a book could only serve to "ruin" it. But the older I get, the more I want to really examine what exactly it is that works about a book and why, to better understand both technique and what I enjoy as a reader.

More diversity in authorship: I grew up reading a lot of books by white people, particularly men. They do, after all, make up much of the literary canon. I make more of an effort lately to seek out work by women, people of color, immigrants, and people whose life experiences are generally different than my own.

Less likely to read something I'm not excited about just because everyone else is: I'm not immune to the best-seller lists, but I used to be more willing to read something that was popular even if it didn't seem like something I would like, because I wanted to be able to talk about the latest hot book. I'm much more aware these days of what I like and give myself permission to say no on something I have no reason to think would be a good use of my time.

More likely to make recommendations: Recommending books is hard! So much depends on what kinds of things each person responds so, and hearing that someone didn't enjoy something you told them they should read is so disappointing! But people ask and I've come to enjoy making educated guesses about what might appeal to them.

More involved in the bookish community: I have this blog! I have a twitter account where I follow authors and readers, I go to an in-person book club, I post pictures of my books on my instagram, I volunteer with the local Friends of the Library. The internet has a LOT of downsides, but for what it does for keeping me connected to the bookish world, I appreciate it!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Book 207: The Sellout



"They say 'pimpin' ain't easy'. Well, neither is slaveholdin'. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don't do what you tell them to do. And when your eighty-some-odd-year-old black thrall has maybe fifteen good minutes of work in him in a day and enjoys the shit out of being punished, you don't get many of the plantation perks you see in the movies either."

Dates read: February 6-9, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

Rating books is an inherently subjective task. We try to fool ourselves into thinking that we're able to judge them based on objective quality, but we're ultimately judging them on scales that are both personal and ever-shifting. Tastes change during our lives, and where I see a lyrically-written character-driven masterpiece, someone else might see a purple-prose-laden never-goes-anywhere snore. Some books "feel" better than they are because you read them at the right moment, and others get downgraded because it just wasn't the best time. Which is why I always believe in rating and reviewing even the books that didn't work for me, because hating something you've only seen positive reactions to can make you feel like you're out on a limb and reading someone else saying they didn't like it either can be a relief.

So I was just talking last week about Thank You For Smoking and how the humor really hit home for me and I really liked it. I'm not sure if it was that I ended up reading two satires in a row, or that I didn't connect the same way with the subject at hand, or if it was just not my thing, but The Sellout just never quite clicked for me. This story opens up with our unnamed narrator (we get the last name, Me, but unless I missed something we never got a first name) watching his case go through oral argument at the Supreme Court. His case? He owns a slave and has re-segregated the school in his outlying Los Angeles community of Dickens, which has recently literally been taken off the map. Did I mention our protagonist is black?

We go back in time to get Me's whole story, from being homeschooled by his father, who uses him as a subject in various psychological/sociological experiments in the oddball agricultural community of Dickens, to his childhood friendship with Hominy, a cast member of the Little Rascals (who later pledges himself to Me as a slave after Me saves his life, much to Me's chagrin), to his long-running crush on his beautiful neighbor Marpessa, who drives a city bus, to his eventual decision to pretend there's an all-white charter magnet school going in across the street from the local school that's overwhelmingly attended by students of color, which winds up with him in front of the Supreme Court.

This was a book I read for my book club, and I was surprised to find I was one of the few for whom it didn't especially resonate. But as I listened to the others talk about how they found the satire refreshing for its bluntness and outrageous honesty about the state of race relations in America, I think maybe one of the reasons it fell a little flatter for me is that I'm on the younger side in that group and being more immersed in an internet culture where these issues are more on the forefront maybe made the punches land less hard, since they were more expected. In a world where Get Out was an enormously popular, Oscar-winning movie (and a good, interesting one that I personally really enjoyed), The Sellout's transgressive satire seems almost tame even though it's only a few years old.

To be sure, there are some brilliantly inspired moments (that opening Supreme Court scene, the Dum-Dum Intellectuals, the "sanitized" versions of racially-problematic novels), and if you're looking for a book that will be very up-front and sometimes uncomfortable (so many n-bombs!) about race in America, this is a very good book. Chattel slavery, and the institutionalized racism that persists to this day, is something that we're still struggling with. This book was written during the Obama era, when everyone was busily congratulating each other on living in a post-racial society, and the way it refuses to play along and pretend that was true feels eerily prescient given the election of Donald Trump. This book is smart, funny, and pulls zero punches (though those punches might not land quite as hard as they did even a few years ago, depending on what the dialogue you engage in looks like). It didn't quite ensnare me, but it's definitely worth reading.

One year ago, I was reading: Uncle Tungsten (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Three years ago, I was reading: The Paper Magician

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Use As Bookmarks

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is about bookmarks. While having plenty of my own, I've definitely found myself grasping around for something, anything, to mark my page while reading outside the home. This might be the first time since I started doing this that I haven't been able to come up with ten! So here are seven things I will use to hold my place.



Actual bookmarks: I've got about a bajillion of these, many of them cheap ones that came with a bookstore order, but some nice ones that I've bought as presents for myself or as souvenirs.

Receipts: I've always got some sort of receipt in my purse, so these get pressed into service fairly often.

Airline tickets: I will never stop using paper boarding passes, if only because they make excellent bookmarks.

Pens: NOT a long-term solution because they're hell on the binding, but sometimes you need to save your place and the pen is there and the bookmark isn't.

Business cards: I think I never have copies of my own business card because they're all marking pages inside of books somewhere.

Money: I don't carry cash very often, but if I have it, I try to remember not to use more than a dollar bill because I will absolutely forget it's in there.

Beer coasters: The paper kind from bars! I tend to grab them when I'm out drinking and then I have a billion in my purse so they're handy. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book 206: Thank You For Smoking



" 'Pleasure,' Nick croaked, though what he was experiencing was far from pleasure. The audience glared hatefully at him. So this is how the Nazis felt on the opening day at the Nuremberg trials. And Nick was unable to avail himself of their defense. No, it fell to him to declare with a straight face that ze Fuehrer had never invaded Poland. Vere are ze data?

Dates read: February 1-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

There's a look people get when I tell them I'm a lobbyist. It's partly surprise, that lobbyists are a thing that exist outside of DC. And then the next question I get is who I lobby for. The answer is not Save The Whales. When I name some of our clients, as often as not I get some joke back about corporate evil. Which is neither original or entirely fair, but we live in late-stage capitalism and we all need our little jokes to get by.

But as a lobbyist, the sharp satire of Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking resonated perfectly for me. Many of you will have seen the (very good) movie version, and it's one of those movies that I actually like so much that I was worried about reading the book! It turns out they're very similar, telling the story of lead tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor and his constant fight to defend the industry. Naylor appears on Larry King, on Oprah, before Congress, and battles for his job while his boss tries to replace him with his pretty young protegee.

While the movie gets a lot of milage out of the divorced Nick's young son, he's very much a background character in the book. Instead, the focus is on Nick's quest to make smoking cool again by getting the movie studios to put it on screen, and a bizarre kidnapping in which Nick is abducted and covered in nicotine patches. When he's not busy flying to Hollywood and being abducted, Nick is having two different flings (one with his corporate rival, one with a reporter) and hanging out with his closest (read: only) friends, the lobbyists for the alcohol industry and the firearm industry, who are constantly squabbling about whose product kills more people.

Satire, like most comedy, can be very tricky to nail with the right tone, and I'd read a Buckley book a couple years ago that I didn't think quite landed. But I always believe in giving an author I was unimpressed with a second chance, because everyone has some variance in the quality of their output and some books you just don't read at the right time. Happily, I found this one excellent. Even though this book was written in the early 90s, there haven't been enough significant changes in the political process or corporate communications that the humor has lost its relevance or edge.

On the flip side, it is a satire, so character development (usually big for me as a reader) was pretty minimal and the plot was of course exaggerated. If smoking/tobacco is something you take seriously, this book will likely be more irritating than amusing. But if you've seen and liked the movie, or you work in corporate communications/government relations, there's a lot to enjoy here.

One year ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Love To Take A Class On

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a autumny freebie. Since autumn always makes me think about school, I figured this week I'd feature titles I'd love to seriously study. I took a whole class on Dante's Divine Comedy in college, and it was not only an amazing course, but it made me wonder how you could ever really understand the work without getting all that context, because there is SO MUCH Italian history crammed in there. And sometimes I feel that way with books, like I need to really dive into it to understand everything. So here are ten books I'd love to study!



War and Peace: I'd love to know more about Russian life, both among regular people and the aristocracy to which the Rostov family belongs. And then the Napoleonic wars on top of that!

Vanity Fair: Another perspective on the Napoleonic wars! Plus more information about social status/life/etc during the Victorian era would be great.

Midnight's Children: I enjoyed reading this, but felt like if I knew more than what I'd picked up from other novels about the Partition, I would get about 1000% more out of it.

Snow: Turkey has had an interesting history, being neither really Middle Eastern or European, but a little bit of both. I just don't know much about that history, which would have given a lot more richness to the way this wrestles with cultural tensions in Turkey.

Sense and Sensibility (and all of Austen, really): I still have one Austen novel outstanding (Northanger Abbey), but I would love to deconstruct both the class system of Britain and how it has changed/evolved and just really dig into what makes her work so brilliant.

The Age of Innocence: While we certainly know all about the Roaring Twenties, the Gilded Age in America (and particularly New York) isn't as high profile. I'd love to learn more about that world, and compare it with our own, in exploring this wonderful novel.

Great Expectations: I'd really enjoy going into depth on form and structure here, as this was of course originally published as a serial. It's been the most successful, for me, of the Dickens I've read, and how he managed to make each installment interesting while keeping the overall story on track would be fascinating to explore.

The Lord of the Rings: There is a LOT going on in this trilogy, and I'd love to explore how J.R.R. Tolkien's own life experiences/social world impacted the writing of these books, as well as really dive deep into questions I've always had, like what the holy heck is the whole Tom Bombadil thing about?

Harry Potter: I'm sure there actually are classes about this at college these days, but every time I go back and revisit these books I catch another layer in them, and would love the chance to really dig into this world.

Wolf Hall: I've read quite a bit of Tudor-era historical fiction, and most of it is wrapped up in the interpersonal drama of the relationships between the main players. But this one is uniquely rooted in both church and political power structures, which made it hard to get into at first and definitely required outside research to grasp.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Book 205: Lost Horizon



"It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality; that the whole world's future, weighed in the balance against youth and love, would be light as air."

Dates read: January 29- February 1, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Not too long ago, I went to a show. It was pretty well-attended, and so after a while the internet got super slow. I couldn't check Twitter, or Instagram, or even my email. And it made me realize how short my attention span has gotten...as well as my tolerance for boredom. Usually I'm the type to always have a book in my bag, but of course I didn't think to have a book when I was going to a show. Seeing how dependent I am on my technology to entertain me was surprising...and also a problem I'm not quite sure how to solve.

And to think even rotary dial phones weren't commonplace 100 years ago. You wanted to get in touch with someone, you wrote a letter. So if someone had gone missing, it might take quite a while to figure out. Of the four people who find themselves skyjacked and crash-landed in the Himalayas in James Hilton's Lost Horizon, there's only one (the youngest, Mallison, an Englishman) who seems all that bothered by the distress his going missing might cause. The other three: Conway, a fellow Englishman and civil servant, Miss Brinklow, an older woman who works as a missionary, and Barnard, a mysterious American businessman, are intrigued by their rescuers, the residents of a lamasery: Shangri-La. The story is actually told around Conway, using the framing device that his story was told to an old acquaintance before he disappeared, which I usually find trite but I think really worked here.

There's not a lot of plot going on in this book: the four passengers are on a plane being evacuated from an Asian city that's experiencing civil conflict when they realize they aren't being taken to the drop point they expect. The plane crashes and the pilot perishes, but they're picked up by a group of Tibetans and taken to their monastery. The area is incredibly remote, nestled within the mountains with only a small native village even remotely close by. The group is at first eager to return to the outside world, but as they grow more and more accustomed to the well-provisioned lamasery and its tranquil residents, it is only Mallison who retains any urgency about trying to leave. Conway, on the other hand, is taken into the confidence of the High Lama and learns the secrets of their way of life.

This book is pretty thin on characterization as well as plot, and I admit I was baffled by its status as a classic until I found out it was apparently one of the very first mass-market paperbacks, which put it in the hands of a much wider audience than many books. Otherwise, it's fine but not special. The prose is good quality. It's one of those books that you have to remind yourself of the publication date for while you read...there is frequent use of racial slurs targeted at Asian people, and of course the "wisdom" that propels Shangri-La and its unusually long-lived residents is revealed to be the product of white people. It was the 1930s and James Hilton was a middle-class white British dude, so that kind of thing isn't exactly unexpected, but I was personally taken aback by the casual racism and expect most other modern readers would be so as well. There's nothing special or particularly interesting in this book, so while I didn't hate it, I don't recommend it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Three years ago, I was reading: Confessions of Saint Augustine

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: October 2019



October, being my birthday month, has always been my favorite month. Besides the obvious, I love the fall weather you get in October, the way it's crisp but usually not too cold yet, peak fall colors, and pumpkin spice everything (I'm basic, I'm fine with that). And this October has been pretty busy! One of my coworkers/friends got married, and I got to go to an awesome sporting event with my best friend!


In Books...
  • The Age of Miracles: I'd read that this had been partially inspired by Saramago's Blindness, which had me prepared for something very grim. Though there is certainly darkness in this story about a teenage girl living through the experience of the earth's rotation slowing and the consequent social upheaval, it's generally lighter in tone. It struck a good balance between the coming-of-age story and the environmental-and-societal disaster story, and I really liked it!
  • The Overstory: I'd already gone ahead and bought it because it won the Pulitzer, but then it was picked for book club so I actually read it! I ended up with some mixed ideas: there are A LOT of tree feelings, some of them better expressed than others, and some spotty executions of characters. Lots of ambition, not all of it fully realized. 
  • Plagues and Peoples: This is an interesting subject matter, the effect of disease on the development of civilizations. It's clearly well-researched and thought out, but it was unfortunately as dull as dishwater. There's just no life to the writing at all, so even though there's good stuff from an ideas perspective it was just not compelling. 
  • Revolutionary Road: At this point, the idea that The American Dream Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be is hardly a new one. But that doesn't mean it can't be explored in interesting ways. This book tells the story of a couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who seem like they have it all: he's got a steady, reliable job, they have two adorable children, and they have a cute house in the suburbs...but it turns out, that isn't necessarily a recipe for happiness. Not ground-breaking stuff, but it's well-told and engaging to read.
  • The Line of Beauty: This book examines the 80s/Thatcher era in the UK through the lens of a middle-class young gay man who becomes attached to a rich political family. As could be expected, there's sex and cocaine and AIDS. The writing is lovely, and it's paced well enough that it doesn't feel like it's actually 500 pages long.



In Life...
  • I turned 34 (and so did my husband): Our birthdays are two weeks apart, so we share a birthday month. I had a lovely birthday and was fortunate enough to get some nice gifts, while giving away a gift of my own...my annual "best-of-the-year" giveaway was for a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was won by Karen! 
  • Weekend in Las Vegas with my best friend: I've always loved figure skating, and this year, Skate America was held in Las Vegas...too close to not plan to go! Originally I was going to drag my husband, but my best friend Crystal stepped up and saved him. We had an awesome weekend and saw some amazing skating and it was super fun.

One Thing:

If you exist on the internet, you've seen someone you know post a link to a GoFundMe. We hear all about the most successful ones and how life-changing they can be for people dealing with a sudden job loss, or a devastating disease. But obviously for every mega-viral funder that raises millions, there are many, many people who raise next to nothing. This article really digs into how the mechanics of crowdfunding often end up benefiting those already comparatively better-off.


Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books About Murder

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Halloween is right around the corner, and that means it's time for the annual Halloween freebie! These ones get harder to come up with an idea for every time, but since we're going for scary stuff, let's talk about books about murder/murderers...both real and imaginary.



Fiction

In The Woods: There are two murders in this one! One, of a young woman, that is being investigated by two detectives, and one that took place many many years ago, in one of the detectives' past. The two intersect in interesting, inexplicable ways.

We Need To Talk About Kevin: This book examines a teenage boy who murders his school classmates, daring its readers to make a judgment call on nature v nuture.

American Psycho: These murders, committed by a Wall Street banker sociopath, are especially gruesome.

To Die For: The movie they made out of this one was honestly great, but the source material about an ambitious newscaster who needs her traditional husband out of the way is very much worth reading!

The Name of the Rose: A murder mystery among medieval monks! There are some obvious nods to Sherlock Holmes and it's much more entertaining than you might think.

Nonfiction

Say Nothing: One kidnapping (and, eventually confirmed, murder) of a mother in Northern Ireland provides a lens through which to examine The Troubles.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: We will never know what actually happened and who actually killed JonBenet Ramsey, which is very frustrating.

Party Monster: Addicts killing each other over drugs is nothing new, but the over-the-top setting of Club Kid NYC provides an interesting twist!

The Stranger Beside Me: The classic, in which Ann Rule gradually comes to realize that the serial killer stalking young women in Washington state might actually be her suicide crisis hotline coworker Ted Bundy.

Devil in the White City: This book examines both H.H. Holmes and the Chicago World's Fair he used the chaos of to help disguise his crimes.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Book 204: Mansfield Park



"The meeting was generally felt to be a pleasant one, being composed in a good proportion of those who would talk and those who would listen; and the dinner itself was elegant and plentiful, according to the usual style of the Grants, and too much according to the usual habits of all to raise any emotion except in Mrs. Norris, who could never behold either the wide table or the number of dishes on it with patience, and who did always contrive to experience some evil from the passing of the servants behind her chair, and to bring away some fresh conviction of its being impossible among so many dishes but that some must be cold."

Dates read: January 23-29, 2018

Rating: 8/10

It's easy to romanticize the past. Before selfies! Before the internet! Before television! Before phones! Back when people wrote letters to each other to stay in touch! Don't get me wrong, I love good quality stationery and the feeling of getting a note in the mail. But while we're longing for the good old days, we forget that there was an awful lot of human history that was lived before penicillin, when a simple infection could legitimately kill you. Before effective corrective lenses so if you couldn't see well you were just doomed to always be squinting and probably struggled to read. A lot of us have mothers who weren't lost in childbirth that otherwise might have been. There's a trade-off.

It's never quite specified what exactly ails Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, but she's physically weak and often sickly, and can't walk very far before she needs to rest. Maybe asthma? Whatever it is, it's likely something that could be treated easily if she'd lived in today's world. Oh well. She is the way she is. And maybe it plays into her personality, for she's as retiring emotionally as she is physically. It takes Fanny, a naturally shy creature, quite a while to adjust when her aunt, Lady Bertram, decides to relieve her sister (Mrs. Price) of one of her many children to help ease her financial burdens, and Fanny's taken out of her familiar home and brought to the country estate of Mansfield Park to be raised alongside (but not quite the same as) her cousins, Frederick and Edmund and Maria and Julia.

Of the lively Bertram children, it is only Edmund that makes the effort to draw Fanny out of her shell, and so by the time she becomes a young woman of marriageable age, she's of course quietly-but-devotedly in love with him. To the rest of the family, she's sort of halfway one of their own. But things turn upside down when a new parson arrives, complete with his wife and her half-siblings: Henry and Mary Crawford. They're Londoners, and have city attitudes that contrast sharply with Fanny and her country morals. Henry's flirtations nearly break up one of the Bertram girls' happy engagements, while Mary and Edmund begin to grow closer despite her concerns that his planned future, as a clergyman, won't be lucrative enough to sustain her in the lifestyle she'd like to lead. And then Henry, to amuse himself, decides to try to make Fanny fall in love with him...only to find that he's the one who grows besotted. Since this is Austen, it ends with a happily made marriage and everyone getting more or less what they deserve.

Those who like to read Jane Austen for her sparkling, witty female leads, like Eliza Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, will be disappointed here: Fanny Price is more like Elinor Dashwood, but with the fun quotient dialed down to almost zero. I'm glad I didn't read this book until I was in my 30s, because I think if I'd read it when I was younger I would have found her so tiresome and boring I would have put the book down. That's my most significant criticism of the book: Fanny can be hard to root for, even though we're clearly supposed to. She's definitely sympathetic, but she's also kind of a stick-in-the-mud. She always always behaves appropriately and is horrified by transgressions of her strict moral code. At the end of the day, I found her good heart outweighed the irritation of her teacher's pet persona, but I can imagine plenty of readers finding it hard to really like her and therefore really like the book.

But even though "bad kids" Henry and Mary are much more interesting than our protagonist, I still very much enjoyed reading this book. Jane Austen's turns of phrase and lively wit are just as much a part of this book as they are her others, and it's her quality of writing that I find enjoyable more than her characters anyways. It's maybe a trifle overlong. If you haven't read her work before, I wouldn't recommend starting here, because it's one of her slower books (start with Sense and Sensibility instead). But if you have read her and like her and wonder if you should read this, too, I do recommend it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: White Fur

Three years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Four years ago, I was reading: Through The Language Glass

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Could Use Better Titles Than Just A Name

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! While last week we highlighted books with awesome titles, this week we're considering the opposite: books with titles that could use a little more oomph. For me, I've always thought that just naming your book after a person in that book is a little bit of a cop-out (unless, of course, you've written a biography). So here are ten books with names as titles that I think could use an upgrade.



Emma: Austen's most famous works use Ye Olde Ampersand, so how about calling this one Love & Matrimony after the central theme?

Rebecca: It's symbolic that the book is named after a character who, though never alive during the narrative, dominates its events. But I would sort-of cheat and name it after its main character: The Second Mrs. deWinter, which I think creates intrigue about the first.

Lolita: Despite being the title character, young Delores isn't actually the main focus of the book (rather, it's narrator Humbert Humbert). I think No Choice would be a good replacement for this one...Humbert's desperate obsession makes him feel as though he doesn't have one, while she actually doesn't.

Anna Karenina: Anna herself is a fascinating character, but I might call this one instead The Train, paying homage to both the driving passion of the central affair as well as the importance of trains in several scenes.

Jane Eyre: This is a great book about coming of age, with strong gothic overtones and a person locked in an attic. The title coveys none of that. I'd crib an episode title from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and title this Becoming.

Macbeth: Let's just go with the theater tradition and official re-dub this The Scottish Play.

Tess of the D'urbervilles: The subtitle of this book is "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented". That doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, so how about Purity?

Nefertiti: This novel was a little underwhelming for me, but a title like that isn't going to help it stand out. For all the emphasis the book places on the physical loveliness of the Egyptian queen, For Beauty would make a more intriguing title.

Olive Kitteridge: I've actually always liked it when books that are short story collections (which is very much what this is, "novel" or no) are named after one of the stories within. It's not the strongest entry, but A Little Burst is a story that's both representative of the whole and that makes a good name.

Mildred Pierce: This is a noir, but the name Mildred has always made me think of mildew, which just makes it sound damp. It would be better served leaning into its potboiler style, so I'd call it From Bad to Worse.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book 203: An American Marriage



"We climbed into the small bed, a little buzzed from our jerry-rigged cocktails. Agreeing that the bedspread was suspect, we kicked it to the floor and lay facing each other. Lying there, tracing his brow bone with my fingers, I thought of my parents and even Roy’s. Their marriages were cut from less refined but more durable cloth, something like cotton-sack burlap, bound with gray twine. How superior Roy and I felt that night in this rented room of our own, enjoying the braid of our affection. I am ashamed at the memory and the hot blood heats my face, even if I’m only dreaming."

Dates read: January 20-23, 2018

Rating: 7/10

What does it mean, to be married to someone? Obviously, I'm not referring to the obvious stuff about fidelity, loyalty, support, etc. But how much of you is for them, and how much remains for you alone? Is it okay to keep secrets, even little ones? What amount of bad behavior is "enough" to get you an out clause? If you need to sacrifice yourself for the other person, how long are you expected to do so? I've only been married for a little over three years now, so I can't even pretend to be able to answer any of them, but what we owe each other is a question I'm sure we'll spend a lifetime answering.

The question of what marriage means, what it binds you to and entitles you to, is probably the most fundamental one at issue in Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. It's not the only one, though. The book follows Roy and Celestial, a young black couple married about a year and a half when we first meet them. Their future seems so bright: he's a promising marketing executive, she's an artist beginning to find success with her doll-making. They're thinking about having a baby soon when they leave their home in Atlanta and drive to rural Louisiana to spend the weekend with Roy's parents. Celestial has a bad feeling, but they write it off to nerves. It is the first night they're there that their whole world changes.

Roy is accused of raping a white woman, and even though he's innocent, he's sentenced to 12 years. They immediately appeal, but of course appeals take time, and while that process is ongoing Roy's continued imprisonment leaves both of them uprooted. After five years, the appeal is ultimately successful, but that time has left both Roy and Celestial different people, and they can't just pick up where they left off.

Any more than that about the plot probably reveals more than would be preferable...this is a book that's best to savor as it reveals itself to you (and usually I'm pretty pro-spoiler, but this does really feel like an exception). The truth is that there's not a lot of "plot" per se, but there's enough, and the work that Jones does with character and the way she uses those characters to poke at our understanding of powerful themes like marriage, and family more broadly, are brilliant. The instinct to find a "good guy" and a "bad guy", when two people are in conflict, is so strong, but Jones refuses us that easy perspective. They're both the bad guy. They're both the good guy. They're both people who've spent the last five years suffering, and trying to deal with that suffering, in their own ways.

While there is a lot to really like here and this is definitely a good book, I'll be honest: it never quite crossed that line from good into great for me. I got more out of pondering it after I finished it than I got out of reading it, if that makes sense. And also, I had a small qualm with a writing choice Jones made: while the book is primarily told from the perspectives of Roy and Celestial, there's a third person who also gets point-of-view chapters. This person is important to the narrative and it wasn't that those portions were inferior or anything, but I would have preferred that the focus remained on the central couple exclusively. That being said, this is still a book that is well-worth your time and energy, and I'd recommend it to all readers.

One year ago, I was reading: We Are Not Ourselves (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

Three years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Four years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Great Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about book titles. Specifically, good ones! I'm only human, and as susceptible to the pull of a great title as anyone. So here are ten that got my attention!



A Clockwork Orange: I remember reading one that Burgess wanted to contrast the idea of mechanics/clockwork with the most alive thing he could think of, and came up with the juicy burst of an orange. I loved the book, and the title is captivating in its own right.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: I understand why this wouldn't have worked as the title of a movie, but it's so much better than Blade Runner.

The Color Purple: Every time I think about the title, I remember the central tenet of the book...which is effective for a title to do!

Exit West: This one just immediately suggests questions you have to read the book to find the answers to, like who's doing the exiting, and west of where?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: This title is a spoiler for its own book! But it promises an interesting story, and it delivers.

Skinny Legs and All: Tom Robbins has a way with eye-catching titles.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: I read this book because a college roommate liked it, but I would have 100% picked it up based on the title alone anyways.

Thank You For Smoking: There words in this order is so unexpected to see that it immediately grabs your attention.

Pride and Prejudice: The alliteration on this one just gets it stuck in your head. And it has a nice rhythm to it when you say it out loud!

Gone Girl: More alliterative goodness. The single syllables here give it a distinctive ring as well.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Book 202: An Untamed State



"I held my hand close to the heat. I knew what it meant to burn, how it felt, how the right amount of heat can make your skin rise and how the pain rises with your skin until it spreads through you and when the pain starts to spread, it becomes easier to endure."

Dates read: January 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

The first stories we learn are usually fairy tales. Cinderella, the little mermaid, Hansel and Gretel. We learn the sanitized, Disney-fied versions: simple stories, with unquestionably evil villains that create danger for our heroes but are vanquished at the end, usually with a moral to wrap things up in a bow. The original versions are usually darker...less redemption, more death. But the tales themselves have endured, even as they've changed, over time. Storytelling is basic human nature.

The theme of fairy tales, and the subversion of that theme, runs throughout Roxane Gay's debut novel, An Untamed State. American-born Mireille is visiting Haiti, where her parents are from and where they've returned in their later years, with her husband and newborn son. They're just leaving the gated compound where her family lives when they're suddenly accosted by kidnappers and Mireille is taken. They demand $1 million for her return, and she's held for 13 days before ransom is paid. During those 13 days, she's brutally raped and tortured, and the woman she is when she's released is a world away from the woman she was before.

We learn about her life through the memories she experiences while she's captive. How she grew up, watching her talented father chafe against the ways in which he was treated as "lesser than" because of his status as an immigrant. Her relationship with her siblings, especially her sister. The way she and her husband Michael met and fell in love. Their privileged life together in Miami, where she's an immigration attorney and he's an engineer. And then when she gets back, how very unable she is to resume that life. The second half of the novel relates Mireille's flight to Michael's family farm in Nebraska to heal...or more accurately, recover enough to be able to deal. The wounds she's suffered aren't the kind that really heal, after all.

The motif of fairy tales is everywhere, from the beginning, where the book literally opens with "once upon a time", to the end, in which Mireille is given the chance to confront one of her captors. When I first read it, the ending bothered me. It seemed too convenient, to tie things up too neatly. Life doesn't work that way, and otherwise the book is deeply, unflinchingly realistic. When you think about it through the context of fairy tales, though, it has that kind of wish fulfillment that the modern versions of these stories often do. But the bulk of the story is filled with the things that get cut out of the tales for today's world: the violence inflicted on Mireille is completely unvarnished and it is very difficult to read.

And that difficulty of reading is the only reason I'm not more enthusiastic about this novel. Roxane Gay is a phenomenal writer and the book is compelling and hard to put down. She draws realistic, captivating characters who have shades of gray and consistent internal logic, and the way she subverts Mireille's "fairy tale" narrative of her life with Michael by showing us its sometimes-ugly underbelly is brilliant. I could go on forever about how incredibly-written it is. But with the subject matter being what it is, it's hard to recommend this book widely. There's a great deal of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. If that's something you're able to handle, I'd definitely recommend it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

Three years ago, I was reading: The Life of the World to Come

Four years ago, I was reading: Beloved

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Year 4: An Update (And Giveaway!)



Today, I'm 34. When I turned 30, I set some goals for myself for the next decade. One of those goals was to read at least 50 books per year, or 500 total, so I started this blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable and have a place to talk about all those books! Since my reading years begin and end on my birthday, I like to do a check-in post every year to look back on the year that was, both in books and life. Without further ado:

In Reading
  • Books read (this year): I've finished 79 books since my last birthday! This is actually my lowest year since I started the blog, which is probably mostly because of session.
  • Books read (total): I've finished 345 books since I started the blog! I am obviously very very far ahead of my goal at this point, which would have been 200. I just own so many books that I want to read them as fast as I can! And who knows, I might have a reading slump one of these days.
  • Male/Female Authors: I read 42 books by men this year, and 37 by women. This isn't too far away from even, and it actually was neck and neck for much of the year, but the last month and a half or so has been a lot of books by dudes.
  • Most Read Genres: My balance between fiction and nonfiction was better this year! I tend to prefer about 2/3 to 1/3 (respectively), and with 55 fiction books this year and 24 nonfiction ones, I came pretty close. For fiction, my most read sub-genres were again contemporary fiction by leaps and bounds, followed by historical and fantasy. For nonfiction, they were biography, followed by medical and history.
  • Kindle/Hard Copy: I read more than twice as many books this year in hard copy (54) than on my Kindle (25). My Kindle is great, don't get me wrong. It's easy to use, super portable, very convenient. But the more I read, the more I just like the feeling of a book in my hands!

In Life
  • Minnesota trip with Drew: My husband has been talking about wanting to see a Vikings home game for approximately forever, so we finally made it happen last October! We stayed at a great little AirBNB in the trendy, brewery-heavy area of Minneapolis and even though the good guys didn't win, we had an amazing time. I was reading: Seduction (review to come)
  • Girls trip to New Orleans: For my annual trip with my best friends, we went to New Orleans! I'd been very briefly once before, but really enjoyed getting the chance to actually explore the city, relished every delicious thing I ate/drank, and of course, cherished spending time with two of the people I love the most. I was reading: Once Upon A River (review to come)
  • Work trip to Las Vegas: This year's annual work trip was to Las Vegas, where (of all dorky things), I stopped off to get a library card at the Clark County Library. They have a better selection of audiobooks on Overdrive than my home library! I was reading: Bad Blood (review to come)
  • Beginning of my fourth legislative session: This has been the worst session weather-wise I've ever seen, which isn't saying much, but my bosses, who have been making the commute much longer than I have, totally agree. I didn't even go down for the first two days, and there were some white-knuckle drives even after that. I was reading: The Mind's Eye (review to come)
  • Jeopardy taping: In the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, I was lucky enough to be chosen to be on Jeopardy! Which meant a whirlwind (literally 36 hours) trip to LA to tape and then back to work the next day. Totally worth it! I was reading: Forest Dark (review to come)
  • My Jeopardy episode aired: It was shocking how little I actually remembered of what had happened by the time it aired...I remembered pretty much nothing from the first half of the show at all! Some family and friends came out to a local brewery where we had a viewing party and it was super fun. And now I have my own IMDB page! I was reading: The Fever (review to come)
  • End of my forth legislative session: I took on more responsibility this session, and it definitely took me a while to figure out how to balance the new work load. So it was a stressful session, but I got the chance to grow professionally and already know what I need to do better next time around! I was reading: Good Riddance (review to come)
  • Summer holidays in Michigan: I hadn't been back for two years! Considering how much I still love the mitten, this was definitely an overdue week of vacation. And it was a hot and humid one, but I got to see family and friends and eat SO MUCH FOOD that I can't get out in Reno! I was reading: The Man in the High Castle (review to come)
  • Girls trip to San Francisco: We moved the 2019 edition of our annual escape up a couple months, so that's why there's two of these on this year's update! We spent a lovely weekend in the Bay Area and had a great time exploring the city (especially the Mission District)! I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes (review to come)
  • Long weekend at Lake Tahoe: As usual, I accompanied my husband to his annual work event at the lake, during which he worked and I was spectacularly lazy. I was reading: Seeing (review to come)

The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of the book I loved the most out of the ones I've reviewed on the blog over the past 12 months. I reviewed some fantastic books this year, but the one that captured my heart most of all was Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It's sweeping and epic and beautiful and everyone should read it. If you haven't, and would like to, here's your chance! Just enter via the Rafflecopter below during the next week and this book could be yours! Apologies to my international friends, but this giveaway is US-only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Character Traits I Love

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the character traits we love. As a reader, I'm drawn to character-based books, so this was a great opportunity to really put some thought into the kinds of characters that really capture my interest!



Female: Sorry, dudes, I have read and loved plenty of books about y'all, but I am really more interested in women's stories.

Smart: I like reading about smart people! They don't have to be book smart, but an intelligent character always get my attention.

Repressed: Repression has the potential to bleed into all kinds of juicy, interesting conflicts.

Confused: There are plenty of storylines with people who are sure about what they want only to have it derailed, but I find people who have conflicting motivations that are pushing them all over the place much more compelling.

Funny: Or at least, with a sense of humor. People who take themselves super seriously 100% of the time are boring in real life and to read about.

Curious: An occasional curmudgeon is delightful, but someone open and interested in the world is much more engaging to read about.

Loyal: Not to the point of being a doormat, but a character who's always there when it counts for the people that are important to them warms my heart.

Proactive: A character whose actions drive the plot, at least part of the time, is almost always more interesting to me than one who only reacts to the world around them.

Condescending: This one is for villains only! An antagonist who's basically the stereotype of a snooty aristocrat (especially if they toss off devastating one-liners) makes me cackle with glee.

Reliable: This applies specifically to characters who serve as narrators. An unreliable narrator can be executed well, but it's usually not.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Book 201: Ghost Wars



"The Taliban assembled their story so that Pashtuns could recognize it as a revival of old glory. The Taliban connected popular, rural Islamic values with a grassroots Durrani Pashtun tribal rising. They emerged at a moment when important wealthy Pashtun tribal leaders around Kandahar hungered for a unifying cause. The Taliban hinted that their militia would become a vehicle for the return to Afghanistan of King Zahir Shah from his exile in Rome. They preached for a reborn alliance of Islamic piety and Pashtun might."

Dates read: January 6-17, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times best-seller

There's no denying that we live in a golden age for information. Thanks to the internet, access to pretty much anything we might want to know is literally at our fingertips! There is virtually no subject too obscure for Wikipedia, and anyone who wants to tell us what they know can start up a blog and start writing. While this phenomenon is pretty much always useful, it's also kind of exhausting. Given access to learn about pretty much anything you might want, it's a lot easier to retreat into the familiar.

Until September 11th, Afghanistan would have been a pretty obscure area in which to be a subject matter expert. Afterwards, of course, we all found out a lot about the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun people, but honestly it was all so much so fast that I know I (and probably lots of other people) ended up more confused than anything else. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars tells the story of American involvement in Afghanistan, beginning around the Cold War and ending on September 10th of 2001, and it tied together a lot of the dangling strings that American involvement in Afghanistan after September 11th left me with. Deeply researched and very informative, this is a thorough portrait of how we got to where we are.

Geopolitics in Central and South Asia turns out to be really complicated! The CIA's involvement began as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the desire to have a firewall against the spread of Communism. It continued even after their withdrawal to both prevent a re-invasion and because of the US's relationship with Pakistan, which saw Afghanistan as a firewall of its own against India. And then there's Saudi Arabia, which had its own complicated relationships with not only Afghanistan, where it exported its brand of intense Islam, but of course the United States, as well as Pakistan. It's very messy, and trying to learn about it feels like intensely watching a magician to try to discern the sleight-of-hand...you've got your eye on one part of the stage, but to really understand the whole picture, there's something going on somewhere else that's going to be important to the way it comes together. And then of course there's the relationship of the CIA to their own government and the American public, which had a very real impact on how much, and how effectively, the CIA was able to actually do.

It becomes patently obvious while reading this book that there was very likely no one single factor that would have prevented terror attacks from taking place on American soil. There were too many forces that were all coming into alignment for it to be avoided entirely. But it does raise (without proselytizing about) issues that might have kept the particular 9/11 attack from coming to fruition that are, of course, all too easy to see in hindsight: US funding for the Northern Alliance, more willingness to heed the increasingly frenzied warnings that al-Qiada was eager and capable of an attack, a more forceful relationship with Pakistan, etc after etc. Coll doesn't try to lay blame at anyone in particular's feet, but he's also not interested in massaging or obscuring information that would let anyone claim absolution, either. He's interested in presenting as full a picture as he reasonably can, and he accomplishes that.

Considering that it's nonfiction designed to reach a mass audience, it's about as comprehensive as anyone should want/expect. In fact, if I'm being honest, its biggest flaw is that there is so much information being presented that it's overly dense. It's hard, because it never came off like there were details being dumped extraneously so it's not that it just needed a more diligent editor, but the reality is that it's a fact-heavy story, with a lot of new people/situations needing to be introduced to the reader with sufficient context, so the result is a book that ends up feeling kind of like a slog even though it's interesting and relevant. And honestly, I prefer that kind of approach to one that cuts out important bits to dumb itself down for the reader. To sum up, I do recommend this book if you're interesting in learning about the history of the US in Afghanistan. It's well-written and a very good resource. But if fact-intensive non-fiction isn't your jam and this isn't a subject of particular interest to you, there's no need to torture yourself.

One year ago, I was reading: The Fly Trap (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Royals

Three years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice