Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Signs That You Love Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the signs that you're a lover of books! If you're reading this, you're probably one too, so you might see yourself in this list! I had a hard time with this one, so there's only eight here. Apologies!

You write a book blog: I read enough of them to know that there a lot of book blogs out there...some are focused on young adult, some on romance, some on nonfiction. But if you care enough about books to write about them on the internet, you definitely love books!

You always have a book on you: I joke that I have two things in my bag at any given time...a koozie and a book. You never know when you're going to get stuck waiting for something and have a couple minutes to get a couple pages in!

They exist in piles around the house: If you have an actual library, I am super jealous. I have several bookshelves, but it's not enough! There are piles of books everywhere you look.

You're a member of a book club: I've been a part of a book club at my local indie bookstore for the past several years now and I love it! I've really appreciated the incentive to pick up books I otherwise might never have read and I love having the chance to talk about them in real life!

You've become the go-to book recommender for your friends: You know you're a book person when your friends and acquaintances turn to you when they're looking for their next read!

You find yourself saying "it reminds me of this book I read": Global pandemic? Got a book for that (Station Eleven). Reality show contestants not knowing that a pandemic is going on because they've been isolated, like the German Big Brother thing? Got a book for that too (The Last One)!

You get a bookstore gift certificate as a go-to present: If someone isn't sure what to get you, and what they think will be a safe gift is a gift card for the local bookstore, you're probably a book nerd!

Your friends send you book memes: Every time there's a new bookish meme making its way across the internet, I get about six texts from people who know me being like "look, it's you!"

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Month In The Life: March 2020

What a month. The world is a very different place than it was just 31 days ago, and it remains to be seen how this all shakes out. My husband and I are fortunate enough that both of our jobs are secure and able to performed remotely, at least in the short term. But it's hard to be on the other side of the country from my family, which includes my nurse sister, my pharmacist mother, and my immunocompromised father. We're all in this together, though, and I hope those of you reading this are safe and healthy.

In Books...
  • Brother of the More Famous Jack: This coming-of-age classic which fell out of print only to be revived by zealous fans is a very slow starter, and I had a hard time initially connecting with protagonist Katherine. But it picks up momentum as it goes, and the writing is just lovely, and I wound up quite enjoying it.
  • We Are Our Brains: I'm a sucker for books about neurology, so thought this would be right up my alley. It's broad in scope and there's some interesting stuff here, but I found myself put off by the righteous tone and the way Swaab kept referencing reactions to his own research...as well as the lack of citations in a book that's supposed to be based on science. 
  • 'Til the Well Runs Dry: This book was the kind of multi-generational saga I tend to find very compelling, following the lives of a Trinidadian family. It's engaging and well-paced, though the adult characters remain underdeveloped. Where it really stumbles is in its constant parade of tragedy: there's incest, sexual violence, police corruption, underage prostitution, human trafficking, and even more...it just got kind of exhausting to read.
  • Lost Children Archive: I started reading this book right as the coronavirus situation really started to escalate quickly here in the United States and turned out to be poor timing. The writing is beautiful and rich, but my attention span was just not where it needed to be to really engage with it. There were some style and technique choices I found grating, not to mention I really did not enjoy the perspective shift that happens late in the book, so this just didn't end up working for me.
  • The Magical Language of Others: That E.J. Koh is a poet by trade is not surprising, reading her prose. Her writing is elegant, restrained, evocative. But in this memoir, based on her experience as a teenager having her parents move to the other side of the world, leaving her in the care of her older brother, there's a little too much polish. She holds the reader at a remove, which made it hard to connect with the book.
  • White Teeth: This book takes on a lot of weighty subjects, like family, religion, colonialism, and race, but never feels heavy. That it was a debut (published when Zadie Smith was just 25!) makes this all the more impressive. Not everything really develops or is executed as well as it could be, but she draws vivid characters and paces her slightly overstuffed plot well, which makes this an engaging read.

In Life...
  • Social distancing: Like everyone else, I've been staying home and social distancing. As a natural extrovert, I've been going a little bit bonkers. I miss going into the office, I miss my friends. It's the right thing to do and things will be better in the long run for all of us if we stay home, but I am ready to get back to something approaching normal when we can!
One Thing:

My husband loves video games, but I have the hand/eye coordination of a below-average four year-old, so I play them very infrequently. That is, until Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out. It's laid back and requires just enough attention to distract me from everything while not being at all mentally taxing, which is exactly the kind of entertainment I'm looking for right now. I'm hooked!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book 226: Chosen Country

"But his abiding concern was with the same thing preoccupying the townspeople at the meeting in Burns, a desperate and totally genuine love for an idea of a communally minded and free-living western way of life that corporate agriculture and federal regulations were supposedly squeezing out of existence. I don't think you have to idealize this sort of thing, support the Bundys, or believe in a glossy magical cowboy past to take this kind of love seriously."

Dates read: April 17-20, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I never thought about public lands before I moved to the West. Michigan has some National Forest land, a National Lakeshore. But I'd never even heard of the Bureau of Land Management, and wouldn't have been able to tell you what it did before I moved to Nevada and starting working in politics. I guess I would have figured most states were like Michigan, if I'd bothered to think about it at all. Turns out that the federal government owns and administrates upwards of 80% of the land in Nevada! In the West, I think one of the only things as controversial as water rights is the issue of federal ownership of land.

The first controversy over federal land I followed after I moved to Nevada was the Bunkerville situation, orchestrated by a Clark County rancher, Cliven Bundy, and his sons Ammon and Ryan. Not too long after that incident, Ammon and Ryan led the takeover of Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge. It's still mind-boggling to me that a group of armed men occupied federal government property and this was only sometimes referred to as terrorism and only ended in one death. I try to imagine what might have happened had those men not been white and it doesn't seem likely that a protracted stand-off would end with no loss of life beyond one man who tried to break a roadblock. Reporter James Pogue was in and around the Refuge during its occupation, and turned his experience with it into a book: Chosen Country.

Pogue half-heartedly tries to tie the Malhuer episode to the greater scope of the dying out of the "traditional" ranching culture of the West and the long-standing libertarian streak of the people here, their sense of independence and alienation from a bureaucracy so far away. I say half-heartedly not because the connection is tenuous, but because it's poorly explored. There's a rich history here, but Pogue only glances over it, completely leaving out incidents like Ruby Ridge (which aren't tied into the lands dispute, but definitely inform the prickly relationship between people who live in the rural areas and the federal government), so that he can spend more time talking about the relationships he built with the men who occupied the refuge and the things he did with them. In this choice, I really feel like he fails his readers, who I imagine are mostly picking up this book out of curiosity about the larger movement and Malhuer's place within it.

Pogue also stumbles in his organization of the book. Perhaps if I'd been reading a hard copy rather than an e-book, it might have been easier to flip back and forth and have a better sense of who he was talking about when, but Pogue tends to introduce a person (and there's a fairly large cast of them) and then go on to never again place them in context. For some of the more prominent people, like the Bundy brothers and LaVoy Finecum (who was ultimately killed), that's probably not necessary, but I kept forgetting who everyone was and their relationships (if any) to each other. He also jumbles his timelines quite a bit between Malhuer, Bunkerville, and a smaller incident he highlights involving a dispute over a mining claim. He's constantly ping-ponging back and forth in time and place without re-orienting his reader and it's confusing.

I know that's a lot of negativity, but I didn't hate the book. I mostly was disappointed in it...Pogue is talented at his work and paints a captivating portrait of Ammon Bundy in particular, as well as Finecum. His reporting for Vice about these events is very worth reading, and I can understand why he was able to pitch a book on the strength of it. I don't regret having read it, but I wish it had undergone more vigorous editing and done a better job of illuminating the environment in which the takeover took place. Instead we get stories about how Pogue understands why people value public lands so much after he takes a bunch of drugs while he camps in BLM land. Instead of reading this book, I'd recommend finding his original articles, which cover much the same territory without feeling like a padded-out term paper.

One year ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction 

Two years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

Three years ago, I was reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

Four years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Collections

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a genre freebie, so we get to chose our own topics! As I've written about before around here, essay and short story collections don't tend to be my favorites...but that doesn't mean they all need to go in the trash bin. There are some great ones out there, and in a time when you might find yourself more easily distractable than ever, they make good books to pick up and put down.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: Mindy Kaling's writing style is breezy and relatable, and these essays about her life and the kinds of things that preoccupy 20somethign women are amusing and enjoyable. 

Me Talk Pretty One Day: It's hard to go wrong with a David Sedaris collection...he's so witty and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny a way that's rare for me reading something in print.

Bossypants: I love Tina Fey's sense of humor, and while not every essay in this collection is a total winner, overall it's one of the funnier books by comedians I've read!

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: I love pop culture, and refuse to apologize for loving it, and if you're the same way, Chuck Klosterman may be for you.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: This collection by Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen explores the way society punishes women for stepping outside of the social boundaries it otherwise sets.

Battleborn: I have to admit that I'm biased towards a story collection set in and figured in the state where I live (Nevada), but this is truly an amazing piece of work.

A Visit From the Goon Squad: This is billed as a novel, but it's much more a collection of short stories so that's what I'm calling it. Anyways, it's very very good.

The Things They Carried: I'm not usually very into war narratives, but this collection about a group of soldiers during the Vietnam War is a classic for a reason.

There There: This is another one that calls itself a novel but is actually interlinked stories from various perspectives and features some absolutely incredible writing.

Olive Kitteridge: I am from small-town America, so this collection about a little town in Maine and a difficult woman who lives there really resonated with me.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book 225: Sex At Dawn

"The anachronistic presumption that women have always bartered their sexual favors to individual men in return for help with child care, food, protection, and the rest of it collapses upon contact with the many societies where women feel no need to negotiate such deals. Rather than a plausible explanation for how we got to be the way we are, the standard narrative is exposed as contemporary moralistic bias packaged to look like science and then projected upon the distant screen of prehistory, rationalizing the present while obscuring the past." 

Dates read: April 14-17, 2018

Rating: 6/10

The general proposition that men and women think different ways, and value different things, seems undeniable. Men have more testosterone in their system, and women have more estrogen, and both biochemicals have impacts on our nervous systems. But is it as easy as the old cliche about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Do all men really just want to get out there and propagate their genes, while all women want to hunker down and raise their children? I think most of us would say of course not, that's a reductive and stereotyped way to think about human behavior, but it's hard to get out of our minds anyways.

In the field of evolutionary psychology, there's a basic proposition that seems to be taken as a fundamental tenet. In any male-female pair bond, the two halves have diametrically opposed interests. Men, in an effort to spread their DNA as widely as possible, are interested in multiple casual affairs, and are most threatened by physical infidelity, because it might mean they are duped into spending their resources on what are actually the offspring of other men. Women, on the other hand, have to invest heavily in each of their children because the energy-intensive gestation and feeding of infants falls to them. They want relationships that last so that they're able to ensure the best environment for their kids, and are most threatened by emotional infidelity, because it might lure away their partner for good. In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and his co-author, Cacilda Jetha, critically examine these ideas by looking at the behavior of our nearest animal relatives to come to an entirely different conclusion.

The way Ryan and Jetha see it, humans are naturally polyamorous and best served in a group where sex is exchanged frequently and without possession or jealousy. They make the point that while researchers searching for the roots of human behavior often compare humans to chimpanzees because of the closeness of the genetic relationship, we're equally as closely related to bonobos, who have much different social structures. They look to these and other members of the ape family as they compare and contrast things like vaginal position, common copulatory positions, size and shape of the male reproductive organs, and female vocalizations during intercourse (and more) in an effort to determine how human sexuality has actually evolved over time and what it means for society today.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I thought they made some good arguments, but the language often got a little jokey informal trying-to-be-cool. Either you're trying to make a serious argument or you're trying to write a book aiming at a pretty low common denominator to get more sales, and this seemed like it was trying to be both. It's possible to write about important concepts in an accessible way, I just wrote about how well Silent Spring did that exact thing, but this doesn't hit the mark. I also thought they came off a little one-sided in their highlighting of the few examples of cultures that don't subscribe to the monogamous or polygamous models, portraying them as nearly utopian. The reality is that for most people in most cultures in modern history, marriages are between one man and one woman with the expectation of exclusivity. That hasn't always worked well in practice, but it's likely that even members of cultures that don't follow the mainstream experience unhappiness and strife in their personal relationships. More frustratingly, they don't really present a solution beyond "burn it all down and start over". It's an interesting look at the other side of evolutionary psychology, if you enjoy that sort of thing, but I wouldn't recommend it widely or whole-heartedly.

One year ago, I was reading: Inside Edge

Two years ago, I was reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Three years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Four years ago, I was reading: Private Citizens

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Spring 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is another seasonal TBR. It's officially spring as of Thursday, so let's look at the books I'll be reading over the next several weeks (or maybe faster, if I'm stuck at home without much else to do for any extended period of time!).

The Magical Language of Others: This is a memoir by a woman whose Korean parents, after having immigrated to America with their children, went back to South Korea and left them behind...her mother wrote her letters, and Koh went back and re-read them as an adult to try to make sense of it all. This sounds heart-wrenching and amazing.

White Teeth: I've somehow never read Zadie Smith before, and this story about two war buddies coming back to England and changing as the world changes sounds like a great place to start.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: This environmental non-fiction won a Pulitzer, so I'll read it.

Shatter Me: I don't read much YA, but this book is supposed to be fun and I could use some brain candy right now.

The Perfect Son: I'm a sucker for a family saga and this one has very solid reviews.

A Beginning at the End: I would actually probably skip this pandemic-based post-apocalyptic story right now but I feel bad enough about being late to get to this review copy!

Cutting for Stone: Another family saga! This one has been recommended by people I trust so I'm going to try it out.

Bird Box: I've had this hanging out on my Kindle forever, long before the Netflix movie came out, and I'm finally going to get around to reading it!

The Son: I'd heard good things about Jo Nesbo's work and found this one secondhand before I found the first of his Harry Hole series so figured I might as well start here.

The Weight of Silence: This was a book that looked good during a browse of what was on sale for the Kindle, so we'll see how it plays out (suspense isn't always my fave).

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Book 224: The Color Of Water

"The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It's what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem."

Dates read: April 11-14, 2018

Rating: 8/10

When we're little, parents are like gods. Their word is law. They take care of us, make sure we are clean and fed and loved. They have the magic to heal the ouchies. But eventually we find out that they're just people, after all. They have flaws, and scars, and demons of their own, and sometimes even when they do their best it doesn't work out. Realizing the humanity of your parents is a little bit scary and a little bit comforting.

When he was young, James McBride's mother, Ruth, wouldn't talk about her own life. He knew there was something different about her, but when he tried to figure out why he was the only black kid he knew with a white mom, she would brush him off by telling him she was light-skinned. Eventually, though, she relented and told him her story, of how a little girl born Jewish in Poland, the daughter of a rabbi, came to marry a black man, have eight kids, become a widow, marry another black man, have four more kids, and then become a widow again, leaving her with twelve children, all of whom graduated from college despite the family's poverty. McBride sets her story against his own recollections of his childhood in his memoir, The Color of Water.

They're both extraordinary stories: Ruth's for its sheer improbability, and James's for being the kind that you'd think would end up one way that actually ends another. James' story has plenty of struggle and heartbreak, but Ruth's is just heartbreaking. Everytime you think it can't get much worse for her, there's another twist and worse it gets. And somehow it ends well, with Ruth being the last in her family to finally get the chance to go to college and graduate and James as an acclaimed writer. It's a testament to resilience, of refusing to let your lowest moments define and drown you, of defying the voices that would dismiss you and discount your worth.

But it's also just very good writing. McBride's juxtaposition of his experience of his childhood against his mother's early life is balanced, neither story feels as though it is given the short shrift in favor of the other. He renders his mother's story in what feels like essentially her own words, not flinching from the difficult parts, of which there are many. Much of this is heavy stuff (interested potential readers should know there's sexual abuse, abortion, death, and racism herein), but while he doesn't sugar-coat it, neither does he dwell on it in the way that books about hard lives sometimes do. Ruth is a woman who came through a lot of terrible things and carved out happiness for herself in a world that did not want to give her any. And though he was raised with much more love and care than his mother was, McBride's own upbringing was still challenging and he managed to come through it, too.

Memoir can be a hit-and-miss category, for me. Not everyone's life story is all that dynamic or engaging for anyone outside of it, and even if it is, so much depends on the skill of the telling of it. But when executed well, as this is, it can be an enlightening window into a realm of experience outside of our own. I don't necessarily know that this is a book for every reader...there's a lot of darkness here, and while it does end well, there's not necessarily a sense of triumph and uplift to counterbalance it. For me, this is part of why this book works, because it doesn't seek to lionize its subjects or turn itself into a paint-by-numbers tale of conquering adversity, but for other readers that might be hard to deal with. But I do think it's a book that should be read, and I do recommend it, so if what I've written here intrigues you, definitely pick it up!

One year ago, I was reading: The Club

Two years ago, I was reading: Court Justice

Three years ago, I was reading: City of Thieves

Four years ago, I was reading: Sex with the Queen

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Bookish Twitter Follows

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, the topic is technically authors who have a fun social media presence. But I'm a bad book blogger, because I don't actually follow very many authors on social media. So there aren't quite ten here (only eight), and they aren't all necessarily authors. But they're all book-type people!

Roxane Gay: Not everyone loves Roxane's twitter feed...she posts quite a bit, and definitely doesn't let people get away with talking back to her. But I find her voice incredibly smart and often very funny (and sometimes not, but that's everyone, right?).

Celeste Ng: She posts quite a bit not just about her books/books in general but also about the news and our world and I really enjoy reading what she has to say.

Connor Goldsmith: He's a literary agent who does a lot of A+ pop culture tweeting alongside stuff about his work.

Anne Theriault: I think she has written a book, but she also writes longform articles (my favorites are about old-school royalty, Queens of Infamy) and tweets frequently about her life, her mental health, and her son, who sounds like a great kid!

Mignon Fogarty: She's Grammar Girl, so obviously a great resource, but I have to give an extra special shout-out to a fellow Northern Nevadan!

Maris Kreizman: She created the truly fantastic Slaughterhouse 90210 tumblr (and book!), was on staff of Book of the Month for a while there, and remains in the general literary realm. I don't always agree with her taste in books but she always has something interesting to say!

Alexandra Petri: Columnist, author, hilarious.

Rachel Hawkins: Her Sexy History twitter series was fantastic, both laugh-out-loud and informative. I also enjoy her tweets about the realities of being an author!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Book 223: Silent Spring

"To the public, the choice may easily appear to be one of stark simplicity: Shall we have birds or shall we have elms? But it is not as simple as that, and by one of the ironies that abound throughout the field of chemical control, we may very well end by having neither if we continue on our present, well-traveled road. Spraying is killing the birds but it is not saving the elms." 

Dates read: April 8-11, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

A sound that never fails to bring me straight back into my childhood is the nighttime song of spring peepers. I never thought I'd miss the high-pitched chorus emanating from the marshland behind us loud enough to be heard through even closed windows, but sometimes I long for it with an intensity that's hard to describe. They don't exist out here in the arid West, though they're widespread in the more humid regions of the country. At least, they are now. But like all wildlife, they're vulnerable to the decisions made by humans and could very well disappear one day.

The capacity for humans to not think through the ramifications of their choices on the environment and destroy it without meaning to do so inspired Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring. In it, she traces the links between the rising use of pesticides and insecticides and the devastating consequences it has had for animal life in areas where application is wide-spread. Worse yet, it often doesn't accomplish the desired effect in the long term, which just encourages even heavier use. She doesn't flinch away from the fact that humans are animals, too, and highlights the issues that can arise for the people who live in the often-rural and therefore less-seen communities where these poisons are used most significantly. And since these people frequently eat locally-sourced meat and fish, the problem of biological magnification (animals eating food that has its own level of exposure, compounding with each step up the food chain) becomes even more pressing for them.

Carson writes all of this in strong, clear prose that first explains the concepts she's introducing and then illustrates them with examples of the devastating effects of poisons that are marketed as safe and effective on life, from plants all the way up to people. She doesn't condescend and though her urgency is clear, it doesn't feel alarmist or like a scare tactic. Instead, she presents her case that we need to start paying attention and questioning what we're told rigorously but understandably. Science writing often veers into the esoteric, and this book should be used an exemplar for how to write for the popular market without getting bogged down in details or sidetracked into areas more consequential for the author than the reader.

This book's continuing relevance even after it led to the the ban of DDT, the chemical she primarily discusses, is a result of both Carson's skill as a writer and the impact her work managed to have on the public. Not only did it take DDT off the market, it blazed the path that eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon. Imaging a book being so popular and espousing its cause so effectively that it led to the creation of a new federal agency in today's world seems preposterous. All of that being said, this book wasn't an unqualified success for me. After a while, her constant use of examples of a chemical being introduced and the death of wildlife that followed started to feel repetitive, blunting its impact. And I found myself a bit skeptical of the rosiness with which she portrayed the alternative option of importing predators for invasive species control...to the best of my understanding, that can have harmful side effects of its own. All in all, though, this book is readable, relevant, and worth a perusal before you go nuts with the Round-Up on the dandelions.

One year ago, I was reading: If Beale Street Could Talk

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Three years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Four years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books With Single-Word 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 one-word titles. I thought about doing my least favorite single-word titled reads, but decided to be positive about it so here are some of my favorites!

Less: I was reluctant to read this when it was a book club pick, but I wound up just adoring this story about a middle-aged man on a trip around the world to escape having to attend his younger ex's wedding.

Wicked: I picked up this book, which tells the "real story" of the Wicked Witch of the West, for the first time in high school and have loved it ever since, through many re-reads. I also love the musical!

Twilight: Shut up, I know this book (and the whole series) are objectively not great. But I found them very enjoyable to read despite my own better instincts, and I've re-read them all more than once.

Musicophilia: I talk pretty often about my love for Oliver Sacks' most famous book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I also really enjoy this one, about the ways that music effects the brain.

Blindness: Bleak and kind of depressing and no quotation marks to indicate speech so a little confusing to read at first, but so incredibly good.

Stardust: I love fairy-tale-esque stories and Neil Gaiman's trademark wit makes this one a real treat!

Prep: This book plunged me so powerfully back into adolescence it was almost physically uncomfortable to read but so well-executed.

Gilead: I am not religious, and had previously not cared for a book by Marilynne Robinson, so my expectations going into this book were low. It seemed like I was going to be right through the early going but it eventually cast its spell on me and I found it intensely moving.

Battleborn: I'm not generally into short stories, but this Nevada-centric collection really blew me away!

Americanah: Such an incredible, rich book with amazing characters and powerful themes and beautiful prose.