Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book 203: An American Marriage



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

Dates read: January 20-23, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Great Titles

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Book 202: An Untamed State



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

Dates read: January 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Beloved

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Year 4: An Update (And Giveaway!)



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

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

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

The Giveaway

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Character Traits I Love

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Book 201: Ghost Wars



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

Dates read: January 6-17, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Royals

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles with Numbers In Them

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books, and numbers. Specifically, at books with numbers in their titles. Here are ten of my favorite numerically-titled books.



Hyperbole and a Half: About half the content of this book was already freely available on Allie Brosh's blog of the same name, but it's hysterically funny and I highly recommend it. I think of her often and hope she is well.

The Last One: I absolutely loved this book from a couple years ago that tells the story of a woman trying to survive an apocalypse that she thinks is just a part of an elaborately staged reality survival show she's filming when a virus devastates the world.

The Two Towers: This does suffer a bit from "middle book" syndrome, but honestly all three of the books in The Lord of the Rings are great.

Three and Out: The issues that have plagued the Michigan football program over the past decade or so have been agonizing as a longtime fan, but John U Bacon's book about the Rich Rodriguez years is fascinating.

Daisy Jones and the Six: This "Behind the Music" style book about a Fleetwood Mac-esque band's rise and fall just completely captivated me.

The Nine: This look at the Supreme Court in the last years of the Rehnquist Court is a fascinating peek behind the scenes.

Station Eleven: This has become a go-to recommendation, the end of the world book for people who don't like end of the world books. Haunting and elegant, this is a modern classic.

12 Years A Slave: An absolutely searing account of becoming a slave, written by a free black man who was kidnapped and sold. The movie is just as good.

Child 44: I'm not always super into fast-paced thrillers, but this one scooped me up and took me for a wild ride through Soviet Russia.

1984: An all-time favorite, I've been re-reading this one since I was 12 and it still holds up.

Monday, September 30, 2019

A Month in the Life: September 2019



And somehow now it's fall! After a long, hot August, the return of a little bit of crisp to the air has been very welcome. It even snowed enough for chain controls to be issued on some of the roads at higher elevation in the middle of the month, and it's been in the 50s and 60s for the past several days now. It's hard to believe the end of the year is just around the corner, but October is my favorite month of the year so I'm excited to be heading into it.


In Books...
  • Tower: An interesting look at the history of a very important building...the Tower of London. It's served as a fortress, a palace, a prison, an executioner's grounds, and even a zoo! A little too detailed/fact-dense for the kind of popular fiction it seems like it's trying to be, though, and it never really grabbed me.
  • Seeing: It's hard to tell at first that this is a sequel to Jose Saramago's Blindness, a book that is incredibly bleak and that I devoured. It takes place in the capital city of an unnamed country, where one election day, voters suddenly turn in blank ballots in overwhelming numbers. The government goes into crisis, searching for answers...which leads them back to four years previous, when everyone went mysteriously blind. This is only slightly less bleak, but takes a while to get going and generally felt less strong.
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation: This is an odd book, about a young woman in millennium-era New York City who decides that the cure for what ails her is to sleep as much as possible. There's not really a central conflict driving the narrative and pretty much everyone in the book is varying degrees of unlikable, but Ottessa Moshfegh's skill with storytelling renders it strangely compelling. 
  • Empire Falls: I feel like if I'd read this Pulitzer-Prize winner several years ago, I would have thought it was brilliant. Reading it here and now, though, I was struck by the misogyny with which the female characters were painted and frustrated with its lack of subtlety or nuance...and a major plot development near the end felt very cheap and hackneyed. 
  • Zone One: If you don't think of yourself as the sort of person who likes zombie books, this might be the zombie book for you. Gore is minimal in this tale of a man, jokingly called Mark Spitz, working to help "clear" Manhattan of residual zombies as humanity works to restore some semblance of society. Gorgeous prose, but there's something removed about a tale that should be visceral. 
  • Soon The Light Will Be Perfect: This debut novel bit off way more than it could chew. Telling the coming-of-age story of one summer in the life of a pre-teen boy, it wrestles with religion, poverty, fraternal bonds, the serious illness of a parent, and a fledgling romance in 250 pages, which gives none of it any room to develop and the constant shifts in focus left it feeling incredibly unfocused. This was like reading an early draft of an epic...all bones, no actual meat.
  • The Hours: I'd seen the movie, so I had a good sense of the plot already, but I wasn't ready for how beautiful the language of this book would be. The stories of three women are told through a single day from the perspective of each, all linked by Mrs. Dalloway: Virginia Woolf as she begins the novel, Laura Brown, a housewife in the 1950s who is reading it as she wrestles with the constraints of her role as a mother, and Clarissa Vaughan, who is preparing to throw a party for her best friend and ex-lover, Richard, who has just won a literary prize but is dying of AIDS complications.




In Life...
  • Weekend at Lake Tahoe: As usual, I joined my husband for his work conference at the lake this month, which is always a treat because it's gorgeous up there.

One Thing:

On the surface, this is an essay about an influencer by the person who helped ghostwrite the internet persona that made her famous. But it's also a story about toxic friendships, and jealousy, and mental health, and growing up, and the writing is beautiful. It's inspired a lot of discussion on the internet about who (if anyone) is in the wrong, and I found it very ample food for thought.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Book 200: Pond



"Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that's not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream. And daydreams return me to my original sense of things and I luxuriate in these fervid primary visions until I am entirely my unalloyed self again. So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive."

Dates read: January 3-6, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I came to the realization that I was not going to be able to hack it in my first profession, as a lawyer, I felt like a failure. I probably let that fear, that other people would think of me that way too, keep me in it longer than I should have been. Thankfully, when I finally quit I had something else lined up, and then the job I got shortly after that became the job I'm still in, so I didn't have a lot of time to sit and dwell on it, but the sense of disappointment in myself was very real. It's hard to put a lot of time and energy (and money) into a life path only to watch that path hit a dead end.

The never-named narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond is a failed academic. It's one of the few details we get about her life. She washed out of academia and responded by renting a small cottage in the Irish countryside. This book isn't really a novel, nor is it a collection of short stories...it's more a series of loosely connected vignettes. Our narrator observes and speculates on the scenery and life around her, and (less frequently) thinks about her past. It's very non-linear and free association-y. There's really no plot, as it were, to describe for this book, so I'll just get right to the review part.

The writing is gorgeous, almost poetic. There's wit and keen, delightful observations. But ultimately, this was a frustrating reading experience. I've said before that I tend to think about books as having three primary characteristics: prose quality, character development, and plot. A bad book does none of these things well. A great book does all of them well. And there's the in-between...usually, I find that two-of-three makes a good book but one-of-three makes a frustrating one. When one quality really shines, it makes lacks in the others seem more glaring. And these are obviously all weighted differently for different people. For me, their importance more or less corresponds with the way I've listed them above, in that even a book that has an interesting plot and characters fails for me if the writing is clunky. So while the writing here is lovely, it's the characters and plot that let it down.

Like I said before, there's not really much in the way of "plot" to speak of, but what's most annoying is that even though this book is the inner life of one person, she remains at a remove from the reader. We see what she thinks, but we know very little about her, about what drives her, about what she wants and needs. And it feels like a deliberate choice to make her such a cipher, but it means that it's really hard to connect with the book in any meaningful way beyond admiration for Bennett's technical skill in crafting language. It's not bad, but it's also not good (the consensus at the book club I read this for was that we felt positively about it, but not strongly, and some people couldn't make themselves finish it even though it's quite short). So while I don't feel like it's not worth reading, if you're so inclined, if you're looking for a story about a young woman who's a failed academic trying to figure out her life, I'd recommend 2017's Chemistry, which felt similar to me but was more satisfying.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever failed professionally?

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Three years ago, I was reading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! These are my favorite lists: our quarterly TBRs! This fall looks to bring some books-made-into-movies, some prize-winners, as well as some infectious disease nonfiction, and a bunch of other stuff too.



The Hours: I've wanted to read the book ever since I saw the movie, but thought I should probably read Mrs. Dalloway first. Well, now I have and so it's time to read this!

The Age of Miracles: The concept behind this (the earth's rotation slowing, lengthening days and throwing the world into a panic) seems intriguing, and I heard that it was inspired in part by Jose Saramago's Blindness, which I loved.

The Overstory: The book club pick for next month, this was the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner and I'd actually already bought a copy to read before it was picked!

Plagues and Peoples: The influence of disease on human history is extremely up my alley.

Revolutionary Road: I tend to find suburban dissatisfaction interesting, and I did like the movie version, so I've got high hopes for the book.

The Line of Beauty: I will read anything that has won the Booker Prize.

Patron Saints of Nothing: I don't read a ton of young adult, but this one has a UMich connection, deals with the political situation in the Philippines (which I'd like to learn more about) and has gotten good reviews.

Slam: I've heard some mixed reviews of this one, but I love Nick Hornby so I'll give it a try.

The Great Mortality: It's all about the Black Death, which I've never really learned much about except kind of broadly, so I'm excited to read more about it.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: There's a lot of "I saw the movie" in this quarter! Because that's the appeal here, too.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book 199: Fourth of July Creek



"Regretted saying the word the moment it slipped out of his mouth and they looked at him like he’d broken out in French. Literature. What drugs and literature in the houses in and around Tenmile, Montana. Louis L’Amour and James Michener, and comic books, furled and foxed Penthouses, some marijuana. Popular Mechanics and some truckers’ speed. The Bible, if you were lucky."

Dates read: December 29, 2017- January 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

There's a certain kind of person attracted to life in a rural area. I've never lived in a truly rural area (I grew up in a small town, but it was exurban more than rural), but I live in an area now that's only a short drive from the middle of nowhere, and I've met plenty of people who think of property lines in acres rather than yards. When you go out to the wide-open areas in the West, there's an undeniable thrill to it: the possibility in that remoteness. There's a dark side to it, of course: you're that much farther away from medical or police help if anything bad were to happen, it's harder to make sure you get your trash picked up regularly. There's a reason most of us live relatively near a city, at the end of the day, but there's something appealing in the wildness of off-the-grid.

In the West, especially, there is a not-small portion of the people who live in areas sometimes still officially deemed "frontier" who don't just do it for the excitement of living unplugged and off the land, they do it because they don't really fit in with mainstream life. This is true for Montana social worker Pete Snow, in Smith Henderson's debut novel Fourth of July Creek, but it's even more true for most of his clients. He's already got a pretty full plate between his current caseload and his rocky home life when a young boy wanders into a school, dirty and wildly undernourished. Pete's attempts to help the child, Benjamin, bring him into contact with Benjamin's father, Jeremiah, who lives so deeply off the grid and is so proud that Benjamin's not even allowed to retain the clothes Pete buys to replace the rags he found the boy in. He is, happily, allowed to keep the medicine for his scurvy.

This story forms the borders of the larger narrative. In the meantime, Pete's trying to deal with his unruly clients and his own personal struggles. His brother is on the lam from his parole officer, Pete's got some alcohol issues, and he's recently separated from his wife, who goes to Texas with their teenage daughter, Rachel, to follow a new boyfriend. And then Rachel goes missing, and Pete's desperate to find her. But she's gone, and figuring out what's going on with Benjamin and Jeremiah begins to overwhelmingly dominate his life.

This book is a relentless downer. Nearly everyone involved is damaged and acting out in some way, from the clients all the way up to our protagonist. And not like, in a quirky or reasonably socially adaptive way, but in a very serious Real Problems way. There's a realism to that sort of portrayal that can be appreciated, but the small spots of hope and happiness are very few and far between. I found myself drawn into the central mystery of what was going on with Jeremiah and Benjamin and that family, but most of the characters just made me sad.

On a technical level, Henderson is a very talented writer. His writing was clear and insightful, and while they were depressing, his characters rang very true. My major issue with the book from a craft perspective is that he used a rhetorical device interspersed throughout the book, in which an unidentified interviewer is talking to Rachel about what happened to her. We never know the context in which this dialogue is taking place, which leaves her plotline frustratingly unresolved. If you want to read a well-written book that has a compelling central mystery and don't mind if that book is very bleak, you'll likely enjoy this. I certainly think it was well-crafted and appreciated Henderson's skill, although I don't think I'd say I enjoyed reading it. I'd recommend only to someone that feels up for an unhappy look at life.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Stay With Me

Three years ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Things to Eat/Drink While Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about food! Specifically, the food we like to eat or drink while reading. For better or worse, I am not at all precious about my books. This is one of the reasons I usually buy secondhand instead of borrowing from the library! So while I read, I eat...whatever I want to.


Water: Let's start with the most boring basic thing! But honestly I drink a ton of water, well over 100 oz per day, so I'm pretty much always drinking it, including when I'm reading.

Coffee: I am a caffeine junkie, so I have coffee twice per day. I'm not usually reading first thing in the morning when I drink it, but my afternoon coffee pairs well with reading: I get through some pages while I wait for it to cool and then consume both book and mug contents at the same time.

Kombucha: I've only recently started drinking this stuff, but it has done a lot to help regulate my digestive system after I had my gallbladder removed. Tea people, this is as close as I get to your favorite!

Beer: I'm not trying to get tipsy while I read (I need to be able to remember it later for blogging purposes!), but on a warm summer afternoon nursing a sour while I get my lit on is lovely.

Popsicles: This is why I'm a bad book owner, because these things definitely melt and drip and then I have purple spots on pages but hey, this is also why I just own my books.

String Cheese: One of my all-time favorite snacks!

Pretzels: Also a fave snack, though I have to be careful with these because I always want to get up to get more and that interrupts my reading flow.

White Rice: I am a weirdo, because I will eat this in sufficient quantities that I'm not even looking for anything else to make a meal. Just plain. Delicious!

Apples: I had to have one healthy thing in here, right? I do love apples.

Pasta: Definitely not an ideal thing to eat while reading because it's high in staining potential, but as long as I know that the red spot in my books is sauce and not blood, it's all good.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Book 198: Rebecca



"Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there."

Dates read: December 24-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

We've all felt like an imposter at some point, right? Like, I don't think "imposter syndrome" is even a thing, I think it's so commonplace as to be just a part of the human experience. It's an ugly, scary feeling, to be so full of doubt about yourself. It feels especially endemic in that late teens-early 20s time of life, when everyone even five years older seems impossibly glamorous and adult and you still feel like a kid. You just were a kid, after all, and now you're expected to set your own alarm and remember to take your vitamins and schedule your own haircuts. "Adult" feels so far away even though you're already there.

I've never read a book that feels as steeped in that feeling of being an imposter as Daphne DuMarier's Rebecca. Our heroine is a never-named middle-class young English woman, in her early 20s, who's earning her living as a traveling companion to an crude older woman. On a stop in Monaco, she meets Maxim deWinter, who her employer is all too happy to repeat gossip about and try to kiss up to: he's the owner of the famous and magnificent country estate of Manderly, and his beautiful, stylish wife Rebecca recently died tragically. The young lady and Maxim have a whirlwind courtship, and before she knows it, she's married and honeymooned and off to her new home and new life as the mistress of a great house.

But when they get to Manderly, things go quickly south. Being middle-class, she's barely been in a place like this, and hasn't the slightest idea how to make it her own. Her husband is suddenly distant and moody. Her only real friend is the spaniel dog that she takes her walks with. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, all but openly sneers at her and constantly reminds her that she's not anything like the charming and passionate Rebecca. And it's not just Mrs. Danvers...even the locals she goes to visit tell her over and over again how exciting things were when Rebecca was around, how beautiful she was, how delightful. The shy, quiet second Mrs. deWinter begins to despair of ever being good enough for the role she's been handed, and is talked into putting on a costume ball (like the ones Rebecca used to have!) that changes everything.

If you've ever heard about super fast marriages Back In The Day and wondered if people even really knew each other when they go married, Rebecca answers that question with a resounding no. A major part of the drama comes from the fact that the young wife can't understand why Maxim married her and is afraid to share her fears and feelings of inadequacy because, well, she barely knows him. She tortures herself by imagining that he's constantly comparing her to Rebecca, and she's sure she comes up short. She can't even hide from the imposter syndrome that's consuming her...the very place she lives reminds her of the ways in which she feels inadequate. This book is often billed as a gothic romance, and while the former is accurate, the latter isn't really, in my opinion: there's a marriage at the center of it, but not really a romance per se.

Instead, I'd call this a psychological suspense novel. We know from the beginning that the deWinters no longer live at Manderly, that something bad happened there. How exactly this happens unwinds over the course of the book, with the inner lives of the characters and their relationships with each other being driving the action. And the story is well-told and well-paced, but it's still a classic rather than a modern-day thriller, so while it's certainly gripping it's not really a page-turner that'll keep you up all night. And for me, that's preferable anyways. I really enjoyed reading it and plan to add more duMaurier to my list of books to read. I'd recommend Rebecca to just about anybody, it's a tightly crafted and engaging story that'll appeal to anyone who's ever felt like they were playacting at being a grown-up.

One year ago, I was reading: The Silence of the Girls (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls

Three years ago, I was reading: Smoke

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR I’m Worried Won't Live Up To The Hype

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books on our TBR that we're avoiding reading. The way I read (on more-or-less a schedule system) means that I actually don't avoid reading anything...if it's up next, it's up next. That being said, there are books that I'm a little worried to read, because the hype has been huge and it's so hard for a book to live up to it.



My Brilliant Friend: This is the first in a series that got such glowing praise from people I look to for recommendations that I went and bought all four of them. So I better like the first one...

Throne of Glass: I'm not super into YA series, but Sarah Maas's devoted fanbase has convinced me this is one that will get and keep my attention.

Cinder: Same kind of deal here, and I've always liked stories based on folklore/fairy tales, so this one especially seems like something I'd enjoy but my expectations have been set really high!

The Golem and the Jinni: The second of three here in the "based on folklore" realm. As soon as you say you like this kind of thing, this is a story that pops up as a recommendation immediately. I can only hope it's as great as everyone says!

Uprooted: Besides all the good things I've read about it, this book just seems so up my alley as a reader that I'll be crushed if it's not amazing.

Fangirl: I wasn't especially into the one Rainbow Rowell I've already read (Landline), but I've heard over and over that her books that are more YA-targeted are her best ones. This is supposed to be wonderful, so hopefully the hype is real.

The Stand: This book is looooong but so many people love it. Since I never put a book down, it better be amazing or I'm going to be mad I spent so long on it.

Bad Feminist: I love Roxane Gay's social media presence, and I enjoyed her novel An Untamed State, but this essay collection got such amazing reviews that it's got me thinking it's her best work so I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Parable of the Sower: I've heard amazing things about Octavia Butler, and I'm really looking forward to reading her work, so if it's not great I'll be super bummed.

Pachinko: I don't think I've heard more than one or two people say it didn't work for them, and heaps and heaps of praise otherwise. Basically everyone can't be wrong, right?

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Book 197: The Power



"Women and men who were willing to sell him food or fuel for his little camping stove became fewer and farther between. He started to develop a sense for those who might be friendly. Older men, sitting outside a house playing cards—they'd have something for him, might even find him a bed for the night. Young men tended to be too frightened. There was no point talking to women at all; even meeting their eyes felt too dangerous."

Dates read: December 19-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

About a year and a half ago, I was out walking the dog on a Friday around 8 P.M. I noticed someone get dropped off by a car a couple blocks down, who then started walking towards me. I registered this as odd, since most people get dropped off in front of their house or reasonably close to it. I kept walking the dog down the road, and looked back to notice the person (almost certainly a man, by build) continuing to walk towards me. Now I was really unsettled. I pulled my headphones out and began to hurry the dog up. I rounded a corner, and about halfway down the block he started to resist and pull back, and since it was a well-lit section of sidewalk I let him sniff. I looked back the way I'd come and the guy was standing there on the corner, standing partially obscured by a light pole. I practically dragged the dog the rest of the way down the block until I got to a busy road. The guy never re-appeared, but I was afraid.

As a small woman, I can't remember the last time I was out in public without at least some baseline level of apprehension for my safety. I'm not walking around constantly terrified by any means, but I am just always aware that there's the possibility that I could be anything from verbally harassed to followed to grabbed. Most of my female friends feel the same way. It's just what it means to be a woman in the world. Naomi Alderman's The Power, though, imagines a different world entirely. It begins in the world as it exists, but there's a sudden change: women have developed an organ that generates electricity inside them, electricity they can shoot out through their hands. In a matter of weeks, the world goes from one in which men are the most powerful, physically and otherwise, to one where that balance isn't the same anymore. The Power changes everything.

Alderman explores this new world through four people: Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss, whose Power is exceptionally strong; Allie, an abused teenage foster child who turns the voice she hears in her head into a new religious movement; Margot, an ambitious politician; and Tunde, the only man, a Nigerian journalist chronicling the changes in the world since the Power emerged. There's chaos, initially. No one knows what to do, what it all means. But things change quickly, all the way from men needing to learn how to protect themselves against violent women, to women dominating the military, to women toppling oppressive regimes. Eventually the storylines all converge in a fictional Eastern bloc country, now ruled by a woman as a dictator, that's the center of a proxy war between the powers-that-be in the old world against those of the new.

This is a fascinating idea to consider, how the world would change if something like what Alderman describes happens. And I think the failure of the book (as you can see from my rating, I didn't think it was especially good) comes from trying to capture too much. Roxy and Allie's perspectives dominate the book, and while I understand why Alderman included Tunde, to give an idea of what it would be like to come of age as a man in the world as we know it and live through the way it changes, I think Margot's storyline was weak and could have been cut to develop Tunde better. There's some good characterization going on with Roxy and Allie (particularly the former), but it's inconsistent, and it seems almost like Alderman was so excited to really dig into what she thought might happen in her new world that she didn't really think about the people who would be living in it beyond broad strokes.

That being said, it's an effective exploration of the way that power corrupts. At first, many women lash out at men in revenge for the ways they themselves have been hurt, which is an understandable reaction. The reader expects it to settle down after a while, after some wrongs have been righted, but it doesn't. Women begin to objectify the men around them, use their superior position to commit emotional and physical violence against them. While it's easy, living in the world we do live in, to imagine that women would wield large-scale power more effectively and humanely than men have and do, Alderman punches through that fantasy by remembering that women are, after all, human, and human beings do not have a great track record when it comes to the way we mistreat each other when given the opportunity to do so. I do think that as a novel, there are significant weaknesses, but as a piece to engage with intellectually, there's a lot to think and talk about here.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about venturing outside our literary comfort zones to discover that sometimes, the kinds of things we think we don't read turn out to be pretty delightful after all! I struggled with this subject, because while I think my reading comfort zone is mostly "highbrow" contemporary fiction, I do tend to read pretty broadly across styles. But here are ten that I put together that I was maybe not super comfortable with the idea of before I started that I actually had a good time with!



The Rosie Project (romance): I usually feel like love stories are mostly interesting to the people inside them, and feel too manipulated by romances to get into them. But even though I could see the strings being pulled on my heart as I read this, I didn't care. It was a treat!

The Hate U Give (young adult): I know plenty of adults read and enjoy YA, but I generally find it too straightforward to really engage me. This story about a black teenager who watches her friend get murdered by a cop, though, really grabbed me.

Battleborn (short stories): I am by and large not into short stories (I read way more of them for my book club than I would ever pick up on my own). I like sinking into a full-length narrative! And maybe it's because I live in Nevada, but this collection set in and around the Silver State are truly excellent.

The Nazi Officer's Wife (WWII memoir): I'll be honest, I tend to steer away from World War II memoirs, finding them emotionally taxing but often treading very similar territory to work already available. This one, though, had a perspective that was new to me and was very well-told.

The Lords of Discipline (military fiction): War stories are a big snore for me. This book is set in a military academy, but it's a beautifully rendered coming-of-age story that I'm so glad I took a chance on, because I love it.

The Girl With All The Gifts (horror): Usually telling me something has zombies in it is a ticket to a quick "no thanks". I heard this recommended so often that I decided to pick it up, and really enjoyed the tale it told about the relationship between a zombified girl and her teacher.

The Sky Is Yours (science fiction): This book is bananas. There are dragons, there's genetic engineering, there's all kinds of bizarre stuff. On paper, it seemed like something that would not at all do it for me but I couldn't put it down.

The Bear and the Nightingale (fantasy): I'm actually fairly amenable to fantasy if it's done well, and this whole series was a magical romp through Russian folklore.  

In The Woods (mystery): I love books that are character-focused, and most mysteries are plot-focused, so that tends to leave me out of them. I appreciated that some things were left unresolved, but I mostly really enjoyed reading about the people.

Lincoln in the Bardo (experimental fiction): This is written like a play rather than a novel, and initially I found it off-putting but once I got past about halfway through, I was suddenly all in and wound up loving it.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: August 2019



August always has that feeling of being The End of Summer. In Michigan, we always started school after Labor Day, which meant that the end of August was (basically) the end of our break. I actually liked going back to school because I was a nerd, but that feeling of August being the last hurrah has never quite left me.

In Books...
  • Money Rock: Journalist Pam Kelley tells the story of the titular North Carolina drug dealer...and through it, the story of Charlotte, drug policy, housing policy, and the consequences of incarceration. Smart, insightful, and very accessible.  
  • Marie Antoinette: There's a reason this is subtitled "The Journey", because Antonia Fraser skillfully traces the path the young Austrian archduchess took to become at first one of the most fashionable women of her time and eventually the subject of hatred so violent it culminated in her execution. The depth of research on display, without forgetting storytelling, is very impressive.
  • Calypso: I always enjoy David Sedaris's work. This collection was generally less funny and more poignant than I typically expect, but as with any essay collection, there were ups and downs. 
  • Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: You Must Remember This is one of my favorite podcasts, so when host Karina Longworth mentioned this book as a source for her excellent episode on Lena Horne, I was curious. It paid off! This book is as much about the social environment of Black Hollywood back in the day as it is about the movies, and it's a fascinating look at a time and place that still has relevance to the way our own world works.
  • Gilead: This is one of those books that makes me glad I don't DNF books, because it took until about 1/3-1/4 of the way into this for it to really grab me. But once it did, I was hooked. I was worried that this story of a minister looking back on his life would be a little more religious than I was comfortable with, but it was as much philosophical as anything and the beauty of Marilynn Robinson's language kept me rapt. 
  • The Forgotten Sister: My second straight month with an Austen retelling! This one is more traditional, focusing on the life of the middle Bennett sister, Mary. Sandwiched between two pairs of tightly bonded siblings, Mary often comes off as a bit of a prig in Pride & Prejudice. While Jennifer Paynter's tale doesn't erase those schoolmarmish tendencies, she gives context for why Mary turned out that way...and gives her a compelling love story of her own.
  • Death Prefers Blondes: It's been described as a heist movie meets RuPaul's Drag Race, and that's not inaccurate! Teenage heiress Margo Manning steals fantastic treasures along with her best friends...four drag queens. But when she experiences a personal tragedy, it's no longer for fun and profit, it's for revenge. It's silly, light, and enjoyable, perfect for a vacation or the beach, but don't expect anything special.


In Life...
  • Girls trip to the Bay: This year, I got to pick the location, and I chose to beat the heat of northern Nevada by heading over the hill to San Francisco. We got to do some things that I'd never done before (like the Alcatraz tour!), and just hang out in a super-cool city. I love getting to spend time with my best friends and had a blast!

One Thing:

If you've never heard the phrase "Imma let you finish...", you probably have very little interaction with anyone hip to pop culture. It's taken on a life of its own, surpassing the moment at MTV's Video Music Awards a decade ago that launched it into the world. But the impact of that actual moment has spiraled beyond what anyone might have expected, and this deep dive about it at The Washington Post is fantastic.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book 196: The Lady of the Rivers



"Through the night we hear the clatter of hooves down the village street, and occasional shouts. The girl, the woman, and I cower like frightened children together: this is what it is like to live in a country at war. There is nothing of the grace of the joust or even the inspiration of great principles—it is about being a poor woman hearing a detachment of horse thunder down your street and praying they do not stop to hammer on your frail door."

Dates read: December 15-19, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When people talk about the history of marriage (a subject I find really interesting), they tend to talk about how the idea of marrying for love is relatively recent. Which is mostly true! Most marriages until just the last couple of generations were at least partially arranged by family. This has some advantages (like fostering stronger social connections within communities), as well as some obvious disadvantages (like getting stuck with someone you might not necessarily even like, much less love, for the rest of your life). But the idea that love matches never happened isn't exactly true, either.

There were two love matches, in fact, that were influential in the English Wars of the Roses. In one, Queen Catherine, widow of King Henry V, married a Welsh commoner and her grandson from that union became King Henry VII. In the other, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who had been married to King Henry V's brother briefly before his death, secretly married one of the knights of her deceased husband's household, Richard Woodville. This productive marriage (they had 14 children, including future Queen Consort Elizabeth) is explored in Philippa Gregory's third novel in her Cousin's War series, The Lady of the Rivers. As is relatively common with Gregory's historical fiction, this book isn't the first in the series, but does take place first in the timeline, so while it explores much of Jacquetta's life, it ends where the first book written (The White Queen) begins.

Gregory begins Jacquetta's story with a meeting between our heroine and Joan of Arc as pre-teens, while Joan is being held by Jacquetta's uncle. This is used to establish the plot device of Jacquetta's family's claim to be descended from water goddess Melusina, and set up Jacquetta's interest in fortune-telling, primarily through tarot cards. When Jacquetta grows up, she's married off to much-older John, the Duke of Bedford and brother to the King of England. Gregory paints this marriage as never consummated...the Duke is mostly interested in using Jacquetta to further his interest in alchemy and believes she must remain virginal to do so. They never develop much of a relationship, but she does develop a big old crush on her husband's chamberlain, a handsome young knight called Richard Woodville. When John dies, she and Richard wed...in secret, at first, because technically Jacquetta needs the Crown's permission to remarry and knows they'll never allow the match.

From there, Jacquetta and John join the English Court, under the rule of Henry VI and his high-spirited French bride, Margaret of Anjou. Jacquetta becomes Margaret's maid of honor and closest friend, and is by her side through most of the events of the early period of the Wars of the Roses...at least, when she's not having children, because she's basically constantly pregnant. She tries to protect the Lancastrian Royal Couple from themselves (pious, timid Henry lets powerful-minded nobles run him roughshod and drain the royal treasury, and his lack of marital attentions to his lively wife leads to an affair), only to mostly be unsuccessful. When her husband is captured in battle with the Yorks and has to swear to set down arms against them to be freed, Jacquetta is relieved to leave Court behind and settle down to life as country gentry...until, of course, her oldest daughter Elizabeth comes to the door hand-in-hand with Yorkist King Edward.

Since this book provides much of the backstory for The White Queen, I was afraid it would be just as immersed in the kind of silly mysticalism that's all over the previous book and made it so hard for me to enjoy it. Happily, though, there's much less of that in here, and it's integrated into the plot in a way that feels organic. My biggest issue with The Lady of the Rivers is that Jacquetta herself is a fairly passive character who mostly reacts to the events around her. Margaret of Anjou is the one who drives them, and I kind of wish she'd been the protagonist instead, because she seemed BONKERS in a delightfully dramatic kind of way.

Look, I like Philippa Gregory's books. I don't think they're super high quality, but they're enjoyable to read and as much as I like to be pretentious about my taste in novels, sometimes something that's fun and easy doesn't have to be more than that. But if you've read her work before, you know what you're getting into: high drama and questionable historical sourcing. Sometimes they're a little better, sometimes they're a little worse. This falls on the mid-point for me...it's fine. It's not amazing, it's not terrible. I liked reading it and I'd read it again if I do a read-through of the whole Plantagenet-Tudor cycle like I'm planning on one day. I'd recommend it if you like Gregory's work, but if historical fiction is not your thing, it's not unmissable by any means.

One year ago, I was reading: Paint It Black (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking

Three years ago, I was reading: Inamorata

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Don't Own Yet But Would Like To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is books we don't own that we would like to. I am a dedicated secondhand book shopper so I actually own most of the books I would like to own, but I found an angle on this one! The ten below books are ones I've listened to and enjoyed so much on audio that I'd like to have a hard copy!



The Lady in Gold: This was so good! It's about how the Klimt painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" came to be painted, how its connection with its Jewish subject was erased by the Nazis, and the story of how members of the Bloch-Bauer family survived the war and were able to eventually reclaim the painting.

Marie Therese, Child of Terror: The only child of Marie Antoinette to survive to adulthood and the only member of her family to survive the Revolution, Marie Therese lived through some very interesting times.

China Road: A reporter who has covered China for several years takes a ride along a major road before leaving the country for his next assignment, relating stories about both the history of the country and its present in a way that feels fresh and held my interest.

The Gulag Archipelago (Volume 1): I've gotten very into Russian history lately, and the gulag system of Stalinist times a fascinating piece of the story. I've only listened to the first volume of the three, but it's very good and I'm looking forward to getting to the next two.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: I knew virtually nothing about Carthage beforehand except that it was one of Rome's great enemies, and I learned some new stuff listening to this book. Honestly, though, this was a hard one to keep track of via audio, so I'd like to go over the material again on the page.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: I'm not super inclined towards personal essays, but this collection from Ann Patchett really grabbed me in a way I wasn't expecting. It's excellent.

Being Mortal: This book, about meaning and dignity as the end of life approaches, really made me re-evaluate the premium our culture places on the extension of life, even at the expense of purpose and the desire of the person themselves.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: We've obviously all heard of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, but I learned so much about the history of the Bay Area that gave a lot of context for that event in a way that was really engaging.

The Future is History: This was honestly not as good as Masha Gessen's book about Putin, but gave a broader look how authoritarianism has reclaimed Russia.

Nixonland: A not insubstantial amount of the way politics has changed (for the worse) in America over the past several decades can be traced back to the presidency of Nixon. This look at the man, why he was the way he was, and the effects he had on the way the country operates is something I'd like to revisit in print.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book 195: The Girl In The Tower



"A woman married. Or she became a nun. Or she died. That was what being a woman meant. What, then, was she?"

Dates read: December 11-15, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Sometimes I find myself longingly wondering what life would be like as a man, even just for a while. I'd be able to walk the dog when it's dark without feeling apprehensive. No one would question my ambition. No one would assume that I'm my boss's side piece (this was an actual thing that happened at my lawyer job, not this one thank goodness). I wouldn't have to worry about crossing my legs at the ankle instead of the knee. No one would shout out commentary about my appearance at me. Must be nice!

And I live in a time that's among the freest and safest for women there's ever been! It's no wonder that Vasya, heroine of Katherine Arden's The Girl in the Tower, finds herself forced into disguise as a man in order to move freely and safely through her medieval Russian world. The book picks up more or less right where The Bear and the Nightingale left off...Vasya has fled the rural village she grew up in after her father was killed and she herself was labeled a witch. Knowing full well what that means for her life expectancy, she sets out to explore the world, ignoring the advice of frost demon Morozko who warns her that the world is not kind to young women alone. She discovers very quickly that he is correct, and presents herself thereafter as a boy...it helps that her nickname, Vasya, like many Russian nicknames, is gender neutral and could therefore stand for Vasily as well as Vasilisa.

In pursuit of a mysterious group of bandits that has been stealing children, Vasya finds herself unexpectedly reunited with her brother Sasha and the Crown Prince of Moscow to whom he is sworn in service, Dmitrii. When she gets back to Moscow with them, she's also reconnected with her older sister Olga, now the wife of an important nobleman, and meets Olga's daughter, Marya, who seems to share Vasya's unusual ability of seeing things beyond the ordinary. Vasya's trying to keep her masculine identity intact until she can get on her way while also enjoying the ability to express her naturally bold personality...and then, of course, disaster strikes and the family finds themselves fighting supernatural forces to stay alive.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite reads of 2017, and this sequel (the second in a trilogy) did not disappoint. I will say that I'd recommend reading it shortly after the first book, or while it's still relatively fresh in your mind...there's very little of the kind of "catching the reader up" exposition that many sequels have, and I wish I'd known that going in because I'd read the first nearly a year prior so the details were a little fuzzy. But the magic is still there! Arden's prose and storytelling remain deft, she expands further into the realm of Slavic folklore, and I love how she grows the seeds of romance she planted in The Bear and The Nightingale between Vasya and Morozko. I found myself rooting for them even though Arden never lets you forget the inherent power imbalance between an immortal creature and a teenage girl. It's refreshing to see a romantic plotline with a young woman who won't apologize for her desire to finish becoming herself.

While there are many books I read that I enjoy, it's pretty rare that something really grabs me and keeps me up late at night and makes me want to buy extra copies to give to people and force them to read it (honestly, I have a really hard time recommending books to people in real life because so much about whether a person will enjoy a book depends on taste). This series makes it into that group, for me. They're just flat-out great storytelling. I can't wait to get my hands on the final book in the trilogy, and I'd highly recommend the Winternight books to all readers!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Stoner

Three years ago, I was reading: The Last One

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Tropes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about tropes: the cliches we all know because we've consumed media ever. While usually talking about tropes means talking about the ones you hate, I love this take on it...our favorite ones! I'll be using as reference (and linking to) the truly delightful TV Tropes for my list.



Anyone Can Die: I love the idea that there's no one wearing plot armor in a life-or-death situation and that main characters can, in fact, bite it. It ups the ante!

The Beautiful Elite: Though not all royalty is beautiful, after all, my fondness for books about kings and queens can be traced to my fondness for this trope. I do also really get into Gilded Age stuff.

Big, Screwed-Up Family: Families are among the few interpersonal relationships we don't get to chose, and those dynamics can be fascinating.

Broken Bird: I try really hard to be optimistic but deep down I know I'm a cynic. Which is probably why stories about people who have become cynical because the world failed them appeal to me...they confirm my own cynicism.

Does Not Like Shoes: I hate shoes and am barefoot as often as I can get away with, so this is just the thing where you like to see yourself reflected in your reading material.

For Want Of A Nail: The idea that the tiniest decision can have life-altering consequences down the road is one that always gets my attention and interest.

Four Temperament Ensemble: There's a reason that the down-to-earth one, the flighty one, the big personality, and the one with all the feelings is a mix we see over and over again...there's so much natural tension that can arise between these personality types that it's narratively rich and I'm here for it!

Love Dodecahedron: A love triangle can be well-executed enough to get me involved. But when there are several people in a tangle of everyone-loves-someone-else, it really hooks me.

Prophecies Are Always Right: When the seeds of a prophecy are planted and then actually take root, I'm always here to see what it actually looks like when they bear fruit.

Really 700 Years Old: Basically the more into history I get (which is quite a lot, lately), the more I'm super into the idea of a person living through many major world events and the perspective it would give on the way things both change and stay the same.

Where Are They Now? Epilogue: There are some excellent books with ambiguous endings, but I'll admit I love to see things tied up in a bow with a final look at how things ended up.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book 194: The Games



"Payne and his friends had promised an Olympic Games funded entirely by the private sector: a modernized version of Los Angeles 1984, but with turbocharged levels of sponsorship and television money. As with all neoliberal fantasies, the project actually rested on the massive and multifaceted involvement of every level of the American state, the short-circuiting of institutions of democratic control, the use of force, where necessary, and all on terms unambiguously favorable to a tiny slice of private and already-powerful interests."

Dates read: December 4-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I am not an athlete. Grace, balance, poise...these are not qualities I possess. I have exercise-induced asthma, so even going jogging for a couple miles like I do on the weekends when it's a reasonable temperature outside is an endeavor. For the most part, I've made my peace with this. I still try to be active, so I do jog (after I hit my inhaler), and I enjoy forms of dance that are more about rhythm than grace. But every so often, when I watch something like figure skating, I find myself wishing that sports were a thing I was any good at.

I suffer the worst fits of this desire to be sporty once every two years or so, when the Olympics rolls around. It also tends to turn me from someone who likes discussing the gulf between America's promise and America's reality into an intense jingoist whose favorite song is Miley Cyrus's "Party In The USA". So in the run-up to the 2018 Pyeongyang Winter Games, I decided to read David Goldblatt's The Games to get some perspective on the biennial sports fest. This book is a comprehensive overview of the modern Olympics, beginning with the first small-scale variety in 1896 in Athens, going through the lead-up to the grandiose 2016 Rio de Janiero Summer Games.

This book is packed with information, and I learned quite a lot by reading it about how the Olympics have grown and changed from their genesis as the dream of Pierre de Coubertin to display the best in white upper-class male sporting accomplishment to their gradual (and often reluctant) inclusion of women, people of color, and commoners. I was surprised by just how many of things I think of as hallmarks of the Olympics: mascots, the torch-lighting ceremonies, the Winter Games, the offsetting of the schedules between Winter and Summer so there are Olympics every two years, are relatively recent additions. And it's astonishing how low-budget they used to be until very recently, and how the ways that different governments have approached their infrastructure projects have created very disparate outcomes.

While Goldblatt does good work separating the modern Olympics into eras and providing a brief introductory chapter linking the themes that arched across all the Games in a particular era, there wasn't as much narrative flow as I tend to prefer in my nonfiction. It's not that his prose is clunky (indeed, it moves very well considering its fact-intensiveness), it's that he seems to be someone, at least in the way he wrote this book, who can't see the forest for the trees. His research was clearly rigorous, and it sometimes feels like he was so enthusiastic about sharing what he uncovered that he lets himself get bogged down by trying to fit in as much as possible. This made for slow reading, because I had a hard time going more than 15-20 pages before I felt like I needed a mental break, and that's not usually true for me, not even for nonfiction.

But if you're looking for a deep, well-structured resource for the history of the last 100ish years of the Olympics, this is the book for you. If you're looking for more information about the winter Games in particular, though, you might be disappointed...they began later and even today seemed to be popularly considered the lesser of the two, but Goldblatt pays them very short shrift indeed...I'd estimate the percentage of this book that deals with them to be 10% or less. Also, if you're looking for stories about the athletes themselves, by and large this won't be where you'll find it. It's mostly about the structures and logistics and international pressures that have grown and created and challenged the Olympics. If that's what you're into, you'll love it. And while it's a very competent book at what it's trying to do, I don't think I'd recommend it to a wide audience...it's too dense and specialized to have broad appeal.

Tell me, blog friends...are you a Winter Games person or a Summer Games person (or do you not watch?)

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

Two years ago today, I was reading: Charity Girl

Three years ago today, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan