Thursday, April 18, 2019

Book 177: Duel With The Devil



"This room, filled with the most distinguished legal eminences in the state, might have seemed a Gordian knot of tangled conflicts of interest: Burr’s company owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk, and had political alliances and rivalries with his fellow counselors, the mayor, and the judge. In any other time or place, all this might have at least raised an eyebrow. But in Manhattan in 1800, it was just how business was done."

Dates read: September 15-19, 2017

Rating: 4/10

True crime, it seems, has never been more popular. It's always had a fanbase: look at Unsolved Mysteries, or America's Most Wanted, or Ann Rule's entire career. But ever since the first season of Serial took the country by storm (it was the first podcast I ever subscribed to, and I don't think I'm alone in that), it seems like it's everywhere, from other podcasts like My Favorite Murder to TV shows like HBO's stellar The Jinx. And there's never-ending source material: there will always be cold cases and shaky convictions all over America every day. What remains to be seen is if this is a trend that's here to stay.

One of America's oldest cold cases is the basis of Paul Collins' Duel With The Devil. Elma Sands, a young, often sickly Quaker woman who had come to New York City with her cousin, Catherine, and lived in a boarding house there, was found dead in a well in her best clothes. Suspicion quickly turned on Levi Weeks, a fellow boarder, who'd been seeing Elma and who she'd reputedly left her room the night she was killed to secretly marry. Levi happened to be the brother of Ezra Weeks, who was a well-connected businessman and arranged for Levi's defense by what was likely America's first legal Dream Team: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Henry Brockholst Livingston. Despite the almost overwhelming public opinion that Levi had done it, the defense managed to echo (pre-echo?) the OJ Simpson case in another respect: he was found not guilty. His legal victory did nothing for his PR woes, though, so he left the city not long thereafter and ended up in Mississippi, where he lived out the rest of his life being mostly pretty boring.

Collins complies his relatively brief book by doing four things: he gives the reader tons of background and context for the New York City in which the murder transpired and fleshes out the principals, he recounts the trial, he posits his own theory of who might have killed Elma, and he wraps up with the famous duel between the one-time co-counsels and long-time political enemies that cost Alexander Hamilton his life. I found Ezra Weeks to be a surprisingly interesting figure: we've all known of those "prominent citizen" types that seem to be able to pull all the strings, and he was able to get his brother two of the foremost attorneys in the city in a way that only one of those types could do. He was a local construction guy, and he had two customers with a taste for the finer things but without a budget to support that taste, who therefore owed him money: Hamilton and Burr.

The full-on Hamilton craze seems to have peaked a while ago, but there's still a lot of interest in his story. To be perfectly honest, this book, and the case at the center of it, aren't much more than a footnote in a life that managed to encompass a great deal despite its relative brevity. Collins does what he's trying to do here well enough, but there's nothing revelatory. If you've got an interest in cold cases or you've found out about this case in particular and wanted to know more, this book tells its story with clear, informative prose and is worth your time. If, however, you're more interested in Hamilton's entire career, I'd recommend Ron Chernow's Hamilton instead, which I listened to on audio and is very long but fascinating. 

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Three years ago, I was reading: Dune

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Watery Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is actually "rainy day reads", but for me, those are just books that I happen to be reading when it rains. So I did a little twist on it, and went for books significantly tied to a body of water!



The Life of Pi: The bulk of this book about a boy who survives a shipwreck takes place on a boat in the ocean.

Moby-Dick: Another sea-faring book, this recounts a whaling voyage and the hunt for the legendary, titular white whale.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle: I LOVED this book as a kid, with its story of a proper young lady who becomes embroiled in sailing ship intrigue and winds up a member of the crew.

Dead Wake: This account of the sinking of the Lusitania introduced me to a whole part of history I knew basically nothing about and it was fascinating!

Many Waters: This entry in the A Wrinkle In Time series sends the Murray twins, Sandy and Dennys, back to biblical times immediately before The Flood.

La Belle Sauvage: Another flood story, this prequel to The Golden Compass features Lyra Belacqua as a tiny baby being rescued by teenage Malcom Polsted and his titular boat.

Once Upon A River: The events of this wonderful novel from last year are kicked off by a man's accident on the rain-swollen Thames, and a little girl who seems to have drowned in it, until it turns out she's alive after all.

Island of the Blue Dolphins: There's only really a ship in this one at the very beginning, but the circumstances that drive the action are rooted in people leaving on that ship and the surrounding water that isolates the island.

James and the Giant Peach: An oversized stone fruit is the most unusual aquatic vessel on this list by a long shot.

The Odyssey: The OG voyage adventure story on the ocean!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Book 176: Valley of the Dolls



"She stumbled out of bed and changed her pajamas. Dr. Mitchell was right—she was building up a tolerance to the pills. Maybe one more yellow...No, then she'd be groggy and hungover in the morning, and she had to learn those lyrics. Jesus. Today she had needed three green dolls just to get through the morning shooting. She poured a full glass of Scotch. Maybe one more red pill...yeah, they wore off faster. She swallowed it quickly. And she wouldn't drink all this Scotch, just sip at it until the pills worked."   

Dates read: September 9-15, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Every once in a while, I realize I'm drinking just to drink. Having a drink after work just because. Or on the weekend, getting to the point where I have a happy little buzz going and then having another drink or two just because it's there. So I'll knock it off for a while, because the slope between substance use and substance abuse is slippery and I want to stay on the good side of it. Well, unless the substance is caffeine. I am 100% addicted to it and I am 100% okay with that.

As long as there have been drugs, there have been people who've gotten hooked on them. Right now, it's opioids that are the hot topic and big area of concern, but back in the day, it was barbiturates. In Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, there are two ways to take the title. In one sense, "dolls" has long referred to women, and the book tells the story of three of them. But throughout the novel, the characters refer to their pills as "dolls" as well. The book tells the story of three young women who are briefly roommates at the beginning of their careers: Anne, Neely, and Jennifer. Anne is a lovely, well-bred New Englander who flees her hometown because she's terrified of getting stuck in a passionless marriage and never accomplishing anything besides raising children. She goes to New York City, where she finds work in the office of a well-known entertainment lawyer/talent manager. Neely has been on the vaudeville circuit since she was a small child, and is trying to break into Broadway with a group act. When the dancers get cast in a show starring one of Anne's company's clients but Neely gets cut, Anne manages to score her a new spot. And Jennifer is a stunningly beautiful but not especially talented actress cast in the chorus.

The women's stories all take different directions from there: Anne breaks off a relationship with a rich man who wants to marry her to pursue a relationship with Lyon, her boss's protegee, a veteran who's returned from war but thinks he maybe wants to be a writer instead of getting back into the rat race. She's crazy about him, but he's proud and doesn't want to marry her unless he can support her even though she's well-off enough for both of them. When they break up, she goes on to date an older cosmetics executive and becomes a TV spokesmodel. Neely goes to Hollywood to make it in the movies, where she's put on uppers so she can handle long song-and-dance rehearsals while skipping meals to lose weight, and gets herself onto downers so she can sleep. She becomes a huge star and wins an Oscar, but also turns into an addict. And Jennifer, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, chases a marriage with a successful lounge singer to lock in a source of support for her and her family...only to discover her beloved isn't who she thinks he is and winds up making "art films" overseas. She finally finds real love and security with a politican, but she also finds a lump in her breast.

On the one hand, this is delightfully campy melodrama: Anne's terror of being "frigid" and desperate desire for Lyon, Lyon's refusal to be a "kept man", Neely's marriages and pill popping and downward spiral into addiction, Jennifer's secret white trash past and doomed marriage and soft-core porn career. Y'all, there is an actual scene in which a wig is snatched and flushed down the toilet. I found myself actually giggling out loud while reading it. But there's also a very real story there about how the entertainment industry chews women up and spits them out. Two of the three major characters are clearly based on real people: Neely's story has too many similarities to Judy Garland's to be mere coincidence, and Jennifer's is less clear but still obviously reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. All three women are scared of aging, terrified of losing their looks and therefore their value.

While Anne is the main character (the book begins and ends with "her" sections), perspective switches to Neely and Jennifer often enough to keep things interesting. The characters aren't necessarily super deep, but they are each flawed in their own way and so are at least well-rounded and generally sympathetic (although Neely takes a turn towards villainy near the end). There's definitely plenty of fluff, like I talked about above, but there's enough reality and pathos to balance it out so it doesn't feel like the book equivalent of a Twinkie. It's an entertaining, enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it...particularly to those interested in the entertainment industry and classic Broadway/Hollywood.  

One year ago, I was reading: The Color of Water (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies

Three years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I’ve Done for the Love of Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at the maybe a little over-the-top things we've done because we love books so much!



Collected far more of them than I have room for: Just ask my poor husband, who deals with piles of books on virtually every surface in our apartment.

Started a book blog: I mean, I love books and reading so much I created a space on the internet to talk about it.

Started a book newsletter on top of my book blog: A little less than a year ago, I decided that there might be people who can't get into the idea of checking a book blog but who might be able to get into a monthly newsletter in their inbox, so I've got that going on too.

Literally carry one with me 100% of the time: I carry two things with me no matter what...a koozie for my beer and a book for my brain.

Gone to a midnight release event: My sister and I went to a party for the release of the final Harry Potter book at our local Borders (RIP).

Go to a bookstore whenever I visit a new city: Anytime I go someplace new, the first thing I do is find an independent bookstore, make plans to go, and buy a new book!

Joined a book club: Speaking of indie bookstores, mine runs a book club that meets once per month and I've loved having a place to talk about books with people in real life!

Indulge in bookish merch: I've got candles, shirts, tote bags and more that were inspired by books!

Turned my insta into a quasi-bookstagram: It's not a formal booksta, and I don't pose anything all pretty and accessorized, but I do share what I'm reading and it's become at least half of what I post anymore!

Got into audio: I never thought I'd be a person who listens to books, but it turns out it's a great way to liven up my walks/drives, and get my re-reading in!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Book 175: The Sisters Chase



"The Chase girls stayed the next morning until it was time to check out, lying on the bed and basking in the infinitude of being nowhere. The motel served Saran-Wrapped Danish, hard-boiled eggs, and orange for breakfast, and Mary and Hannah ate them in their room, Hannah feeling the optimism of going somewhere, Mary feeling the relief of having left. The Chase girls were always happiest in those brief moments of in-between, when neither of them was sacrificing, neither of them being sacrificed."

Dates read: September 6-9, 2017

Rating: 2/10

To be honest, I was not very excited about my sister when she arrived. I'd been perfectly happy as an only child, thank you very much. When she was about 6 weeks old (I was 4 and a half), my mom caught me carrying my sister towards the kitchen. She asked me what I was doing, so I told her that I was throwing her away because all she did was cry. When I was informed that I couldn't actually toss her in the trash, I tried to bargain down to returning her to the hospital. No dice. We fought like crazy growing up, but now that we're all grown up, she's someone I love and cherish. Thanks for not letting me bin her, Mom.

The titular sisters of Sarah Healy's The Sisters Chase couldn't be more different. Fourteen years older, Mary has dark coloring and a corresponding dark personality...she's ruthlessly pragmatic, manipulative, proud and ungovernable. Hannah, however, is blonde and takes after the nursery rhyme in that she seems to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Their single mother owns and runs a hotel in a seaside town on the East Coast and has a night shift at a nearby casino to keep their family going during the off-season. But when she's killed in a car crash, Mary and Hannah find themselves on their own. Back taxes on the hotel and no life insurance mean that they're broke, and so Mary takes Hannah and leaves the only home they've ever known to try to take care of her.

After Mary successfully prises some seed money from wealthy relatives in Florida, she and Hannah (who Mary calls "Bunny") connect with an old acquaintance of hers in New England. Things seem stable, and even like they might end up happy, but Mary's past shows up to bite them and they leave. As Hannah grows up, they continue to travel, Mary refusing to put roots down anywhere for too long, until they wind up in California. Hannah, now on the cusp of her teenage years, wants desperately to stay in one place and so several months pass, but the idyll can't last and eventually tragedy strikes.

All of that is super vague, I know, because I do try to avoid spoilers and this book is very much "about" its plot and its mysteries. You'll notice above that I've rated this book quite poorly, and part of that is that is just because the kind of book that it is: plot-over-character is not my cup of tea, but this was a book club pick after a couple months of heavier, slower material so I gave it a shot. Turns out, I still don't get a lot out of this style of novel, and that's okay. Not every book is for every person, and my ratings are intended to be a reflection, at least in part, of my own experience of reading the book and the enjoyment I got out of it. But my ratings are also informed by my opinion of the quality of the book and how well it did what it was trying to do, and this is where The Sisters Chase really took a nosedive.

One of the reasons I tend to be personally pro-spoiler is that I feel like if "the twists" are all you have, you don't have a story. The Sisters Chase indulges heavily in one of the ways I find most irritating of shielding "the twists"...it deliberately hides information known to the characters from the reader. It's not that this can't be done well (the way Gone Girl "hides" that Nick Dunne's mysterious calls are actually from his mistress because he's a bad husband, not from a conspirator because he's a murderer, for example), it's that this book doesn't do them well. I guessed the big twist long in advance and I'm awful at guessing the twist. And I had a huge issue with characterization, too. The book actually has very few characters it spends any significant amount of time with (primarily Mary and Hannah), so should be able to round them out more fully. Instead, both the girls are flat. Mary is the kind of "she's beautiful...but wild" stereotype I've always found deeply irritating, and Hannah is so milquetoast that she's barely there. I've always thought that the three most important elements of a novel are plot, character, and writing, and a book needs two of three better than average to be good, and all three to be truly great. This book was not successful, for me, in any of those areas. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...do you try to rate books? If you do, are your rankings purely objective or is there subjectivity there too?

One year ago, I was reading: Sophia of Silicon Valley (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Moonglow

Three years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things That Make Me Pick Up a Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about things that make a book jump out and say "pick me!" when we're browsing, so here are ten things that help a book find its way into my hands.


Royalty: I'm a sucker for anyone with a crown, both in fiction and nonfiction.

Sisters: As a sister myself, I'm always ready for books about the relationships between them!

Friends Over Time: I love a book that follows a group of friends over time as they grow and change and their bonds get weaker and stronger.

Based on Folklore: I love folk and fairy tales, so if I find out a book is based on myth/legend, I'm intrigued!

True Crime: I started with Ann Rule anthologies in high school, and I've still got a weak spot for a book telling me about the investigation of a crime.

A Historical Event: Either fictional or real, I enjoy reading accounts of major parts of history that give me more context or a new perspective for understanding.

Trusted Author: If I've read and liked work from a writer before, I'm much more likely to pick up something else by them, either a new one or a backlist selection.

Connection To A Place I Love/Have Lived In: If a book is about Michigan, Tuscaloosa, Reno, Florence...I'm automatically curious to see how it's depicted.

Coming-of-Age: Even though I'm well on my way to my mid-30s, books about teenagers growing up still get me right in the feels.

Boarding School: Either high school or dorm life in college, a group of inevitably very different people thrown into a tightly packed living arrangement makes for the kind of drama I usually like reading about!

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: March 2019



It's the end of March! This year is somehow both dragging and flying. The busy season at work continues and thankfully the weather has cleared up since last month...so at least I'm not worried about sliding off the side of a bridge while I'm commuting!

In Books...
  • Going Clear: I'd seen the documentary that got made from this a few years back when it came out and found it really interesting, so no surprise that the source material was also compelling. It explores Scientology through its beginnings as the brainchild of L. Ron Hubbard through the current domineering leadership of David Miscavige and is critical without being gratuitous. Very readable nonfiction.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: I still haven't seen the movie, but was really excited when this was selected as our book club read for the month because I've heard great things. This book is short, but it's a beautifully told and heartbreaking tale of love and family and injustice with vivid, powerful characters. 
  • Man's Search for Meaning: This slim volume, recounting the author's experiences in a concentration camp and the "logotherapy" he developed beforehand and put into practice to help him deal with what happened. Basically, it's the process of finding a purpose to motivate one's life, through both its normal course and tragedy. It really gave me a lot to think about.
  • The Club: Another short book, this tells the story of Hans, who's recruited as a teenager by his only surviving relative to infiltrate an exclusive social club at Cambridge to help solve an unspecified crime. It doesn't go anyplace especially surprising, but it's entertaining enough.
  • The Stranger: Albert Camus' classic was short in length but rich in food for thought. I didn't especially enjoy reading it, though, and wonder if part of that was the translation I read, which was apparently meant to be Hemingway-esque...and I don't care for Hemingway's writing style. 
  • Inside Edge: This book about figure skating is about 25 years old, which means that it's "out of date" in terms of the personalties it profiles (I hadn't even thought about Nicole Bobek in a loooong time), but also in terms of the casual homophobia that is all over it. I don't think it's anything more than a product of its time, but the bigger sin is that it's just...not very good.
  • The Rules of Attraction: I wouldn't say that I liked this book about three college students struggling to find meaning among the sex and drugs that take up much of their senior year at a liberal arts school, but I honestly thought I would kind of hate it and I didn't do that either. 



In Life...

  • Halfway through session: Technically we're a little less than halfway through (it doesn't end until June 3), but close enough! I've been more active than I was last session, which has been awesome and I'm learning a bunch, but it's also been super busy! 

One Thing:

With Worlds now in the rearview, the figure skating season of 18-19 is over! I love watching figure skating and for me, the NBC Sports Gold figure skating subscription has been totally worth it. There's no commentary (which at first bummed me out but I've come to quite like it), and you get to see every single skater and not just the Americans and/or favorites. From Worlds, I particularly enjoyed Jason Brown's short program, Nathan Chen's free skate, and Evgenia Medvedeva's fight to earn the bronze!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book 174: Boys And Girls Together



"But there was, because over in the far corner a man was sitting, a lone man, and for just a moment he looked at Aaron, and Aaron saw the look and he saw what it meant. The man in the corner knew; you could fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you couldn’t fool the man in the corner."

Dates read: August 31- September 6, 2017

Rating: 3/10

I took my first trip to New York City in high school. I did a little bit of theater stuff, and the teacher who headed it up did an annual trip to go see a bunch of Broadway shows during Spring Break. I begged my mom to send me and she did, and I had a blast. I saw Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in The Producers, and Mary Louise Parker in Proof. I also got my first taste of the big city without parental supervision...we were chaperoned, of course but we had free time to go explore a little and it was so fun. I've been back several times, and while I've never had the personal desire to live there full-time, I totally understand why some people fall in love with it.

William Goldman's Boys and Girls Together tells the story of five different young people who all end up in the Big Apple, and whose lives come to intersect. This is a novel that focuses very intensely on its characters, and so we get not just the story of the principals, but their parents as well. Wannabe writer Aaron is the son of a New Jersey lawyer and his Southern bride, who is his father's delight until his untimely death of a heart attack, and winds up being the afterthought to his mother's favorite, his lovely but impetuous older sister. Aaron is cruel and proud, and when he's drafted into the military, crosses paths with Branch. Branch is the offspring of an Ohio mother who managed to trap his mostly-uninterested father into marriage and dominated him until he fled into the military and died while fighting overseas. Branch is mostly weak-spirited and lives under his mother's thumb until he flees to New York to try to become a producer. There's he's reunited with his college friend Walt, who directed plays and goes to the city to try his hand at it there rather than be trapped in the lucrative business his father built up and maintained both before and after Walt's mother died, having ignored her breast cancer until it was too late in an attempt to punish her husband for his infidelities.

These three all converge around a play, and their lead actors are Jenny and Rudy. Jenny is a tall, curvy girl from Wisconsin whose body seems to create most of her problems: she's nearly raped as a preteen by a stranger, and then is nearly raped again by her only friend in high school, who becomes her steady boyfriend. She follows him to New York and ends up working at a publishing firm, where she becomes embroiled in an affair with her boss. Rudy's story is the most focused on his parents of all: the two are both young, confident, and good-looking kids when they meet in Chicago and try to out-stubborn each other, which they continue into marriage and parenthood. Rudy is a sweet-natured and shy child who loses the only person in his life who really cares about him when his grandfather dies, and then becomes a pawn in his parents' struggles. He has no real ambition to act, but when Branch spots him, he's convinced.

I love a character-driven novel, so I expected to love this. Starting with the stories of the parents is an interesting device, and one I appreciated because it enriched the environment into which these personalities were planted and grew. The only problem: no one is actually interesting or compelling. Aaron is a raging asshole, Branch is pathetic, Walt's boring, Jenny's affair cycles through the same will-he-or-won't-he-leave-his-wife conflict so many times that I literally rolled my eyes at my Kindle, and Rudy's cardboard martyrism (apparently he literally can't say no to a direct request?) makes it hard to get invested in him. The only part of the book I really enjoyed reading was about the relationship between Rudy and his grandfather, who is the only person who views him as something more than an object. Goldman also wrote The Princess Bride, and it's easy to see the seeds of the grandpa-grandson relationship he depicted there in that portion of the book.

I usually try to think of an audience that might potentially like a book, even if I didn't. Every book isn't for everyone, of course. But it's hard to think of a particular group of people that might like this novel...it's definitely character-over-plot, but like I said, I didn't find the characters worth spending the time with (and this is a long book, over 700 pages, so there's lots of time). Apparently it had some notoriety when it came out because two of the main characters are gay, but neither of them is depicted particularly well, so I wouldn't say it's a good LGBT read either. Goldman is clearly a talented writer, based on his other work, and even in this one he has a knack for dialogue, but I can't in good faith recommend that anyone read this work.

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

One year ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

Three years ago, I was reading: Yes Please

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Favorite Non-Fiction Audiobooks

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is an audio freebie, so I've decided to highlight some of the great audiobooks I've listened to recently. Nonfiction is my favorite kind of book to do via audio, so those are what I've decided to focus on!



The Future is History: Masha Gessen takes a critical look at the renewed authoritarian rule of Russia, from the Soviet Union to Putin's control of the state, through the lens of several young people coming of age post-perestroika.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: I found myself wishing that McNamara had been able to finish out her book about the Golden State Killer herself, because the portions she wrote were the strongest, and I also wish she'd lived to see him caught.

Dream More: Dolly Parton is a saint and we can all use her in our lives.

Chasing Hillary: Amy Chozick's account of working as part of the embedded press on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign (as well as her 2012 primary race) has actually probably been my favorite book about that election so far. I found it illuminating and interesting, and appreciated the look at what it's like to be a reporter on the campaign.

We're Going to Need More Wine: I thought Gabrielle Union's memoir would be pleasant but forgettable but it's actually really wonderful. She balances being serious and thoughtful with dishing fun anecdotes about filming Bring It On and it's great.

So You Want to Talk About Race: As a certified honky, I found this book to be a great primer on how one can talk about race without blundering into being offensive. Basically, be thoughtful and considerate.

A Distant Mirror: Historian Barbara Tuchman looks back at the life of a Frenchman in the 14th century to draw parallels with modern tumultuousness and it's super interesting!

Becoming: This is an excellent book and listening to Michelle tell it in your ears is fantastic. She's a really talented narrator!

Heartland: Sarah Smarsh uses her own life and that of her parents to look at rural poverty in America and how difficult it can be to break out of it.

The Wicked Boy: I thought this was going to be an examination of child murderers in Victorian times but though it touched on that a little, it was mostly an examination of one particular adolescent, who killed his own mother, and his trial and life afterwards. It was fascinating!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book 173: The Year of Magical Thinking



"If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die? The clear light of day tells me that I did not allow John to die, that I did not have that power, but do I believe that? Does he?"

Dates read: August 29-31, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award, The New York Times bestseller

I'm very lucky in many respects, and one of them is this: my entire nuclear family is more or less healthy and very much alive. My parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, my husband...I've never experienced that kind of loss. My mom had lost both of her parents by the time she was my age, which just blows my mind. Even now, I don't feel prepared to lose either of my parents, much less both of them. I know this will change, and one day I'll find myself having to say goodbye to people that I love dearly, but for now I'm grateful.

I was reminded of just how lucky I am when I read Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she recounts an incredibly terrible time: while their adult daughter Quintana is fighting for her life in the hospital, a normal-seeming winter cold somehow having progressed into pneumonia, septic shock, and coma, Joan and her husband John come home, and while she's getting things ready for dinner, he suddenly keels over, dead after a massive heart attack. She doesn't know that right at the moment it happens, of course. All she knows is that he falls, is non-responsive, she calls an ambulance, they try to resuscitate him, and then off to the ER. She finds out shortly after she arrives that he's gone. Forty years of marriage, and then he's gone just like that.

But she can't just focus dealing with the loss of her constant companion for decades (as professional writers, they both worked from home). Her daughter is still comatose, and Joan has to break the news to her not once but twice (she forgets when she falls back into a coma after being told the first time). Quintana does seem to recover, the funeral happens, and she flies back to California with her own husband...only to collapse again on her way out of the airport. Joan leaves her NYC apartment to head to LA to be there for her daughter, and is constantly buffeted by memories of her family's early, happy years in the area. Eventually Quintana recovers again, and Joan returns home, wrapping up her book a year and a day after her husband's death.

On the surface, there's very little in Joan Didion's life that I can relate to: she and her husband lived at a level of financial security where they made regular trips to Paris (their quibbling over what turned out to be their last trip, taken at John's insistence because he had a vague feeling that it might be his last chance is something Joan relates), they lived in LA for a time to write screenplays, they take daily walks in Central Park. And like I've said, I've never lived through the kind of awful experiences she recounts in this book. But she's an extremely talented writer, so her words spoke to me and tugged at my heart. She doesn't just tell you that grief takes you around in circles, she has motifs in her writing that pop up over and over again, taking you on that journey with her. You feel her agony when she thinks she's plotted her route around LA when she's there with Quintana to avoid anything that would remind her of when her husband was alive but she finds that she didn't plan carefully enough and the fragile scar tissue she's built up is battered by waves of memory.

It feels odd to say that I "enjoyed" reading a memoir about profound grief. But I found it incredibly compelling and difficult to put down even though it was hard to read. She really takes the reader on a journey with her. Knowing that even though she was alive at the end of the book, Quintana died shortly thereafter, made its impact even greater. I'd never read any of Didion's work before, but I picked up one of her novels and two of her essay collections after reading this book, because I wanted to read more of her writing. I'd recommend this book to anyone that feels like picking it up.

Tell me, blog friends...do you have to relate to a memoirist's experiences to get into their book?

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

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Private Citizens

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the next books up on our list! These are the next ten books I'm planning to read (book club selections will be added but I don't know what they are yet!).



Inside Edge: I love figure skating and have watched it ever since I was a kid, so even though this book is getting up there in years I'm still looking forward to reading it!

The Rules of Attraction: I honestly don't know that I think I'll like Bret Easton Ellis, but I want to try his work.

All The President's Men: This is a classic that I can't believe I haven't read yet, especially since I work in politics!

The Last Romantics: This came out last month and I won an early reviewer copy...it's gotten rave reviews from some of my trusted recommenders!

Lilah: Revisiting The Red Tent on audio last year reminded me how I much I enjoyed that work of biblical fiction, so I'm hoping this one is also good (though it's obviously from a different author).

The Fever: I've read one of Megan Abbott's midcentury noirs and enjoyed it, but I've heard her contemporary work is really great as well.

The Lowland: I love Jhumpa Lahiri's writing.

Jackaby: This is one of the Amazon publishing books that I've seen get generally very positive reviews...lots of people seem to really like the whole series!

First: Sandra Day O'Connor is a total role model, so this new release biography of her is right up my alley.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: I know Junot Diaz is problematic, but I've heard such great things about this book for so long that I do want to read it for myself.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book 172: The Idiot



"I wrote her phone number on my hand, while she wrote mine in her daily planner. Already I was the impetuous one — the one who cared less about personal safety and tradition, while Svetlana was the one who subscribed to rules and inherited systems, and wrote things in the designated spaces. Already we were comparing to see whose way of doing things was better. But it wasn't a competition so much as an experiment, because neither of us was capable of acting differently, and each viewed the other with an admiration that was inseparable from pity."

Dates read: August 23-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Sometimes I feel like I'm learning in reverse: when I was a teenager, I was sure I know pretty much everything, and the older I get, the less I feel certain of. I think many other teenagers are the same way...at least, the ones I've known. Sometimes I almost miss that blazing moral clarity, the certainty that I was right and someone else was wrong. But letting it go (for the most part) has made me an easier person to get along with, and a better one overall.

Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, has the opposite problem. She's a freshman at Harvard, and she's overwhelmed by all she doesn't know. She doesn't know where her life is going, really, she doesn't know what classes she wants to take, she's not sure how to help the students she's been assigned as a part of her volunteer work doing adult education. She can't even figure out how to fall asleep regularly, adding exhaustion on top of her confusion. She kind of drifts along, and one of the places she drifts is into a beginner Russian class, where she meets two people that change her life.

One is Svetlana, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, who decides she's going to become Selin's friend and does so with aplomb, quickly becoming the dominant force in Selin's social life. The other is Ivan, a senior from Hungary, who becomes Selin's conversation partner for Russian class, and correspondence partner over the then-new medium of email outside of class in English. Their conversation gradually turns into them spending time together, and Selin develops an intense crush on him. Even after she learns he has a girlfriend (and while he's giving her very mixed signals), she takes up an opportunity to teach English in Hungary over the summer in the hopes of getting to spend time with him.

This book, like last week's Stoner, has a very passive central figure. Selin's unsureness about virtually everything means that she mostly reacts to the world around her instead of being proactive. This makes her simultaneously very relatable (who hasn't felt paralyzed with indecision, especially in a new situation?) and quite frustrating. If you've ever lived through the experience of having feelings for someone who wasn't quite sure what they wanted, you find yourself wanting to reach through the pages and shake her by the shoulders while telling her that this isn't going to end well. But you also know there's no way to learn that lesson except living through it, because you probably ignored the person who shook you by the shoulders and tried to warn you off.

Batuman is an incredible writer...I highlighted so many things on my Kindle that she wrote that just seemed to perfectly capture the essence of being young and lost and desperately self-conscious. And she creates a very real, sympathetic-even-as-she's-irritating character in Selin. The plot structure, though, could have used some work. While she's at school, the book meanders along slowly and had a hard time holding my interest despite the lovely prose. Once she gets to Hungary, however, and starts interacting with host families and students, the book gets much livelier and there were several moments that were actually laugh-out-loud funny. It's not that I didn't enjoy the portion of the book that takes place at Harvard, but I enjoyed the last quarter-or-so so much more. I wish Batuman had figured out a way to disperse some of that levity more equally throughout the book, because it's like 3/4 a good book and 1/4 a really good book. As is, though, I'd recommend this book, to recent-ish college grads in particular (I feel like if I were too much older than I am now, I'd be too annoyed by Selin to really enjoy what it had to offer).

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever have one of those flirtations with mixed signals?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Green Girl

Three years ago, I was reading: To Die For

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Standalone Books That Need a Sequel

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I personally am not big into series...I do read them, but they're more an exception than a rule. That being said, there are definitely books that I put down and wish I had the next entry waiting to pick up to see what becomes of these characters! Here are ten books I'd read a sequel to.



Pride and Prejudice: I know modern authors have done spins on this idea, what happens to Lizzy and Darcy, but I wonder what Austen herself would have done with them and how she would have kept their spark alive as a married couple.

Gone Girl: I want to hear from the child Amy's carrying at the end of the book...did his/her parents stay together long-term? What would it be like to grow up with those people raising you? I feel like there's a compelling story to be told there.

The Bell Jar: We know that Esther survives, goes on to (presumably) get married and have a child. How did that come to be? Like Sylvia Plath, does Esther continue to struggle?

Speak: I first read this book nearly two decades ago as a high school freshman and it's never left me. I'm still curious how Melinda grows up and how her high school experience continues to impact her.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Don't get me wrong, I love the coming-of-age aspect of this book, but I want to know what becomes of Francie Nolan, how she deals with moving away from Brooklyn, and what she makes of her life.

Matilda: I hope it all ends happily, but I do wonder how it plays out for Matilda and Miss Honey.

Catherine Called Birdy: The book ends on a hopeful note for high-spirited Catherine, but I don't think she'd easily adjust to life as a wife and mother, so I can only imagine there would be hilarity to ensue!

The Namesake: The tale of Gogol coming into his own is powerful, but I do find myself wondering what kind of husband and father (if he becomes a husband and father at all) he would be to his own children.

Let Me In: I mean, honestly, this book was super duper dark and I didn't want it to be any longer than it was, but I am interested in how Eli and Oskar survive together in the world.

The Lords of Discipline: I loved Will McLean and wish we would have gotten a glimpse at his adult life after college.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book 171: Stoner



"Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized how little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know."

Dates read: August 20-23, 2017

Rating: 9/10

When I was little, I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, like Sandra Day O'Connor. We're encouraged to dream big like that, to set our sights on the presidency or being a surgeon or designing skyscrapers. The reality, of course, is that most people won't achieve anything like that. We lead smaller lives. Our names never appear in headlines. The older I get, the more I realize that that's okay. It's wonderful to accomplish big things, but what actually brings me happiness is the smaller stuff: playing with my dog, getting a good-night hug and kiss from my husband, laughing with my best friend on the phone. It's the little things that actually make a life.

John Williams' Stoner chronicles a life that most would write off as mediocre. William Stoner is born to subsistence farmers in Missouri, and when he grows up, his parents send him to college to learn about agriculture. Stoner is a decent but unspectacular student until he takes a required English course and he's seized by the love of learning. He abandons his original plan to return home for the academic life, continuing his education and becoming a professor. Along the way he marries Edith, a lovely young woman who turns out to not be a very good wife, they have a daughter, and Stoner gets caught up in academic politics. He writes and publishes one book, and dies without much more in the way of accomplishments.

It's a "small" life: Stoner never really leaves Colombia once he gets there, and never rises to any sort of prominence. He opts out of World War I, his book never makes any waves, his marriage is a disaster (not only do they never love one another, she frequently goes out of her way to spite him and destroy any small measure of contentment he feels), his adored daughter is turned against him and grows up to become an alcoholic, and he permanently alienates the head of his department (preventing any sort of advancement) when he refuses to give his approval to allow a clever but shallow student to progress towards a doctorate. He has one short period of true happiness, an affair with a graduate student, but it doesn't last. He dies in pain, separated from those he loves.

It sounds like a massive downer. It should be a massive downer. But Williams' writing, particularly his characterization of Stoner, creates a portrait that's melancholic but in a way that's poignant rather than outright sad. Stoner has the stoicism that one might expect from a boy born to taciturn farmers...when you grow up expecting to eke a living out of the soil from which your parents struggled to do the same, you don't expect greatness or wild happiness from life. Fundamentally decent and essentially passive, Stoner accepts most of what his life brings with grace. Even his biggest fight, his determination to fail the unworthy student, is more of a refusal to back down from doing what he genuinely believes he should do than an active campaign against the student in question. Stoner is a very rare example of a literary protagonist who is almost entirely reactive rather than proactive.

It's Williams' beautiful characterization of Stoner that makes the novel's one significant flaw (for me, anyways, you might have more) so glaring: Edith is so one-dimensionally villainous. She's given some sympathy at the beginning, when she's no more prepared for the realities of marriage than her young husband. But she gradually progresses to be a vindictive antagonist without any real indication given as to why. When every other character is rendered with emotional honesty, it stands out that Edith is not, and as she is the most significant female character in the book, it's troubling. But not nearly enough to outweigh the merits of Stoner as a whole: it's deftly and elegantly told, in prose that's resonant without ever being flowery, and gives dignity to a kind of person and life that's usually brushed aside without much thought. I really loved this book, and completely understand why it's been rediscovered and celebrated as of late. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...what was your big dream?

One year ago, I read: The Martian (review to come)

Two years ago, I read: Housekeeping

Three years ago, I read: Dead Ever After

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Like To Switch Places With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at characters whose lives look pretty good...good enough to switch into for a bit, as long as I got to come back anyways!



Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): Being Harry Potter himself is dangerous and scary. Being Hermione, though, means you get to have all the adventures and be the smartest person in the room at all times, which is the dream.

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): The lessons she learns are fairly gentle, and she's handsome, clever, and rich, which honestly seems like a great way to be.

Daine Sarrasri (Wild Magic): Growing up, her magical connection with animals was something I loved and really wished I had!

Vasya Petrovna (The Bear and the Nightingale): She's brave, smart, beautiful, and magical, and one of my favorite recent series heroines.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones' Diary): Her life is honestly pretty easy even if her escapades are hilarious.

Professor Maud Bailey (Possession): She's lovely and smart and a feminist scholar and that's not a bad way to find yourself being.

Natasha Rostova (War and Peace): I will never get over what Tolstoy does with her in the end, but right up until then she's got the best, most interesting personality and journey of anyone in the book, and is one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever read.

Astrid Teo (Crazy Rich Asians): Okay, she's got romantical problems. But so does everyone and she's gorgeous and absurdly wealthy.

Cersei Lannister (A Game of Thrones): SHE'S THE WORST. But she's also beautiful, rich, powerful, and utterly (albeit wrongly) convinced of her own intelligence and rightness.

Sookie Stackhouse (Dead Until Dark): Yes, the constant unwanted intrusions of others' thoughts would be stressful, and the frequent murder concerns are a problem, but she also gets to have a bunch of love affairs with hot dudes, so...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Book 170: Mildred Pierce



"She felt wretched, wished Veda would come over to her, so she could take her in her arms and tell her about it in some way that didn't seem so shame-faced. But Veda's eyes were cold, and she didn't move. Mildred doted on her, for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery, which hinted at things superior to her own commonplace nature. But Veda doted on her father, for his grand manner and fine ways, and if he disdained gainful work, she was proud of him for it." 

Dates read: August 16-20, 2017

Rating: 6/10

One of my ongoing life projects (besides, of course, reading 500 books over the course of my 30s) is to watch all the movies that have won "major Oscars". For me, that's Picture, Director, the acting categories, documentary, and foreign language film. This is something I've been loosely trying to do for probably a decade. I've done all of the movies that are available either streaming or on DVD from Netflix for Picture, Actor, Actress, and most-but-not-all of Supporting. Less progress through Documentary and Foreign Language. It's been an interesting journey...some of the movies, even the older ones, are fantastic (I loved It Happened One Night and The Apartment). Others are not (too many to list, honestly). But seeing how the ways that stories are told both change and stay the same is fascinating.

So before I picked up James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, I'd already seen the Joan Crawford movie version. Which meant I knew the general idea of the plot, but this isn't the kind of story that's "ruined" if you know how it goes. It tells the story of the titular character, a wife and mother of two during the Depression era. Before the crash, her husband had supported his family through investment income, but is too proud to work for a living when that's no longer an option. He's decided to perk up his spirits by having an affair, and Mildred kicks him out of the house pretty much right off the bat. Desperate to keep the roof over her and her daughters' heads, she tries to figure out how to make money. Her side business selling cakes and pies isn't enough, and so even though she tries to find a white collar position, she finally has no choice but waitressing.

She's embarrassed to be forced into this service role...not just because it's hard for her personally, but because she's afraid of what her daughter Veda will think. The older of the girls, Veda is spoiled and selfish and snobby, and Mildred is completely devoted to her. Eventually, Mildred's hard work and a bit of luck lead her to open her own restaurant and attract the attentions of handsome socialite Monte, which Veda loves because his social connections open up an entire world of wealth to the now-aspiring musician. But Monte's fortunes fall, and soon he's taking Mildred's money but making no moves toward marriage. So she leaves him, but before long her relationship with Veda flounders. So Mildred and Monte renew their romance, though this leads to the ruin of everything Mildred holds dear.

The movie, to me, was in some respects more successful than the book. Some plot lines were cut and some were significantly changed to comply with the Code. In the book, Mildred's obsession with her daughter reads as almost romantic, which both explains why she clings to her so hard but honestly is also creepy. Mildred onscreen comes off as doormat-y as Joan Crawford was capable of being, but in the book she's got more moxie. Her rise also feels more organic, as it develops more slowly, and therefore all the more hard to read about as it starts to crumble underneath her. Cain created a great character in Mildred...she's clearly fundamentally good but not without flaws, with the kind of scrappiness that makes her easy to root for.

The characters around her, though, are flat: Veda's just a bitch with nothing redeeming about her, Monte's obvious trash, her business partner is totally shady. The plot hinges on Mildred's love for Veda, and although I've known of plenty of parents of brats that think they're just misunderstood geniuses, that she would so consistently overlook her daughter's harshness (especially when she's clearly capable of knowing when to push people away) strains the bounds of credulity. It's not a question of whether Mildred is going to destroy herself for her daughter's sake, but when and how. Cain's writing isn't particularly smooth or insightful, either. It's not a bad book or a waste of time, but it's not good enough that I'd affirmatively recommend it. If you like domestic dramas or want to read the source material of a story that's been adapted twice (there's also the Kate Winslet miniseries from several years back), it's worth a read. Otherwise, skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: A Leg To Stand On

Three years ago, I was reading: The Big Rewind 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Month In The Life: February 2019




Two months down, ten to go! And as always in session years, this was a very busy month...and the next few will only get busier! And it was extra exciting for another reason: in the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, I taped Jeopardy! I'll definitely have more details on when you can see me on the show, so watch this space for updates!


In Books...

  • Hausfrau: This was very trendy around the book blogging space a few years back, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. While there's definitely some quality writing here, I could not get invested in this tale about Anna, an American expat housewife living in Switzerland who's less than faithful to her Swiss husband. It's sometimes a little too on-the-nose, and I found Anna to be just completely uninteresting.
  • The Mind's Eye: This collection of case studies focuses on disorders of visual processing, and features Sacks not only as doctor but as patient in his own right (dealing with face blindness and a loss of stereoscopic vision after a bout with ocular cancer). As always, it's compellingly written, but I didn't think it quite had the zing of his best work. 
  • The Buried Giant: I've loved the other books I've read by Kazuo Ishiguro, but this one, a fantasy novel set in a Dark Ages Britain populated by ogres and pixies and dragons, didn't quite work for me. The themes of memory and forgetting and revenge are powerful and the writing is elegant, but I never really got into it. 
  • Forest Dark: This was a book club pick, and while I appreciated the skill of Nicole Krauss' telling of her parallel tales of American Jewish people searching for a purpose in Israel, this was another one I struggled to connect with, partly because the two stories were too disconnected for me. 
  • Daisy Jones and The Six: This story of a fictionalized 70s rock band, who recorded a classic album and then broke up on tour, is told like an oral history explaining how the record and the bust-up happened. I'd heard great things about Taylor Jenkins Reid before, and after devouring this book, I'll definitely be reading her other work...I totally loved this and had a hard time putting it down even at bedtime!
  • The Silkworm: This is the second in J.K. Rowling's Cormoran Strike mystery series about a private detective in London, and I thought it worked better than the first one from a plot perspective. I also appreciated that we got deeper into the emotional lives of the main characters, but mystery as a genre just doesn't really do it for me even when it's well-executed (as it is here). 
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: I'd seen the movie version of this ages ago, but had completely forgotten the plot by the time I started reading it. It's an interesting but underdeveloped (for me) take on the "special teacher" genre, about a group of girls taken under the wing of the titular Ms. Brodie, who seeks to make them in her own image...with uneven results, both for her and the girls she nurtures.  


In Life...

  • I taped Jeopardy!: Being on Jeopardy! has been a total life goal of mine for about forever. I've taken the online test several times, but this past July I got invited to audition, and then I got a call last month and taped a few weeks ago! Of course I can't tell anyone anything, but if you're curious, keep an eye out for me on April 19th to see how I do! 
  • First month of session down: As of Friday, the first four weeks will officially be over, and it's been hectic so far! Not in the least because of the nutty weather we've been having. After a beginning of winter that didn't see all that much in terms of precipitation, we've had SO. MUCH. SNOW, which is zero fun when you've got a 40 minute commute through the foothills. 


One Thing:

I'm not usually one to be drawn to a book by its cover...most of my choices of what to read are based on recommendations or going back to writers whose work I've loved before. But I'm not immune to the appeal of a catchy cover, and this article about cover design and the way it's been impacted by mobile browsing and #bookstagram was super interesting!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Places Mentioned In Books That I’d Like to Visit

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about places in books that we'd like to visit. We live in a wide world and there's always more to see of it, so here's where books have me intrigued to go to!



Hawaii (The Descendants): This novel about a family dealing with loss as the father is also dealing with a court case about land ownership is deeply rooted in its Hawaiian setting and made it sound just incredibly lovely.

The Tuscan countryside (Under the Tuscan Sun): I've been to Florence, and it's gorgeous, but this book really made me want to visit the rural areas in Tuscany!

Athens (Outline): Cusk doesn't make the city sound all that fantastic in the summer heat, but she does make the ocean sound amazing.

Morocco (Less): Less' trip through the country may be ill-starred, but the beauty of the desert at night is vivid in Greer's rendering.

Puget Sound (The Highest Tide): I didn't love this book, but it did make the Puget Sound tidewaters sound just magical beautiful.

Northern Beaches (Big Little Lies): The contrast of the idyllic-sounding setting against the domestic turbulence of its residents is kind of the point, but also the beachy parts sound gorgeous.

Cambridgeshire (Rebecca): Manderly the house isn't real, but the area of England where it's supposed to be is and I want to see it (and the homes that inspired Manderly) for myself.

Crimea (The Romanov Empress): It's supposed to be a lovely area, and the way it's depicted in this book as a place for rest and relaxation makes it seem even more appealing.

Delft (Girl With A Pearl Earring): The Netherlands seem like a cool place to visit, and the way this city is described in this book intrigued me!

Swedish islands (The Fly Trap): This memoir of a man who studies flies on a remote Swedish island makes that setting sound actually pretty interesting, even though it's not someplace I'd ever really thought about before.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Book 169: Charity Girl



"The matron and her cornering. Barred windows. But all these things, it hits her, she can bear, has been bearing; these things every patient here must bear. And that's what's so awful: that they take it, that they can, that it's so easy to lose the fighting edge."

Dates read: August 13-16, 2017

Rating: 4/10

The process for how textbooks get developed is fascinating. Especially for K-12 public school texts in the United States. The information contained in what's really just a handful of books makes up the knowledge base for what the majority of students end up learning. Large buyers can exert significant influence, given that companies want to market their products to as wide a base as possible. So you end up with books that shy away from controversy, meaning that when you learn about "Manifest Destiny", you read about it as triumphant white people making their way from sea to shining sea with just side notes about the devastating effects that the migration had on Native American communities. You have to actively seek out information that runs contrary to the official version.

Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl explores one such "hidden" aspect of history. His novel follows Freida, a teenager who flees from her Russian Jewish immigrant mother after her father dies and she's about to be sold (literally) in marriage to a much older man she barely knows. She goes to Boston, where she gets a job in a department store and makes friends with her coworkers. She meets Felix, a dashing young soldier who sends her heart a-flutter...but leaves her with syphilis before he reports for training to head overseas to fight in World War I. She's tracked down by the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps, and even though she tries to get away, she's eventually picked up and sent to a reform facility.

She's committed no crime, but neither she or the other girls she's detained with (some prostitutes, some, like Freida, "charity girls" who don't sell their bodies but have offered their company to men who take them out) are sophisticated enough players to work the system. While there, the girls are treated for their STDs (this is the pre-antibiotic era, so those treatments are on the harsh side), as well as proselytized to about leaving behind their "scandalous" ways. There is a social worker who offers her help to Freida, and she never loses hope that Felix does care for her and will effectuate her release. She does eventually leave the home, but I'll leave the how for anyone who wants to read to discover.

Let's start with the good things about this book. First of all, it introduced me to a piece of American history I'd never heard of. That the military members who were as often as not the source of the diseases the girls had were able to get treatment and move on with their lives while the women were subjected to indefinite detention (sometimes followed by criminal prosecution)...is, honestly, not all that surprising, unfortunately. But it was definitely something entirely new to me, and I'm glad I read it and found out more. I actually thought Lowenthal did a fairly good job with Freida's characterization (she's kind of wishy-washy and prone to flights of fantasy, but she's a 17 year-old girl who was sheltered for most of her life), and I appreciated that he surrounded her with a relatively diverse cast of characters.

But it wasn't really a very good book at the end of the day. Frieda might have been a well-drawn character, but as a protagonist, she was more irritating than not. The other girls she lived with might have been diverse, but they were all pretty flat. As soon as you find out than one of them is pregnant, it's obvious that there's going to be a botched abortion, because along with the helpful social worker turning out to be a predatory lesbian (yikes) who turns her back on Freida when she discovers that she's still infatuated with Felix, that's just the kind of story this is. I never really felt like the stakes were that high or got invested in the story. The writing is fine, but unspectacular. Unless you have a particular interest in this time period, I'd say that this is skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what did you only learn about after high school history

One year ago, I was reading: The Selfish Gene (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Three years ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books we've liked that are a bit more under the radar. I cheated a bit and picked two books that almost certainly will go above 2,000 soon but were published late last year so haven't quite gotten there yet. But if you're looking for something to read that isn't the same thing everyone else is reading, these are great choices!



The Anointed One: This is a pretty niche interest (Nevada politics), but it's also really good and still very relevant even years after it was published.

Seduction: This one is kind of cheating (it was a late 2018 release), but I recommend it very highly. If you enjoy the author's podcast (and its ratings suggest lots of people do!), it's very similar to what she does on the show but in book length!

The Butcher's Daughter: This book was so interesting and different than a lot of historical fiction! I'm bummed it never seems to have found an audience because it's really well-written.

The Big Rewind: Another one that should have blown up huge (so delightful!) and I will continue to push!

The Sky Is Yours: This one, at least, I can understand why it didn't take off. It's very very weird but I also found it really compelling!

Valley of the Moon: This is a sweet time-travel romance that appealed to me even though this is not at all my usual genre.

The Fly Trap: This was a book club selection, and when I found out I was going to be reading a book about a dude that lives on a Swedish island and studies flies, I was very skeptical. It's actually a really entertaining read!

Once Upon A River: This one is another cheat. I'm sure this book will be widely-read (and it should be, it's wonderful) but only came out two months ago.

Three and Out: Also kind of a niche interest, this is a well-reported, well-told account of the brief, unhappy tenure of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's head football coach.

Messy: This Fug Girls-penned sequel (to their debut, Spoiled) actually worked better for me than the first entry...I'm sure they've moved past this series, but I'd love to read another one if they ever wrote it!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book 168: The Sense Of An Ending



"We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it that said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient—it's not useful—to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."

Dates read: August 10-13, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The New York Times bestseller

Like many siblings, my sister and I squabbled a lot growing up. One time, and I can't remember what she said or did that prompted it (if anything), but I was mad at her and I told her that her teeth were yellow. It wasn't even true, they were pretty much the same color as mine. Years later, I asked her why she usually smiled with her mouth closed in pictures, and she told me that she'd been self-conscious about the way her teeth looked ever since I said that to her. I apologized and told her I was just being a jerk, of course, but I've made an effort since she told me that to really think before I snap back at someone I'm upset with. You never know how the words you toss off without thinking can really impact someone's life.

Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending illustrates the same principle on a much more profound scale. The book tells the story of Tony Webster, a deeply ordinary person. He went to school, worked a normal office job, got married, had a kid, got divorced, and remained on good terms with his ex into their retirement years. But a mysterious bequest drags him back towards most tumultuous time of his life. As schoolboys, Tony and his friends absorbed into their ranks the new kid in town, Adrian. Adrian was different than them: smarter, more serious. The group starts to fracture after graduation, everyone going their own separate ways to different schools or workplaces. At university, Tony meets and starts dating Veronica.

It is this ultimately short-lived relationship that changes lives. Veronica is mysterious and aloof, and Tony has a hard time knowing where he stands with her. They get serious enough that she takes him home to meet her family, but the only one that's nice to him once he gets there is her mother. They break up shortly after that trip, and not a particularly long time later Adrian writes to Tony to tell him that he's started dating Veronica. Tony is hurt, and writes back angrily. Then he goes on an extended jaunt to America, and it's not until he gets back to England that he hears that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony is, of course, upset, but his life goes on fairly smoothly until that bequest arrives: Veronica's mother has passed and left him a small sum of money and Adrian's diary. The money gets to Tony, but the diary is with Veronica.

Tony's journey to try to understand why he was left anything at all and attempts to get the diary comprise the balance of this slim novel. In its less-than-200 pages, it explores powerful themes: the difference between what we chose to remember and the truth, the impossibility of taking back something that's been said, how we change even though we feel like the same person we've always been. Barnes is a talented writer, and reflects on these with clear, emotionally resonant language that puts into words things that we (or at least I) have thought about but never really been able to distill. The mystery behind it all keeps the plot moving forward, but it never feels tantalizing just to inspire page-turning. Rather, the interesting thing is how Tony reacts to each new twist.

Barnes does brilliant characterization work with Tony, by the time things are wrapping up he feels like an old friend who has a way of dropping wistful bon mots about life. Both Adrian himself and Margaret (Tony's ex-wife) likewise feel realized despite appearing relatively infrequently in the narrative. But Veronica, who winds up being a significant factor, never really came together for me. The "clues" she gives Tony are maddening...if she really doesn't want to engage with him, she could have avoided him entirely, but for her to make just enough contact with him to drop cryptic references doesn't make sense. Either tell him what's going on, because he clearly doesn't get it, or ignore him. Her remoteness and Tony's inability to comprehend her are one thing, but I can't understand her own motives at all, which took away from my enjoyment of the book. As for the final resolution itself, I'm not sure I go all the way there with it. That being said, this is a lovely and powerful book, and I'd recommend it very highly.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever said something to someone that you wish you could take back?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Three years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Favorite Couples In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Valentine's Day coming up around the corner, this week we're looking at favorite couples! I feel like I did something similar-ish not tooooo long ago, so I'm highlighting my favorites from books I've read fairly recently.



Arthur and Freddy (Less): Arthur Less feels silly for being so sad when he finds out his ex Freddy is marrying someone else...after all, they weren't even ever really "official". But as he remembers their time together, it's more and more obvious how much he did actually love his lost flame.

Jessica and Marcus (Sloppy Firsts): We all have that one crush on the "bad" guy that we shouldn't have feelings for at some point, don't we? It's satisfying watching that relationship actually come together and kind of work!

Bathsheba and Gabriel (Far from the Madding Crowd): Watching Bathsheba make bad decisions about dudes is so rough because the right one is right there and you're just waaaaaiting for them to finally get together.

Maud and Roland (Possession): Like most nerds, the idea of falling in love while engaged in an intellectual pursuit is just impossibly romantic to me.

Nadia and Saeed (Exit West): These two young lovers and the journey they take is so deeply moving, even as their experiences change them in ways that put their future in jeopardy.

William and Katherine (Stoner): William's life is so sad that even knowing his affair with his beautiful, smart colleague can't last, I still found myself caring so much and wanting it to go on as long as possible so he has the chance for more happiness.

Lux and Joseph (Valley of the Moon): I liked the way Gideon built up the relationship between these two slowly and organically so that by the time they actually got together it felt so right!

Joe and Rosa (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay): I don't entirely love how Chabon wrote Rosa overall, but I really did care about the relationship between her and Joe and wanted things to work out somehow.

Vasya and Morozko (The Girl in the Tower): One of the things I love about how Arden writes these books is that Vasya is deeply aware of how ridiculous the idea of an actual relationship between a teenage girl and an ancient death god is...but they're so easy to get invested in!

Ifemelu and Obinze (Americanah): Rooting for these two to make it means rooting for someone who cheats on their spouse to end up with the person they're cheating with...but I found their love story so compelling I couldn't help it!