Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book 221: Sophia of Silicon Valley

"Minutes later, my phone rang. I knew it was Scott calling about the Time cover, so I hesitated to answer—one ring, two rings, three. I knew if I didn’t pick up the phone, though, forcing Scott to hold in his anger, he would really blow an epic gasket when the inevitable happened. Better to let him yell now. As I slowly brought the cell phone up to my ear, I could already hear him screaming." 

Dates read: April 3-6

Rating: 2/10

I'm always a little skeptical when a book (or movie, or whatever) tries to sell itself as the next [insert popular title here]. I understand why they do it...if you compare your work to a super hit, you'll catch the eye of people who loved that thing. But it so often sets the consumer up for disappointment. It usually winds up that the thing that people loved about the initial product wasn't its subject, themes, or plot, but something about the voice, or its unexpectedness, or the style. Even though I've been burned, though, I often can't help myself from picking up something that's described as an "if you loved" for one of my favorites.

When I saw the pitch for Anna Yen's Sophia of Silicon Valley as a "The Devil Wears Prada meets the tech industry", I was intrigued. Silicon Valley, with its constant promises of disruption and reinvention and outsized personalities, is ripe for satire. Yen, like ex-Vogue-assistant Lauren Weisberger before her, has insider bona fides: she came through stints at Pixar and Tesla, and continues to work in the field. Maybe it's the latter that keeps the book from reaching the heights of Prada, or indeed, any heights at all. This book isn't just not great, it's actively bad.

Sophia Young, our extremely-thinly-veiled author insert, is the younger daughter of wealthy Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco. She has type 1 diabetes, which she mentions more often than Stacy does in The Babysitters Club, and is therefore babied by the parents she's returned to live with after college. She starts work in finance, but when it turns out the glamour she'd hoped for in this field doesn't materialize, her interest flags and she's fired shortly thereafter. With the help of a friend, she gets a job as a paralegal at a prestigious law firm for a demanding partner (despite having no training for the role) and finds that she enjoys and is good at the work. Even with long hours, she meets a guy she likes and they find time to build a relationship, and Sophia starts dreaming about their future. Then she meets Scott Kraft, one of the firm's clients, who's starting up an animated film studio called Treehouse with a first feature about toys who come alive, and her world turns upside down.

Scott hires Sophia to come on to Treehouse to do investor relations and assist with the launching of the company's initial public offering. Scott, always in his trademark black turtleneck, is demanding and often unreasonable but a genius at what he does and not without a sense of humor, and Sophia learns from him as she spends a couple years with the company. The first boyfriend dumps her after their relationship deteriorates, but she meets another one not too long after, a handsome doctor who understands her crazy schedule and devotion to her career. The industry moves too quickly for Sophia to settle down in either her personal or professional lives, though, and after two years she makes a jump to an up-and-coming company called Ion, which makes cars and has a side line working on a space launch. Can she develop a relationship with CEO Andre Stark like the one she had with Scott? Will her relationship survive the tumult? Will she ever be like her sister and have a family of her own?

In a book like this, the protagonist needs to be relatable. The reader needs to feel like she's seeing this strange world through outsider eyes, needs to like and root for the heroine to prevail. And in this, it was an abysmal failure for me. Sophia starts out from a position of enormous privilege: her parents are rich, willing to support her, and their home is literally featured in magazines. She can afford to fail, so there's nothing really riding on her success except for her own sense of self-worth, which isn't nothing but also isn't very high stakes. On top of that, she's kind of awful. She calls her friends in the middle of their workdays to brag about the opulent hotels she stays at for work and sulks when none of them want to coo over it. Her opposing desires to find a husband and have kids and to professionally achieve at the highest level are understandable and something many women in their 20s and 30s go through, but she doesn't seem to want both at the same time as much as she wants one and then the other and punishes the men she dates for either not committing or trying to hold her back depending on how she feels that day. I found her deeply irritating.

On top of that, the promised "satire" and "humor" never develops. She doesn't take the piss out of the Steve Jobs or Elon Musk stand-ins, she hero-worships them (particularly the former) and excuses their bad behavior as a side product of their intelligence and innovation. There's never a sense that she finds them or the industry as a whole ridiculous. She plays nothing for laughs, nor does she puncture any bubbles. That Yen continues to be a player in the field almost certainly plays into her unwillingness to poke at its uncomfortable spots...she doesn't want to upset her own apple cart. And while keeping your eye on your own bottom line is understandable, don't try to sell your uninspired writing as a hilarious send-up if you're not willing to spill a little tea. I hated this book and do not recommend it to anyone.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Selfish Gene

Three years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Four years ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Books I Really Enjoyed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're actually meant to be talking about books that gave us "hangovers" know, the kind where you finish it and it's so good that you have a hard time getting into your next read because you can't get it out of your head. As a devoted schedule reader (rather than mood reader), I don't really get book hangovers, so I'm twisting this just a bit to be the last books that I really got into.

Columbine: This is a hard book to say one "enjoyed" per se, but it's an incredible piece of journalism about an event that is misunderstood in important ways that have a continuing effect on our culture.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: I'd seen the movie, of course, so I thought this would be similar: kind of lightweight, enjoyable, not especially memorable. But in Tom Ripley, Highsmith created a fascinating villain and I really want to read the sequels!

Marie Antoinette: She's often held up as a symbol of the worst excesses of pre-French Revolution Europe, but this biography tears down the myths and reveals her as a woman whose own faults didn't help anything but was mostly caught up in forces beyond her control from the moment she came to France.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: One of those books you finish and immediately want to read again, telling a multigenerational Dominican (and then Dominican-American) story about a family curse with bright, vivid language.

Battleborn: I don't even particularly care for short stories, but this collection about Nevada was incredible.

Daisy Jones and the Six: I read this before the hype exploded and then became a participant in the hype, because the Behind The Music-style story of a band whose blood and tears created a classic album before it all came crashing down again was impossible to put down.

Bad Blood: We are living in a new era of fraudsters, and Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos were one of the highest-profile ones of all. A fascinating behind-the-scenes look of how the company got so big despite being based on total lies...and how it was all revealed.

Astonish Me: I am a sucker for ballet books, but was a little hesitant because I'd not enjoyed Shipstead's other novel. This one, though, was a treat: it beautifully balances a domestic story about a family against the drama of the exclusive world of ballet and totally captured my attention.

The Winter of the Witch: I loved the first two books and was so worried that the conclusion of the trilogy would falter, but I was wrong to doubt Arden. It was a perfect ending to an incredible story.

Once Upon A River: A historical fiction tale that celebrates storytelling, as a young girl is brought nearly dead into an English tavern and is claimed by several families, any or none of which might be her own.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book 220: Freedom

"This wasn't the person he'd thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to chose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones."

Dates read: March 30- April 3, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition), The New York Times bestseller

Something that seems to come up fairly frequently in profiles of successful people is that they have a daily uniform. Like Steve Jobs' constant black turtleneck and jeans, many of them report that not having to think about what they're going to wear every day frees up their minds for "more important" things. It's a concept called decision fatigue...the more decisions you have to make, the worse (over time) you get at making them logically. For me, deciding what to wear is enjoyable, but I do eat almost the exact same thing every day because food isn't that interesting to me. Cutting unnecessary choices out of your life does make things a lot simpler.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom isn't very subtle: he tells you the major theme of the book right there in the title. It's the story of a family, headed by Walter and Patty Berglund, and how it comes to be and how (of course) it begins to fray. It begins with a short, third-party history of their residence in a newly-gentrifying neighborhood in Saint Paul, which begins when they're young, energetic newlyweds, and continues through their raising of two children, Jennifer and Joey, the latter of whom causes quite a bit of grapevine drama when he takes sides against his own family in a growing border war with their neighbors. Just about as soon as the kids are out of high school and off to college, the parental Berglunds pick up and leave suddenly, and several years later in the newspaper their former neighbors read that Walter's gotten into a bit of a professional dust-up. So right from the beginning, we know that something is rotten in the state of Minnesota.

We then go back and time and get Patty's life story, in which she always feels like an outsider in her ambitious upstate New York family, culminating in her parents' refusal to do anything when she's raped by the son of a powerful neighbor. She flees on an athletic scholarship to Minnesota, where she develops a friendship with a disturbed classmate, through whom she meets musician Richard Katz and his roommate, Walter Berglund. Though Richard and Patty are interested in each other, Walter is also interested in Patty, and though he "gets" the girl, the attraction between his wife and his best friend lingers. We also move forward to Richard, Walter, and Joey's perspectives after their move out of Minnesota, and how each struggles with freedom as opposed to stablility, and the consequences of exercising choices that become available.

Jonathan Franzen as a human being is not my favorite. But as a writer, he is undeniably talented. Freedom wrestles with some weighty stuff: 9/11, environmentalism, corporate philanthropy, temptation, infidelity, the way family patterns repeat over generations, sexual assault, selling out, forgiveness. That's a lot for one book, even a long-ish one, to tackle. But for the most part, he pulls it off. Though I didn't necessarily always like the characters he created, I almost always found them compelling and interesting. Though some of the plot schemes he tangles them up veer towards the ridiculous, he mines them for emotional truth well enough that they stay on the good side of the line of believability.

There are some missteps, though. I found some of his decisions regarding Patty's trajectory baffling. Her rape doesn't seem like a character-informing experience for her, serving rather as an explanation to write her parents out of the book until there can be a rapprochement at the end to bring things full circle. And her college friend Eliza's obsession with her also seemed never really went anywhere besides serving as her introduction to Richard. The balance of Patty's story rounded her out, but the way he wrote Connie (Joey's childhood sweetheart) never made sense to me. She's not a person, she's a symbol, as was Lalitha, a young colleague of Walter's who becomes besotted with him. Maybe our cultural moment just has me primed to see underlying misogyny better than I used to, but I can't deny that it's here and it was part of what kept me from being fully absorbed in the novel. It's good, very good even, and I would recommend it with the caveat that if you're looking for strong female characters, you won't find them here.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Three years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Four years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Non-Romantic Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! As usual for the week of Valentine's Day, this is a love freebie. I've written about couples for the past several years for this prompt, so this time I'm switching it up. Here are ten of my favorite deeply bonded pairs who certainly love each other, but not in that way.

Harry and Ron (Harry Potter): The relationship chronicled over the seven books of the series between our hero and his best friend is complicated and rich and more thoroughly developed than either of their romantic lives.

Meg and Charles Wallace (The Wind in the Door): The connection between these two siblings is beautifully rendered and significant in all the books in the series, but particularly in the second one, where Meg has to save his life.

Vasya and Solovey (The Bear and the Nightingale): We've all heard enough jokes about horse girls to recognize the strength of the bond between young women and their equines, but Solovey isn't just any horse and I really enjoyed the bickering and love between these two.

Joe and Sammy (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay): The artistic partnership between these two cousins has ups and down but is rooted in mutual admiration and care that pays off deeply in the end.

Francie and Johnny (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn): Johnny is a warm-hearted, charismatic addict, which makes him a terrible husband and a bad provider, but the easy, straightforward love he's able to show his sweet, bookish daughter is a lovely thing.

Becky and Amelia (Vanity Fair): Becky is a fascinating character, with her scheming and lack of morals. She's not a good friend in the conventional sense, but she does care about the docile Amelia in her own way, and their friendship is both interesting and of an uncommon sort.

Boris and Popper (The Goldfinch): One of the things I found most delightful about this book was the bond between protagonist Theo's crazy Eastern European best friend and the little dog he ends up liberating from his stepmother. These two were my favorite characters in the book, honestly.

Legolas and Gimli (The Lord of the Rings): The longstanding disdain between elves and dwarves means these two are often at each other's throats in the beginning, but the grudging respect and then genuine friendship that grows between them is often a more light-hearted highlight in an otherwise often serious series.

Annemarie and Helen (Number the Stars): I loved this book growing up, not in the least because of the warm, close friendship between gentile Annemarie and Jewish Helen and how it helps give both of them the strength for the former's family to help the latter's escape.

Lyra and Iorek (The Golden Compass): She's one of my favorite literary characters, and the way she earns the admiration and friendship of the king of the armored bears with her quick wits and bold lies is one of the reasons why.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Book 219: Of Human Bondage

"He yearned above all things for experience and felt himself ridiculous because at his age he had not enjoyed that which all fiction taught him was the most important thing in life; but he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were, and the reality which was offered him differed too terribly from the ideal of his dreams." 

Dates read: March 25-30, 2018

Rating: 7/10

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

Sometimes I think about my younger self and I want to shake that girl by the shoulders. I took myself so seriously, took the world so seriously. I was so sure of things, and while I do sometimes miss that clarity of certainty, I think I'm happier now. I tend towards the "control freak" side of things, and the more steps I take towards letting go of that need to be in charge of everything, to know where it's all heading, the more relief I feel and the better able I am to roll with the punches. I wish I could tell that girl that I was how to loosen up a little bit, how to think a little more broadly...but maybe all that can really teach those lessons is time.

Anyone who's ever taken themselves too seriously will recognize a kindred soul in Philip Carey of W. Somerset Maughum's Of Human Bondage. We meet him when he's still a child and very recently orphaned, going from a relatively privileged life with his mother to a much sparser one with his aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a pastor in a small town in the British countryside. Scared a bit by his distant uncle, he escapes into books and becomes a voracious reader. The next year, he's sent to boarding school, where his disability (he has a clubfoot, which gives him a limp), combined with his shyness and senstitivity, makes for a generally unhappy experience. He becomes passionately religious and plans on a career in the clergy, but when his prayers for a cure for his foot are unanswered, he loses both his faith and his direction in life.

He goes to Germany briefly, comes back to England and tries being an accountant, which doesn't take, then to France to study art, then back to England again, where he decides to settle down and study medicine, which was his father's career. But all his indecision has driven down his available resources so he'll need to live very modestly until he's a doctor and can start earning a living...and then he meets Mildred. Despite Philip's self-pity, he's had a few relationships with women at this point, and is actually in a good one, when he meets the waitress his friend has a crush on. Philip becomes obsessed with her, despite her obvious disinterest in him and lack of social skills. His situation eventually becomes desperate, but with some kindness and a bit of luck, it resolves itself.

If you've been reading here for a while, you know I'm a die-hard never-DNF (did not finish). This has lead to my spending my time reading books that I hated or worse, bored me silly, and I very much understand why other people do put down books that aren't working for them. But even though it does backfire on me sometimes, other times it pays off to stick with a book, and this was one of those instances. About halfway through it, I was sick of Philip and his moping and the garbage way he treated women and his refusal to understand that as wonderful as self-discovery is, there's no money in it. The whole book is his story of growing up, and he was so grating that I wasn't at all invested in him or rooting for him to succeed. But then he starts to mature, puts his head down and works hard, uses his own hard-earned life lessons and experiences to be a good doctor to the people he sees. And by the end of it, when he does find some measure of happiness and chooses to do the harder, better thing, I couldn't have been happier for him if he were an actual person and a friend at that.

I've always been a character-over-plot type of reader, and this book is all the former...the only major outside event is the Boer War, which happens late in the book and while it does have an impact on Philip, it's pretty far removed from the central themes of the coming-of-age story. In some ways, it suffers for its fixation on I said above, he can be a hard character to really sympathize with, particularly early on. But the payoff in the back half is real, and seeing him grow as a person is really rewarding. This is a good book, a very good one even, but it may not be the right book for every reader. If you're looking for a dynamic plot, or lack the patience for/interest in a long-term character study, this probably isn't going to be something you enjoy. If you've read what I've written and are intrigued, though, I highly suggest you get ahold of'll be a rewarding experience!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sellout

Three years ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR I Predict Will Be 5-Star Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books that we haven't read yet, but are pretty sure we're going to love. I actually rate very few books five stars because only ones I find really spectacular get that rating...something that's very good and I really like just as often only gets four stars because it just doesn't have that extra bit of magic. These ones, though, I think are going to hit that five-star rating...both fiction and non-fiction!

Know My Name: I've heard nothing but glowing reviews of this memoir from Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted by Brock Miller. I'm sure it'll be heavy, but it seems like the kind of thing I will really get a lot from.

Just Mercy: As a recovering lawyer, I have mixed feelings on legal personal connection with the subject area can be a blessing or a curse. From what I've heard about how good this is, I'm thinking it'll be on the blessing side.

The Fire Next Time: I read Baldwin for the first time last year and just loved his fiction writing. This work of non-fiction is supposed to be incredible and I expect it'll be a highlight.

Trick Mirror: I love a good essay collection and have gotten raves about this from several different people I would not expect to agree with each other, so I've got really high hopes.

Matriarch: I love a good royal bio, and this one about Queen Mary (the current Queen's grandmother) is supposed to be fantastic.

A Gentleman in Moscow: I love books about Russia, and I love long, life-spanning novels, so this seems like it will be exactly my type of thing.

Homegoing: Tracing what happens to the descendants of two half-sisters from Ghana over the of whom stays in Africa, the other of whom is enslaved and taken to America. This sounds amazing.

My Brilliant Friend: As someone who really loves reading about female friendship, there could not be a more "perfect for me" sounding series than the one that starts with this book.

Beartown: I'm not always here for a sports book, but this is supposed to be less about the actual hockey than the small town who get really into their hockey team, which I think will really be something special.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: I absolutely devoured the latest Taylor Jenkins Reid book, and this previous one has gotten similar kinds of praise, so I think I'll love it!

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: January 2020

The first month of the first year of the decade is over! Hard to believe that in another year, I'll be in full prep for legislative session, but I'm enjoying the easier pace of an off-year for now. And any month where you get to put your feet in the ocean is a good one, eh?

In Books...
  • Catch-22: Oh boy did I hate this book! It's a modern classic satire about the absurdity of war. It sort-of has a plot and characters but is mostly just "wow, war is absurd, isn't it?" for nearly 500 pages. This is just very much not my type of humor so it did not work for me at all. 
  • Native Speaker: A second-generation Korean-American, Henry, has had a mostly successful career in a sort of corporate espionage, but his latest mark, a Korean-American city councilman in New York City, raises a lot of complicated feelings: about immigration, about language, about being an American. And then there's his personal life, where he's estranged from his Caucasian wife. Mostly meets its high ambitions, though its debut-ness shows at times. 
  • Queen of Scots: For a 500-page biography, this actually moves pretty quickly! I'd really had very little understanding of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots before I picked this up but it was fascinating. It's thoroughly researched and mostly well-paced, though it does start to drag a little near the end. If you're interested in the Tudor era, it's definitely worth your time.
  • Sin in the Second City: As much as I love Serious Books, a little change of pace is always welcome. This book tells the story of the Everleigh Club, an exclusive brothel in turn-of-the-century Chicago run by two sisters, and the development of the Mann Act/eventual closure of the vice district in highly entertaining fashion. There have to be some slight embellishments here, but they're in service of telling a good story and this was really fun to read!
  • Mozart in the Jungle: This isn't just a memoir about Blair Tindall's experiences as a classical musician playing the oboe in New York City, but also about classical music as a cultural phenomenon and industry. The latter works better than the former, because once you get over the shock value of the casual sex and substance use among orchestra members, there's not much compelling left...unless you too have tried to make oboe reeds and found it as stressful as she did, because she talks about it quite a bit.  
  • Followers: This exploration of the world that social media has wrought has two storylines. In the present, gossip blog writer Orla helps launch the influencer career of her roommate, Floss. In the second, Marlow, a government-sanctioned "celebrity" living in a town that's a full-time reality show, gets off the mood stabilizing drug she's been the face of for years and starts to see the appeal of the outside world. Mostly decent characterization, with a few missteps, snappy writing, page-turning plot, but it never came together to be more than the sum of its parts for me. 

In Life...
  • Work retreat in Newport Beach: This year's work retreat was in Orange County, which meant I got to visit the Pacific for a little while along with the actual work bits. The weather was lovely and I had a nice time reconnecting with my colleagues who work in Las Vegas and Phoenix that I never get to see!

One Thing:

Do you need your heart warmed in this cold month? Check out the Dads Who Did Not Want Pets subreddit. Reddit has some toxic communities, but this is just what it sounds like: dads who didn't want to get a pet, got a pet, and now adore the pet. If you are softhearted like me, make sure there are some nearby tissues as you may get something in your eye.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Book 218: Possession

"Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or be confronted by."

Dates read: March 21-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, Time's All-Time 100 Novels

When you learn a second language, one of the first verbs you usually learn (after "to be" and "to do") is "to have". It's a fiendishly tricky beast to work your way around how it's used in various languages, not in the least because it's so broadly used in English. You can have tangible things, like a dog. Intangible ones, like a cold. You can "have" relationships. You can "have" a fight with the person you're in a relationship with. English, it seems, is hung up on the idea of having.

Many of the various kinds of having come into play in A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession. Young British scholar Roland Mitchell has a dead-end, barely-paying job doing research work for a university literature professor, who specializes in a (fictional) Victorian-era poet called Randolph Ash. While paging through one of Ash's books at the library one day, he finds two drafts of a letter to a woman that Ash met at a breakfast. Impulsively, he pockets them, and goes on a mission to discover who the woman was, and if the letter was ever even sent. He figures out quickly that it was, and its recipient was a fellow (fictional) poet called Christabel LaMotte...which leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey, who studies LaMotte.

The two then have a secret, as they try to uncover what might have passed between Ash and LaMotte without alerting Roland's boss, Maud's colleagues, or an avaricious American researcher who is constantly acquiring Ash memorabilia for his museum in New Mexico. That the two poets knew each other at all is new information, and as Maud and Roland discover more and more about how deep the connection ran, all of the knowledge that anyone "had" about them gets flipped on its head. And all along, Roland and Maud grow closer, which is problematic because Roland has a long-time girlfriend whose work supports them both, and Maud has issues of her own when it comes to relationships.

Despite their plot differences, I was reminded of nothing so much as The Name of the Rose while I read Possession. Both are rich reads, dense in the best possible sense of the word...the kind of thing that even while you're reading it, you know you'll get even more out of it the next time around. Byatt doesn't just include the main narrative, she supplements it with poems "by" the poets, "their" letters to each other, diaries from third parties. This must have been enormously difficult, to come up with distinct voices and styles for all of these characters, but it all fits in so smoothly it's hard to believe that this isn't all based on real people.

The mystery that Roland and Maud are trying to solve unwinds slowly but maintains tension...the delays that pop up feel organic and not just shoehorned in to pad page length. The characters are well-developed, and the way Byatt parallels their stories with those of the people they're researching is beautifully done. The prose is lively, despite its density, and the book moves faster than you think while you're reading it (partly because it's so absorbing). It's really an excellent book, one that I look forward to reading again one day. I highly recommend this, but beware: it's not light or easy reading, and deals with some emotionally turbulent subjects. Go in ready for something that will reward attention and move you, and (hopefully) you'll enjoy it!

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Lost Horizon

Three years ago, I was reading: Marlena

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Covers I Liked Better Than The Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a covers freebie. Despite the old yarn about not judging books by them, I think we've all fallen prey to a pretty or interesting cover. Sometimes those books turn out to be great! Other times, less so. Here are ten books where the cover grabbed me but the insides didn't.

The Overstory: This book started out incredible and then kind of fell apart for me. But the cover remains gorgeous.

On Trails: Such a striking, simple cover for a book about the making and use of trails. This book club selection ended up being a dud for me (but I don't care for outdoors-y books).

Patron Saints of Nothing: I love the way this cover evokes prayer candles, and I thought the book was going to touch more on religious faith. Though it was clunky writing, not a lack of Catholicism, that tanked the book for me.

The Catcher in the Rye: This cover is just so visually appealing, I wish I liked the book more. Or at all. Alas.

The Buried Giant: The weakest Ishiguro I've read, but every version of the cover I've seen does something interesting with trees.

A Million Little Pieces: Even though I know this book is made of lies, I can't get over how much I love the image of this cover.

The Fountainhead: The Art Deco-ness of this cover is amazing. The book itself is...better than Atlas Shrugged, at least?

Friday Night Lights: The show is much more compelling than the book, but the image of the players strolling onto the field holding hands is perfect.

Shantaram: There's an actual golden sheen to this cover that totally drew me in and then the book is both gigantic and quite bad.

A Great And Terrible Beauty: I was really ready for this to be a kind of dishy romance because of this cover and it was very much not (nor was it good).

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Book 217: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies." 

Dates read: March 17-21, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Do you own your body? It seems like an absurd question, but it's a real one. After all, it wasn't so long ago that bodies could be bought and sold on the open market. Nowadays, for the most part, it seems like you own your body while it's a part of you, but what about when parts of it become detached? A pulled tooth, a fingernail clipping, a vial of your blood for testing. Once it's removed, who does it belong to?

In 1951, a 30 year-old black woman, a mother of five, walked into Johns Hopkins and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent treatment, but didn't survive very long. While she was being treated, a sample was taken of her cervical cells, both the cancerous and non-cancerous ones. Each was cultivated, but while the latter cells died, the former grew and wouldn't stop growing. As was the custom at the time in that lab, the cell line was named after the person it came from: the first two letters of the first name, then the first two of the last. Henrietta Lacks. HeLa. One of the most widely used cell lines in the world for decades, but the person behind it was lost and some people even thought the original donor's name was Helen Lane...until Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which told the story of the woman and her descendants for the first time.

Well, "donor" might not have been the correct word to use up there, because Henrietta didn't knowingly "donate" anything. Instead, the doctors working on her took the samples without bothering to ask her permission, which was standard practice at the time. And the ethics of this sort of thing, the evolution of informed consent, is a key part of the book, which Skloot weaves around the story of the Lacks family. How fast medical science has grown, and how slow the field's understanding of or willingness to comply with what is right has been in trying to keep up with it. In a world where all you need to get a basic understanding of your genetic picture is $100, to spit in a tube, and 6-8 weeks for processing, what kind of protections should be around that data? We likely still don't know the full implications of something like that being hacked or leaked.

This book has become a science classic already, and it's easy to see why: Skloot is a talented storyteller, and for most of the book's run does an admirable job of keeping her three pieces (Henrietta herself, the HeLa cells/medical ethics, and the story of the Lacks children) in balance. She does great work in digging up what little information there is about Henrietta's short life, mostly through the connections she managed to build with the children Lacks left behind. I've got some grounding in science research from my days as a psychology student, and I know about some of the more egregious bullshit doctors used to get up to (especially with the poor and people of color), but even I was shocked at how lax regulations on human research used to be and how deeply the focus was on getting data at any costs. I was chilled by the story she recounts of a researcher, who the Lacks children believe was untruthful with them when she encountered them years before the book was written, expressing her longing to be able to get material (i.e. blood) from those same people to perform tests.

The reason I haven't rated this more highly, then, is that it starts to drag at the end, becoming more a story about how the story was reported, which tends to bother me unless it's in small doses. It's clearly rooted in a deep, real fondness for Deborah Lacks, one of her primary sources, and a desire to do justice to her story too...but for me, it didn't have the power of the larger narrative and didn't quite work. That being said, this is a story everyone should read and I definitely recommend it to a wide audience.

One year ago, I was reading: A Tale for the Time Being (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Mansfield Park

Three years ago, I was reading: Helter Skelter

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Additions to My Bookshelf

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books we've added to our shelves recently. I'm going to break mine up into two parts: hard copies and Kindle editions. I'm trying to add more of the latter lately as I've completely run out of room for more of the former!

Hard Copy

The Half-God of Rainfall: I used a Christmas gift card to buy myself one of my wished-for books that I didn't get from anyone else!

Evolving in Monkey Town: I picked this up secondhand! When she passed last year, I heard great things about Rachel Held Evans's writing about her faith, so I'm looking forward to reading this.

Courtiers: I am always a sucker for royalty and royalty-adjacent stories, and anything that refers to "splendor and intrigue" in its subtitle tends to find its way to my bookshelf.

News for all the People: I saw this on a list of books that were recommended if you wanted to read about the way the media deals with race issues, so I grabbed a secondhand copy because that sounds fascinating to me.

The House Next Door: I was definitely #influenced here...Nicole Cliffe tweeted a couple times about how much she likes this book and though I don't usually go for scary books I decided to take a chance on this one.


The Woman Upstairs: I've read several "best of the decade" lists within the past month, and this showed up on one and seemed interesting enough to grab.

Lady Jane Grey: Eric Ives has a very well-regarded book about Anne Boleyn that I own but have not yet read, so when this book about Lady Jane Grey came up on a Kindle sale I figured it seemed like a good add to my Tudor reading list.

Prozac Nation: Elizabeth Wurtzel just passed, and I realized I'd never actually read this, her most famous work. It went on sale this week so I snatched it up!

Kushiel's Dart: This was another book I got influenced into, as writer Rachel Hawkins recommended it on her twitter feed.

Save Me The Plums: I haven't always loved books about cooking and/or eating, but enough people have said good things about this one that it's worth a try!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Book 216: Stiff

"Cadavers are our superheroes. They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once. I take the Superhuman point of view. What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind."

Dates read: March 13-17, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I feel like one of the formative moments in realizing you're an adult is when you talk to your parents about what they want to happen to them when they die. First of all, realizing your parents are going to die (assuming you're fortunate enough to make it to adulthood without losing one or both of them) is something that's hard to actually wrap your mind around. Obviously you know they and everyone will eventually go, we all do, but thinking about it literally happening is upsetting. And then you start thinking about what to do with your own body after you're done using it and it gets really tricky to deal with.

It takes a skilled hand to write about death and bodies without being either so respectful as to be boring or just morbid. Luckily, Mary Roach has just such a hand and her book, Stiff, is an interesting and wide-ranging look at what happens to us when we die. Well, no one really knows what happens to the soul/spirit/whatever it is that animates us (she does devote a chapter to this, which she develops into a book in its own right, Spook), but our bodies. There's the usual burial/cremation, but Roach is more interested in the options we don't usually consider: donating one's body to science for medical students to practice anatomy on, chemical cremation, even allowing for the use of one's body in automobile crash testing (the dummies aren't nearly realistic enough). Some people even want to be composted. It turns out there are a lot of things your body can get up to!

Death may be a part of life, but it's still a part of life that there are a lot of deep, unprocessed feelings about. This book only works because of the way Roach just nails the tone: there's a deep undercurrent of honest curiosity that's present as she explores her subject. She recounts her own experience sitting with her mother's body after her death and how it made her feel, and doesn't forget that the bodies she sees in her explorations were once someone else's loved one too. She's honest about the ugly side of the point where I found one of the chapters, about using bodies to do research about how the body decomposes under various scenarios (to help law enforcement and pathologists/coroners better estimate how long bodies have been in the elements after death) a little icky. But it never feels gratuitous. She doesn't say something irreverent or gross just for the shock factor. If you've ever wondered what happens to the outside of you when you die, or if you're curious now that you've thought about it, this is an intriguing book and I highly recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Say Nothing (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Three years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Four years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week we're featuring bookish discoveries we made last year, and for me, I've always enjoyed chronicling the authors even I can't believe I'd never read before each year. So here are ten authors I read for the first time in 2019!

Antonia Fraser: Her biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey was outstanding and I've been seeking out her other books because she did such a great job taking me into the world just before the French Revolution and giving me the context to understand what was happening.

Salman Rushdie: I feel like Midnight's Children, in all of its richness, is something that will only improve on re-read, and it definitely has me interested in reading more of his work besides!

Patricia Highsmith: I'm not always big into thrillers, but even though I knew how The Talented Mr. Ripley ends, having seen the movie, I got super invested in it. Definitely will be looking to read more in this series, and her books!

Taylor Jenkins Reid: Her contemporary, romance-forward books have been recommended enough that I had a couple on my list already, but I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Daisy Jones and The Six and holy smokes I loved it so much, I'm really looking forward to reading her again!

James Baldwin: I'd had one of his other books on my shelf for a while, but my book club chose If Beale Street Could Talk and I was so happy I got a chance to move him up my list. What a way with words he has.

Albert Camus: I'd technically read parts of his essay about Sisyphus in high school, but I don't think that really counts as having read him before. And I don't know how much I will again: I hated The Stranger.

Bret Easton Ellis: I actually ended up reading two of his books this year: The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. I often don't care for satire, but his are very well-executed in a way I admired but didn't connect with much. I could read him again but won't seek him out, most likely.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Another case where an author was already on my list with one book but my book club picked a different title that I read first! I found My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be compelling almost despite itself. It's not the sort of thing I usually enjoy and I don't even know if I actually "enjoyed" it per se, but I will probably pick up her other books.

Haruki Murakami: He's one of those authors that seem to have almost a cult following, and I did find The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle engaging. But it was weird, and a little too heavy on the magical realism for me, and I'd try him again but I'm not sure I'm 100% on-board.

Junot Diaz: He has been credibly accused of sexual harassment, and the misogyny wasn't hard to see in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But it's also a really great book. He's a super talented writer.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book 215: Court Justice

 "They put you on TV, brochures, and websites. Your name appears on replica jerseys that sell for over a hundred dollars. And you can't get a dime from any of it because when you were seventeen years old you somehow waived away your rights, permanently and forever, as a condition of NCAA eligibility and thus a condition of getting a college scholarship and affording school. That's not 'amateurism'. That's exploitation." 
Dates read: March 11-13, 2018

Rating: 3/10

If you dated boys in college in the 2000s, I'd be willing to bet a reasonable amount of money that you sometimes watched them play EA Sports' NCAA Football (or the equivalent basketball game). We all did, because it seemed like all the boys played it. I worked at a Blockbuster during college, and I still remember how quickly copies of that game would go whenever the new edition came out. People loved to control the destiny of their favorite team and their favorite names were displayed on the jerseys, but if you knew the numbers, it was easy to tell who was supposed to be who.

The last editions of these games came out in 2013, and the enormously popular series may never be renewed. Why? The primary reason is a lawsuit, O'Bannon v. NCAA, in which the courts essentially held that if the NCAA is going to sell and profit from the images of current and former athletes, it needs to compensate them for doing so. But the NCAA's rules around amateurism bar compensation beyond college scholarships and some cost-of-attendance support, so the games have ceased production. It's more complicated than that, but that's basically the situation. And in Court Justice, lead plaintiff Ed O'Bannon tells his side of the story, both in regards to the lawsuit itself, and his life as an athlete.

I am very interested in the lawsuit and the workings of college athletics in generally, but I am not at all interested in Ed O'Bannon (who I'd literally never heard of before I became aware of the lawsuit), so I'd been hoping for an emphasis on the legal part rather than his college and career. That was probably naive on my part...O'Bannon (with co-writer Michael McCann), not a lawyer or other broader expert, is the author, so it's naturally strongly focused on his experience. And I don't know if he himself did a lot of the writing or it was an editorial decision to keep the finished product as close to his own words as possible, but either way it doesn't quite work: the writing quality here is weak.

The entire book is basically framed through a device in which O'Bannon recounts a stage of the lawsuit, then (usually clumsily) segues into an anecdote from his life. This is not particularly effective, as the narratives feel disconnected and neither builds up much momentum. O'Bannon is unfamiliar with the legal system and it shows: he takes things like the NCAA lawyers trying to trip him up in deposition personally, when the reality is that that's how litigation works. He feels like the higher level federal courts are for "the elite" because they're in fancier buildings than state courts. His perspective as an outsider adds precious little to an understanding of the mechanics and legally successful arguments of the case.

What it does do well is force one to consider the perspectives of the athletes, and how very real the feelings of exploitation are when you're barely able to scrape together enough to have the basics while watching coaching salaries explode and facilities become ever-more luxurious. Someone is doing the labor that makes the system profitable, and it's not the people who are the sole profiteers. When you add in the racial dynamics (an overwhelmingly white athletics administrative and authority structure, with overwhelmingly black athletes in the revenue sports), there's another dimension to the unfairness. O'Bannon touches on this, but never really develops it and that's honestly frustrating. There's a really interesting examination of the issue of compensation for college athletes (I personally support the Olympic model, in which athletes would be able to seek outside endorsements), but this book isn't it. Unless you've got a deep and abiding interest in Ed O'Bannon and a high tolerance for poor-quality prose, I'd avoid it.

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Three years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Four years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, my least-favorite biannual topic: upcoming releases! Like I mentioned in my December monthly wrap-up post, I read over 80% backlist, and like to chose books that have stood the test of time. But I do have 2020 releases that have made my list to read, so here are the ones coming out before the end of June, all of which I am fortunate enough to have review copies of!

Followers: This one will be my first 2020 release of the year. It's a speculative fiction about women getting wrapped up in the world of influncers and social media and seems like a thought-provoking, engaging read.

The Holdout: As a former lawyer, I've always been interested in stories about trials and juries, and so this seems right up my alley. After a holdout juror swings the verdict towards not-guilty in a high profile trial, the jurors come back together for a true crime documentary years later. And then one of them ends up dead. I'm usually a person who prefers character over plot, but this seems like the kind of twisty I could get into.

The Magical Language of Others: A memoir in letters from a mother who leaves her teenage daughter behind in America to return to her native South Korea, this seems like it will be heart-tugging.

Every Reason We Shouldn't: Contemporary romance not usually my genre, but I can never resist a skating angle, so this story about two teenagers who connect at the rink is on my list!

Hidden Valley Road: I was a psychology major, so a book about mental illness research will always grab my attention. This book examines the story of one seemingly-average family who had 12 children, half of whom were eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, and the role they played in scientific investigation into the causes of this disease.

The Body Double: Another subject area that will almost always catch my eye is the nature of celebrity and fame, so this fictional tale of a young woman hired to impersonate a reclusive Hollywood star who had a nervous breakdown is intriguing.

My Dark Vanessa: This has already gotten a good amount of pre-publication buzz, and promises to tell a compelling story about a woman who finds herself re-evaluating the relationship she had with a teacher when she was in high school, that she felt in control of at the time but is no longer sure about.

Run Me To Earth: I enjoy reading fiction about areas of the world I'd like to learn more about, and southeast Asia is a region I'm definitely under-educated in. This book is about three orphans in Laos in the 1960s, who grow close and then are split across the world when they're evacuated from their homeland, and sounds really interesting!

The Companions: I've always had a soft spot for dystopias, but they have to have a good concept. This one, about a world where one's conciousness can be uploaded before death into various robots to either continue on with one's family (for the lucky) or just rented out for anyone by the company that controls the technology, has caught my eye!

Lakewood: Another dystopian novel, this looks at the history of medical experimentation on people of color by telling a story about a young black woman looking to help her family who finds a job that seems too good to be true. There's a great salary, free housing, and more...she just has to volunteer to be a secret lab rat. Definitely sounds like something that I'd appreciate reading!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Book 214: Exit West

"His eyes rolled terribly. Yes: terribly. Or perhaps not so terribly. Perhaps they merely glanced about him, at the woman, at the bed, at the room. Growing up in the not infrequently perilous circumstances in which he had grown up, he was aware of the fragility of his body. He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing."

Dates read: March 9-11, 2018

Rating: 10/10

I don't have to go too far back on either side of my family to find immigrants. On my mom's side, my grandmother left her native Austria as a young woman, and on my dad's side, my great-grandfather came over from Poland as a teenager. Neither were what would be considered particularly desirable immigrants: great-grandpa was illiterate in his native Polish and spoke no English at the time of arrival, and grandma was a Jewish woman without higher education at a time when America was not especially welcoming of Jewish immigrants. But arrive here they both did, and carved out lives for themselves, and started families, and here I am a couple generations later, an American writing this blog.

As long as there are parts of the world that experience war, famine, and oppression, there will be immigrants and refugees. Mohsin Hamid's short, delicate Exit West tells a story about two of them, Saeed and Nadia, with a small magical realism twist: people move between countries through doors that appear, seemingly at random. People go through them, but they don't come back, so you don't know exactly where you're going until you get there. You just know that it's not where you are, and for many people, that's enough. Including our central couple, young people in a never-named, seemingly majority-Muslim city. Nadia covers herself from collarbone to toe in a long robe although such attire is not mandatory...but she's an atheist who smokes pot and is sexually active. Saeed is more traditional, but still far from devout. They meet in a class and sparks start to fly...but then so do bullets as insurgents begin to battle the government in their city, too.

Soon, they're left with little choice but to flee if they want any hope for the future. As they enter first Mykonos, and then London, thousands of others are doing the same. Hamid tosses little side vignettes of other refugees into his story, showing how people react to the new reality: some respond with fear and violence, but others build unexpected connections. As more and more people come streaming across borders, tension between the native populations of the countries experiencing an inflow and the desperate masses who've arrived begin to build. But cracks begin to form between Saeed and Nadia, as they find themselves taking different approaches to life in their new reality.

There's something fairy-tale-esque about this story, and it's not just because of Hamid's absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous writing. Maybe it's in how Saeed and Nadia are given personalities, but still feel symbolic. Maybe it's the way Hamid "zooms out", as it were, every so often to give us a fuller view outside of their story. Maybe it's the familiar beats of love, and loss, and a journey. Maybe it's the undeniable sense of optimism. Maybe it's the elegance of the narrative. It's probably a little bit of all of the above.

I'll admit that I was wary when I heard that this book has a magical realism element, as that doesn't usually appeal to me. But I found myself grabbed by Saeed and Nadia, and their growing bond, and their reluctant flight from home, and their struggles to make new lives for themselves. And the device of the doors makes for a certain efficiency that works with the overall flow of the I said above, there's a real elegance to it, every word and plot detail seems like the product of a deliberate choice to include it. So using doors allows us to skip all the tedium of the mechanical aspects of getting from point A to point B. I was both charmed and deeply moved by this book and now I need to read everything else Hamid's ever written because this was amazing. I'd recommend this book to everyone.

One year ago, I was reading: The Cuckoo's Calling (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Fourth of July Creek

Three years ago, I was reading: The King Must Die

Four years ago, I was reading: Thirst