Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book 186: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

"The joy made him feel like a drunken man. To teach and exhort and explain to his people—and to have them understand. That was the best of all. To speak the truth and be attended."

Dates read: October 30- November 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels

A lot of people, including myself, talk about how hard it is to make friends as adults. And it is, for lots of understandable reasons, mostly centered around only meeting new people in relatively small numbers after a certain point. But we also tend to be less open and vulnerable as we get older, and that makes it harder to make a real connection. Our old friends, we feel like we can tell them anything, and that's such an important thing to have in our lives. Everyone wants to feel understood.

Carson McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter takes place in small-town Georgia, but it could take place in a small town anywhere. Our main character is John Singer, a Deaf man who works as a silversmith (he's continually referred to as "deaf-mute", or "mute", because this book was written in 1940 and they weren't great about sensitivity training back then). At the very beginning, he's living with a fellow Deaf man, Antonopolous, as his roommate, and they speak to each other in sign language. While Singer is otherwise typical apart from his deafness, Anton clearly has more profound issues...he seems to have some sort of intellectual disability as well as health problems. After a medical episode, his brother (the local grocer) takes him to an institution to be cared for, leaving Singer in need of a new place to go.

He ends up in the boarding house run by the Kelly family, and it's here that he attracts one of what turns out to be a small but devoted group of...well, followers is the best way to describe it. Mick Kelly, the musically-inclined daughter of the not-well-off family, comes often to Singer's room to talk to him (he can read lips and will occasionally respond in writing) and listen to the radio. At the local cafe, Singer attracts the lonely owner, Biff, who has a bad marriage even before he's widowed, and Jake, a traveling labor organizer trying to inspire the locals to band together. And then he also manages to meet and attract the attention of Dr. Benedict Copeland, the only black doctor in town, whose children (including the maid for the Kelly family) have refused to follow in his footsteps. While he moves through all of these people's lives at the center of their obsession, though, he maintains his own obsession with his friend and former roommate, regularly visiting him and bringing him expensive gifts.

I'll be honest...when I first started reading this, I was concerned that it was going to be a "sad lonely people being sad and lonely" story. Unless they're particularly well-written, those types of stories don't tend to appeal to me. But what I actually found here was a beautifully realized tale of the desperate human need to connect and feel like someone understands you. Each of the people drawn to John is estranged from most social connections: Mick, because her sensitivity and love for music makes her an oddball among her family and most of her peers, Biff, because he and his wife, who he was estranged from, never had the family he craved, Jake, because he's an actual outsider to the community whose efforts to organize them only alienate them instead, and Dr. Copeland because his education and pride separate him from his children as well as his community. In John, who can only listen and doesn't talk and is kind-hearted, they find the acceptance they covet. For John, though, the only person in his life who can understand him and he can communicate with in sign is Antonopolous, and it therefore it is this bond that John prizes above all others.

It's such an insightful look into the human condition that it's hard to believe Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. We're a social species, humans. We want to be members of the group. Feeling outside of it, especially when we're teenagers like Mick, is difficult to bear. For the most part, the characters McCullers creates feel real and sympathetic...John himself is really the least plausible character, to so patiently bear the demands on his time and emotional energy that his acolytes demand from him. I found myself wondering why he didn't literally shut the door on them once in a while to get some time to recharge. This novel would be best for fans of character-driven rather than plot-driven stories, because quite little actually "happens" besides the emotional journeys of the people involved. But if you're down for a slower, quieter book, this is really very lovely.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

Three years ago, I was reading: The Song of Achilles

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is the second yearly appearance of one of my least favorite topics, most anticipated books! I read SO MUCH backlist that coming up with new releases I'm looking forward to is always a struggle but here are ten that do seem intriguing!

The Golden Hour: I've never read Beatriz Williams before, and I love stories about royalty, so this Bahamas-set book about Edward Windsor and Wallis Simpson's social circle sounds like a great way to start with her!

Gods of Jade and Shadow: There are a lot of mythology-inspired fantasy books out there (and I want to read many of them!), but this one uses Mayan mythology as a basis, which is something I haven't seen before.

The Body in Question: Two jurors begin an affair while sequestered only to discover they are on opposite sides of the verdict...this sounds like the kind of thing I'd really enjoy.

Polite Society: Emma is one of my favorite Austen works, so seeing it retold in modern India sounds right up my alley!

Hollow Kingdom: It's the end of world...this time, told from the perspective of a domesticated crow. This seems like the kind of weird I'd like!

We the Survivors: A Malaysian man commits a murder, and after he's served his prison sentence narrates the story of his life to a journalist, whose own life is very different. It does sound heavy but I like heavy every so often.

Red at the Bone: Looking at the political through the personal tends to speak to me, so this book exploring race and class over the course of one family's story sounds fantastic.

The Dutch House: A book about two siblings and their complicated relationships with each other and their childhood home seems like something I could really get into.

Royal Holiday: I don't read much romance, but this story about a mom tagging along on her daughter's trip to work with the British royal family and falling in love with a member of the royal household sounds too cute to resist!

Beautiful on the Outside: I love figure skating, so naturally I can't wait to read Adam Rippon's memoir.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book 185: The Book Thief

"Although something inside her told her that this was a crime—after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned—she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn't help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that's where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate."

Dates read: October 25-30, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Over the past several months (writing from the end of 2017), there's been no small amount of debate over what it means to be complicit. Ivanka Trump asserted that she's not complicit in her father's presidency, which she wouldn't necessarily be as a daughter, but she pretty clearly is as a senior advisor in his administration. There's a growing awareness that to be privileged in a system that's beneficial to you, whether or not you are an active architect or proponent of it, without taking action for marginalized people also flirts with the line of complicity. No one likes to feel complicit, so we try to find ways to weasel out of it, to find people more actively involved with whatever it is, point the finger at them.

One of the biggest open questions of complicity in the last century is that of the German population under the Third Reich. I suspect, like most things, it fell in some sort of bell curve...some citizens were opposed, some were supporters, and most fell somewhere in between, trying to survive by keeping their heads down. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief takes us to a small village in Germany during World War II and lets us see that spectrum play out. A young girl named Liesel and her brother are brought by their mother to foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, because their mother can no longer afford to keep them with her. On the way, though, her brother dies, and this is what brings Liesel to the attention of Death.

Death is our narrator, and when the illiterate Liesel snatches a book off the ground as her brother is buried, he (it?) dubs her "the book thief". Liesel doesn't actually steal very many books during the course of the story, but it fits well enough. For a while, as Liesel grows to know and love her rough-edged, foul-mouthed foster mother and gentle, patient foster father who teaches her to read, and makes friends with her neighbor Rudy, their little town is isolated from larger events. But the real world can't be avoided forever, and World War II sweeps over the Hubermann household, bringing a Jewish man into their basement to hide and constant danger lurking everywhere.

The villagers' attitudes toward Nazism range from passionate true believers to the Hubermanns, who resist joining the Party and hide a Jew for months. Many of their neighbors go along as far as they need to to keep out of trouble. I don't think this is a perspective we see very often, looking at the ordinary people who exist in these regimes, and so I found it interesting to read. Zusak's characterizations of everyone who populates the village are a highlight...Liesel herself is probably the least well-developed character, but Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and several of Liesel's other classmates make vivid impressions and linger in the memory even after the book is closed.

But even though this book tends to get rapturous praise, there were some places where it fell flat, too. I think the Death-as-narrator trick worked less well than it could just struck me as more gimmicky than meaningful and never really developed. I think the constant interjections into the text as "explainers" by Death were overused, and I think Zusak's writing is sometimes overly focused on going for "wow" instead of letting itself flow. As a whole, though, these are minor quibbles. The book is very good, with vivid and developed characters living in a well-drawn community, and the ending has a big (and earned!) emotional impact. It's well-worth reading and I'd recommend it widely, to everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Three years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Unpopular Bookish Opinions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's time for unpopular book opinions! I'm always a little hesitant of subjects like this, because it's easy for people's feelings to be hurt when they find out something they do bothers someone else. So let me say that this are just opinions, and the book world is wide and deep and there is room for EVERYONE in it. But I can't pretend I don't have some hot takes to share.

I love audiobooks, but I don't think it's the same as reading: I don't "count" audio toward my reading totals for the year, because while it's another way to consume stories, I don't think of it as reading. It activates entirely different parts of my brain and while I am listening to an every-increasing number of them, I just don't think it's "reading".

The classics are worth reading: I feel like a lot of people automatically dismiss classics as antiquated or boring and some of them are, but reading classics over the past ten years or so has made my understanding of and appreciation for literature so much richer.

I'm skeptical of people who read only or virtually only one genre: I don't care what that genre is...YA, nonfiction, chick lit. There are incredible books written in every genre and sticking to the one place you feel the most comfortable probably means you're missing out on something that could expand your horizons.

That being said, read what makes you want to read more: Side-eye though I may, I think the "right" things to read are the things you enjoy, and that make you want to pick up the next thing!

I love the Harry Potter series, but I am ready to be done with the expanded universe: I grew up with Harry, and those books have a special place in my heart. But I wish J.K. would stop tinkering with the world and trying to add things on. It often seems reactionary to (usually valid) critique.

If your book can't survive spoilers, it's not a very good book: I feel like this about all media, but if your book hinges on the "surprise" and can't stand alone, it's a sign of serious underlying issues. A good book takes you on a journey, and there is a lot of pleasure in encountering the unexpected on that journey, but if that's taken away and it all falls apart...write better characters and a more compelling plot.

There are a lot of series that should be standalone books: I'm not a series hater, but in my experience, there are many more of them that would have benefitted from stopping after the first one than those that really did have multiple books worth of story in them. I am almost never here for books that end on cliffhangers, one of the most cherished devices of a series.

I like a spunky heroine as much as anyone, but I am a little over the trope: I am myself high-spirited, as are many women and girls. But not every heroine needs to be so, most especially when it would be very anachronistic for them to be openly so. One of the things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is thinking about how someone in a different era would have conceived of themselves and their world and "as a modern teenager" is almost never accurate.

Most sex scenes should not be written: They're much more often cringey than they are erotic and very seldom actually add anything to the narrative. If they do need to be included (and sometimes they do!), they should be brief.

It's okay to not be on the DNF train: This is about me and me only, I have NO judgment for people that stop reading books they aren't enjoying! But people who do believe in putting a book down and never picking up again get very pushy about this being the only appropriate way to organize one's reading life. I finish everything I start, no one else has to, but leave me alone and let me hate-finish things in peace.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book 184: White Fur

"Jamey adores the shooting stars of her mind, the powdery galaxy of her thoughts. Her intelligence isn't organized the same way his is. She never finishes more than a few pages of a book, but loves to talk about what she read. She thinks in wild gardens, and his thoughts are espaliered into an introduction with a thesis, then supporting paragraphs, then a conclusion."

Dates read: October 22-25, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I didn't date in high school. Not that I didn't want to, there was just no one that I was interested in that was interested in me. It wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I had my first real relationship. Sean and I dated off and on for three years. It was very dramatic in that way that relationships between 19/20 year-olds can be...we broke up, we made up, we had big screaming fights, we were attached at the hip. He's a great person, and we're still casually friendly, but we were not at all a good match and that experience was a very good life lesson that passionate drama is not usually the basis for lasting harmony.

There's something about that age, though, just barely into adulthood, where it feels like if you aren't in some sort of constant crisis and don't have that dramatic intensity, that it's not really love. In Jardine Libaire's White Fur, Elise Perez and Jamey Hyde are both young adults, but have precious little else in common. Jamey is the scion of a prominent Northeastern banking family, in his junior year at Yale and drifting aimlessly towards his predetermined future working with his father, when Elise moves in next door. A textbook example of "rough around the edges", she's just out from the housing project where her single mother raised her and is constantly wearing the white fur jacket she traded for on the Greyhound. They couldn't be more different, but they're drawn to each other and quickly find themselves in a relationship that changes their lives forever.

After they've been together a few months in New Haven, Jamey's summer internship at Sotheby's pulls them into New York City and closer to Jamey's family orbit, which proves problematic. The Hydes are furious with him for dating so far below their expectations and try to engineer a breakup by cutting off Jamey's funding, but the couple soldiers on. After an old friend resurfaces and disaster strikes, though, a final showdown between Elise and her beloved's family for his heart and soul is inevitable.

This is the kind of novel that gets described as "gritty" and "raw", which actually means there's just a lot of non-prettified sex in it. That's the basis of Elise and Jamey's relationship, both when it's just starting out and after they've fallen in love: sex and lots of it. I'm not prudish about that kind of thing, but there's a point at which it starts to feel gratuitous...and this book went soaring past it. The ease of sexual freedom without worrying about STDs, and having venues for some kinkier hijinks, is one of the few ways in which I felt like this book really took advantage of its 1980s New York City setting, which was underplayed to the extent where I forgot it was supposed to be taking place in the 80s for large portions of its duration. Which isn't necessarily problematic in and of itself (I don't need a pop culture reference every three pages), but 80s NYC seems like a setting that could have really been played into in a way that Libaire just didn't.

I found Elise and Jamey (particularly the former) to be relatively well-drawn characters, and the narrative did make me root for them as a couple. The way Jamey is manipulated by virtually everyone in his life made it understandable that he'd fall so hard for Elise because she actually sees him as a person, and I enjoyed the way that Libaire made it clear that her interest in him has no root at all in his wealth the way that everyone assumes. But there were issues for me, particularly the ending, which I just found too easy. Libaire has a gift for prose, and I'll be keeping an eye out for her future work, but this didn't quite come together for me. If you like "gritty" stories or a good twist on a star-crossed lovers tale, you'll find something to enjoy here, otherwise maybe not.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: In The Skin of a Lion

Three years ago, I was reading: The Name of the Rose

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Pulitzer Prize Winners

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books from our favorite genre. My favorite genre is probably "literary fiction", which is broad and hard to put boundaries around, so I decided to go with prize-winners, the Pulitzer Prize in particular, and talk about ten of my favorites!

Less: I'll admit my expectations were low when this was chosen for my book club. A breakup comedy about a middle-aged white dude? Surprise! It's truly a delight.

Devil in the Grove: It's one thing to read about Jim Crow in the abstract. It's another thing entirely to read this searing account of institutionalized racism in Florida.

The Looming Tower: I'll remember where I was on 9/11 for the rest of my life. This look at how it happened is so so good.

Middlesex: I love Jeffrey Eugenides, and this epic family saga stretching from Greece to Detroit and a masterpiece.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: Michael Chabon spins an absolutely incredible story about two cousins and their comic book series. Even if you're not into comics (I'm not either), don't skip this!

Beloved: Just mind-blowingly powerful.

The Color Purple: Such a testament to the power of love and joy even in an often-terrible world.

All The King's Men: This tale of the rise and fall of an idealistic politician turning corrupt is timeless.

So Big: I only thought to pick this one up because it was a Pulitzer-winner, and it turns out it won for a reason. It's wonderful!

The Age of Innocence: I thought this was going to be fussy and pretentious but it's lush and fascinating.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: May 2019

It's the end of May, and after a long and blustery winter and some fits and starts to spring, summer is upon us here in northern Nevada. And in just a few days, I will actually be able to enjoy it because my professional busy season will come to a close!

In Books...
  • Jackaby: This YA mystery is very much Doctor-Who-meets-Sherlock-with-a-touch-of-Supernatural. When the young Abigail Rook flees from her prim upbringing as a proper lady in England in search of adventure, she winds up in America in a small town called New Fiddleham, in the employ of a strange detective called R.F. Jackaby, who solves supernatural crimes. It's a very simple mystery, but it's breezy and light and enjoyable to read.
  • First: Sandra Day O'Connor has been one of my role models from the time I was a little girl, so I was super excited for and had high expectations of this biography of her. And I was let down. The book itself seems tilted to the right politically in a way that wasn't necessary, and was a little too laudatory. I wanted a more complex portrait.
  • Battleborn: I'd been meaning to read this Nevada-centric short story collection for a while, so I was excited when it was chosen for my book club. And I wasn't disappointed! Though I'm often ambivalent about short stories, there were no duds here, just a powerhouse collection of ruminations on loneliness and the failures of human connection
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: I think I didn't quite get as caught up in this novel about a  maybe-cursed Dominican family as I could have because I kept stopping to translate the Spanish and slang, but I was still very into it and impressed by next time I read it (because there will be a next time, it was that good), it'll go smoother!
  • The Lives of Tao: This was a slightly cheesy sci-fi/adventure story that I picked up on a whim from the Kindle sale selection. It's easy and enjoyable enough to read, chronicling what happens when a sloppy, pudgy IT tech, Roen Tan, suddenly finds himself the host to an ancient alien called Tao who needs to whip him into shape to serve in a war between factions of the alien race, but there's nothing really remarkable here.
  • Midnight's Children: This is a masterpiece of a book and Salman Rushdie is an incredibly talented writer...but as much as I appreciated the craft of this book, I never really actually got into it. I want to learn more about the history of India and then come back and read it again, it really seems like the kind of book that needs to be read multiple times to fully appreciate!

In Life...
  • Almost done with session: By the end of the day Monday, the gavel will fall and the Legislature will adjourn. It has been an enormously busy month with lots of stress and I will be very glad to return to my commute-less existence. And, you know, sleeping.

One Thing:

When I started watching Game of Thrones when I still lived in Ann Arbor. My coworker Beverly told me how much she loved the show and invited me over to her house to watch it, I think right around the time the second season was starting, and I got into the books after that. My life has changed a lot since then, what with a cross-continental move, a career change, and getting married, so watching the finale this month felt like the end of an era. The end of the show was so bad, though, that I don't know that I'm disappointed that it's over. I AM looking forward to reading how George R.R. Martin handles the ending of the story...even if it's largely similar, his writing will almost certainly make it a more enjoyable experience!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book 183: Player Piano

"He knew with all his heart that the human situation was a frightful botch, but it was such a logical, intelligently arrived-at botch that he couldn't see how history could have possibly led anywhere else."

Dates read: October 17-22, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I graduated from law school at the wrong time. 2010 was just a few years after the recession began, and it had completed changed the landscape of legal hiring from where it had been in 2007, when I started. Not only were the biglaw firm jobs (that I never coveted) getting slashed, the kind of government jobs I'd been hoping for (I wanted to be a prosecutor) were incredibly scarce, too. I'd hoped that once I passed the bar, I'd get somewhere in my job hunt, but I spent the next six months unemployed. I sent out hundreds of cover letters and resumes and got nothing more than a handful of form letters letting me know they'd keep my information on file. This was one of the worst experiences of my life. Being without a job was awful.

A lot of that explains why I stayed so long in the job I did eventually get, which was a terrible work experience, but that's neither here nor there. What is relevant is the very real sense of usefulness that one gets from meaningful work. This concept is the key idea behind Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano. In it, he hypothesizes a world in which America, during one of the world wars, focused on automation in order to win. And it didn't stop simply at military automation...instead, virtually every aspect of American life that could be mechanized, was. A generation later, there are two classes of people: the very smartest, who become engineers and managers, and everyone else, who have the choice to either enlist in the military (which is never sent into action anymore) or unskilled labor doing public works.

Our protagonist is Dr. Paul Proteus. The son of one of the architects of the system, he's in leadership at the facility where he works, but even with his top job and satisfying marriage, he feels like something is missing. When his friend Ed blows into town at the beginning of the story, announcing that he's quit his very similar job and reflecting on the plight of the ordinary people of the world, it kicks off a series of changes within Paul. He finds himself questioning the wisdom of the world that his father helped build and he's helping perpetuate. He finds himself longing to work outdoors, with his hands, in a way where his worth is measured in his ability to do the work that will feed him. This kind of thinking is considered dangerous radicalism.

He joins Ed and some other characters in a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the machines, and ironically is ordered to infiltrate the same by his superiors as a mole shortly thereafter. He's propped up as the "head" of the organization to take advantage of his famous name as they prepare a rebellion against society as it currently exists. There's a parallel plot in which a foreign religious leader is being given a tour of the United States, meeting people and seeing how "advanced" the West has become...that this man sees the masses of the citizenry as and insists on referring to them (in his own language) as "slaves" is a point that is driven in over and over without the slightest modicum of subtlety.

And it's subtlety that's really missing here. This reminded me of some of Ayn Rand's works...not so much in terms of the ideas expressed, but in the way that the story is really kind of window dressing for the author's larger statement about the world. There's not really a lot of character development that goes on, and the plot is predictable. Vonnegut clearly wanted to draw attention to a trend he saw that was troubling to him and kind of propped up a story around that idea. Also, this was his first novel, and while some debuts bring us a writer already in command of their gifts...that's not the case here.

I actually found the novel more intriguing from the perspective of today...the results of the 2016 election and the way the opioid crisis seems to have hit the so-called Rust Belt especially hard demonstrates the real-world rage and despair that happen when people find themselves deprived of the chance to perform meaningful work. Even within my own lifetime, I've watched the way self check-out has replaced retail cashiers. I do exponentially more of my shopping on the internet than I do in stores. Automation is moving brutally forward, and it could be a much shorter time before most of life is mechanized than we think. So the book, even if it is more a statement than a story, does at least raise interesting questions. If you're a Vonnegut completist, there's merit to be found here, but for anyone else, it's very skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...has automation crept into your job?

One year ago, I was reading: The Sky Is Yours (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Three years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Released In the Last Ten Years

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're taking a look back at the past ten years and choosing our favorite books for each one! Some of these ended up being pretty hard choices!

2018: Once Upon A River- I loved this book, which was consciously meta about the power of storytelling but without losing the magic.

2017: The Bear and the Nightingale- By far, my favorite series of the past decade. Each one of the books is fantastic, and the first one especially so...I got completely immersed in the world of Russian folklore it creates!

2016: The Queen of the Night- This book is completely bonkers. Sweeping, epic, entertaining, and with the most delightfully crazy plot twists.

2015: Dead Wake- I knew like nothing about the Lusitania (besides that it had sunk) and precious little about World War 1 and got SO into this.

2014: Station Eleven- This book isn't just about a world-decimating flu and its immediate aftermath, but how humanity continues to survive even more than a decade later and even if you don't think you like post-apocalyptic fiction, you should read this.

2013: Americanah- If someone hasn't recommended that you read this book about an African couple whose immigration journeys take very different paths by now, let me be that person. If you just haven't read it yet, let me encourage you to get to it. It's amazing.

2012: Devil in the Grove- It's one thing to read about Jim Crow and police brutality during that era in the abstract, but this account of young black men in Florida falsely accused of rape in the 1950s is searing and fascinating and eye-opening.

2011: The Song of Achilles- This retelling of the story of mighty Greek warrior Achilles, in which his loyal servant Patroclus is actually his partner, has a power that lingers long after reading.

2010: The Man Without A Face- Masha Gessen's nonfiction look at Russia and its leader is relevant and completely enthralling.

2009: Wolf Hall- There are so many Tudor stories out there, it's hard to think of a fresh angle on the drama of Henry VIII's reign. But Hilary Mantel's look at it from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell manages to do just that masterfully.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book 182: Lincoln In The Bardo

"A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured.
It costs you nothing. 
Why not try?"

Dates read: October 15-17, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

As much as it's inextricably woven into our lives, sometimes I wonder what the world would be like right now if there was no social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Want to share baby photos with friends back home? You'd have to text, or email, or even just hard copy mail them. Advertising would still just be on TV, or in our mailboxes or magazines, or at the top of websites. I'm sure we'd still get those chain forwards from that one aunt, the ones that told you if you didn't forward this on to twelve people by midnight you'd never find love, or that there was a clear image of the devil in the smoke over the Twin Towers on 9/11, or those kind of things. But the ability to share low-quality information widely and quickly would be much diminished.

One area I think it would make a real difference would be in political news coverage. It's easier to cast a gauzy glow over figures that never faced the kind of constant examination that politicians today face. There was a lot of stuff going on in the White Houses of yore that even if it was known, wasn't published and dissected and scrutinized the way things are now. Like, for example, when Abraham Lincoln's 11 year-old son, Willie, died while he was in office during the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln had a breakdown, and Lincoln himself didn't cope well either. He went to the vault where his son's body was, at least once, and picked him up and held him. It was a demonstration of terrible, profound grief, and if it happened today can you imagine the tweets?

It is this situation, the heartbroken Lincoln going to see his dead son, that inspired lauded short-story writer George Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The bardo is based on the Tibetan concept of a liminal state between life and death, fairly similar to the Catholic purgatory but without the connotations of having done something "wrong", and the Lincoln in question is not Abraham but Willie himself. It is his soul that comes to the bardo, where he encounters other spirits, those who have elected to stay. They don't believe themselves quite dead...they refer to their coffins as "sick-boxes" and are sure that they'll soon recover and get back to their lives as they knew them. But they all know that children aren't supposed to linger, they're supposed to move on. And Willie is more or less ready to do so when his father appears, to hold him and talk to him, and promises to come back. So now Willie, too, wants to stay.

There are three main ghosts/spirits/souls that take on the task of trying to figure out how to inspire Willie to move on: Hans, Roger, and Everly. Hans was an older shopkeeper who remarried after the death of his first wife. He waited to consumate his second marriage until his young and lovely bride was comfortable, and after months, she's finally ready to do so...and then Hans is struck violently in the head by a wayward beam. Roger was a young gay man who managed to find love in a time when that was difficult...only to get dumped and slit his wrists in despair. As he bled, he realized how beautiful the world was and how much he wanted to live. And then there's Everly, a former reverend who lived righteously but is too afraid of heavenly judgment to go. They try everything, including communing with the President, to get Willie going where he needs to go.

This is a very odd novel. It's mostly structured like a play...dialogue is followed by a notation of the speaker's name. Then there are occasional sections where Saunders excerpts nonfiction historical sources to describe various aspects of the situation at hand: the party the Lincolns hosted at the White House the night Willie lay dying, what Lincoln actually looked like, what Willie was like, the day of the funeral. There's no traditional "narrative" at all. I'll admit that this made it a bit of a struggle to get into...I don't usually especially enjoy reading plays, and there's not a lot of information provided about what's going on and who the various characters are right off the bat. But my reluctance to put down books before I've finished them paid off here, because once I got into the flow of it, I found the back half quite strong and the ending unexpectedly powerful.

I've never read any of Saunders' short stories, but I'm excited to do so in the future because the sheer inventiveness of this novel is delightful. As someone who loves The Divine Comedy, I enjoyed his take on Dante's technique of contrapasso, giving the spirits physical manifestations matching the reason they won't leave the bardo. Although it won the Booker Prize for its release year (which was awarded the day after I finished reading it!), this is a novel destined to be divisive and one that I'd therefore hesitate recommending widely even though I personally enjoyed it. If you're looking for a straightforward form or narrative, or something more traditionally "historical fiction", this isn't for you. But if you're interested in a more unusual reading experience that challenges you to read in a different way, I'd encourage you to at least give it a try!

One year ago, I was reading: How to Love Wine (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Migraine

Three years ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Would Love To Own A First Edition Of

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is actually books that you won't let anyone touch. I'm not much for holding my books sacred (though I am pesky about getting them back...I'll actually often buy a secondhand copy of a book and just give that one if someone wants to borrow a book so that I don't have to worry), but if I had first editions of these books, I'd definitely hoard them all to myself! I'm highlighting five of my favorite books I've come to love as an adult, as well as five that meant a lot to me while I was a kid.

The Virgin Suicides: I love this book so much. I do have a signed copy, which no one is allowed to touch, but a first edition would be something special.

Lolita: A masterpiece that inspired me to not just enjoy reading, but to really appreciate the way the English language can be used.

The Secret History: I first read this book at 18 and it is STILL my go-to recommendation if someone hasn't read it yet.

In Cold Blood: Truly one of the greatest non-fiction books I have ever read.

1984: I read this when I was a teenager and it blew my entire mind.

Wild Magic: I was a kid who often felt better connected to animals than to other people, so this book about a teen who literally has a magic bond with animal life was something that spoke to me.

Sabriel: The whole series is good, but the first book is one I've read over and over again and still enjoy every time. I feel like these would have been monster smashes if they'd been written a decade later instead of being cult hits.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The British original that started it all.

Northern Lights: The title was changed when it came overseas to America, but this series still means so much to me that I want to get my hands on the actual first edition.

Catherine, Called Birdy: As a hard-headed smart-mouthed often-disobedient daughter, Catherine was everything.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Book 181: The Blind Assassin

"You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones."

Dates read: October 10-15, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Lists/awards: The Booker Prize, Time Magazine All-Time 100 Novels

We're constantly telling the story of our lives. To other people, but most of all to ourselves. Amping up the parts that make us look good, glossing over the parts that make us look bad, editing out that parts that don't quite jibe with the character we want ourselves to be. No one likes to remember our worst moments, though those are the ones that creep into our heads at 2 a.m. when we can't sleep. But at the end of the day, all you can do is try to be better tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on and so forth.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin starts with the end at the beginning: Iris Chase's sister, Laura, drives off a bridge in Iris's car. From that point on, we get three threads of story: (faux) newspaper accounts related to Iris's life, Iris looking back on her own life as an old woman and telling the story that leads up to what happened with her sister, and a story-within-a-story, called "The Blind Assassin", about a pair of secret lovers weaving a science fiction tale about a pair of secret lovers. Unveiled early on in the narrative through the newspaper accounts, it is revealed that shortly after her sister's death (which is ruled an accident), Iris's husband died. And then their daughter grew up with drug problems and succumbed to them, leaving her own child behind. And then that grandchild was raised not by Iris, but Iris's sister-in-law, who also died. Iris is old, and alone, and has no reason to hold on to her secrets anymore. So she starts to write.

She starts with the story of her grandparents, and the button factory her grandfather started in their small Canadian town, the profits from which rendered him suitable enough marriage material for her grandmother, from a society family in decline. When their three sons went off to war, only Iris's father came back. His wife, Iris and Laura's mother, was never especially healthy and died from complications from a miscarriage. Her father tries to keep the family business together through the Depression, but the Chases find themselves unable to even maintain their own finances, and that's how Iris finds herself married off to Richard, an older industrialist, in a deal that's supposed to keep the factory open and what's left of the family afloat. Instead, the entire Chase family capsizes, in their own ways.

After revisiting The Handmaid's Tale shortly before I read this book, and then reading this book itself, I was reminded what an incredibly gifted author Margaret Atwood is. To pull off the narrative structure of the book, with its intertwining threads and mysteries, is a fiendishly difficult task, but to do it while writing so beautifully and powerfully is the work of a master. It is a little jarring at the beginning, when you're first getting used to the path the book is taking you down, but it works. There were so many passages in this book that I marked, struck by how gorgeous the phrasing was. The characters, particularly Laura and Richard, were vivid, and Iris herself is someone we gradually come to understand as she tells her story and feels so real that when the book and her story end, the loss feels unusually poignant.

This is an incredible book: sad, yes, but told with such skill and in a way that keeps you wanting more and more...I had a hard time putting it down at night. I'm kicking myself that this is only my second Atwood and I'm really looking forward to getting into more of her work. As a heads up to potential readers, there is some really heavy stuff in here: parental death, spousal abuse, sexual abuse/rape...I think Atwood handles this material with sensitivity and grace, but it's something to be aware of. I'd recommend this book strongly, particularly for mature readers (there's nothing gratuitous, but there's a lot of darkness and I think it's a work that's best appreciated with a little life experience behind the reader).

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains

Three years ago, I was reading: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Good Books That Would Not Make Good Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a page to screen freebie. I'm not one of those people who think that a movie made of a book is necessarily going to be bad...sometimes, I think the movie even manages to be better! That being said, some books, even ones I love, I cringe to think about as a movie. Here are ten books that I think should stay on the page.

Station Eleven: The time shifts, the interiority of the's hard to imagine a way this turns out well.

A Tale for the Time Being: The delicate paralleling of the narratives just seems like it would be really tricky to actually make work on-screen.

Middlesex: There's just so much story here...not to mention material that would need an extremely delicate hand to render with emotional honesty and not for shock value.

Lincoln in the Bardo: This book is intensely weird, in a way that's just inherently unfilmable.

The Bear and the Nightingale: Vasya is a heroine for the ages and if it was done correctly, a movie could be just as magical as the book. But I have a hard time believing that the chyerti wouldn't get cuted up and the heart of it dumbed down.

The Butcher's Daughter: I loved this book about a novice nun living through the religious turmoil of Henry VIII's reign, but it's way too much in her head. Nothing "happens".

The Blind Assassin: There are time shifts, unreliable narrators, and a lovely story-within-a-story that I can't imagine coming off as anything but cheesy if it were filmed.

Prep: Lee is so very inside her own head, the book is so rooted in the small-in-scope-but-large-in-impact agonies of adolescence, that rendering it so it could be visual seems impossible.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: This has the sweep and scope of an epic and I don't know that I think the parts of the story which integrate the comic, so important to the power of it, could be executed well.

Life After Life: There are so many lives here, some of which change only in small details and still end the same way, that I just don't think this story could be told anywhere but on the page.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book 180: The Royals

"There were no more seasoned actors than the British royal family. Like an old vaudeville troupe, they filed on stage to go through their practiced routines. Looking like rouged curiosities, they performed at weddings and funerals. In costume, they still drew a few regular spectators, but they lose their biggest crowds with the departure of their ingenue Princess. They knew that they were viewed best from afar; up close, their imperfections showed."

Dates read: October 2-10, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I'll admit it: when I went to London, one of the first things I wanted to see was Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. It feels a little un-American, given that the whole reason the USA is a thing was rebelling against the crown, but I love the British monarchy. If someone wore Saint Edward's Crown, I want to know about them. The jewels, the castles, and the wide variety of people who have worn them/lived in them through the centuries is something I just can't tear myself away from.

The family currently occupying the throne are the Windsors, and Kitty Kelley's The Royals recounts their modern history. She starts with the changing of their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor to downplay their Germanic origin in the World War I era, and traces the family through the divorces of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew (the book was originally published in the late 90s, shortly before the death of Diana, and while there is a bit of content added on to the later edition I had, the bulk of the material stops there). After some introductory material about the history of the House, she recounts it primarily by tracing the romances that have defined it: David and Wallis Simpson, Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Elizabeth and Phillip, Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, Charles and Diana, and Andrew and Fergie.

Kelley's book lies somewhere between the tawdriness of an expose and glossiness of an official biography...she's looking to tell a behind-the-scenes story to get to who the Windsors actually are, but mostly avoids being sensationalistic. Kelley highlights the steely reserve of the Queen Mother, who held on to her grudge against Wallis Simpson until the day the latter died, and how her deep opposition to divorce was internalized by her daughter and trapped many of the family members in marriages long past their expiration date (and prevented one marriage from occurring at all, in Margaret's case). Queen Elizabeth II is shown to be both deeply devoted to her duty as monarch, and also as a woman who's fundamentally introverted and struggles with social relationships, including parenthood. And while Phillip hasn't always been faithful to his wife, he has always been loyal to The Firm, as he calls the royal family.

This is actually what interested me the most as I was reading the book...the line that the Windsors walk between being a family, with all the messiness that entails, and being an institution, which needs to show staying power and continue to have meaning in order to maintain relevance. The Queen can never just be a daughter, or sister, or mother, or wife...she is always the monarch and the figurehead of the Commonwealth. For some, like Princess Anne, who has famously inherited her father's stubborn prickliness, this seems to have worked out just fine. But for Prince Charles, with his almost painful earnestness, it's clear that a more traditionally middle-class/warmer household would have been better for him...I found myself feeling more sympathy for him than I would have expected after reading this book. He's not either of his parents' favorite (Phillip prefers Anne, while Elizabeth reportedly favors Andrew), and his obvious desire to be feel loved and be taken seriously is sad. Kelley doesn't let him off the hook for the issues in his marriage to Diana (nor does she let Diana off the hook for her own contributions to the breakdown), but reading about his obvious lasting devotion to Camilla made me glad for him that they finally ended up married. 

Like I said previously, I think Kitty Kelley does a pretty good job of including enough gossip to be dishy, but not going overboard and just printing every rumor she heard while doing research. Obviously the Windsors themselves may disagree, but she definitely paints portraits of them as people who are neither flawless example of nobility nor cartoon villains (well, later-in-life Margaret veers towards cartoon villainy but it doesn't seem gratuitous, at any rate). At the end of the day, I found myself glad that the families I was both born into and married into are warm and loving and free from public scrutiny, even if that scrutiny does come with the castles and the jewels and all that. This book is sure to entertain those who enjoy reading about the British royal family, but won't have much for those who aren't already disposed to be interested. It's long, but never feels like a slog.

Tell me, blog you know anyone who's been raised in the public eye because of who their parents were?

One year ago, I was reading: Children of Blood and Bone (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

Three years ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters That Remind Me of Myself

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting book characters that remind us of ourselves. So there are a decent contingent of smart, book-nerdy girls on here, but also some that are probably less flattering comparisons.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): I know I just used her a couple months back in a similar topic. But is there an overachieving girl who doesn't identify with Hermione?

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): I am not much of a matchmaker, but I do enjoy gossip and drama like our girl here. And Emma does have a brain in her head: we're told she's clever right there in the opening line.

Meg Murray (A Wrinkle in Time): For reasons not worth getting into right now, I was an often-angry little girl. It's rare to find stories that center on a girl who gets mad and makes that part of her heroism.

Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Francie's determination to get an education and love for learning and reading make her a role model for plenty of nerdy girls.

Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar): I struggled with mental health and depression growing up and still do, honestly. Esther's struggle feels so familiar.

Daine Sarassri (Wild Magic): I tried getting into the Alanna series, but the central character's bravery was never something I could identify with. Daine's love of animals, however, really spoke to me!

Lee Fiora (Prep): I spent quite a bit of time reading this book infuriated at its teenage protagonist...because she made so many of the same mistakes rooted in hyper self-conciousness that I have made and to be honest, continue to make.

Jules Jacobson (The Interestings): Jules's struggle to recognize that her talents and worth may not be in the same place as her friends and deal with the jealousy she feels is all too recognizable.

Briony Tallis (Atonement): Briony's failure to understand what she's seen and desire to be important and listened to lead to own childhood busybody-ness didn't have disastrous consequences, but that was more luck than anything.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): Who can't relate to the refusal to really adult?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Book 179: The Bonfire of the Vanities

"Sherman lifted his Yale chin, squared his shoulders, straightened his back, raised himself to his full height, and assumed the Presence, the presence of an older, finer New York, the New York of his father, the Lion of Dunning Sponget." 

Dates read: September 22- October 2, 2017

Rating: 2/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

I try to pretend I'm kind and thoughtful, but I'll confess: when something bad happens to someone awful, even if they didn't deserve it, I don't usually feel sorry for them. I tend to figure that even if THIS bad thing isn't fair, per se, bad things that aren't fair happen to everyone, so at least when they happen to bad people we can smirk about it. What is life without those kind of tiny, petty joys?

Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, is filled with horrible people in 1980s New York City. Our main character is Sherman McCoy, a high-flying bond trader whose ridiculous salary somehow still isn't enough to fill his endless wants. One of those wants is a hot side piece, so he cheats on his interior designer wife with Maria Ruskin, herself the young trophy wife of a much-older rich businessman. The event that propels the entire narrative happens when he comes to pick her up from the airport one evening. On their way back to Manhattan, Sherman misses his exit and ends up in the Bronx. Now this is pre-Guiliani New York City, so crime rates are still quite high, and the Bronx in particular contributes significantly to this crime rate. Sherman is desperate to get out of the bad side of town in his fancy car, and so drives up a ramp back onto the highway only to find it blocked. When he gets out of his car to clear the debris, he's approached by two young black men, and he panics. He's aggressive with one of them, and when Maria gets behind the wheel and gets him into the car, they take off. He thinks he sees and feels one of the two guys get clipped by the car as it fishtails on their way out of there.

Sherman's inclined to report what happened to the police, but Maria dissuades him. But the guilt and worry begin to consume him, especially as the incident starts to pick up attention. Forces start to converge (a shady African-American preacher/activist type, an alcoholic English reporter desperate to prove his increasingly questionable worth to his employer, a Jewish DA trying to show the overwhelming minority community he serves action on their behalf in an election year), and Sherman is charged and sent to trial, where his prosecutor, Larry Kramer, is a man who seethes at the way his life has turned out, with a modest income that keeps him from being able to conduct the affair he wants to have with a former juror.

As you can probably tell from that rating up there, I hated this book. Basically everyone in it is The Worst, and no one's having any fun. I don't mind reading about morally questionable characters as long as they're compelling, but Sherman and everyone around him is miserable. Even before the accident, Sherman is living far beyond his considerable means and he's constantly worried about how to make sure he can stay afloat. Larry, who's the second lead in the book, is a covetous self-important blowhard obsessed with his own appearance and desirability to women. I hated both of them immediately and struggled so hard to make myself read this. It got better, plot-wise, as it went...when the pieces started coming together, I could appreciate the way Wolfe showed how the dysfunction of every participant in the process created the perfect storm in which Sherman was embroiled. But that doesn't mean I liked it.

I think part of it was the overwhelming male-ness of the narrative: all the major figures, save Maria, are dudes, and even Maria never gets the story told from her point of view the way the men do. I have no particular interest in masculinity crises, and there's a lot of that here. I think I'm also going to give up on Tom Wolfe from here on out...I read his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test a couple years ago, and I hated it just as much as I hated this. His tics as a writer, particularly his fondness of repetitious phrases, do not jibe with me as a reader. I recognize that as a satire of a particular time and place, it has merit, but I did not like it at all. I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...are there any writers that you just can't read because you don't like the way they write?

One year ago, I was reading: Game of Crowns (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Highest Tide

Three years ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Thought-Provoking Book Quotes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're focusing on quotes from books. Specifically, quotes that are either inspirational or thought-provoking. I'm too cynical to get deep into inspiration, but I love a book that makes me think, so here are ten quotes from books that get my brain going.

"Does the walker chose the path, or the path the walker?"- Sabriel

"Life is fleeting. Don't waste a single moment of your precious life. Wake up now! And now! And now!"- A Tale For The Time Being

"Things can change in a day"- The God of Small Things

"Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence. When you're unhappy, you get to pay a lot of attention to yourself. You get to take yourself oh so very seriously."- Jitterbug Perfume

"Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?"- Anna Karenina

“To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect”- Sense and Sensibility

“After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”- Remains of the Day

“Imagination, of course, can open any door - turn the key and let terror walk right in.”- In Cold Blood

“Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.”- The Handmaid's Tale

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”- Seeing Voices

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Month In The Life: April 2019

With tomorrow being the last day of April, that means we're 1/3 of the way through 2019 already, which just does not seem at all possible. It was another busy busy month, since we're still in session and this was the month the first major deadlines started cropping up but of course, I still managed to read books.

In Books...

  • All The President's Men: This book is a legend of political journalism, and I couldn't believe I hadn't read it yet. Honestly, though, it was so dry and seemed to be assuming that I had a lot of context around Watergate that I don't have. There's an amazing book to be written about this triumph of the free press, but the reporters were too far inside it to tell it effectively.
  • Princess Masako: In just in a few days, Emperor Akihito will abdicate the Japanese throne in favor of his oldest son, Naruhito. Which means Naruhito's wife, Masako, will be empress. Her story is quite sad: a highly educated, accomplished woman, she's widely reputed to be miserable in her tightly constrained life as a royal. This book means to examine her life, but the quality you can expect is right there in the subtitle: "Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne". Thinly sourced and inflammatory, but not without entertainment value.
  • The Last Romantics: This is the kind of long-ranging family-dynamics drama that I tend to enjoy, so it should come as no surprise that I really liked this book. Tara Conklin's writing is lovely and insightful, and the tensions that drive the plot arise from skillful character development. There were a few things that didn't quite work for me as plot points that kept it from being a true standout, but mostly this is a solid, engrossing read. 
  • Lilah: I hadn't read biblical fiction in a long time, and this didn't exactly encourage me to read more...Marek Halter did some decent characterization of Lilah, but the focus seemed strongly on the world-building and I thought the book, though short, dragged through the first half and rushed the second. 
  • The Fever: When one pretty teenage girl has a sudden seizure in class, it's a mystery. When a second does, though, and a third, it starts to feel like an epidemic. The entire small town starts to fray at the seams, and Megan Abbott's thriller keeps the tension high. I did find myself feeling like the three points of view was at least one too many, but this is a very readable, compelling book.
  • The Lowland: This book tells the story of two brothers in India whose lives take divergent paths as they grow up, and a woman who they both marry, weaving through the course of their tragedies and triumphs over a lifetime. It is an elegant, accomplished novel with deft prose styling and layered characterization, but I never quite connected to it. There's a sense of remove that blunted its impact, for me. 

In Life...

  • I was on Jeopardy!: Honestly, a lifelong dream. Even though I didn't win, I'm proud of my performance. I accomplished my make sure "Nevada" was pronounced correctly and getting to play Final Jeopardy! 
  • Session continues: We're now about 2/3 of the way through, just a little over a month to go! It'll be a pretty grueling month and change though, but then there will be some nice down time over the summer.

One Thing:

Instead of linking to something outside I'm going to write a little bit more about my Jeopardy! experience. I'm of two minds about it: on the one hand, I watched James play four shows before mine since I was on the last show of the day and knew what I was getting into...not that I was intimidated, per se, but his performance on the show has been of the sort where I don't feel bad that I lost. Lots of very smart, capable players have lost to James. I didn't lose a squeaker where I'd be kicking myself over one blown answer. On the other hand, I wish I'd gotten the experience of playing a "regular" show...getting your one chance to ever play be against such a dominant player is unfortunate timing but that's how life goes sometimes. For those of you, who (like me!) love to watch from home and shout out answers, know that buzzer timing is SO much of the game and WAY harder than you think it is. I never quite got the hang of it. But I am (I think) the first person from my hometown to ever make it on, which is pretty cool, and I will never forget that Edward is the other British king's name (along with Henry and George) to be used more than five times ever again in my life.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Book 178: Stay With Me

"I loved Yejide from the very first moment. No doubt about that. But there are things even love can't do. Before I got married, I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough that it couldn't bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it's in a thousand pieces under your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love."

Dates read: September 19-22, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes it seems like there are two kinds of long-married couples: those who genuinely love and appreciate each other, and those who seem to have just decided that they're sticking to it because of stubbornness, mutual resentment, "for the children", or any variety of reasons that aren't love. When I read stories about couples who've been married for decades, I find myself wondering which group that pair falls in. Are the latter something we should be celebrating, honestly? I've known people who got married only to find out later that the person they thought they were swearing forever to isn't who they've ended up with. Ending a marriage, even one that's gone sour, sounds like it's an agonizing decision, and I can't help but think that the social pressure to not make that decision keeps people together who might be better off apart.

What exactly it means to be married, and married well, is at the heart of Ayobami Adebayo's Stay With Me. When we first meet Yejide, we learn that technically, she's had a long marriage. She's lived apart from her husband, Akin, for many years, but she receives an invitation to attend his father's funeral as his guest that sends her on a reminisce about their past, and how their separation came to be. They met at university in Nigeria, and though they were both seeing other people at the time, quickly fell in love and got married. Their marriage was happy, except that even after several years, they were childless. Though Akin and Yejide were a modern couple, his parents were traditional, and if their first-born son couldn't produce an heir for the family with his wife, they had a solution: a second wife.

This is the first in a series of what come to be deep, deep cracks in Akin and Yejide's relationship. Yejide is desperate to keep her husband to herself, and knows that in order to do that, she must somehow become pregnant...which she does. The plot has several twists and turns, and while I'm usually not especially fussed about spoilers, this is one of the cases where I feel like letting the plot unfold as you read is important. Though the book is relatively short (under 300 pages), Adebayo deals with some powerful themes: love, marriage, mental health, trust, family, sex, and what it means to be a parent.

This is a debut novel, and in some ways, it shows. Some of the plot twists seemed to be a little too difficult to believe, and it sometimes felt that they were being deployed too quickly, with too little time for each to really settle and resonate before the next one came along. And while I appreciated the way she paralleled the upheavals and tensions of the central marriage alongside the political turmoil roiling Nigeria during the lives of the characters, references to it often felt shoehorned in. I felt like the book should have been longer, which could have ameliorated both issues by letting the plot breathe a bit.

At the end of the day, though, this is the kind of debut which makes me really excited for the author's follow-up(s). Yejide is a fantastic character...she's not always likable, and often makes poor choices, but remains sympathetic throughout. The perspective we get into her childhood informs the person she comes to be, and I wish we'd gotten a bit more of this with Akin. We get some, but he's less well-developed than she is and I think the book could have been even stronger if we'd gotten more of his perspective. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed this book and look forward to following Adeyabo's career. I would recommend it, but maybe not to everyone. I think it'll appeal most to readers who enjoy character-based domestic dramas and don't mind if they occasionally trend towards the implausible in their plotting.

Tell me, blog friends...what do you think are good reasons for ending a marriage, if any?

One year ago, I was reading: Rosemary's Baby (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Three years ago, I was reading: The President's Club

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: First Ten Books I Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! My opinions on books often change over time, so with this week's subject, what I want to do is go back to the first ten books I reviewed on this blog and see how I feel about them a few years later.


Rating then: 10/10

Rating now: 10/10

Comments: This book is a masterpiece.


Rating then: 3/10

Rating now: 2/10

Comments: I stand by my low rating of this book, which I barely fact, it feels fair to lower my already low rating because I can't remember getting anything at all out of this book.

Rating then: 3/10

Rating now: 3/10

Comments: This book was very bad and I rated it as such and I stand by that rating.

Rating then: 2/10

Rating now: 2/10

Comments: Another one of those that I can barely remember, except that it felt like it threw a bunch of trendy YA concepts into a blender with Korean mythology (the author is white, so it's not even an own voices book). 

Rating then: 9/10

Rating now: 8/10

Comments: I really did enjoy this deep dive into linguistics, but it's very dry and technical and something I'm not super eager to re-read...though I would enjoy reading more along the same lines.

Rating then: 10/10

Rating now: 9/10

Comments: This is a very, very good memoir, but usually I reserve that 10/10 for something that feels like a masterpiece and with some time in the rearview, this isn't a masterpiece. 

Rating then: ~5/10 (varying depending on volume)

Rating now: 3/10

Comments: I spent a LOT of time slogging through the four volumes of this psychoanalytic perspective on the history of world mythology. It could have been about 1/3 the length and still would have been dense. I think I rated it higher at the time because I wanted to believe it was better than it was for all the time I invested in it.

Rating then: 7/10

Rating now: 6/10

Comments: This book is solid, but when I read it I thought it was better than I think it is now. 

Rating then: 10/10

Rating now: 10/10

Comments: This, on the other hand, is a masterpiece and continues to deserve its rating.

Rating then: 5/10

Rating now: 4/10

Comments: I don't think this book was bad, there just wasn't much there. Some images from it have stayed with me, but with very few exceptions I remember so little of it I might as well have never read it at all. 

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!