Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: October 2020

October is my favorite 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

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Take Place In Other Worlds

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's the annual Halloween-themed freebie. I had a hard time coming up with something I haven't done before, especially considering I don't read a lot of horror (I'm too easily frightened!), but decided to look at books that take place in other worlds.

His Dark Materials: This amazing series takes place in a parallel version of England, called Brytain, which is both quite similar to and very different than our own.

The Old Kingdom: Perhaps my favorite other world, this richly-imagined land has its own magic system and an intricately designed world of Death as well.

Wild Magic: Like many (maybe all?) of Tamora Pierce's books, this series takes place in the medieval-esque, magical world of Tortall.

The Lord of the Rings: Middle Earth may be the most iconic fantasy realm of all!

Oryx and Crake: This is less "another world" and more "a version of what our world could become". Honestly besides her thinking that CD-ROMs were going to be the storage mechanism of the future, this felt eerily prescient.

The Hunger Games: This is another one that is, I think, technically set in the far future, but it's such a different social arrangement that it's basically another place entirely.

A Song of Ice and Fire: These gigantic novels create and explore the rich territory of Westeros, its seven kingdoms, and the larger world beyond. It's loosely inspired by medieval Europe.

Wicked: This one is based on an already-established fantasy world, Oz, which is familiar even to those who haven't read Baum's books because of the enduring popularity of the film. I love the rich politics of the world that Maguire fleshes out!

Stardust: This is a fairy tale, and has both a "real world" and fantasy realm of its own. It's truly magical to read!

A Wrinkle in Time: This series of books is almost more magical realism than anything else...rooted in our world, but with supernatural possibilities for the Murray family (time travel! space travel! angels!) that mean it's not quite our world as we know it after all.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Book 256: Life After Life

"And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur–if a dish was to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances."

Dates read: August 19-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I have a small scar right about a half inch above my left eye. When I was a kid, I was jumping on the bed and my mom told me to stop. I jumped off entirely, and the scar is where the corner of the open dresser drawer I didn't keep track of went into my face. Just a tiny difference in my jump and I would have lost the eye. I wonder what would have changed in my life if I had. Or if I'd made any number of different choices before I went to college. Or while I was in college! If I'd gone to a different law school. If I'd taken a year off between undergrad and law school. If I'd gone to grad school for psychology instead. If, if, if. The fact is that there's no point in torturing myself with hypotheticals for things that have gone "wrong". Things are the way they are and all I can do is try to make the best choices I can from here.

What if, though, things could be changed? If you could go back, live again, make different choices? In Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, on a snowy night in England in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and immediately dies, choked by her umbilical cord, because neither the doctor or midwife made it on time. Then, on the same snowy night, she's born again, but this time the doctor makes it and the cord is cut and she lives. Until she's three, when she follows her older sister Pamela into the ocean and is swept away. Then she's born again with the doctor there, and manages to survive the family trip to the seaside but perishes at age five when her big brother Maurice throws her toy onto the roof and she tries to scramble after it but falls. And so on and so forth. She doesn't remember her previous lives, per se, but has strong feelings about crucial events that drive her to new actions in the face of them.

Where the book spends the bulk of its time is Ursula's various World War II experiences. In a few she dies when a bomb falls on her apartment building. In a few she's working on the rescue/cleanup squad. And in at least one, she's living in Germany. The fates of her family members, too, change in each go-round. What happens to Teddy, her sensitive, thoughtful younger brother who becomes a pilot, has a major impact on how things go for the family. Some things, though, never change: her deeply practical and stalwart sister Pamela always marries and has children and spends the war at the family home, and belligerent brother Maurice is never much liked by his parents or siblings and always rises to positions of authority.

Anyone who's ever wondered how things might have turned out if they had a chance to do it all over again (i.e. pretty much everyone) will find this an intriguing concept. And it allows Atkinson freedom to really explore the ways in which seemingly-small moments can resonate enormously in our lives, which she does with clear, assured prose that feels almost old-fashioned or "classic" in tone. Refreshingly, the most important choices are mostly unrelated to her romantic relationships with men! As a lady person, I'm used to books (and the world in general, honestly) treating marriage and childbearing as the central dramas of women's lives. Who she loves, though, is much less important to Ursula's story than her relationships with her siblings, particularly Pamela and Teddy, who are both wonderfully likable characters and the kind of siblings everyone wants to have.

What held back this novel from greatness for me was that with so many lives cataloged, I found myself sometimes more interested in how she would die this time than how that life actually played out, as well as a portion near the end that bugged a little bit because it made me question the underlying mechanics of it all. To be honest, though, these quibbles are a little on the nitpicky side and I wonder if they would have occurred to me if I'd read this book completely free from expectations. It's a very good book, well-written and enjoyable. But when I read it after hearing about how good it was for years, I was expecting something mind-blowing and it didn't get there, for me. Like I said, though, it's still something I liked quite a bit and I'd recommend it to all readers!

One year ago, I was reading: The Line of Beauty

Two years ago, I was reading: Detroit

Three years ago, I was reading: White Fur

Four years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Five years ago, I was reading: Through the Language Glass

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read Which Have Been Recommended by Maris

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books we read because other people recommended them! I'm focusing my list on one recommendation source: Maris Kreizman, who is pretty much just "Maris" in book world. Here are ten books I've read and that Maris has recommended (or rated 5 stars, which is basically the same thing as far as I'm concerned).

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: This little coming-of-age story about a pre-teen pop star a la Justin Beiber trying to navigate his momager, fauxmances, and homeschooling during his tour wasn't quite a five star for me, but it was certainly an interesting read that raised some good questions about child entertainers.

The Line of Beauty: This is a classic of LGBTQ lit, about a young British man who becomes attached to an upper-crust family and his life as a gay man during the Thatcher years as the AIDS crisis begins. It's beautifully written and involving.

The Group: It can feel like the issues we face as women are all unique to our own time period, but this book, set in the 1950s and following a group of friends through their early post-college years shows that fitting in to the workplace, trash dudes, and trying to remain sane as a parent are timeless.

The Queen of the Night: I absolutely love this book. It is very, at times almost preposterously, dramatic but also feels rooted in emotional truth and its rich characters. 

Boy Snow Bird: I still feel uncomfortable about the ending of this one, but the way Helen Oyeyemi builds her story and uses language is remarkable.

Valley of the Dolls: This is not a "great" book by a traditional understanding of such...the prose is solid at best, and the most prominent character is pretty boring, but it delightfully trashy and is SUCH fun to read.

Cat's Eye: Female friendships are one of my favorite things to read about, and Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, so it's no surprise I thought this book was fantastic!

Gilead: I was concerned about this because I don't tend to like faith-heavy fiction, but figured if Maris liked it, it was worth a try. It was a bit of a slow start but was one of those books I'm glad I stuck with, I found it deeply moving (and no, not too religious at all).

In The Woods: I don't usually care for mystery/thrillers. I find them formulaic and too dependent on disguising their twists to create interest, but this one hooked me with its strong characters even though the ending wasn't too hard to see coming. 

The Song of Achilles: This retelling of the events of The Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, including an explicitly homosexual relationship (explicit in the sent of outright, rather than in the sense of obscene) with his companion Achilles, is incredibly compelling.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Book 255: The Butcher's Daughter

"We go down on our knees with a pail of water and handfuls of rags and wipe the floor clean of dirt and spillages. The stones are irregular and filth is embedded in the cracks. I do my best, telling myself that such labour teaches me the true meaning of holy charity – which is principally, if you are female, concerned with the bodily needs of others."

Dates read: August 16-19, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Catholicism runs deep on both sides of my family, but particularly my mother's. My great-uncle Tom was even a priest! I've sometimes wondered what makes people chose to take holy orders. Faith, obviously, but there are lots of religious believers in the world and only a very small percent of them embark on a ministerial career. And it seems like it's declining generationally. I can't think of a single person I know, or even someone I've heard of through friends, deciding to enter the priesthood or become a nun. In a modern world, renouncing the ability to amass private wealth or have romantic relationships seems like a very difficult choice to make indeed.

It's not an excess of religious zeal that drives Agnes Peppin to enter an abbey in Victoria Glendinning's historical fiction novel The Butcher's Daughter. Though she's not an unbeliever, she doesn't have particularly deep convictions. Rather, teenage Agnes arrives at Shaftesbury Abbey because she fell pregnant with the child of a neighbor, Peter, in her small village. Peter's sister had recently lost a child of her own, so when Agnes's baby is born, he's given to Peter's family and Agnes is sent to the Abbey to join the sisters there. She comes to find some measure of contentment and a role for herself in the community, but it's not a great time to have joined a Catholic order. You see, Agnes lives in the time of Henry VIII, and his religious reforms threaten the Abbey's continued existence.

In her childhood, Agnes had learned to read and write and these skills land her a position as the Abbess's personal assistant. So she's right there as the Abbess tries desperately to save their way of life, but ultimately fails. It's about halfway through the book that the women are finally turned out of their homes and sent into the world, and Agnes has to figure out what's next. Going off with a fellow sister? A return to home? To the big city of London to find her fortune? She ends up exploring all of these paths and more while contemplating what it really is she wants out of the rest of her life.

Victoria Glendinning has written several biographies, and while skill sets don't always transfer over neatly (and I've never read any of her bios, so I can't speak to their level of execution), I think it really helped her make Agnes a well-realized, compelling character. Agnes is not your typical historical fiction heroine...I feel like many authors in the genre default to making their protagonists read like modern spunky young women to appeal to their intended audience of, well, modern women. Agnes, however, is clearly an introvert and spends a lot of time thinking things that she doesn't say. She breaks with the gender conventions of her time gently, without raging about the restrictions upon her as a woman in a man's world. Since the book is deeply centered on her experience of the world, a character that feels real is crucial, and Glendinning pulls it off very well.

It was also refreshing to get a historical fiction perspective that wasn't from the top of the social hierarchy. We've all read (and I've personally enjoyed) books about the court of Henry VIII, but this book shines a light on people further down, for whom Henry's marriages and divorces are background noise to the actual living of their lives. It wasn't just the people actually living in the dissolved monasteries who were impacted, it was the people who depended on services that religious houses provided, and this book shone a light on that. That being said, there were a few things that kept this from being even better for me. The biggest issue I had with the book was that it felt like Agnes' path was a little too easy. She drifts into one thing, and then into the next, in a way that seems improbably fortunate. The resolution of the plotline of a side character, Elinor, also felt a little off and I wished that it had been cut. Those quibbles aside, though, this is an interesting, unusual take on the genre and time period and I'd recommend it for people who'd like to broaden their reading in the historical fiction realm.

One year ago, I was reading: Plagues and Peoples

Two years ago, I was reading: We Are Not Ourselves

Three years ago, I was reading: Lincoln in the Bardo

Four years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Five years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Super Long Book Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting the books we've read with super duper long titles. These ones are definitely lengthy! And all of the books themselves are solid reads.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B  

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires

On The Bright Side, I'm Now The Girlfriend Of A Sex God

Friday, October 9, 2020

Year 5: An Update (And Giveaway!)


I am 35 years old today, marking my halfway point through this decade of my life. Starting tomorrow, I'll be closer to 40 than 30. It's also the halfway point of my challenge to myself to read 500 books, the genesis of this blog. When I turned 30, I set some goals for myself for the next decade. One of those goals was to read at least 50 books per year, or 500 total, so I started the blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable and have a place to talk about all those books! Since my reading years begin and end on my birthday, I like to do a check-in post every year to look back on the year that was, both in books and life. Without further ado:

In Reading

  • Books read (this year): 76. While very comfortably north of my 50 book goal, this is actually my lowest yearly book total since I started the blog. I've generally trended downward every year, with a very small bump up between years two and three. I think this is mostly a function, this year, of the struggle I had to read during the first few months of a pandemic.
  • Books read (total): 421. I am now far, far beyond my goal number for this point, which would have been 250, and I could realistically finish out the 500 within the next year (though I suspect I won't).
  • Male/Female Authors: This year I read 41 books by male authors and 35 books by female authors. This is fairly close to an even split, and a recent stretch of mostly-male authors knocked it a little off-kilter.
  • Most Read Genres: This year's split between fiction and nonfiction is almost identical to last year's: I read 53 fiction books and 23 nonfiction books, which puts my ratio below 3:1, where I aim for it to be, but above 4:1 at least. My most-read subgenres for fiction were contemporary and historical (which is normal for me) and for nonfiction were history and memoir. I'm a bit surprised at the latter, as I wouldn't describe memoir as an especially favorite genre of mine.
  • Kindle/Hard Copy: This year I read 54 books in hard copy (either paperback or hardcover), and 22 books on my Kindle. I aim to be fairly even, but I really do just prefer hard copy books. I shop overwhelmingly secondhand, and the ones that I finish that I don't love end up in Little Free Libraries, so it doesn't feel wasteful or anything. I would probably read even more hard copies if I had the space to store them!

In Life
  • I went to Skate America: I LOVE figure skating, but had never seen a live competition before. Well, they had the 2019 edition of this first event on the Grand Prix calendar in Las Vegas, so my best friend Crystal joined me! I was reading: Revolutionary Road (review to come)
  • I went to New York City with my mom: My mom has always liked to take a special trip during the holidays, and this year she asked me to join her in New York City for a long weekend! I hadn't been for a few years, so I made the cross-country journey and we had a lovely time exploring the city and seeing Moulin Rouge on Broadway! I was reading: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (review to come)
  • I went to Newport Beach, California: My work retreat was to Orange County, California, and it was lovely to have a weekend away where I got to put my feet into the ocean. I had one more plane trip to come, at the very of January for meetings in Las Vegas, but this was my last normal trip. I was reading: Perfume (review to come)
  • My mom came to Reno to visit: My mom's birthday is at the end of February, and her present to herself was a trip out West to visit people she loves. Obviously that includes me so she stayed in Reno for a few days, and I'm glad she did because otherwise it would have been even longer since I'd gotten to see my mom after things shut down. I was reading: A Visit From the Goon Squad (review to come)
  • The country shut down: I'm dating this from the day after the NBA postponed the Utah-Oklahoma City game because of COVID-19. Obviously the Seattle and San Francisco outbreaks had started before this, and I think the news that Tom Hanks had contracted the virus came shortly before, but when it stopped sports it felt REAL. I was reading: Lost Children Archive (review to come)
  • My sister's baby shower: The first time I stepped foot on a plane since January was in late September, which was a bizarre experience, because I usually travel every few months and usually go to Michigan at least once per year. This marked 14 months between trips, but I definitely had to make this one happen, as my little sister is pregnant and I wouldn't have missed her baby shower for the world. I was reading: Naked (review to come)
The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of the book I loved the most out of the ones I've reviewed on the blog over the past 12 months. I reviewed some wonderful books this year, but the one that captured my heart most of all was the lyrical, lovely Exit West. If you haven't read it, and would like to, here's your chance! Just enter via the Rafflecopter below during the next week and this book could be yours! Apologies to my international friends, but this giveaway is US-only. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Book 254: The Informant


"Shepard turned to Weatherall, shaking his head. They had heard enough to know this tape was fabulous. Their witness—this lying, manipulative man who had just failed a polygraph exam—was in the middle of a massive criminal conspiracy."

Dates read: August 9-16, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Well, this is embarrassing. Though I have no recollection of deleting the post I wrote for this book after reading it (I usually write my review within a few weeks of reading the book), it seems as though it has vanished. Maybe it was me, maybe it was a Blogger issue, but it is gone and the reality is that my memory of reading this book over two years ago is...not especially detailed. Therefore, this is likely going to be the shortest, least in-depth review I will ever post here, because I am not going to go back and re-read it so I can re-write the post.

The Informant, written by Kurt Eichenwald, is a true story that you would swear was a farce if you didn't know otherwise. Mark Whitacre was an executive for Archer Daniels Midland, a large agri-business company. For years, ADM had been working with their so-called competitors to fix the price of food additive lysine, which Whitacre confesses to the FBI. He then goes undercover to tape meetings at which this price-fixing continues to happen, repeatedly almost managing to get himself caught but capturing hundreds of conversations for his government handlers. As the case is moving towards trial, a complication emerges: Whitacre has embezzled several million dollars from ADM, in part because he actually got suckered into one of those Nigerian advance-fee scams. After years of working to help the feds build a case against ADM, the bipolar Whitacre turns against the FBI during manic episodes, claiming that they have tampered with evidence. His behavior related to these claims invalidates his plea deal with the government, and he is charged along with the rest of his colleagues in the underlying price-fixing scandal, eventually being convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison. 

What I remember most about the book is its length, over 600 pages of often dense prose. The underlying crime is a very complicated white-collar conspiracy, and while Eichenwald did a decent job of trying to make it straightforward, my overwhelming recollection is that it frequently dragged. Whitacre himself is presented as a complex person: being a whistleblower/informant is a very stressful, pressure-filled situation, and combined with his untreated mental illness, he often behaves erratically. He is very sympathetic in some aspects, much less so in others. I feel like I remember that this was one of those books where the author was under the impression that his own reporting of the story was of particular interest to those reading it, which tends to be a pet peeve for me in non-fiction. It was often a struggle to read, and I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of doing so, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to others.

One year ago, I was reading: The Overstory

Two years ago, I was reading: The Library Book

Three years ago, I was reading: The Royals

Four years ago, I was reading: The Mothers

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR With Fall-Colored Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're focusing on books with covers that make us think of fall. I did a list like this a few years back for books I've already read, so I decided to make this list up of books I haven't read quite yet but already own and will eventually read with yellow, orange, and red covers! No commentary on the choices here since this is a cover-oriented list.

The Thorn Birds

On Beauty


A Kim Jong Il Production

Light Years

Geek Love

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet


Did You Ever Have A Family

Killers of the Flower Moon

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Book 253: Less


 "He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again."

Dates read: August 6-9, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

Can we ever really run away from our problems? The conventional wisdom is no, and for the most part I agree with that. Many of our issues are rooted in our own patterns of behavior and a change of scenery does nothing to fix that. But there sometimes is utility in getting out of a toxic environment. Being outside of our ruts in our personal roads can help us see them more clearly. New experiences can refocus our attention on what we really value. And besides, sometimes even just a break from what ails us can give us the strength to push through.

In Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Less, the titular Arthur Less, a writer, decides to take a trip around the world in the face of two upsetting events: his fiftieth birthday, and the marriage of his sort-of-boyfriend of nearly a decade, Freddy Pelu, to another man. Nothing seems to be going quite right for him: after an auspicious debut, his subsequent novels have declined in both sales and critical acclaim, and he worries that the closest he will come to genius were his years dating Robert Brownburn, an acclaimed poet, and being in Robert's circle of writer and artist friends. When an invite to Freddy's wedding arrives, Less can't bring himself to either accept and be the subject of pitying looks or decline and know he'll set the gossip wheels turning with speculation that he's bitter. So he decides to be absent, creating a trip around the world for himself by accepting invitations for various and sundry events that he'd shoved in a drawer and never intended to actually respond to.

Less begins by leaving San Francisco for New York, where his new novel is gently declined by his publisher. And then it's off to Mexico, then France, then Italy for a prize ceremony for a translation of his book, then Germany to teach a summer course, then a trip to Morocco with friends, then a retreat in India to work on his book, then Japan to write an article about food for a travel magazine, and finally back, having neatly avoided both his birthday and the wedding. Along the way he runs into an ex he doesn't recognize, has a fling with academic, gets a custom-made suit, steps on a needle, and has to destroy his way out of a room. We get perspective on the life he's led through both his own reminisces and the voice of a narrator, whose identity is finally revealed to us as Arthur Less gets home.

I'll admit I was a little skeptical when this was chosen as a selection for my book club. "Funny" books can land wildly differently depending on the reader, and "prize-winning funny" does not tend to be a type of humor I find especially enjoyable. But what a delight this book was! I've talked before about how much my experience of a book can be impacted by what else I've read in the same time frame, and after the self-serious, sometimes ponderous Shantaram, the breezy lightness of Less just hit the spot. But it's not just a fluffy book at all. It's filled with sharp observations and resonant character notes, and the propulsive forward motion of the journey keeps the plot moving at a nice clip. It never gets bogged down anywhere. And while managing all that, it also excels at blending the moments of humor with sweetly poignant emotional work.

Writing a funny-yet-grounded book is hard, y'all. So many things to be balanced, and the Pulitzer has to be at least in part a recognition of how very well Greer crafted his work. Why, after all this gushing, is this not an even-more-highly-rated book for me? Two things: it didn't linger in my mind (books that I rate 9 or 10 stars stick with me long after reading), and the narrator reveal. While I thought it was an emotionally satisfying way to end the book, it didn't make logical sense, which spoiled it ever so slightly. That being said, it's a wonderful book that I heartily enjoyed, with meditations on aging, love, dignity, and identity that run beneath the parts that make you laugh to make you think. I'd recommend it to everyone!

One year ago, I was reading: The Age of Miracles

Two years ago, I was reading: Flip

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Four years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice