Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: December 2020

 

It's the last day of 2020, and good riddance I say. That isn't to say that nothing good happened in 2020, there were definitely good things (one very good thing this month alone, which I've talked about below). But as a year, it's been a challenging one and I am very glad to put it in the rearview. I know that vaccines being out doesn't mean it's all over, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel now and if we just keep our heads down and push through we'll get there!

In Books...

  • The Long and Faraway Gone: On paper, this is the sort of mystery/thriller should have been more for me, as it has a strong focus on its two lead characters and doesn't hide information from the reader that the characters know to build up suspense. But I kept expecting the two storylines (a nurse tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the sister who disappeared when she was a child, and a PI investigating a harassment case digs into what happened when the movie theater he worked in as a teen was robbed and everyone besides him was killed) to converge, and there was some lazy plotting in how things wrapped up. 
  • Can't Even: Anne Helen Petersen is one of my favorite writers on the internet, and her article early last year about burnout among millennials felt like it put its finger on a problem I'd long knew about but never put my finger on. This book basically builds the piece out to book length, and while it's well-done and thoroughly-researched, it doesn't really feel like it says anything that different or more special than the original article. 
  • Brideshead Revisited: This seemed like a perfect book for me...I really like classics, and I'm really interested in the period between the World Wars. But in practice, this story about a young British man who gets caught up with an aristocratic Catholic family just never actually took off for me. I'm not sure exactly what it was trying to be about or what I was supposed to get out of it. It wasn't bad, just not actually good. 
  • Second Helpings: I loved the first book in the Jessica Darling series when I read it a few years ago, so was excited to dive into the second. For the most part, it worked for me...Jessica's humor remained lively and her story felt so familiar as someone who was a high school overachiever at the time the book takes place. But wow was there a LOT of slut-shaming in there. Having been an insecure teenage virgin at the same time, I know that this attitude was very commonplace, but reading it with today's eyes was very jarring. 
  • Men Explain Things To Me: This essay collection is grounded in the ways the world works to diminish and silence women, and while all the pieces kind of run into each other because of their similarities in tone, it's still very good and also infuriating. 
  • Overdressed: The idea that fast fashion (Target, Forever 21, H&M, etc) isn't really good is not a new one, but this book managed to still examine interesting angles about the way its proliferation has impacted the world for the worse. It's a little on the dry side, but it actually got me thinking about my clothes in a new way, so it was a worthwhile read. 
  • Mindhunter: Like basically everyone who has read/watched The Silence of the Lambs, I think criminal profiling is really fascinating. John Douglas was a pioneer in the field and this book details his conversations with killers and how he worked on then-active cases, which is super interesting. There are also autobiographical elements to the narrative, which I will be honest, I found much less compelling.

 


In Life...

  • My nephew was born: My sister and her husband welcomed their first child, a son. Since he's not my baby and info about him isn't really mine to share, I'll just note that everyone is doing well and it is an extreme bummer that COVID is happening right now because it is likely to be quite some time before I get to meet little T, but I am very excited to be an aunt!

One Thing:

I had more or less forgotten about Martin Shkreli until this truly insane article came out and if you have not yet been aware of it, I am jealous you get to experience it for the first time because it is BANANAS! I have so many questions about Christie, her motives, what her ex and friends/family really think, and how exactly this all happened. I've swung back and forth between feeling sorry for her, thinking she's a narcissist, thinking she's just as much of a manipulator as he is...it's a fascinating story!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


2020 Bonus Stats: Like I have for the past several years now, I bought the Rock Your Reading Tracker from Sarah's Book Shelves and got some interesting information out of it! I do my major statistics post on my yearly summary posts, which I put up on my birthday in October, but here are some cool stats that I was able to glean from Sarah's very useful tracker, which I highly recommend!

My number of pages read increased year-over-year (even as my book count didn't): I actually read one less book in 2020 than I did in 2019, but read 1,021 more pages! Obviously I went for longer books this year, with most of my reading still in the 300-400 page range but 25 were longer than 400 pages (and only 18 were shorter than 300).

I still read a lot more debuts than I think: I don't think of myself as someone who tends to especially enjoy a debut, but they made up more than a third of my reading this year (38%), as opposed to 29% last year. I would not have thought they'd be more than 20% either year since I do not set out to read debuts but here we are!

I didn't like my reading quite as much in 2020: My average rating for this year was a little under six stars this year, while it was between six and seven for 2019. If we look at books I rated at least 7/10, 53% of my reading last year hit that mark, while only 43% did this year, a 10% drop! I wonder if some of that is related to the "more debuts" thing? Some may also be related to struggling to connect with my reading at times during the pandemic.

I still read mostly backlist: At 83% both last year and this year, my fondness for a book that's already proven it will stand the test of time is well-established.

I enjoyed my book club reading more than I previously had: I didn't HATE anything I read for my book club this year, and rated a few books at least seven stars, which is a marked improvement. My book club is run by a local bookstore and has a moderator that chooses books for us, so I don't expect to love everything and appreciate the ways I sometimes get forced out of my comfort zone, but there was a point at which I was considering leaving the club based on the issues I'd had with the books we picked so I am really pleased to see the improvement here!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite 2020 Releases

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our top 2020 releases. As always, I read overwhelmingly backlist, but I read about 15-ish new releases this year and these were my favorite ten (in order from more-to-less loved)!


A Luminous Republic: This short little book feels almost like folklore, telling a tale about a village on the edge of the Argentinian jungle that doesn't quite know how to react when it finds itself invaded by a pack of feral children. This really got under my skin and made me think.

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: The title is campy, and it often engages in winking humor, but the real story here is about women who feel like they don't quite fit in to their homogeneous southern town finding community together...and also maybe tracking down a vampire.

Mother Daughter Widow Wife: This book was mismarketed badly as a thriller when it's actually much more a work of character analysis, about three women whose lives are forever impacted by the actions of a psychiatrist. 

Plain Bad Heroines: This book has a big story to tell, spanning multiple generations of queer women. It doesn't quite succeed at weaving all of its threads together into a tight pattern, but it's a very atmospherically creepy and entertaining read!

Hidden Valley Road: Imagine having 12 children. And then imagine six of those children developing schizophrenia. It's what actually happened with one family in Colorado Springs, and this book examines the impact of the illness not just upon the children who had it, but the ones who didn't as well. 

Can't Even: Anne Helen Petersen's Buzzfeed article about millennial burnout is fantastic. This book basically just takes the idea and expands it through research and original reporting without adding much that felt new or different. Better for explaining millennials to other people than to themselves.

Followers: This futuristic story based on social media/influencer culture, and it does some interesting things but can't quite sustain itself.

A Beginning at the End: A post-pandemic story about a family which has experienced loss might have landed a little better in virtually any other year. 

His Only Wife: This debut does not imbue the central relationship its narrative depends on with the believablity it needs, but it is otherwise quite promising!

Highfire: I thought this was a bit of a miss, honestly, but my hopes may have been disproportionately high. It's silly and enjoyable enough, if ultimately forgettable. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Book 265: Flip


"If he had got away with it so far, it was only because the truth was too bizarre for any of the people in Flip's world to figure out in a million years. They might not always know what to make of this version of Flip, but to them, he was still Flip. A weird, puzzling Flip, but Flip even so. They only had to look at him to see that." 

Dates read: October 1-3, 2018

Rating: 4/10

It's easy to look at other people, people who are wealthy, attractive, skilled, popular, and think they have it made. To wonder what it would be like to go through life as them. To wish you could switch places, even if just for a day or two. Rationally, of course, everyone has problems. Appearances can be deceiving, and someone who seems to have it made could be hiding issues we could never even guess.

In Martyn Bedford's Flip, fourteen year-old Alex Gray is a nerd. He plays music and chess, not sports. He's nowhere close to having a girlfriend. His family in London is working class. It would seem like waking up one morning in the body of Phillip "Flip" Garamond, who is handsome, athletic, and popular, would be exciting. But it's six months later than Alex remembers it being and he has no idea where he is, or why he isn't himself anymore, and he's terrified. He bumbles through life as Flip while trying desperately to figure out what happened to him before making contact with a mysterious stranger called Rob...who knows exactly what's going on with Alex because he's lived through it himself. Alex has to discover if things can be made right, or if he's fated to spend the rest of his life as Flip.

The first half of this book is really solid, with a sophistication in the prose style beyond that which is typical in young adult books. For as much as it can be enjoyable to daydream about living someone else's life for the day, the reality is that waking up in someone else's body would be absolutely horrifyingly scary, and Bedford skillfully conveys Alex's terror at this turn of events. I appreciated how Bedford laid out the confusion that would suffuse every moment of trying to figure out where you are, who the strangers you live with are, what you're "supposed to" be eating for breakfast, even where school is and what classes you're supposed to be going to. His longing to return to his real life, even though it's less desirable in almost every way, is very affecting, and makes Alex someone easy to root for. 

But it's in Alex's quest for answers, and the ones Bedford devises, that everything falls apart. I'm going to throw in a spoiler alert here, because I will be discussing the ending, because it is the culminating cherry on the downward slide of the book. After looks of searching, Alex stumbles across a message board for "psychic evacuees", people whose consciousness left their body, usually at the point of death, and took over another body that was "connected" to them in some way. It is here that Alex meets Rob, who shows up to hang out and talk about the life he's been living in someone else's body for years now. They discover that Alex didn't die, but was rather in a car accident that's left him in a coma...and his parents are about to take his body off life support. Alex devises a plan to "trick" his spirit back into his body by smothering himself and honestly it's all just bonkers.

For a novel that begins so pleasantly rooted in realism, it's disappointing the way it careens into plot angles that could be charitably described as "crackpot". I was genuinely curious about how Bedford was going to explain the body-switching, because it seemed like, from the way he was writing, it would be something that seemed at least quasi-plausible. He might as well have had Alex touch a cursed amulet for all the sense it made, though. And although the novel asks us to feel for Alex, it's shockingly unsympathetic to Flip, who must have gone from minding his own business to being stuck inside a strange body that's unresponsive, which is even more awful than Alex's situation, and then finally being freed only to face the mess that Alex made of his life...not just his social situation at school, but facing criminal consequences for his behavior! It tries to handwave this away at the very end, but I didn't find it at all convincing. I don't want to write this book off entirely, because there was some very solid stuff to start it off, but the ending is too preposterous and poorly thought-out for me to honestly recommend it at all.

One year ago, I was reading: Without A Prayer

Two years ago, I was reading: Island of the Colorblind

Three years ago, I was reading: Rebecca

Four years ago, I was a reading: The Moonlight Palace

Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Winter 2020-2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Yesterday was the first day of winter, so let's take a look at my seasonal reading list...well, most of it, there will be book club selections in here as well! I think it's a pretty good mix of genres, and features an extremely famous author I'll be reading for the first time!


Mindhunter: I know that this got made into a Netflix series fairly recently, but I've had the book on my list for quite a while now. I went through a phase where I wanted to be a criminal profiler so this seems like something I'll really like.

The Wife Upstairs: Rachel Hawkins is a fantastic Twitter follow, and having recently re-read Jane Eyre for book club, I'm really excited to read her take on it!

Go, Went, Gone: This is the book club selection for December, and I'm always excited when we pick a book I've already bought! I've heard great things about Jenny Erpenbeck's work and am excited to read it.

The Satanic Verses: I read his Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children about two years ago and thought it was wonderful, albeit very dense. I like his writing, and have to admit I'm curious about the work that meant a fatwa was issued against him.

On Hitler's Mountain: I don't much love memoir, but memoirs about important historical events are often the exception. This one is about growing up German during the Nazi regime by a girl who grew up wanting to critically examine her country's history and I think it will be very interesting.

Murder on the Orient Express: I have actually never read Christie before! I saw the movie version ages ago, so long that I can't actually remember the solution to the mystery, but remember it was very entertaining.

The Sea: I'm a sucker for a Booker Prize winner.

All Girls: Coming of age novels are an especially favorite of mine, as are books set in closed academic environments like prep schools, so this seems extremely up my alley.

The Secret Life of Bees: I have a cousin who loves this book, and several people I trust have really enjoyed it too, so I'm curious about it!

The Leftovers: I've never seen the HBO show, but I understand the premise and think it sounds interesting!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Book 264: The Things They Carried

 

"I remember Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checkers every evening before dark. It was a ritual for them. They would dig a foxhole and get the board out and play long, silent games as the sky went from pink to purple. The rest of us would sometimes stop by to watch. There was something restful about it, something orderly and reassuring. There were red checkers and black checkers. The playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels or mountains or jungles. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larger strategies. There was a winner and a loser. There were rules."

Dates read: September 27- October 1, 2018

Rating: 9/10

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

It seems like, when it comes to books about wars, World War II is the popular one. Fiction or nonfiction, there's no lack of written material about it. World War I also has plenty of reading to discover. There's a distance from these wars, and they have a moral clarity that's appealing. There are good guys and bad guys and it's not hard to tell who's who. But the more recent wars: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq...they don't seem to have attracted the same kind of literary attention.

Which doesn't mean this kind of literature doesn't exist, though. When it comes to Vietnam, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is the standard-bearer. A collection of interlinked short stories, it explores a platoon of soldiers before, during, and after their service in Vietnam. It's told through the perspective of a young solider, also named Tim O'Brien, who is not only a writer but specifically writing these stories, and as the book is rooted in author Tim O'Brien's own experiences with the war, it's all very meta, even including a short story about figuring out how to tell a war story. Though O'Brien's character is the most central one, he explores several other perspectives besides his own.

The central plot, such as there is one (which is loose at best and completely out of chronological order), tells the story of Tim O'Brien the character. When drafted to fight, he's afraid, and very nearly crosses the Canadian border to escape. Ultimately, though, he returns home and then is shipped off to Vietnam, where he joins a platoon, gets to know his fellow soldiers, and watches them kill and be killed. He is wounded a few times, the second of which is serious enough that he's removed from the fighting and taken to the hospital, and shortly thereafter goes back to the US. After the war, he and his fellow veterans struggle to make sense of their experiences. While Tim finds some level of solace in becoming a writer, others can't make the readjustment.

As in any collection of short stories, some are particularly strong and others are weaker. The title story, the first in the book, detailing the baggage both physical and emotional that the soldiers carry with them through the jungle, is the standout. I'm not much of a short story person, but this one is about as close to perfect as any I've ever read. The language, the characterization, the pacing, all of it is amazing. It's the perfect way to start things off. "On The Rainy River", which details Tim's flight to the Canadian border and near-crossing of it, is also beautiful and poignant. And "Speaking Of Courage", about one of Tim's platoon-mates who can't seem to figure out how to fit into the world again after the war, is absolutely heartbreaking. On the weirder side, "Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong", about an urban legends shared among the soldiers of a girlfriend who came over to visit and became more and more immersed in martial culture until she disappeared into the wild like a ghost, never to return, has compelling echoes of Heart of Darkness.

I will say that some of the more meta aspects of the book didn't quite work for me, like the "How to Tell a True War Story" piece that I mentioned earlier, as well as "Good Form", a story that reveals a previous story to have been told in a way that is factually incorrect but emotionally true. Though ultimately it didn't take away from the writing or its impact on me, I did wish the book was either straight fiction or straight nonfiction. That's a minor quibble, though. On the whole I thought this book was very well-executed and incredibly affecting. It gave me perspective into and empathy with the lives of those who have lived through something I never will, which honestly is one of the biggest points of reading for me. I would highly recommend this book for all readers.

One year ago, I was reading: House of Cards

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prince of Tides

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lady of the Rivers

Four years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Hope Santa Brings

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I'm doing this topic slightly out of order, because I think next Tuesday might be cutting it a little close for Santa...so here are ten books I'm hoping to see under the tree!


Maximilian and Carlota: I'm always interested in stories of royalty, so this book about the ill-fated emperor and empress of Mexico is very much up my alley.

Abominable Science: This book is about cryptozoology...i.e. the fantastic creatures of folklore, like yetis and bigfoots. It examines evidence of their existence as well as the science behind why people believe in them, and sounds like the kind of thing that would really work for me!

The Global Age: I own all the other books in this series about the history of Europe, so I want the last one to complete the set! 

Too Much: This book is about how women today are still impacted by Victorian attitudes about gender, and I am very into deep dives of this sort.

Shadow King: The Tudor era began with Henry VII, but the Wars of the Roses really began with the reign of Henry VI, who seems to have been an intensely odd person and I would love to learn more about him!

The Accusation: This is a true crime examination of one of (if not the) only known instances of the blood libel being deployed in the United States and I am super curious about it.

Once A Grand Duke: It wouldn't be a list from me if I didn't have a book about Russia on it somewhere! This is the memoir of Nicholas II's brother-in-law about the last years of the Romanov dynasty.

Talking Animals: This is a book about a world much like our own, except the people are animals. It sounds like it has echoes of Animal Farm, one of my favorite books, so I'm definitely interested in reading it.

The Spider King's Daughter: This is an opposites-attract drama from Nigeria about a rich girl and a poor boy who fall in love as teenagers and I've heard great things about it!

Mhudi: This was the first book written in English by a Black South African, and is supposed to be a really interesting look at life before large-scale European settlement in the area, which is something I'm fascinated by.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Book 263: Ready Player One

 

“I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.”

Dates read: September 22-27, 2018

Rating: 3/10

I started feeling kind of old when I found not just one, but two, 1990s/2000s classic rap and r&b stations on the radio in Reno. Don't get me wrong, getting to have my high school and college party anthems playing on the radio on the regular is great. But it's a reminder that my youth is now behind me. The things that I loved with that pure, unironic love you really only have as a teenager (Clueless, Can't Hardly Wait, the first few Britney albums) are now winking reference points for new teenagers! The nerve! Get off my lawn!

When I was in college, though, it wasn't about the 90s. They were too recent. It was all about the 80s. So many 80s parties. I'll be honest: with a few notable exceptions, the pop culture of the 80s generally doesn't move me. That was not a good omen for my enjoyment of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. In the near future, there has been widespread economic and ecological damage done to the world. Luckily, there's the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality where people can escape and exist through avatars. OASIS was created by a Steve Jobs-esque reclusive genius called James Halliday, who created a sensation when he died a few years before the novel begins by bequeathing his enormous fortune to whoever first can get to the "Easter Egg" he left behind...with clues rooted in the (you guessed it) 80s pop culture he loved.

Teenager Wade Watts (avatar: Parzival) has a comic book-worthy origin story: after the deaths of both of his parents when he was young, he went to live with an aunt in what are called the "stacks"...mobile homes outside of major cities literally stacked on top of each other. When he's not attending school via OASIS, he's doing what lots of people are doing: being an Easter Egg hunter, or "gunter" for short. When his obsessive devotion to Halliday's favorite video games, music, and movies pays off and he becomes the first person to discover one of three keys that will lead to the final prize, he's locked into a race for the finish. Parzival, his crush Art3mis, his best friend Aech and a team of two Japanese gamers are all competing...and also trying to ensure that an evil corporate conglomerate doesn't snag the prize, and control of OASIS, first.

If you really enjoy 80s pop culture, you'll love this. The idea of a world where our favorite trivia is literally the key to fame and fortune is delightful, and Cline's joy in writing it shines through. The plot moves along quickly, and it's not hard to see why this got made into a movie: it hits all the beats you'd expect it to, so it plays in your mind as you read. There's an emotional satisfaction to knowing the general track of things while waiting to see what little detours the specifics are going to take you on, and some sequences (like the climactic battle) are genuinely thrilling.

As a whole, though, the book fell terribly flat for me. As a non-80s devotee, it often felt like just constant lists of references to things that held absolutely no charm or emotional resonance. The storytelling was extremely basic, and the character development even more so. The issues the book is patting itself on the back for highlighting: that people might not be who they pretend to be for reasons both good and bad, that beauty comes from within, that it's your connection with a person that matters and not what they look like, are dealt with in a shallow, facile fashion that only emphasizes the simplicity of the narrative and the people who populate it. I've read a lot of books that didn't hook me, but few have been so boring as to be as difficult to read as this one. I do understand why it would appeal to people: it's a straightforward adventure story rooted in an era that many find nostalgically compelling. If that sounds fun to you, by all means, you'll likely enjoy this book like hundreds of thousands of people have. If not, though, this is one to avoid. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
 
Two years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch
 
Three years ago, I was reading: The Games
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Wonder
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR With Winter Vibes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! We're rapidly approaching wintertime (only just the one real snowshower here yet, but I'm sure more is on the way!), so it's time to take a look at books that are all brrrr-y feeling! Here are ten books on my to-be-read list that have winter vibes.



Into Thin Air: What's colder than mountain climbing on Everest? I'm a little hit-and-miss on Krakauer but this is supposed to be very good.

The Little Ice Age: This book looks at the titular climate event and its impact on history, which I am very interested in!

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: I loved reading about The Iditirod dog race in Alaska when I was a kid (I swear a remember a computer game where you put a dog sled team together, because it was one of my computer lab favorites!). I don't usually love memoir, but I think this one about moving north and become a dog sled racer will be up my alley.

The Edge of the World: This is an examination of the history of the North Sea, the water that lies between the UK and Scandinavia. Pretty chilly there!

A Frozen Hell: In 1939, little Finland went to war with mighty Russia. It did not end in actual "victory" for the Finns, they ended up having to give the Soviet Union territory, but they managed to

Doctor Zhivago: There had to be at least one Russian novel on this list, right?

Wolf Winter: That this book is about an especially harsh winter (in Sweden, which would know from harsh winters) is not a surprise since it's right there in the title.

Moon of the Crusted Snow: I've always enjoyed an apocalyptic story, and this one is an Own Voices book by a First Nations author (which takes place in the dark of winter) that I've heard great things about.

True North: This one takes place in the Upper Peninsula, which is very close to my heart and also basically America's Siberia: remote, lovely, and often cold.

Winter's Bone: I saw (and really liked!) the Jennifer Lawrence movie when it came out, and the book has been on my list for a while now!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Book 262: The Luminaries



"But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still."

Dates read: September 13-22, 2018

Rating: 9/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

I am usually a fairly smart, rational human, but ever since I was a kid I've been super into astrology. I know, I know, the idea that where the stars are in the sky has literally anything to do with what kind of person I am is silly. But we all have our weird, kind-of woo-woo things, right? Some people believe in ghosts, some people believe in the power of positive energy, and I not-entirely-but-more-than-I-should believe in astrology.

Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, is many things. It's a depiction of life in a gold-rush-era town in New Zealand. It's a story about families. It's a mystery. It's several mysteries, each unspooling at its own pace. And true to its title, it takes inspiration from the moon (each chapter is shorter than the one proceeding it, meant as a reference to the waning of the moon) and the planets/stars (some characters are based on astrological signs, others to the typical traits associated with the planets). It begins when a Scottish lawyer named Walter Moody arrives in the small town of Hokitika to make his fortune as a prospector. The ship on which he arrived, the Godspeed, was wrecked and he has to make his way ashore without his trunk. He decides to spend his time in the Crown Hotel while he waits for the wreck to be plunged and his belongings to be recovered, and shortly after he arrives, he manages to find himself in the bar of the hotel with twelve men who are clearly all gathered for a purpose. He manages to draw out from them a strange tale of several tragedies and mysteries that all seem to have happened at about the same time.

Shortly before Moody's arrival, a local politician, Alistair Lauderback, arrives in town to stump for votes. On the outskirts of town, he arrives at the cabin of a recluse, Crosbie Wells, and finds the man very recently deceased. And then, on the same night, a lucky young prospector, Emery Staines, goes missing, and a prostitute, Anna Wetherell, publicly overdoses on the opium to which she is addicted and is imprisoned. Each of the men in the bar of the Crown Hotel has a little piece of the story, and even more develops as time goes on. Bit by bit, the full story in all its beauty and tragedy is revealed, connecting the threads of each seemingly-separate piece together.

This is a big, ambitious novel that requires a lot of attention to keep the characters and their relationships with each other in mental order. In lesser hands, it would be confusing, but Catton keeps it engaging, requiring enough consideration to feel compelled to really focus on the book without making it feel like studying. The characters are complex and interesting, and the tangled web of their interactions with each other keep the tension from slacking. Indeed, for such a long book, it keeps itself going remarkably well, a testament to Catton's skill with prose and plotting. The way the layers of the mysteries the book presents are gradually peeled back and revealed is gratifying, feeling like tiny rewards doled out along the way until the end. The themes of loneliness, the role of chance, truth and lies, and revenge all come in and out of focus throughout, each feeling like it's given time and space to develop without being unduly flogged. For me, it was a wonderful book. It's hard to strike the balance between "passively entertaining" and "too much information management required to properly enjoy", but The Luminaries was right in the sweet spot. I got lost in it.

Now that I've just gushed about it, it does have some issues. It's a slow starter, taking advantage of its prodigious length to stretch the story out perhaps more than really necessary. Some characters feel like they get the short shrift and if Catton was less wedded to her astrology conceit, should have been cut. The way Catton reveals a bunch of pertinent information right at the end of the book in flashback, almost like a coda after the "real" ending of the story, does feel a little too cute by half. But honestly, those are mostly nitpicks. I'm not the sort to wish that a book would never end (I'm always excited about something on the horizon), but I did close it with a satisfied sigh and think "what a great book". It's not something to read when you're looking for something breezy and light, but otherwise, I highly highly recommend it. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Sisters of Henry VIII

Two years ago, I was reading: Once Upon a River

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth

Four years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Want to Read Again

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about re-reading. I LOVE re-reading, which means that my focus lately on reading things that are new to me means I have missed out on going back and revisiting the books I've loved for years. I do engage in some re-reading via audio, which has proven to be a fun way to experience familiar favorites in a new way, but here are ten books I haven't had the chance to re-read yet but very much want to!



War and Peace: This one will be a commitment to re-read because it's super long, but it was so good and so rich that I can't wait to dive back into its world.

Possession: I found the way this story was told, with the parallel timelines, to be just enthralling and I really feel like it would reward a revisit!

Beloved: Obviously this book is a challenging one, but it is just phenomenal and important and worthy of being re-read often.

There There: This book was so dazzling that it feels like I need at least more run-through (and possibly more) to really catch everything it did.

The Blind Assassin: Such a delicately constructed story-within-a-story, and so wrenching.

Great Expectations: You can definitely tell Dickens got paid by the word, and of his works I've read, this is the only one that I think is going back to again because there's a genuinely compelling story there (even if it's too wordy).

The Lords of Discipline: This was a highly satisfying read and I'd just really like to explore it again.

The Queen of the Night: Reading this book the first time through was just fun as it took turn after turn. I want to read it again and really enjoy the characters and details knowing how the plot goes!

The Devil in the Grove: One of my most-recommended nonfiction books, this incredible true story about corruption and racism in Jim Crow-era Florida is depressing but so fascinating and very well-told.

Vanity Fair: This is another one that's really long, but Becky Sharp was just such an interesting heroine that I want to read it again from the beginning knowing how it'll end.

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Month In The Life: November 2020

 

We're definitely closer to winter than summer now! We had one major snowfall this month, thankfully on a day when I didn't need to drive anywhere (I am a total wimp about driving in the snow even though I've had plenty of experience), and otherwise it's mostly been that crispy late-fall feeling outside. I'm actually not bummed about wearing facemasks outdoors lately, it helps keep my nose warm!

In Books...

  • Lazy B: Sandra Day O'Connor was my IDOL growing up. I bought this book, her memoir about her childhood, in college and started it but gave up. I couldn't remember why, so I decided it was time to actually read it, and I figured out why I ditched it back in the day: it is so deeply boring. It has all the verve and storytelling skill of a middle-school book report. Just extremely disappointing.
  • George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: This is basically my favorite kind of nonfiction...it's serious, sometimes dense history, but focused heavily on personalities. Specifically, royal personalities. The King of England, the Kaiser of Germany, and the Tsar of Russia were all cousins, and this book follows how their own relationships did (and not!) impacted the course of events before and through World War 1. It's super interesting, and it's the kind of thing I want to go back and read again because there is a LOT of information.
  • The Yellow House: I do not tend to particularly enjoy memoir, but am a sucker for an award-winning book and this won the National Book Award for nonfiction so I gave it a try. While Sarah Broom is a beautiful, talented writer, she uses that skill as often as not to distance herself from her reader. I had very little sense of who she was, which is unusual at the end of a memoir. It was frustratingly unfocused.
  • Plain Bad Heroines: This book is ambitious in scope, telling multiple stories on multiple timelines about a girls school in Rhode Island called Brookhants, and a tragedy that happened there. It's about choices and consequences, and curses, and fate and centers the stories of queer women. It's horror-adjacent but not really scary so much as creepy, and while it doesn't always quite pull off what it's trying to as well as it could, it's a fun and interesting read.
  • Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls: I do enjoy David Sedaris essay collections, but this one felt like it was more miss than hit. Which is not to say there was nothing to enjoy here, I definitely laughed, but a couple of the essays felt especially cringey and this is far from his strongest work.

In Life...

  • An unusual holiday season: This was the first time in a long time I haven't been with family for Thanksgiving, but in the world we're living in, it just did not seem wise for my husband and me to spend the day with my in-laws the way we have ever since I moved out here. I'm hopeful for a better Christmas, but seeing how many people traveled for this one does not make me especially optimistic.

One Thing:

As a kid, we only had cable tv sporadically, so I didn't watch a lot of shows regularly. One that I did watch and enjoy when I could, though, was Sailor Moon. I found out recently that it's available on Hulu, and since I've always enjoyed a good subtitle, I've been watching the whole series from the beginning in the original Japanese. Sometimes you just need something that's silly and fun and not at all mentally taxing to take your mind off the state of the world!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Book 261: The Silence of the Girls


"I hated serving drinks at dinner, though of course it didn’t matter to Achilles whether I hated it or not and, curiously, it soon stopped mattering to me. This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s."

Dates read: September 10-13, 2018

Rating: 6/10

We all know the axiom that history is written by the victors. But it can be easy to forget that it's also written by the people within those victorious populations who have access to the tools that will ensure that their words are marked in the first place. And until the modern era, with a few exceptions, that meant men. When women's stories were recorded, it was almost always through the eyes and thoughts of the men surrounding her. And that's if anyone bothered to think of their stories as important enough to be recorded at all.

Many of us were required, at some point in our education, to read at least parts of The Iliad. Set near the end of the Trojan War, it tells the story of the falling out between Achilles, the greatest warrior among the Greeks, and the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon, which threatened the Greeks with defeat because Achilles refused to continue to fight. The source of that quarrel between the men? A woman, Briseis, taken captive during a raid on her Trojan-allied city and chosen by Achilles as his prize. When Agamemnon laid claim to her instead, and took her from Achilles, that's when the drama went down. Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls explores what it might have been like to be Briseis, or any of the other girls and women enslaved by conquering troops, as the Trojan War turned their worlds upside down.

From the beginning of the book, when her city is being raided, when he kills her brothers, Briseis hates Achilles. This does not change when she's given to him as his reward for valor, but she knows her hatred doesn't matter. She'll be expected to serve at his table and be used in his bed anyways. She has nowhere to run, and they both know it. Although deeply unhappy, she becomes accustomed to her routine with Achilles, becoming close to Patroclus and his own slave girl, as well as the other women of the camp, from whom she hears tales of Agamemnon's cruelty. She's terrified when he takes her, though he mostly ignores her, and is not particularly happy to be returned to Achilles when she eventually is. It's not a pleasant lot, to be an object, a bargaining chip, instead of a person.

Dehumanization, the way it crushes the spirit, is the central theme of the novel. Briseis goes from being a queen in her own right to no more than chattel. The injustice of being expected to serve as a sex object for the men who killed your loved ones and destroyed everything you once held dear is a note struck consistently throughout, though Barker does a good job of keeping it from being the only note or making it feel unduly repetitive. She portrays a range of experiences through the camp women, from those beaten and abused by their captors to those who do their best to work themselves into the good graces of the men who keep them, including by bearing their children. I appreciated that Barker did not fall into the common trap of historical fiction around young women...so often they're written as anachronistically defiant and spunky, but Briseis and her fellow captives feel grounded in reality. Barker doesn't engage in any sort of rhetorical flashiness; rather, the book is an elegant plea to consider the historical voices that we've never gotten to hear.

The lack of flash, though, also works against the book. It's rooted in traumatizing experiences, and if I'm being honest, the lack of a big personality for Briseis or much in the way of hope for her can make it feel like a slog. I imagine this explains why the narrative occasionally leaves the first-person perspective of Briseis and engages in third-person narration of Achilles and Patroclus instead, to try to break out of the rut of Briseis's despair. I don't think it really works...in a novel otherwise focused on giving the viewpoint of the forgotten, focusing on the star characters of the familiar narrative doesn't add anything. It certainly doesn't do anything new or particularly interesting with these characters, leaving their bond open to interpretation. If you want an Iliad retelling that's less technically proficient but has more heart, I'd recommend Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles. The Silence of the Girls, while certainly not a waste of time, doesn't really enlighten or entertain.

One year ago, I was reading: After the Party

Two years ago, I was reading: The Possibilities

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Gratitude

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's Thanksgiving week, which means that it's time for lists about things we're thankful for. After this strange, tough year, I'm not really feeling up to making a list (which feels insufficient), but I did put together a little narrative below.

 

2020 has been a real rollercoaster. It started out more or less like any other year...I had a work trip to California, my mom came into town to visit, I was planning my summer trip with my best friends to Charleston. And then the world as it had been just...stopped existing in quite the same way. The day after the Utah Jazz game got canceled because of a positive COVID-19 test, which still feels like the moment it became real, I went down to a State Board of Education meeting, which was held live and in person. I stopped at the little secondhand bookstore in Carson City and browsed, the last time I went inside a bookstore for any extended period, listening to the retirees who staff the store chatter among themselves about what the coronavirus might mean. And I stopped at the grocery store, grabbing the second-to-last pack of toilet paper on the shelves, wondering to myself why there would be a run on toilet paper for a respiratory illness but thinking I should probably grab some if everyone else was. That day didn't quite feel normal, but it was close enough that I think of it as the last normal day. The last day when my life looked more or less like it always had before. 

I have been very fortunate during this pandemic in many ways: I am spending my time with my husband and dog, whose company I genuinely enjoy. I have a secure job that I like, that I was able to transition to doing from home fairly straightforwardly, with a boss who continues to give me the flexibility to work from home for large portions of the workweek. This is a relief as case numbers spike in my county. Both my husband and I have remained well, as have our immediate families. We do not have children who we would need to manage care and schooling for. My sister is getting ready to welcome her first child, and I am very excited to be an aunt! In all of this, I know I am extremely lucky. 

Even as I acknowledge and give thanks for these things, for my good fortune and that of my loved ones, I want to take space to recognize that this doesn't mean things have been easy. There have been opportunities lost. The challenge and risk of travel means that living on the other side of the country from my friends and family has been extra difficult. I will almost certainly not be able to meet my nephew anytime soon after he is born. I have long struggled with depression and anxiety, and my usual coping mechanisms have proven unable to compensate adequately for the additional stress and pressure that we've all been experiencing the last several months now. I've been able to access resources to help me cope, which is another thing I am grateful for. 

I try to remind myself that it is okay to grieve for what has been lost, even if my own losses have been relatively minor in the scheme of things. I am working not to get lost in ideas of what could or "should" have been. The future as it seemed it might exist on March 1 is no longer the future that is possible, and dwelling on it will not help me better navigate the world as it exists now. All I can do is wake up each day and try to do my best, and be thankful to be lucky in so many ways.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Book 260: Juliet, Naked

 

"Oh, it was a complicated business, loving art. It involved a lot more ill will than one might have suspected."

Dates read: September 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

The first time I heard a Ryan Adams song was my freshman year of college, when his "Wonderwall" cover was used on The O.C. I actually didn't like it, I tend to be hard to please on cover versions. But it got stuck in my head and I found myself listening to it again and again, which led me to the rest of his music, which was been a part of the soundtrack of my life for about 15 years. Ryan's music was been there for me through parties and fun and breakups and lazy days on the boat and college and law school and moves and everything else. I saw him live four times. I bought every album the day it came out. Which means that it really sucked when The New York Times reported that he'd been predatory towards women, and I decided that I didn't need his music to be a part of my world going forward (though I do still have a sentimental fondness for the songs that meant the most to me).

As someone who experienced my own minor obsession, I know what it's like to be devoted to a musician. But not the way Duncan is with Tucker Crowe in Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked. Tucker was a rocker whose breakup album Juliet was starting to make him famous when suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, he gives up his music career and vanishes. Duncan is so obsessed that he not only runs an online message board where he talks about Tucker's music with other devotees, he also drags his longtime, put-upon girlfriend Annie to America from the small seaside English town where they live to tour the sites most closely associated with Tucker's short career. And then one day, Duncan is sent the acoustic demo versions of the songs on Juliet, which the label intends to release as Juliet, Naked.

Since Duncan is the kind of boyfriend who expects his girlfriend to make sure the home runs without his input, Annie actually gets the new album first when checking the mail, and listens to it, preferring the finished versions. When Duncan puts up a glowing review on his website, she submits her own counterpoint...leading to an email from Tucker himself, the famous recluse agreeing that the original album is better. Tucker, it turns out, is not actually a recluse at all. He lives a normalish life in small-town Pennsylvania with his wife and their small son, the only one of his five children he's actually participated in raising. One thing leads to another, Duncan cheats on and is dumped by Annie, who continues her correspondence with Tucker, whose own relationship has deteriorated beyond repair, and then happens to find himself in England, and you can probably figure out where it goes from there.

I'll be honest: Nick Hornby is a comfort author for me, and I'm predisposed to enjoy his work and let him get away with things I'd be more critical of other authors for. He often uses elements in his work that can get a little same-y: obsessive people, adult man-children struggling towards emotional maturity, sometimes a heart-tugging actual child. But he has a way with characters and especially dialogue that gives his books a sparkle and charm that overpowers his tendencies to hit familiar emotional notes. It might not be clear from the way I wrote about the book, but it's Annie rather than Duncan who's really at the center of the narrative, and her voice as she examines how she got "stuck" with Duncan and how she feels about the time they spent together, is very identifiable. Who hasn't gotten out of a stagnant relationship and felt both the exhilaration of new possibilities and the fear that what you've left behind was as good as it was going to get?

Since I'm already being honest, I will say that this is one of Hornby's lesser efforts. There are a few too many plot points going on, meaning that some of them (Duncan's rebound relationship with the girl he cheated with, Annie's efforts to curate an exhibit for the small local museum, Tucker's other children) get the short shrift. And I think Hornby treats Tucker's poor efforts at fatherhood for all but his youngest child a little too flippantly. More genuine regret there might have given some nice weight to the narrative, and for a book that does deal with some heavy stuff, it could have used it. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable read...as long as you don't think about it too much as you're reading. If you're looking to try out Hornby, I'd recommend About A Boy or High Fidelity first. If you already like Hornby, it likely won't wow you but it has its charms.

One year ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Two years ago, I was reading: Dark Places

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Animals in Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is supposed to be characters we'd name a pet after, but I feel like that's basically all of them? I'm very open-minded when it comes to pet names. So I've decided to twist this a big and highlight my favorite animals from books...not all of these are strictly "pets", per se, but they're all animals that are great characters in their own right.

 

Fang (Harry Potter): This series has some great animals, like Hedwig and Crookshanks, but my sentimental favorite was Hagrid's scary-looking but sweet and dim guard dog.

The Disruptable Dog (Lirael): Lirael is desperately lonely when she tries to make a dog out of magic to keep her company and it doesn't quite turn out the way she expects...the Disreputable Dog is no one's pet!

Solovey (The Girl in the Tower): Vasya's beautiful, mystical horse is just as high-spirited and stubborn and she is.

Charlotte (Charlotte's Web): I mean, Wilbur may be some pig but Charlotte is the brains of the operation.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (The Jungle Book): The brave mongoose is one of the first animal characters I can remember really taking a shine to (though I think I was influenced as much or more by the Chuck Jones cartoon than the Kipling story itself).

Cloud (Wild Magic): Daine's stubborn pony has more sense than just about any other character in the series.

Rosie (Water for Elephants): The titular Polish-trained elephant was honestly probably my favorite character in the book.

Richard Parker (Life of Pi): The tense, uneasy relationship between Pi and the tiger, in which they both need and mistrust each other, is beautifully developed.

Shiloh (Shiloh): Another childhood favorite. Shiloh was a good dog.

Iorek Byrneson (The Golden Compass): The ferocious armored bear (and all of the detail Pullman created about their society) is one of the standout aspects of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Book 259: Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

"But when the sample size of fish food ran out, and I asked Leonie to buy me more, she said she would, and then forgot, again and again, until one day she said: Give him some old bread. I figured he couldn't crunch like he needed on some old bread, so I kept bugging her about it, and Bubby got skinnier and skinnier, his bubbles smaller and smaller, until I walked into the kitchen one day and he was floating on top of the water, his eyes white, a slimy scrim like fat, no voice in his bubbles. Leonie kill things."

Dates read: September 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award

It's...interesting how much more we as a culture are willing to forgive fathers, in a way that we're not willing to forgive mothers. Fathers can be physically absent, or emotionally unavailable, or not there for the hard stuff, or bad-tempered, and get a pass for it as long as they can convince us that they tried. But not mothers. Mothers are supposed to be always there with love and support and kindness, and if they're not, it's taken as mark of moral failure. Mothers literally give us life with their bodies, and once we're born, they're expecting to continue doing the hard work of nurturing and woe betide them if it doesn't work out that way.

Wicked, cruel stepmothers are a common enough trope, but literary examples of bad biological mothers are harder to find. Which makes Leonie, in Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, a relatively rare creature. In her late 20s, she is the mother of two children, adolescent Jojo and toddler Kayla, with her longtime boyfriend Michael. Leonie is also an addict, with a special fondness for the meth that's sent Michael to prison. The kids have been mostly raised by her parents in rural southern Mississippi, though their other grandparents have never even met them...you see, Leonie is black, Michael is white, and his parents are racists who helped cover up the murder of Leonie's brother Given when they were in high school, by one of Michael's cousins. 

When she finds out Michael is due to be released early, Leonie loads her kids in the car and drives to Parchman to get him. It's the same prison where her own father, River, once served time in his youth, and his past there becomes important because Michael isn't the only passenger they pick up: they're also joined by the ghost of a teenager named Richie. Only Jojo and Kayla can see Richie, who Jojo's heard about in his grandfather's stories, and when the family arrives back home, Jojo agrees to confront his grandfather to find out how Richie died. 

There's a lot more to it, and that's actually one of the highlights of this novel: it is rich in atmosphere. Ward deftly weaves together the stark realities of poverty, drug addiction, how parents and children can fail each other, and the way the justice system works for the white power structure and against people of color. She brings certain threads to the forefront at times, then others, but never loses track of any of them. She also does beautiful work of characterization, making Jojo an incredibly sympathetic and compelling protagonist, showing Leonie's selfishness and the damage it causes but depicting her as a deeply flawed human rather than a one-note villain, conveying the decency and strength of River and his wife Philomene, doing their best in a world that has not done right by them.

But though it does some things incredibly well, it stumbled hard (at least, for me) in other ways. The most pronounced was that it sets itself in the literary tradition of Beloved...and then doesn't measure up to the incredibly high bar of Toni Morrison's masterpiece. You can't write a story about the stain of institutionalized racism that prominently features ghosts and the mysterious death of a child without knowing that you're going to be compared to Beloved, and if you're going to go there, you better bring it. It wasn't brought. Ward's choice to use Richie as the most prominent ghost in the narrative rather than Given (who Leonie sees only when high), an actual member of the family whose perspective could have been used to give more context to Leonie's youth, is inexplicable to me. I never got invested in Richie, which meant that when Ward brought her threads together for a set of final climactic scenes that are supposed to pack a huge emotional punch, it felt overwrought and unearned rather than profound and cathartic. It has merit, and it's worth reading, but if you haven't read Beloved, read that and skip this.  
 
One day ago, I was reading: The Great Mortality
 
Two days ago, I was reading: Everything Under
 
Three days ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy
 
Four days ago, I was reading: Invisible Man
 
Five days ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles that Would Make Great Song Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books with titles that sound like they would make great songs. So here are my ten titles that sound like bops!

 

"Brave New World"

"Awakenings"

"Rebecca"

"Black Star, Bright Dawn"

"Yes Please"

"About A Boy"

"To Die For"

"Zone One"

"Sing Unburied Sing"

"There There"

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Book 258: Paint It Black

 

 

"She felt like old people who forgot what shoes were for, each gesture calling meaning into question—unbuttoning a button, breathing. Movement slowed to half-speed, quarter speed, as if the air had thickened. She could take nothing for granted, her hand on her shirt, her ability to keep the floor underfoot."

Dates read: August 29- September 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Although most people, when asked what kind of baby they're hoping for, will say "a healthy one", I suspect most actually have a gender preference. I think a lot of people hope for the same as themselves...if you're a lady, it's probably easier to think about raising a girl, and vice versa. And I think others think about the ease of raising. I've heard that girls are "easier" until they hit the teenage years, and then boys are. And then there's the idea that while girls "leave" your family eventually to start their own, boys are always a part of their parents' family.

It's this last, I think, that often drives the stereotypical tension between wives and mothers-in-law. But there's a difference between the usual case of being a bit possessive of one's little boy, and emotional enmeshment that's unhealthy. In Janet Fitch's Paint It Black, Josie Tyrell is intimidated by her boyfriend Michael's mother Meredith. She hears his stories of the way Meredith kept him close to her after his parents got divorced when he was a child, and the world he grew up in as the son of a leading concert pianist who traveled the world is wildly different than the one she grew up in and ran away from, on the wrong side of the tracks in an industrial city in southern California. They meet in Los Angeles, where Josie's working as an art model after dropping out of high school, and Michael goes to escape the Harvard education he never really wanted. They fall in love, rent a house together...and then Michael commits suicide.

His death comes at the very beginning of the novel, and over the course of its 400 pages we get the story of his relationship with Josie, and with his mother, as well as the two women's gradually intensifying connection after he's gone. It's tempting for Josie to play along with what Meredith wants, to give in to the ease and glamour of being a replacement for Michael. But there's a sense of a fly being drawn into a spider's web. Paint It Black is a study of grief, and the ways even the ones we think we share everything with remain mysterious to us, and the power of narcissists to prey on the vulnerable. 

Clearly the relationships between mothers and daughters are something Janet Fitch finds compelling, as it was the focus of her big hit White Oleander and is explored in its own way here, with Josie becoming a kind of surrogate daughter to Meredith, who upgrades her from Michael's girlfriend to his fiancee for an air of legitimacy. The terms of this particular relationship, ostensibly between adults although with Meredith holding all the money and most of the obvious power, is an unusual one, and I thought Fitch wrote Josie's grief well enough that we could understand and empathize with how she becomes ensnarled in it. Speaking of writing, it's really the star of this book. I was constantly tabbing passages to come back to, that captured a feeling in an interesting and new way. It's lush and rich and evocative.

It could have used some editing, though. The book's biggest issue is that it's simply too long for the amount of material it actually has. It feels like it drags in the middle because it's just Josie mourning, and drinking, and taking pills, and being unable to help herself from being in contact with Meredith even though she knows she shouldn't be. And while I did very much enjoy the writing, it did at times feel circuitous and self-indulgent. The characters are not as well-developed or interesting as those in White Oleander, so if you're picking up this because you loved that, be prepared for a less fully realized novel. It's got merit, and if it seems interesting to you it's not a waste of your time to pick it up, but it's not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Two years ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Three years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Non-Bookish Hobbies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about what we like to do besides reading. If you like books enough to start a whole blog about it, it's safe to say reading is a top hobby, but we're all more well-rounded than that. So here are ten things I like to do besides mainlining books!

  

Watching figure skating: I absolutely love figure skating (even though I personally can only skate forwards around an oval), and watch all the international events every year. I have a lot of Thoughts about figure skaters!

Thrift shopping: Haven't really done this one in person in the last several months, but I used to love just taking a couple hours and scouring shelves for cashmere sweaters and nifty home decor.

Working out: I feel like a douchebag for putting this on here, but I've been working out at home since March and am doing six days a week these days and I actually really enjoy it. I like to feel like I'm getting stronger!

Watching college football: I'm a big Michigan football fan, which often does not work out well for my emotional health.

Baking: I am not a particularly talented cook, though I am competent-ish. What I really enjoy, and am good at, is baking. You need desert, I'm your girl. 

Playing with Korean skincare: I'll be honest...I didn't really start taking care of my skin until I was in my mid-20s when I moved out to Reno. In Michigan I would occasionally remember to slap on some moisturizer, but when you live in the high desert slacking on skincare can be dangerous! I started using Korean skin care 3-4 years ago and have never looked back!

Watching movies: I'm on a never-ending quest to watch all of the movies that have won in the six major Oscar categories, as well as Foreign film and Documentary. It's been well over a decade I've been working on it and it's still ongoing!

Trivia: Probably unsurprising from a former Jeopardy contestant, but I love trivia. In the Before Times, my husband and I would do occasional bar trivia, but I also do online trivia! If anyone has heard of and/or is potentially interested in a referral to LearnedLeague, I can't get you in this season, but let me know and I'll set aside one for you next season!

Visiting breweries: I can't wait to get back to doing this one when the world is a moderately safe place to be again. I really enjoy beer, particularly sours, and my husband and I have enjoyed both exploring new places around town (Reno is very hipster this way) and finding new breweries when we travel!

Politics: I try not to be overly political in the course of my blogging, just because I don't think it's what most people are interested in hearing from me on here, but politics is how I make my living and I honestly find it fascinating!

Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: October 2020


October is my favorite month...it is my birthday month, after all (and my husband's)! After a summer that felt like it lasted foreverrrrrrr, we're finally having some fall, so I'm enjoying the crisp in the air. Otherwise, we had some muted birthday celebrations and are looking forward to getting through the next two months and shutting the door on 2020.

In Books...

  • Adaptation: This YA sci-fi/fantasy is honestly pretty unremarkable but for its central love triangle. Teenage Reese and her debate partner/crush David are driving back from Arizona to San Francisco after a sudden crisis grounds air traffic, when they suddenly crash in the Nevada desert. They get treatment at a mysterious hospital, and find that they've developed strange new abilities. While Reese tries to figure out what happened, she meets pretty Amber on the street, and realizes she might not be entirely straight after all. Character development is weak and so are the story elements, but a sensitively handled bisexual first love(s) story is something pleasantly different. 
  • Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story: This is a very comprehensive look at its subject, clocking in at about 750 pages. It's not a particularly good biography, leaning heavily towards a recitation of facts without much in the way of analysis. It did at least help give me some more context about the life of a figure who remains controversial even over a decade after his death.
  • Exhalation: If it's short stories, it's because it's a book club pick. I usually don't especially care for short story collections, as I find they have as much chaff as wheat. This one, though, was special. It's eight science fiction stories, one long enough to practically be a novella, and while not all were brilliant, they were thought-provoking and compelling. I really liked it!
  • A Bollywood Affair: My brain and my heart didn't feel quite the same about this one. I had some real issues with characterization, particularly of central character Mili, who is almost always either crying, blushing, tripping, or eating in an apparently especially sensual way. And I didn't love Samir either, finding his "bad boy cured by the love of a good woman" arc trite. But I did get swept up in it in the middle, before the ending lost me again. 
  • His Only Wife: I wanted to like this debut novel from Ghanian author Peace Adzo Medie more than I actually did. There are solid bones here...the story of a poor but pretty young woman, Afi, who is married to Elikem, the handsome son of a wealthy local family, in his family's attempt to break up his longstanding relationship with a woman they don't like. Complications ensue, of course, but Afi is often irritatingly naive and some of the side characters are honestly more interesting than the main ones. 
  • The White Princess: The Wars of the Roses in England were finally ended when the two skirmishing families were joined as King Henry VII wed Elizabeth of York. This book follows the story of the latter after the downfall of her uncle, Richard III and through much of the rest of her life, including her marriage to Henry and the birth of all but their last child. It's one of the weaker installments of this series, less because of Gregory's choices (though I definitely side-eye some of those) but because Elizabeth is a fundamentally reactive, passive character, which makes it difficult to get invested in her. 
  • Looking for Alaska: This book is hard for me to evaluate as a 35 year-old. On the one hand, it felt like it would be an excellent book to read as a teenager, full of making new friends and self-discovery and crushes on unattainable people and thinking about life and the world. On the other, I am a boring settled-down adult lady now and have a hard time connecting with that kind of intensity of feeling, and the characters felt more like collections of quirks than actual people.

 In Life...

  • I turned 35!: And so did my husband (our birthdays are two weeks apart). Like pretty much everyone else this year, I had a very subdued celebration...we ordered in from one of our favorite local restaurants and watched a movie, which was nice. And of course, I gave away a copy of my favorite book I blogged about in the past year, Exit West, to celebrate my fifth year of blogging, so congrats again to Savannah for winning it!

One Thing:

One of the categories I include for my lists and awards is the best-seller list from The New York Times. I actually don't use it at all to drive my book decisions (awards are much more enticing to me), but I always find it interesting to note which books I've read have been very popular. Well there was a study that cross-referenced those lists with the way readers actually reviewed the books, based on Goodreads ratings, and I found it very interesting! Maybe you will too, so I've linked to it here.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Book 257: Oryx and Crake

 


"How could I have been so stupid? No, not stupid. He can’t describe himself, the way he’d been. Not unmarked — events had marked him, he’d had his own scars, his dark emotions. Ignorant, perhaps. Unformed, inchoate. There had been something willed about it though, his ignorance. Or not willed, exactly: structured. He’d grown up in walled spaces, and then he had become one. He had shut things out."

Dates read: August 25-29, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Becoming more aware of the world kind of sucks a little. Not being able to just laugh at the joke. Not being able to just let it go. The eye rolls and sarcasm. But once you really start thinking about it, the way the polar ice is melting at levels unseen before in the modern world, the way the waters are warming, the wildfires in the West, the way coastal cities are left vulnerable to ever-more calamitous weather and flooding, it's hard to just put out of your mind. And that's just global climate change, to say nothing of the countless other significant issues facing our world.

One day, something is going to be the end of the world as we know it. Superbacteria and/or a global plague. Nuclear war. Heck, maybe the zombie apocalypse. But why not climate change? In Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, it's climate that creates the void into which increasingly powerful corporations pour themselves. Soon, the divide between the haves and the have-nots becomes even more literal, with the highly-educated few retreating into city-esque complexes created and owned by business interests, while the masses are walled off into their own zones. Jimmy is born into privilege, to a mother and father who are good worker bees, and it is in the compound school that he meets Glenn, who becomes his best friend...and who ends up changing the world beyond what anyone could have imagined.

As an adult, Jimmy has renamed himself Snowman (after The Abominable), and as far as he knows, he's the last "real" human left alive. There's a group of genetically engineered people, the Children of Crake, but they're not the same. He's left alone, in a devastated world, with only his memories and his guilt over the role he played in it all. These memories make up the bulk of the book, with very little actually happening in an actual plot sense. Jimmy does venture back to the last place he lived in search of food and sunscreen and medicine, which forces him to confront what happened with Glenn, who became Crake, and the beautiful, reserved Oryx, who was involved with them both. How they died, and how the virus that wreaked havoc on the rest of the world was released.

It's a character study as much as a work of speculative fiction, and that's really Atwood's strength anyways. She loves to dig into the ways our little flaws can set in motion events that spiral out of control, to take the tensions underlying society and drag them up into the open. I find it really interesting that this book was written in 2003, the year I graduated high school, because so much of it seems to apply to the kinds of debates that continue to be relevant even now: just because we have the technology or knowledge to do something, does that mean we should? How do we weigh morality? Whose morality gets weighed? The writing date of the book does mean there are some things that come off anachronistic (she posits a world focused on disc-based storage, in which email is a primary communication method), a lot of it is startlingly prescient.

Clearly I liked it, but it was not without failings. The biggest, for me, was its lack of developed female characters. Jimmy's mother is intriguing, but we see relatively little of her and through mostly his eyes, reflecting on the way her choices impacted him. Oryx remains to the reader just as mystifying as she largely is to Jimmy, and while I could see Atwood intending this as a statement of how men tend to project their own stories only the women they claim to love (Jimmy is convinced he knows parts of Oryx's past, which she herself denies), I wish we'd gotten more of her perspective. And as much as I enjoy character-driven novels, I wish it had been structured differently, so that it was taking place in the present rather than largely in the past. These are relatively minor issues, though. On the whole, this book is fascinating and thought-provoking and one I'd recommend widely (though maybe not younger/less sophisticated teenagers).

One year ago, I was reading: Patron Saints of Nothing

Two years ago, I was reading: Seduction

Three years ago, I was reading: The Book Thief

Four years ago, I was reading: The Confessions of St. Augustine

Five years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology