Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite 2019 Releases

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's the last day of the year, so let's look back on my favorite releases of the year, eh?

Winter of the Witch: I loved the first two books in this trilogy, so I was nervous about whether Katherine Arden could bring it home and give Vasya the ending she deserved. I shouldn't have worried. This series-closer was amazing and I loved it!

Daisy Jones and the Six: I was a little skeptical at first of this Behind-the-Music-style story about a band who make a best-selling masterpiece and then break up on tour, but I fell in love with Daisy, Billy, and the interplay between all the band members. I just couldn't put it down!

The Last Romantics: I love a long-running family saga, and Conklin's tale about siblings that become tightly bonded when their mother falls into a deep depression after their father's death was a great one. It wasn't perfect, but I found it deeply compelling.

Polite Society: This retelling of Emma in modern-day upper-crust India was darker than the original, but nicely balanced being an homage to Austen and opening up the narrative so that side characters got fuller development.

Say Nothing: I had virtually no understanding of The Troubles going in to this book, and needed some Wikipedia help at the beginning, but this exploration of that time through the story of a mother of ten being "disappeared" was fascinating and informative.

After the Party: Even the Allies had internal fascist movements during the World War II era, and this book explores the way one woman gets involved with Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, combining elegant prose and a determinedly unsympathetic protagonist.

First: This is a thorough biography of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the US Supreme Court and one of my personal heroes. It's a little dry at points, but overall a well-rounded look at a trailblazing woman.

Death Prefers Blondes: If you've ever wondered why heists don't have more drag queens, this is the book for you! It's fast-paced and doesn't forget to slow down for some heartfelt moments among the winky, campy fun. A very entertaining read!

The Club: A teenage German orphan finds himself caught up in a mysterious plot by his aunt, taking him to Cambridge's most exclusive inner circle and exposing the rot at its core. This was uneven, but grabbed and held my attention.

Without A Prayer: How does a 19 year-old end up being beaten to death by his own parents and sister in church in upstate New York? Because that church has become a cult, in an awful but fascinating true story. It reads more like a very extended piece of reporting than a book with narrative structure and falls very short on the kind of analysis and perspective that would let it take off, but it's interesting nevertheless.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Month in the Life: December 2019 (With Stats!)

And the 20-teens are all but over! In just a few days, we start the 2020s. I'm not going to do a whole decade-in-retrospect, but this has been one with some high highs (passing the bar! getting married!) and some low lows (struggling to find a job as a lawyer, trying to figure out what to do once I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore). All in all, though, it's been a good ten years, and I'm looking forward to the next ten! But first, let's look back at the last month!

In Books...
  • Columbine: I was in 8th grade when Columbine happened, so it had a very real effect on how my adolescence played out. Even so, I ended up learning quite a lot about it that I didn't know before from reading this book. It's obviously a sensitive subject, but it's deeply researched and very well-written.
  • The Sisters of Henry VIII: Henry VIII is usually thought about in relation to his six wives, but he also had two sisters: one older (Margaret, who became Queen of Scotland), and one younger (Mary, who briefly became Queen of France). I was looking forward to learning more about them, but this is unfortunately one of the driest, least engaging Tudor biographies I've ever read. 
  • The Woodcutter: This is a fantasy story based on fairy tales, and it's fine? There's some attempt at establishing a world with a complex political environment, but that part never comes together. The plot moves quickly enough that it's entertaining to read, though quickly forgettable.
  • Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling: The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is amazing (highly recommend seeing it in person if at all possible), but the story of how it came to be painted is perhaps even more so. I'm no art historian, but Ross King makes sure the reader doesn't need to be to get engrossed in his book. So interesting!
  • House of Cards: I really liked the first couple seasons of the Netflix show when it came out, so I figured I should check out the original source material. Published in the late 80s in the UK, it's an entertaining if not particularly special political thriller, telling the story of Chief Whip Francis Urquhart's quest to destroy the Prime Minister who disappointed him and seize power for himself. I liked it but didn't love it.
  • Without A Prayer: One night in 2015, 19 year-old Lucas Leonard was whipped to death by a group that included his own parents and half-sister. In church! Susan Abshire's book traces the development of a small congregation into a cult where the members could find themselves doing such a thing. You can tell she's a reporter, it's long on facts and short on analysis, but the story is strong and compelling enough to mostly carry it.

In Life...
  • New York City weekend with my mom: My mom really wanted to go see the Moulin Rouge! musical, so I went with her for a quick weekend in the Big Apple. We had an amazing time! Besides the show (which was fantastic), we saw the New York City Philharmonic do a live performance of the score to Harry Potter along with the movie, went to the Met, and (of course) went to The Strand...we got lots of steps in!

One Thing:

I'm generally pro-musical theater, but I'll confess I've never seen or had much interest in seeing CATS. When the first trailer for the movie came out a few months ago, I laughed at how weird the CGI looked and figured it would be not very good. Watching the reviews come in over the internet, though, was a delight...if just for the humor of baffled critics trying to articulate how very bad it was. This piece rounds up some of the best ones.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Year-End Bonus Stats!

I do my primary stats round-up in my yearly summary post on my birthday, but since I started using the Rock Your Reading Tracker by Sarah's Book Shelves, I've added in some end-of-year bonus stats that it tracks. It's fun to look at trends in my reading that I never would have thought to include for myself, which is one of the reasons I buy and recommend the tracker!

My reading this year was pretty steady: I read 7 books every month but four: 6 each in June and December, 5 each in May and October. I haven't read as many gigantic books this year, which usually will noticeably drop my monthly totals. Nor was there any particular time this year when I really dove into reading.

I read almost entirely backlist: Once again, my reading was over 80% backlist. I really do just prefer waiting for most new books to come out and develop a track record before deciding whether I want to read them. I do sometimes find hidden gems that never really take off among my frontlist reads, but backlist is just so much more likely to be satisfying!

I'm good at picking out books for myself: My most successful source of books I wind up enjoying? Just browsing in secondhand stores and Kindle sales. I've generally developed a good sense of the kind of thing I like at this point. Second-most successful source was trusted authors (particularly noticeable because 77% of my reading this year was new-to-me authors!), and third was Jaclyn Day, who posts about books on her Instagram.

I don't read a lot of series: When I was younger I went more for a series, but these days I tend strongly towards standalones. Only 15% of the books I read in 2019 were from a series!

Most books I read are 300-400 pages long: This is the book length I tend to prefer, so I wasn't surprised to see that just about 40% of my reading fit into this range. My reading actually came close to being a bell curve, with equal numbers of books falling on either side of it. I was actually a little surprised about that, as I tend to think of myself as someone who really likes long books!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Book 213: The Martian

"Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped."

Dates read: March 7-9, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Doesn't it seem like everyone goes through a phase of wanting to be an astronaut when they're kids? I know I had my time where I thought I was going to go to space...I read all about Sally Ride and thought leaving Earth sounded like just about the coolest thing possible. Turns out being an astronaut means lots and lots of math and science, and while I was certainly capable in the math and science departments, I never loved it, so that dream (like the ones about being a prima ballerina, princess, and/or a veterinarian) fell by the wayside, like many people's astronaut dreams do.

Andy Weir's The Martian does not shy away from the deeply nerdy aspect of being an astronaut. Mark Watney, and the rest of the crew of the Ares 3 (the third manned mission to Mars) are all big dorks. Mark, on top of his engineering baseline, is also a plant geek, and both of those skill sets prove absolutely crucial when there's a sudden, powerful windstorm on the red planet that requires the crew to get out of there in a hurry. A freak accident means that Mark is thought killed and left behind...only he's not actually dead. He's alive, and alone.

What follows is an epic struggle for survival, as Mark tries to figure out how to stay alive, and (when they become aware that he's alive at all), NASA tries to figure out how to get him home. Like most engineers, Mark is a skilled problem-solver, and it's only through a combination of his smarts, determination, and some blind luck that he's able to figure out how to meet the challenges his circumstances throw at him: he figures out how to grow food to supplement the insufficient stores he's left with, he has to come up with a way to travel long-distance across the surface, he has to establish ways to communicate with Earth, he has to deal with unpredictable weather...the list goes on and on. But if everything goes right, he just might make it after all.

This was one of those circumstances where I'd seen the movie first, and I have to say, I think the movie worked better. There are some circles where this is heresy, I know. But there's something that worked watching this story play out over two-ish hours onscreen better than spending several hours, over multiple days, reading it on the page. There's a formulaic-ness to the plotting that becomes very obvious: Mark encounters a problem, which he records in his mission log (these entries comprise most of the book), he comes up with a solution, he explains the solution and how he came up with it and the science behind it, and then there's the next problem...lather, rinse, repeat. By the end, I was skimming through the science bits, because they were meant to show how smart and innovative Mark is rather than advance the story, but because I'd been reading a couple hundred pages of it, I already knew that Mark was smart and innovative.

Which brings me to my other issue with the book: the character of Mark. In a lot of ways, he's a good lead character: the aforementioned intelligence and innovation, a good sense of humor, a distinctive "voice". He's easy to root for. But I found him a little too high-spirited to be really realistic. He's perpetually ready to take on the next challenge, but for a person painted as a naturally social, outgoing fellow, it strained my credulity beyond belief that he never particularly struggled with depression, despite months and months of enforced solitude. Every real obstacle that comes his way is external, and I wanted to see a little more internal development.

I know I've just laid out two major issues with characterization and plot, but honestly this book isn't bad. It's pretty good. But given its immense popularity, I was expecting something a lot closer to greatness, and I did not find greatness here. Is this an entertaining sci-fi read, and worth getting to? Sure! It's easy to read and engaging and builds suspense nicely even though the ultimate ending is predictable. But don't expect anything particularly special. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Island of the Colorblind

Two years ago, I was reading: Rebecca

Three years ago, I was reading: The Guineveres

Four years ago, I was reading: Hood

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Winter TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books up next on our to-be-read lists! So here are the ten books I'll be curling up with this winter (or at least, for the next several weeks).

Catch-22: I've never read this! I'm not sure that I'm going to like it, honestly...it doesn't necessarily seem like my kind of humor. But it's a classic, so...

Native Speaker: This is my book club's choice for January! It had already been on my list as a significant Asian-American book, so I'm excited to bump it up.

Queen of Scots: I'm very well-versed in the Tudors, but don't know much of anything about Mary, Queen of Scots, so this bio seems like a good place to start.

Sin and the Second City: Brothel drama in old-timey Chicago is my kind of non-fiction!

Mozart in the Jungle: I have not seen the Amazon series they made out of this memoir about the behind-the-scenes world of being a professional classical musician, but I'm always interested in a peek into a world I would otherwise never see!

Followers: I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about social media and what we give up in return for connection, and this novel looks to explore those themes.

Perfume: Another one where I've not seen the screen treatment (in this case, a movie), but I'm always interested in reading books in translation and this was a big bestseller.

Funny Girl: I'll admit that my most recent experiences reading Hornby have been a little bit on the disappointing side, but he's good enough that I'm always willing to try his work!

The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: I read a bunch of nonfiction from the Tudor era, usually centered on women, so this deep dive into what their daily lives would have been like is right up my alley.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Obviously, I love books, so I'm definitely the target audience for a memoir about how reading changes one's life.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Book 212: Good Omens

"It wasn't a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but that’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is finished and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime."

Dates read: March 2-7, 2018

Rating: 8/10

At heart, I'm an optimist. I want to believe that people are good. And while I do believe individual people are often good, I've got a very pessimistic view of people in groups. "People", as in multiple ones in roughly the same place at roughly the same time, are terrible. I've read too many psych experiments (the Stanford prison experiment, the Milgram experiment, virtually any study about in-group v out-group identification) to come to any other conclusion.

Human nature, and the supernatural battle to influence it from God and the Devil, are at the heart of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's novel, Good Omens. That sounds serious, but this book really isn't: it's breezy, funny, and light, while still managing to play with some weighty themes. The story centers on two beings: the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who first meet outside the Garden of Eden after the Fall. Over the long millennia that follow, the two (who've settled in England) strike up a wary friendship, though they're constantly acting to thwart each other. When the Antichrist is born, though, and the end of the world starts to become uncomfortably nigh, they realize that even though they "want" the war between heaven and hell to begin so that their side can be eternally victorious, they would actually much rather continue to enjoy their current state of existence, and they conspire to keep it from happening.

There's a mix-up, though, in the birthing ward where the Antichrist is supposed to be placed with the right family. Instead of being given a righteously portentous name and going home with the world-traveling American ambassador, he's actually called Adam and sent home with a perfectly normal little family in a perfectly normal little town in the English countryside. The same perfectly little down where Anathema Device, the last descendant of a medieval witch and prophetess, Agnes Nutter, happens to live. Those prophecies are unfailingly accurate, and they say the world is due to end on Saturday, so things are about to get real.

What a delight this book was to read! The writing is sparkling with wit, and it doesn't have a feeling of being grafted together from the work of two different authors, either. I can't really compare it to both authors on their own, since I've only ever read Gaiman's solo work, but I can tell you that if you generally enjoy him, you'll likely enjoy this as well. There's all kinds of ingenious little touches, like Crowley's obsession with his car, the hellhound sent to be a companion to Adam being inadvertently wished by him from a slavering beast into a little spaniel-terrier type dog with a floppy ear, and the re-imagination of the Four Horsemen into a motorcycle gang.

But it's not just fluffy apocalyptic fun, the theme of the cruelties humans inflict on each other with very little if any direction from the active forces of evil resonates throughout. We so often chose to deal with life's little injustices by getting snippy with the barista, who in turn goes home and gets snippy with their roommate, who takes it out on their partner, etc etc. The shoulder devil is just so much easier and more instantly gratifying to give into than the shoulder angel. I don't personally believe in any sort of incorporeal forces of good and evil, but I do believe we chose every day whether to be our better selves or, well, our less good selves, and this book, as well as entertaining me, reminded me that it doesn't hurt to try to be the latter. Definitely highly recommended.

One year ago, I was reading: The Prince of Tides

Two years ago, I was reading: The Power

Three years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Four years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Hope to Find Under My Tree

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is actually supposed to be a seasonal TBR, but I thought it made much more sense to have this one run this week and my TBR to run on Christmas Eve, so I switched them up!

Best Actress:A history of the women who have won the Best Actress Oscar is basically the most on-brand book ever for me. I LOVE this kind of thing!

No Game for Boys to Play: This book, about the concussion issues in sports, was actually written by someone that lived on my dorm floor my freshman year in college!

The Drama of Celebrity: I really enjoy celebrity gossip and have an almost embarassingly good memory for it...but why do we care about celebrities so much? This book explores that question.

The Season: I was never a debutante and nobody (including myself) ever wanted me to be, but a history of that scene is the kind of rich people thing I find fascinatingly weird.

A Woman Like Her: This is about Quandeel Baloch, a social media star in Pakistan who was murdered by her own brother in an honor killing, and sounds incredibly interesting.

The Testaments: I've heard some mixed reviews about this sequel to The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, but it won the Booker so I want to read it!

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: I feel like I have a decent understanding of the relationship between the United States/its people up until the Indian Wars, and today, but in between I don't know a lot and this book has gotten a lot of good buzz!

Know My Name: Chanel Miller is the woman who was raped by Brock Turner, and I've heard amazing things about her memoir of the experience

The Half God of Rainfall: I'm always intrigued by books written by poets, and this one is inspired by mythology, which also has me curious!

Whistling Vivaldi: I've never stopped being interested in psychology, so this book about stereotypes (which I've heard good things about!) is right up my alley.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Book 211: Henry and Cato

"Fear had entered his life, and would now be with him forever. How easy it was for the violent to win. Fear was irresistible, fear was king, he had never really known this before when he had lived free and without it."

Dates read: February 24- March 2, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Figuring out what you want should be one of the easiest things in the world, but somehow it's not. What we actually want is usually buried under a dizzying series of projections: we think we want things, but we actually want the security they represent. Or the status. Or both! We think we want love, but maybe we're just afraid to be alone with ourselves. Or we just want that head rush that happens at  beginning. The Buddhists think that want/desire is the cause of all suffering, and I think they're probably right.

The two men at the center of Iris Murdoch's Henry and Cato, the titular Henry Marshalson and Cato Forbes, are tied together by their failure to have any idea what it is they actually want. They're also tied together by their shared past, growing up as friends in neighboring English country estates. Their lives have taken them wildly different directions, though: Henry has carved out a life for himself as the third party in a sort of three-part relationship with a married couple, working in academia in the United States, while Cato has had a sudden revelation and joined the church as a priest, ministering to the wayward youth of London. But the two men find themselves in the same place, in crisis, at about the same time.

Henry learns that his older brother, Sandy, his mother's favorite, has died, leaving him as the heir to his family estate, and so returns to England full of plans to toss out the mother who never loved him and her hanger-on, Lucius Lamb (a useless poet) and sell the property. Instead, he finds himself embroiled in a love triangle between Stephanie, Sandy's former mistress, and Colette, Cato's little sister. Meanwhile, Cato has become obsessed with one of the delinquents who visits him, an attractive teenager called Beautiful Joe. Cato's faith is waning, and he wants nothing more than to abandon the priesthood and run away with Joe. The two men meet up briefly in London to reconnect, and when Joe joins them and learns about Henry's inheritance, events begin to spiral out of control.

There's a LOT going on in this book: Henry's complicated relationship with his mother, his resentment of his brother, his desire to possess his brother's lover, his relationship to the ancestral home, Cato's sudden religious awakening and subsequent disillusionment, Cato's desire for Beautiful Joe although he's previously believed himself heterosexual. Henry and Cato are set up as mirrors of each other: even just on a fundamental level, Henry had an older brother and his father has died, Cato's got a younger sister and his mother has died. Both men rejecting what their parents wanted for them: while Henry left the country and pursued a living and was involved with a married couple, Cato renounced his father's intellectualism and became religious, took vows of poverty and chastity.  The theme of mirrored opposites even plays out in Henry's two love interests: while Stephanie is lower-class, older, and slatternly, Colette is young, rich, and virginal.

I'd been tossing the idea of reading Iris Murdoch around since I saw Iris several years ago, and this was the first of her works I found discounted for the Kindle. It's hard to put my finger on exactly how I felt about the book: the characters were mostly well-drawn, the plot proceeded smoothly, the prose was capable, there were interesting ideas toyed with...but the whole was less than the sum of the parts, somehow. I didn't really ever care what became of either Henry or Cato, both of whom I found frustrating (understandable, but frustrating). Without a connection to a character, I personally find it difficult to get invested in a book. So while there was enough good here to get me to check out some of her other works, and I didn't hate the experience of reading it or anything, it wasn't the kind of good that makes me recommend a book widely.

One year ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch

Two years ago, I was reading: The Girl in the Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: The Wonder

Four years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Series

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so I'm going to tell you about my favorite series of books. I don't do a ton of series reading, lately, but some have long-since earned a place in my heart while others are just too good to ignore.

Harry Potter: Of course! I am a millennial, I grew up with these books and I love them and my hot take is that the first four are the best and the back three is where the strain of trying to get them out timely started to show and they could have used more editing.

The Lord of the Rings: I read these as a kid and still love them, but the movies are so great at cutting them down to the most impactful points of the narrative that I often forget how long they really are and how much about trees there is.

A Song of Ice and Fire: Please please please finish this series, George! I love his story-telling and character-building. He goes on as much about meals as Tolkien does about trees though.

The Hunger Games: I think the final book of this trilogy was its weakest, but as a whole there's a reason they're already classics even though they're just over a decade old.

The Plantagenet/Tudor novels: I am not going to pretend these are good. They're not. But they're fun and I'm an absolute sucker for them.

The Old Kingdom: My book backlog is very real so I haven't gotten to the two new books yet but the original trilogy is wonderful. I'm always shocked that these aren't more widely read.

The Southern Vampire Mysteries: These are cheesy and kind of silly and sometimes that's what you need! It was obvious in the last few books that she was starting to be ready to be done with them but they're still delightful brain candy.

A Wrinkle In Time: I'll admit that I tried to read the fifth one and just could not get into it, so I only count the original quartet in my head, but I've read and re-read these over and over and they're magical.

His Dark Materials: I honestly believe literally everyone should read these. The world, the characters, the story...perfection.

The Immortals: Teenage me couldn't really get into The Song of the Lioness, but got ALL the way into Wild Magic and its sequels. Tamora Pierce is a gift.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Book 210: The Selfish Gene

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

Dates read: February 19-24, 2018

Rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Interpreter of Maladies

Two years ago, I was reading: The Games

Three years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Which Make Great Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: November 2019

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

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

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

One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book 209: My Name Is Venus Black

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

Dates read: February 15-19, 2018

Rating: 3/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Messy

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Book 208: Wonder Boys

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

Dates read: February 9-15, 2018

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Dark Places

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

Three years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Changes In My Reading Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Book 207: The Sellout

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

Dates read: February 6-9, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Uncle Tungsten 

Two years ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Three years ago, I was reading: The Paper Magician

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I Use As Bookmarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book 206: Thank You For Smoking

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

Dates read: February 1-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Two years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Book 205: Lost Horizon

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

Dates read: January 29- February 1, 2018

Rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: October 2019

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

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

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

One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture: