Friday, May 31, 2019

A Month In The Life: May 2019



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

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



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

One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book 183: Player Piano



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

Dates read: October 17-22, 2017

Rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Three years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book 182: Lincoln In The Bardo



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

Dates read: October 15-17, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Migraine

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Book 181: The Blind Assassin



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

Dates read: October 10-15, 2017

Rating: 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book 180: The Royals



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

Dates read: October 2-10, 2017

Rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters That Remind Me of Myself

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Book 179: The Bonfire of the Vanities



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

Dates read: September 22- October 2, 2017

Rating: 2/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Highest Tide

Three years ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands