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

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Love to Be Besties With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting the characters we'd love to be friends with. I decided to challenge myself a little and not list characters that I've talked about extensively already by choosing only age-appropriate friends...I'm in my 30s, so only adults made my list!



Robin Ellacot (The Cuckoo's Calling): I'm not as gung-ho about the Cormoran Strike novels as I wish I was, but Strike's assistant Robin is a wonderful character. Smart, capable...she seems like the kind of person who would be a very solid friend!

Minerva McGonegall (Harry Potter): Definitely my favorite of the adults in the world of Harry Potter. She's kind of terrifying, but in that way where you hope she decides you're worth befriending.

Sayuri (Memoirs of a Geisha): She spends her life training to be a pleasant companion, so obviously her company would be enjoyable to share.

Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary): We all need a hot mess friend who makes us feel a little better about our own choices.

Mrs. Murray (A Wrinkle in Time): Beautiful, smart, and practical enough to recognize that a dinner made over a bunsen burner means your kids get fed and that's really all that matters. Just like we all need a messy friend, we all need an aspirational one too!

Sookie Stackhouse (Dead Until Dark): She has a bad habit of getting involved in potentially deadly situations, but she also values her relationship with her best friend Tara in a way that makes it clear she's willing to put the work into maintaining her relationships.

Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence): She seems more like she needs a friend than that she would be an especially great one, but she is a good person.

Iris Chase (The Blind Assassin): Another one that could use a friend...between her own family and the one she married into, she definitely needs someone to vent to.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): Being friends with someone who knows how to make delicious food is a solid call.

Selina DeJong (So Big): Her ability to find the beauty in the ordinary and deep inner strength and determination would make her an absolutely fantastic friend to have by your side through thick and thin!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Book 193: The Lady Elizabeth



"She fixed Hertford with a regal glare and was gratified to see him wilt slightly under her gaze. Thus she had seen her father do, and it cheered her a little to know that she had inherited something of his formidable will and presence. This was what it was to be royal, she reflected, this mysterious power that could make others tremble; it was something that might prove useful in the future. But what use was the semblance of power without the substance? For when it came down to it, King’s daughter or no, she was just a helpless young orphan, with no choice but to do as she was told."

Dates read: November 29- December 4, 2017

Rating: 4/10

As blended families become more and more common, I'm often surprised to hear the amount of judgment people have for parents who have children with different partners. In my experience, it's certainly not unusual to know others who, like myself, have a half-sibling, but I still hear snippy comments fairly regularly about women who have children with different dads, or vice versa. Being generally unafraid of confrontation, I almost always let people know that they're talking to someone whose sister is actually her half-sister, and most people walk it back, but it seems like there's often a gut instinct to deride it as "low class", which is just total nonsense.

Indeed, one of the most admired women of all time is a product of such a household. Queen Elizabeth I had not one but TWO half-siblings! Actual royalty has been doing this for hundreds of years, it does not get more upper-crust than that. At least in the Tudors' case, though, it does create some issues, which Alison Weir explores in her novel about the childhood of that monarch, The Lady Elizabeth. It begins with some segments of Elizabeth's early childhood but really takes off shortly before the death of Henry VIII, and while it primarily focuses on the perspective of Elizabeth herself, we also see events through the eyes of her nursemaid, Kat, older half-sister Mary, and stepmother Katherine Parr, ending in Mary's death and Elizabeth's ascension to the throne.

The relationship Weir depicts between Mary and Elizabeth is...complicated. Mary was stripped of her royal title and proclaimed a bastard when Henry divorced Katherine of Aragon to wed Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. Although this devastated both Katherine and Mary, Weir depicts the latter as having made a real effort to be kind and loving to her little half-sister, despite having been made a part of Elizabeth's service when she was born. Elizabeth, too, was made a bastard when her mother was executed, and the book depicts Mary as haunted by the allegations made during Anne's trial that Elizabeth was actually the offspring of one of Anne's alleged lovers. Once their brother Edward dies, there is too much between them, from that history to their differences in religious faith, for them to be close any longer, and it is only Elizabeth's canny walking of a very thin line that keeps her from being disinherited.

I wish the book had focused more on this, and less on the salaciousness of the relationship between Elizabeth and her stepmother's new husband: Thomas Seymour. While it's certainly a significant factor in the period between her father's death and her own inheritance of the throne, and deserved to be explored, it got a little too bodice-ripping for my taste. There's historical record of some of the improprieties that occurred while Elizabeth lived with Katherine and Thomas, but Weir really makes it the centerpiece of the narrative and escalates it as high as she possibly can. We get endless scenes of Elizabeth's growing desire, of Kat's encouragement of the sparks between them, and it's like Weir is going for a kind of Philippa Gregory-esque fun prurience (I'm not trying to mock, I like Gregory's books) but forgot the fun part of it.

All in all, this was a second disappointment for me with Alison Weir and her fiction output. I read Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, several months before I read this and while this one was better, they both fell flat for me. Her nonfiction histories do an admirable job of being informative but feeling light rather than heavy, making the people on the page come alive, but her fiction prose drags. There's just no spark there, and her characters feel boiled down to as few personality traits as possible. While I certainly intend to keep reading her nonfiction, I think this is my last stab at her fiction. I would not recommend this book.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lords of Discipline

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: British Covers I Like Better


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is cover redesigns that we love or hate, but the only cover redesigns I can think of besides the classics are movie covers, which I pretty much always hate. So I'm going to turn my eyes across the pond to show you ten lovely covers (for books I love!) that I like much better than the American versions!



 The Bear and the Nightingale

 

Memoirs of a Geisha

 

An American Marriage


A Brave New World

The Kite Runner

 

High Fidelity

Exit West

 

Daisy Jones And The Six

 

White Oleander

 

The Virgin Suicides


Thursday, August 1, 2019

Book 192: The Hate U Give


"WebMD calls it a stage of grief—anger. But I doubt I'll ever get to the other stages. This one slices me into millions of pieces. Every time I'm whole and back to normal, something happens to tear me apart, and I'm forced to start all over again."

Dates read: November 26-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Growing up as a white girl in an overwhelmingly white small town, I was always taught that police were the good guys. The police are there to help you if something bad happens. They are trustworthy. And I continued to, for the most part, believe that through when I graduated from college. Sure, some police were corrupt or abused their power. But there are assholes in every line of work. I don't think I really started to understand how systemically rotten policing can be, even if individual officers are often good people, until I took criminal law in law school and read about the wide variety of misbehavior they perpetrated from a position of trust. I don't think all police are bad, or villains, but I think it's a profession that can be very appealing to exactly the people who shouldn't be in it: the type who want to have the ability to control the lives of others and enact state-sanctioned violence when that control is questioned.

Starr Turner, the teenage heroine of Angie Thomas' debut novel The Hate U Give, has a pretty neutral perspective on cops when the book begins: her beloved uncle Carlos is a police officer, and she's been taught by him and her parents to behave in a threat-neutralizing way if she interacts with them: be polite, follow orders, don't make sudden movements. And she's never had any trouble. But then one night, when she's getting a ride home from a party from her long-time friend Khalil, they're pulled over on a pretext by a white cop, and he's shot to death, right there in front of Starr. It changes everything about her life and how she sees the world.

Starr's already living a fairly unusual life...she lives with her family in the inner city, but goes to a private, overwhelmingly white high school in the suburbs, where she has mostly white friends and dates a white classmate. She's always found herself living half in each world, but what happens that night really blows up her burgeoning racial consciousness. Her relationships with her friends and family shift and change as she tries to navigate the legal system and get justice for Khalil, and she discovers more and more who she is and who she wants to be.

This book had been hyped for months before I got to it...glowing reviews all over the internet, movie rights sold before it was even published. I always try to temper my expectations with any kind of media that's been all the rage, but sometimes it doesn't work. And honestly, I think it contributed towards the way I felt about this book: it's very good, and I probably would have thought it was amazing if it hadn't been sold as life-changing and mind-blowing, but it didn't quite measure up to those enormous accolades for me. There's a compelling story, solid writing with both emotion and humor, and great characterization. But as a reader, there just was never that moment where it really went into hyperdrive and became more than the sum of its parts.

Like I said, though, it does everything it's trying to do very well: Starr practically jumps off the page and feels very real, and her family is also beautifully, warmly drawn. Even though Khalil is barely alive during the novel, the way that Starr thinks about him as she processes what happened to him is touchingly rendered and makes the reader really feel his loss. Thomas also does an excellent job of balancing the heavy topic at the center of her book with lightness...there were parts that literally made me laugh out loud, but she never either undercuts the seriousness of police violence or gets too ponderous. But the characters of Starr's school friends, and especially her boyfriend, seem underdeveloped for the significance that the narrative places on them. And a decision Starr makes near the end of the book seems out of place, in a way that was jarring.

At the end of the day, I'd recommend it to just about everyone, honestly. It's written as YA (and as a primarily non-YA reader, I'd say it doesn't read as typical for the genre but does have some markings of it), so it's appropriate for younger readers, but it didn't feel dumbed-down to me, someone who loves a gigantic tome of literary fiction. Obviously the focus on police violence will be difficult for some, but it's a well-crafted, enjoyable book that will likely inspire you to examine your own pre-existing opinions. I highly recommend it!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Three years ago, I was reading: The White Tiger

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: July 2019



After a pretty chill June, we made our first big trip in a while this month! It had been over two years since I last visited my beloved home state of Michigan, and a week there was exactly what I needed after an intense winter and spring.

In Books...
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: I'd never read Japan's master of magical realism before, and while I definitely wouldn't say that I "got" this book about an ordinary man drawn into a shadowy world when first his cat and then his wife disappear, I found it compelling and interesting and I enjoyed reading it.
  • Washington Black: This made the Booker Prize shortlist last year and I'd seen positive reviews floating around the internet, but the descriptions I'd seen of it as an adventure story kept it off my list...until it was chosen for my book club. I liked it more than I'd expected, finding the self-development of the titular Wash compelling, but I thought it had pacing issues and it never really clicked for me.
  • Polite Society: I do quite enjoy Jane Austen's Emma, so when I read that this book was a modern twist on it, set in India, I thought that sounded intriguing. I'm always prepared for this kind of book to be disappointing, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it! It's darker than Austen's work, and adding in the viewpoints of other characters made it more complex.  
  • Nickel and Dimed: One of those books I can't believe I've never read! As it's been over 20 years since its publication, a lot of the material from the undercover look at living on poverty wages has become a well-known part of popular discourse and has lost the power to shock. But it's still interesting and worth reading.
  • The Man in the High Castle: I'll admit that reading this in a disjointed way, on vacation, might not have shown it to its best effect. But it seemed more like Philip K Dick was conducting a thought experiment about what the world might have looked like if the Axis Powers had won the day than writing an actual novel. Flat characters, often silly plotting but interesting enough on the thought experiment side to have merit. 
  • How to be Good: Nick Hornby turns his trademark humor and insight on a marriage in crisis. Katie and David feel relatable (both have moments of sympathy and moments of being profoundly irritating, like most people), and Hornby's prose always shines, but it felt like the plot kind of got away from him. 
  • Sashenka: Simon Sebag Montefiore primarily authors nonfiction books about Russian history, but this was his first novel. That inexperience with fiction shows in often clunky writing even as he weaves an interesting story about a woman (the titular Alexandra, called Sashenka) living during the Russian Revolution and then the Stalin era, and then another young woman living in the modern day who tries to track down what happened to her.

In Life...
  • A week in Michigan: I should have known when I found out we were headed home during Art Fair that it was going to be a hot and muggy time! We spent a couple days out at my mom's getting in some quality lake time, and then into Ann Arbor to visit with my sister and brother-in-law in their newly purchased home (which was lovely)! I scored some Art Fair finds and luckily our only experience of power loss was a very brief one.

One Thing:

A New York indie bookstore takes user submissions of their favorite books and roasts them in this delightful Twitter thread. My own submission (The Virgin Suicides) did get an enjoyable quip back!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Retellings/Folklore-Inspired Tales

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so I decided to highlight one of my favorite subgenres...retellings! There is so much potential in taking a look at stories we already know and changing the perspective on them.



Wicked: Gregory Maguire has made a career of retellings, but his first was this take on the Wicked Witch that is so much deeper and richer than the musical (which is also fantastic in its own way). 

The Bear and the Nightingale: There's a kind of vague Cinderella aspect to this, but the real treat is the Russian folklore, alongside an incredible heroine and a wonderful story that continues over two sequels.

Polite Society: I just recently read this take on Emma, transported to modern day India, and found it really enjoyable, striking a great balance between the broad strokes of the original while still telling its own story.

Ella Enchanted: Teenage me loved this YA spin on Cinderella where she's cursed to always be obedient.

The Song of Achilles: I did not especially enjoy reading The Iliad. But I did enjoy reading this take on it that posits Achilles and Patroclus as a long-term, committed couple.

Boy, Snow, Bird: I did not love one of the concluding "twists" of this book, inspired by Snow White, but until then had found it complicated and rich and interesting.

The Red Tent: Dinah, only daughter of the biblical Jacob, is barely a footnote in the Bible, but this book takes her portrayal there and fleshes it out with life and love and sorrow and joy.

Lamb: This is another retelling of a Bible story, but takes on a much more prominent character...Jesus himself, given a dumbass best friend called Biff, who narrates the "real" story of the Son of God. 

Bridget Jones's Diary: It's a pretty loose take on Pride and Prejudice, but I love this book. So few "funny" books actually work for me and it's hilarious.

The King Must Die: I super loved Greek mythology growing up, and the religious aspects of this retelling of the story of Theseus made for a fascinating read.

American Gods: Neil Gaiman's vivid imagination brings together the spirits of mythological tradition from all over the world to face off with "the new gods" to which society has dedicated itself (media, technology, etc).

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Book 191: In The Woods



"I am not good at noticing when I'm happy, except in retrospect. My gift, or fatal flaw, is for nostalgia. I have sometimes been accused of demanding perfection, of rejecting heart's desires as soon as I get close enough that the mysterious impressionistic gloss disperses into plain solid dots, but the truth is less simplistic than that. I know very well that perfection is made up of frayed, off-struck mundanities. I suppose you could say my real weakness is a kind of long-sightedness: usually it is only at a distance, and much too late, that I can see the pattern."

Dates read: November 22-26, 2017

Rating: 8/10

I feel like my childhood wasn't that long ago, but it also feels like the world is so different than it was then that I can't imagine my own future hypothetical children having the same kind of experience. There weren't cell phones yet, so when we went outside to play there wasn't any real way to get ahold of us. I grew up on a bay on an inland lake, so the neighbor's houses where we went to play were usually within sight distance, but it's not like my mom just sat there and stared out the window until we came home. There was a freedom, an untethered-ness, that I just don't know would even be possible for a kid today. That doesn't mean that it's worse now, it just means it's different.

After all, there are always bad things that can happen when kids are playing outside. In Tana French's In The Woods, our protagonist, Adam Robert Ryan, is playing with his two best friends in their Dublin suburb when something goes wrong. The children vanish. After a few hours of searching, Adam is found, but the other two are gone. And Adam is covered in blood and has been rendered completely mute by whatever it was he'd experienced. He recovers after a few weeks in the hospital, but has no memory of what might have transpired that day. He's pulled out of his old school and put in a boarding school in England, where he starts going by his middle name and grows up more or less like any other kid. He goes back to Ireland, becomes a cop, and manages to work his way into his dream job working on a murder unit in Dublin, where's he's partnered with Cassie Maddox, the only other person as young as he is. Although they're not dating, they have become intensely emotionally intertwined.

For the first time since he left it as a child, Ryan is pulled back to his hometown when a teenage girl is found murdered on an archaeological dig site. As he and Maddox try to figure out why someone might have killed the aspiring ballerina, he can't help but also start to try to dig around inside his own past for any clues it may offer. They chase down leads and become even closer as the stress mounts, creating a combustible situation as Ryan becomes less and less able to separate the crime at hand from whatever might have happened to him that long-ago summer day.

I very much enjoyed this book...while mystery doesn't tend to be my genre of choice (I find it too often dependent on hiding information from the reader and/or ridiculous plotting to build suspense), French also creates excellent, compelling characters and allows their development to be just as crucial to the story as the twists and turns of the investigation. I was emotionally invested in both Ryan and Maddox and wanted to know more about them and the ways their personal lives impacted their police work. And I thought the central mystery was also very well-done and nicely walked the line between dropping clues that fed into the ending without just spelling it out and laying it out there on a plate for you. Then again, "figuring it out" too early doesn't usually detract from my ability to enjoy the work...I've long maintained that if your story doesn't work unless the reader is surprised, it's not a good story, it's just a good twist.

And while the central mystery is wrapped up, I will warn you away from this book if you hate books that have significant ambiguity to the ending: Ryan is never quite able to piece together what happened that day in the woods. I personally didn't mind it and thought French did a good job with keeping that part of the story relevant even if it never came together, if only for the way it impacted Ryan and his mental/emotional state. This is the first in a series, and I've actually heard quite often that it's the weakest of them, so if this is as bad as it gets (and I thought it was really good), I'm excited to read the rest of them. I'd recommend it to everyone, even if you don't usually like mysteries.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Station Eleven

Three years ago, I was reading: Behave

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Settings I’d Like to See More Of

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about settings we don't see enough of in our reading. Often, not seeing settings you like means that you should broaden your reading outlook, because there are books written about any kind of people living in any kind of place if you're willing to search. But these settings (both literal places and kind of general milieus) are ones that I don't encounter as much and would like to read more from!



South America: Unless it's non-fiction about the Colombian drug trade, I've hardly read anything set in South America. Brazil alone is the fifth most populous country in the world, and I'd love more opportunities to look at what life feels like there or elsewhere in South America.

Eastern Europe: There are lots of books (both fiction and non) about the Holocaust, but relatively few about life before it, or even after it. What is the modern experience or even just pre-WWII experience of Poland, or the Balkans, or Slovakia?

New Zealand: There's Australian-set literature out there that's not hard to find, but I don't think the Kiwis have gotten as much press as their much larger neighbors, even after Lord of the Rings!

Southeast Asia: Vietnam has obviously loomed large in America's cultural imagination for quite a while now, but what about Laos? Burma? The non-Bangkok areas of Thailand?

Northern Africa: Egypt tends to dominate here, but the rest of Northern Africa seems to get forgotten. I don't know that I've ever read anything set in Tunisia or Libya or even seen anything set there while browsing at a bookshop.


Medium-sized cities: I feel like small towns where everyone knows everyone make for ample writing fodder, as do exciting big cities, but what about places that are neither small enough where you see your neighbors every time you go grocery shopping or big enough to let you start over with new friends if something goes wrong?

The Dark Ages: It's not as dynamic (or well-documented) of a time as the Renaissance, but people still lived back then and I'm curious about what it might have been like.

Minor wars: The World Wars, Vietnam, the Civil War, the Napoleonic wars...these conflicts are at least in the background of many great books. But regional wars can have just as much of an impact on the people caught up on them, and give some context to under-reported incidents.

Non-Christian religious social groups: There have been some great books set inside convents and abbeys...now what about a lamasery? Or a madrasa or yeshiva?

Olympic sports: There are books with characters who play the major sports, and plenty of books about ballet, but what about bobsledders? Javelin throwers? Those worlds are surely fascinating in their own right!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book 190: The House of Mirth



"She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life."

Dates read: November 17-22, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

This is going to sound stuck up, but I've been told I'm pretty since I was a little girl. Now that I'm an adult, I don't think I'm devastatingly good-looking, but I'm generally pretty secure that I'm more attractive than not. It's interesting, the way women are trained to think that our looks are one of the most important things about us, but then we're supposed to wait for men to notice and acknowledge it, and we're ridiculed for the things we do to maintain it in the face of time and aging. My husband worries about putting on moisturizer because his skin feels dry and gets flaky in the winter. I worry about putting on all of the steps in my Asian skincare routine so that I combat wrinkles. Don't get me wrong, I love my k-beauty. But I'm aware that social pressure plays a disproportionate role in how I engage with my face, my skin, my body...not just for my own comfort, but for everyone else's too.

And that's in today's world! The farther back you go, the more a woman's looks were central to her prospects in life. When we meet Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, she's 29 and worried that her celebrated loveliness is beginning to fade before she's managed to marry herself off to someone who can support her. Lily was raised in wealth, taught to abhor anything "dingy"...and then her father lost their fortune and died and her mother followed him shortly thereafter, leaving Lily poor and alone. She was begrudgingly picked up by her aunt Julia, who gives her the right address and some pocket money, but not nearly enough to keep herself afloat on the glittering social circuit, where she needs this season's stylish hats and gloves and dresses and is expected to gamble regularly at cards. It seems hopeful, though: she's on her way to her friend Judy's house, where she expects to meet and charm  and become engaged to Percy, a very eligible bachelor.

Instead, she feels no chemistry with Percy and earns the ire of married socialite Bertha when Bertha's ex-paramour Lawrence Selden turns up to see Lily. Bertha splits up the budding romance between Lily and Percy, leaving Lily in a position to have to ask Judy's husband, Gus, to make some investments for her to help keep her afloat. Gus views this as an investment in earning Lily's...favors, and though she manages to keep her head above water and even rise briefly, it all comes crashing down when Bertha invites Lily on a trip to keep her husband George distracted while Bertha carries on with her latest conquest. When George discovers the truth, though, Bertha spreads lies painting Lily as a temptress instead, which begins Lily's descent through the social classes.

This book plays with the same kind of themes Wharton would return to in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, which I read a few years before I read this: the artificiality of the upper-class New York "society" in which Wharton herself was born and raised and the way it constrains and even punishes real feeling primary among them. Lily herself is a great heroine: it's so easy to identify with her simultaneous longing to do the "right" thing and make it easy on herself by just finding someone rich to marry her and keep her in comfort and to be true to herself and wait for the kind of real connection she feels with Lawrence. Even though women are by and large much less dependent on men for material support today, I think there still exists the temptation, especially as one approaches 30, to just settle for someone good enough and check "marriage" off the list of things you constantly get asked about as a woman. And the power of the rumor mill, and its ability to ruin reputations, remains potent.

It's thematically similar enough to The Age of Innocence that comparison is inevitable, and for my money, Innocence is the better-developed and more rewarding work. But Mirth was also written 15 years beforehand, so it's not surprising that it's less mature. It does bring the added context of a female perspective, and it's partly refreshing to see how far we've come and at the same time how many things are still largely the same in terms of the constraints that society as a whole places on women. I will say one of the things that didn't quite work for me was the novel's central romance: it's never really developed, we're just meant to sort of assume that they've fallen for each other. It's necessary to have established for a late character moment to work, but it's done so superfluously that it doesn't quite have the power it could have. All in all, if you like a sharp social critique and old-society novels, or just like Wharton, it's definitely worth reading. Otherwise, pick up The Age of Innocence instead.   

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

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

Three years ago, I was reading: The Last Picture Show

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Auto-Buy Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about authors who you hear are coming out with a new book and it gets pretty much instantly added to your to-buy list. Not all of these authors are flawless, and they've written some stuff that I didn't care for in most cases, but I'm usually excited enough about how good they have the capacity to be that I'm willing to give them a chance straight away.



Margaret Atwood: I love her ability to build characters while weaving in powerful themes and compelling plots, and her work always gives me something to think about.

Neil Gaiman: His humor and sheer storytelling ability mean I'm always interested in what he writes.

Michael Chabon: He knows how to put together a family epic like no one else.

Kazuo Ishiguro: He's got a way of drawing you into a story and then just amping up the quiet tragedy bit by bit until you're devastated.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Her writing is always elegant without sacrificing the ability to hit an emotional knockout punch.

Alison Weir: I love royal histories, and that's what she does, using facts to create compelling narratives.

John U Bacon: I'm obsessed with Michigan football, and so is he.

Mary Roach: Her books aren't big serious stuff, but they're always interesting and bursting with humor and curiosity.

Lawrence Wright: He takes big, wide-ranging subjects and manages to put them into a narrative that pulls you along and helps you understand without feeling pedantic.

Jeffrey Toobin: When it comes to the legal and political systems, Toobin has the kind of panache and analysis I find super compelling.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Book 189: A Vast Conspiracy



"Ironically, with respect to Starr, the Democrats fell into the same trap as the Republicans did throughout the Clinton years. The problem with Starr was not that he was a lawbreaker, as the questioners consistently tried to imply, but rather that he lacked judgment and reason when it came to this case. Neither Starr nor Clinton was a criminal. The errors of both Starr and his critics illustrated the perils of a world where the legal system had taken over the political system. It was never enough to prove that your adversaries were mistaken; you had to prove that they were evil as well."

Dates read: November 11-17, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

During the 2016 election, one of the most persistent themes seemed to be the constant air of scandal that floats around the Clintons, Bill and Hillary alike. Maybe that's one of the reasons she had such a hard time shaking the email stuff...there's always the assumption that they're somehow being shady, and that this little whiff of smoke MUST portend a fire somewhere. We all remember his fling with his intern, but there's also his other rumored dalliances, and then Vince Foster, and Whitewater, and it seems to go on and on. At a certain point, they're tied to so much that it feels like something surely has to be going on.

I remember the impeachment scandal, but I was like 10 or 12 at the time, so while I understood that the President had cheated on his wife and lied about it and that's why he was in trouble, I didn't really get it. After Hilary's 2016 loss, I was curious about the backstory that I "knew" but didn't actually know, so I picked up A Vast Conspiracy, Jeffrey Toobin's book on the Clintons in the 90s. It mostly focuses on the impeachment, but also spends a lot of time with Paula Jones' lawsuit and dips into the other scandals enough to give them context. After I read it, I felt much more informed...not just about the actual events of the impeachment, but about the history of the Clintons and how they've gotten to have that air of perpetual shadiness.

On one level, Toobin tells a straightforward story: a politician with a raging libido really likes getting blow jobs from women who are not his wife. When he's Governor of Arkansas, he has an encounter of some kind with a young woman named Paula, who originally seems unperturbed but eventually launches a lawsuit against him after he becomes president. While president, a young intern develops a crush and starts flirting with him and he decides to pursue her. His inability to either keep it in his pants or admit to his wife what he's been up to leads him to be untruthful when he shouldn't have been, and because of the profound dislike and determination of a special prosecutor, he comes very very close to losing his presidency. It's a compelling story, with lots of morally ambiguous parties to project either heroism or villainy onto. I understand why it transfixed the country for months when it happened.

But Toobin also ties it in to a larger story, in which the legal system has become part and parcel of the political arena. The technique was first used by liberal interests to find the victories through the judiciary that they struggled to achieve through the legislature, but as time passed, conservatives picked it up, too, and this is perfectly illustrated by the hounding of the Clintons via the courts. It's an interesting perspective, and even though I'm well-versed in both arenas I don't know that I'd made the explicit connection before. And while I ultimately think the courts do and should have a proper role in protecting and enforcing our legal rights and responsibilities, it is a double-edged sword. Judicial processes don't always lead to the results one thinks they ought to.

As always from Toobin, this is well-written and more interested with delving into the facts to take much of a side. That's not to say it's totally without a side...it does tend to favor Clinton, particularly over Starr and the scheming Joneses, but it doesn't shy away from digging into his flaws either. It seems like there's something about the Clintons that just absolutely enrages people and drives them to try to destroy them as hard as they can...which explains why there's been so much mud thrown their way, and even though relatively little of it has ever hit a mark, with that much dirt in the air everything looks dingy.

One year ago, I was reading: My Own Words (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Three years ago, I was reading: Under The Tuscan Sun

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Teenage Girls

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a character freebie, and I thought quite a bit about what kind of character I wanted to talk about. I decided to go for one of the types of people the world takes the least seriously: teenage girls. As a culture, we dismiss them and the things they find important. But they make some of the best bookish heroes you could ask for!



Vasilisa Petrovna (The Bear and the Nightingale): Vasya is brave and strong and true and vulnerable and scared and just the best.

Jessica Darling (Sloppy Firsts): Jessica's deprecation of herself and everyone else she goes to high school with are just so true to being that age.

Georgia Nicholson (Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging): She's kind of daft and boy-crazy, but she's hysterically funny.

Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Having been a nerd who loved school, obviously I've got a soft spot for those kind of girls.

Starr Carter (The Hate U Give): Starr is whip-smart and brave even through her fear and I loved reading about her.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): We all know who the real hero of this series is, right?

Lyra Belacqua (The Golden Compass): Bold as brass.

Sabriel (Sabriel): There is a type of "strong female character" which basically just means extroverted and ass-kicking and even though Sabriel is more than capable of kicking ass if she needs to, she's not that type of easy heroine and that's why she's great.

Lady Catherine (Catherine, Called Birdy): A true Sass Queen for the (Middle) Ages.

Charlotte Doyle (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle): The way we get to see Charlotte grow and change and come into her own is awesome.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Book 188: The Underground Railroad



"She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them."

Dates read: November 6-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

Does anyone in popular American culture have a more valuable public endorsement than Oprah? She spent decades as the most trusted voice of American housewives through the power of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and when she's given a person or product her imprimatur, it's often a game changer. She's the reason Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz have the careers they do (whether or not that's a good thing, I'll leave up to you). When it turned out A Million Little Pieces was made up of a million little lies, half of the outrage felt like it was because someone had had the gall to lie to Oprah. And lately, I'm sure I can't even imagine how many more women joined Weight Watchers at her urging.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of her blessings have been the authors who wrote books which she included in her book club. Her power is such than in 2016, her selection of The Underground Railroad for that book club drove Colson Whitehead and his publisher to release it two months ahead of schedule. From there, it won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and ended up on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Obviously that kind of attention had nothing to do with Our Lady Winfrey, but it probably helped the book become a #1 best-seller. Which means that a lot of people who might not have otherwise picked it up did, which is a good thing because this book bends time and history to lay out a damning case on the way America has done wrong by Black people.

Set in the antebellum South, The Underground Railroad focuses on the journey of one slave woman, Cora, towards freedom. The granddaughter of a woman who survived the Middle Passage and was enslaved in Georgia, and the daughter of a slave who ran away when she was just a child, Cora has spent much of her life as an outcast even among her own community. So she's surprised when another slave, Caesar, approaches her to run away with him to find the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's alternative history, the railroad is literal...there are stations built into the earth that spirit slaves away to the north.

Run away they do, and Cora finds herself first in South Carolina, which in this world has outlawed slavery but holds ownership of Black people itself, and then distributes them as it sees fit in service work. But they're also secretly infecting men with syphilis to study it, and sterilizing women...and then Cora finds out she's being chased by a man called Ridgeway, a slave catcher. So the next stop is North Carolina, which has abolished slavery too...out of a fear that the Black majority population of the state will rebel against their masters. It's replaced their labor with white indentured servants, and escaped slaves are publicly executed. Cora hides there for a while, but before she can devise an escape, she's caught by Ridgeway. That doesn't mean she stops fighting for her freedom, but freedom isn't an easy thing for a slave to find.

I wanted to love this. I wanted to find it a revelation. And it's good, very good actually. Whitehead's prose is both lovely and powerful. And I understand why he can't "go easy" on Cora...it reads sometimes like she's a punching bag for the universe and she barely gets room to breathe before she's knocked down again, but that's probably what it feels like to be African-American, obviously back then and to a lesser but still very real degree even now. And the characters are interesting, with Whitehead even writing one-off chapters from perspectives other than Cora's, to give us context for the people who have an impact on Cora's life and where they're coming from when they interact with her.

But I just never connected with and got emotionally invested in the novel the way I do for the books that distinguish themselves for me as "great". I cared only in a kind of distant way about Cora, and for all that the side characters were developed they mostly just faded away...when Caesar and Cora are separated relatively early in the proceedings, for instance, I never found myself missing him on the page. And while I cared about Cora and what was going to become of her, it was never in the way where I wanted to skip ahead to see how she might make it around each obstacle thrown in her path. I'm not quite sure why that was, honestly...like I said, Whitehead's writing is incredible so it's not for any lack of ability to make her more compelling on his part. It just didn't quite get there for me. Nevertheless, it's a very good and powerful book, and one that I'd recommend to just about everyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

Three years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about childhood favorites. I have a bunch of teenage favorites that I already talk about all the time, so I made this list focus on books I loved more when I was a kid/pre-teen that I haven't highlighted much, if at all!



James and the Giant Peach: I loved Roald Dahl, but this story about an abused little boy who manages to escape from his wicked aunts with the assistance of a supersized stone fruit and some enormous insects was my favorite.

Julie of the Wolves: I'm not usually into "wilderness survival" type stories, but as an animal-lover, the bond that Julie developed with the wolves got me good.

The Babysitter's Club: I wonder what happened to the several dozen of these books I acquired over the years. I read SO MANY of them as a kid. The supersized specials were the BEST.

Animorphs: Oh man, another series I just absolutely devoured. I was obsessed with these books and read them over and over.

Black Star, Bright Dawn: I've maintained a lifelong interest in the Iditarod thanks to this book about a teenage girl who competes in the race that I re-read multiple times.

The Giver: I'd actually read and already loved this by the time it was assigned reading in middle school. I've never been able to make myself read the sequels because I don't want to diminish my memory of how much I adored this book.

The Egypt Game: I went through a period when I was a kid where I read everything about Ancient Egypt (fiction or otherwise) that I could get my hands on. This book was like the greatest thing ever at that point.

Redwall: I remember spending many summer days at my outdoors-oriented summer day camp hiding from counselors who wanted to make me participate in things to read these books and getting completely lost in the magical world of mice and badgers and stoats.

Charlotte's Web: The childhood tearjerker! Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte (and even Templeton) all have special places in my heart from reading this book many, many times.

Bridge to Terebithia: The other childhood tearjerker! I wonder if kids growing up today would even recognize having the freedom to just...go play in the woods for hours on end.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: June 2019



My life! I have one again! This month saw the end of legislative session and while it was a good one for me, with lots of professional growth, hot damn was it a struggle near the end. But now it is over until 2021! I'm hoping my reading pace picks up, I'm behind where I was even two years ago, the last time I went through session!

In Books...

  • Delirium: Reading this at the end of session, when my brain was exhausted, was the best possible time to do so. If I was ever going to be receptive to a young adult dystopia about a world where love is considered a deadly disease, this was it. I didn't think it was especially good, it indulged in a lot of cliches, but it held my attention and interest reasonably well.
  • Good Riddance: While the previous book was fun fluff, this was just offensively dumb fluff. The potential was there in the concept, of a woman who tosses her mother's annotated yearbook in the trash only to find a neighbor has rescued it and wants to make it into a documentary, but the execution was awful. The plot was silly, the characters were flat...a waste of time.
  • There There: I'd heard rave reviews of this book, so I was super happy when it was selected for my book club. And while Tommy Orange's writing is often breathtakingly good and he sketches vivid characters through short vignettes, I found myself frustrated with the structure. It's basically interconnected short chapters from many points of view and I wanted a more cohesive narrative for what could have been an amazing novel but was ultimately a very good one instead.
  • The Coming Plague: This book, about the impact of human behavior on the diseases that we experience, was fascinating! It also was a little too long...at over 600 pages of text in relatively small type, there was a point at which even the well-told and interesting stories about the emergence of "new" diseases like Ebola, AIDs, and Legionnaire's Disease (among many others) gets old.  
  • American Psycho: The satire of the soullessness of 80s consumer culture/Wall Street bankers is devastatingly, perfectly sharp. But this is beyond a doubt one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. Even just skimming the sex/violence I still read things that it's going to take me quite a while to get out of my head. 
  • Amsterdam: I picked this up because it had won the Booker Prize, and now that I've read it, I have no idea why it did. It's cleverly written, and amusing in the way it skewers the delusions of grandeur of two old friends who reconnect at the funeral of a woman they both once dated. But it didn't make much impact on me, and I doubt I'll remember it for more than a couple months.


In Life...
  • Session is over: My fourth time through legislative session wrapped up early in the month and it wasn't a minute too soon! I'm very much enjoying having an 8-minute walk to work instead of a 40-minute drive, going home at lunch to hang out with my husband and dog, and being home at a reasonable hour every night. Also the enormous lessening of the stress burden. And we've started playing pub trivia!

One Thing:

Like many people recently, I was sucked into and fascinated by HBO's excellent docudrama Chernobyl. If you haven't seen it, I highly, highly recommend it. And either way, I'd recommend this fascinating article about women who have moved back into the Exclusion Zone. The piece is several years old now but I find this dilemma really interesting: if you're older, and you've spent your whole life living in one place and don't want to leave it, accepting the risks of staying...should anyone be able to make you go?

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book 187: La Belle Sauvage



"The steamy, noisy kitchen was the safest place in the world, it seemed to him. Safety had never been anything to think about before; it was something you took for granted, like his mother's endless, effortless, generous food, and the fact that there would always be hot plates ready to serve it on."

Dates read: November 2-6, 2017

Rating: 8/10

I tend to think that it's the books we read as adolescents that often end up making the biggest impact on us. It's an age where we're still impressionable, but able to handle sophisticated concepts, and a book that makes the right connection with you can totally blow your mind in a way that you just don't experience much (if ever) with books you read later in life. And I've found that even if I read those books again later and objectively maybe they're not especially good, it doesn't really matter. I still love them.

One series of books that has held up spectacularly well, even from an objective standpoint, is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I recently revisited them as audiobooks and they remain just wonderful. There's always a tension I feel when a beloved book gets revisited by its author after a long time for any sort of companion piece...what if it's just not as great? So I was both excited and wary when Pullman announced a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set in the same world as the original one, and then again when I finally held a copy of the first volume, La Belle Sauvage, in my hands.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, as original heroine Lyra Belacqua is just a baby in this one. Our new protagonist is Malcolm Polstead, a relatively normal preteen boy who goes to school, helps out in his parents' pub, likes to explore on the local river in his boat, and sometimes helps out at the nunnery down the road. Two events happen in a short period of time that change his life: the first is the arrival of baby Lyra at the nunnery, and the second is an assassination he sees while boating. Both of these bring the outside world and its rapidly changing politics much closer to home, and soon even school isn't safe. And then, as an epic flood rages, Malcolm, along with Alice, the older girl who works for his parents, find themselves racing to protect Lyra from danger.

This book does a great job of introducing its world (an alternate universe England known as Brytain, which I think is the first time I've seen it given a name, but I haven't read the novellas yet) to a first-timer, as well as providing backstory on characters and situations that returning readers already know: the rise of the power of the Church, Farder Coram, althieometers, Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter. And while Malcolm is about the same age as Lyra was at the beginning of The Golden Compass, and they both go on an adventure over the course of the book, they're not especially similar characters: while Lyra was high-spirited and bold, Malcolm is quieter and more solitary. He's got a decent amount of pluck, though, and makes an engaging hero that you get emotionally invested in.

I can't really evaluate this book from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the original series yet, but because of the way that the series is structured (this book is first in time, and then the original series, and then apparently the next book in this series will be a sequel to the original series), I'm going to go ahead and recommend it as a good starting place for people who are intrigued by it. The book is appropriate for older kids, but the series eventually takes a strong theological bent which may go over the heads of less mature ones, and may prompt discussions that parents should be ready for. If I'm being perfectly honest, I didn't think this book was as strong as The Golden Compass (I think that one did a better job of world-building), it might not be a fair comparison because that's one of my favorite books of all time. That being said, this is a very good book and an engaging adventure that has me longing for the next one already!

One year ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Good German

Three years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2019 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're bringing to you our summer reading. I've always maintained that my summer reading are just books I happen to read in the summer, so these are mostly not breezy or beachy.



Amsterdam: This is a Booker Prize winner, one of the prizes that my own tastes tend to track most strongly with.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: I've never read Murakami, so this giant book is going to be a trial run. Hopefully I like his writing!

Washington Black: I'm not sure about this book club pick...it's gotten lots of praise, but "adventure story" is not something that usually does it for me.

Polite Society: I have an ARC of this Indian twist on Emma, which actually does sound like a fun summer read!

Nickel and Dimed: Systemic poverty is a buzzkill, but it's important to be educated about.

The Man in the High Castle: I like alternative histories, and I loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep when I read it in high school, so hopefully I still enjoy Phillip K Dick?

How to be Good: I really like reading Hornby novels. They're pleasant and funny and I don't have to think too hard.

Sashenka: I have fallen hard into a Russia/Soviet Union obsession lately, so an epic about a woman's life beginning before the fall of the Romanovs and continuing through the Soviet era is right up my alley.

Money Rock: This is a nonfiction look at the life of a drug dealer in North Carolina, and the broader social forces that have impacted him and his family. I get a lot out of books that talk about broader movements through looking at particular people's lives.

Marie Antoinette: Royalty!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book 186: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter



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

Dates read: October 30- November 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

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