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 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

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'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

Two years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book 185: The Book Thief

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

Dates read: October 25-30, 2017

Rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Love Medicine

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

Three years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Unpopular Bookish Opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book 184: White Fur

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

Dates read: October 22-25, 2017

Rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Motherless Brooklyn

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

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Pulitzer Prize Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved: Just mind-blowingly powerful.

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

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

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

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