Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book 273: In Defense of Food



"What would happen if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in systems we call food chains, or food webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species coevolve with other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of interdependence:
I'll feed you if you spread around my genes."

Dates read: November 3-7, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times Bestseller

Some of the weirder things about me are my food quirks. A dedicated lifelong picky eater, I have lots of what I refer to as my "weird food things". I don't like my food to touch. I have never liked milk in my cereal. I hate condiments of all kinds. Cilantro tastes like soap to me (this one is genetic). I've been a vegetarian since I was fifteen. As much as I know they're weird, I get touchy when people question them. The choices about what food to put inside your body are some of the most personal ones of all.

But also, the choices we make about food are influenced heavily by the processed food and nutrition industries. They're the ones who advertise our foods to us, who tell us what's "good for you". But what if those people are ignorant at best, or deceitful at worst? Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food examines the powers-that-be related to eating, and proposes his alternative to listening to the many voices who'd like to get our attention about what we're putting in our mouths. He sums up his philosophy right at the beginning of the book: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. He then proceeds to explain what exactly he means by each of those three tenets.

The bulk of the book is focused on the definition of "food". Pollan asserts that it's not what we might instinctively think, which would consist of pretty much everything we eat. Instead, Pollan rails against processed food, which he considers unworthy of even bearing the label. He also describes his issues with food science, which he criticizes as overly concerned with individual nutrients, too closely tied to the business of food, and for its history of inaccuracy. The latter two parts of his philosophy (not too much, mostly plants) are much more straightforward: we eat too much, both because our bodies do not recognize what we eat as actual food, and also because our rituals around eating have drastically changed. And plants are easily identifiable as real food, and very healthy for the body.

These are not bad ideas to keep in mind when thinking about one's own diet. More foods with little or no processing, more time and energy put into meals made of these "whole" foods, more fruits and vegetables. And there's no question that American diets are, as a whole, failing to keep Americans in good health. Obesity rates continue to rise, as do rates of diabetes and cancer. Clearly, something about the way we eat isn't working, and Pollan's suggestions make a lot of instinctive sense.

But I found this a troubling book in its own way, to be completely honest. Pollan gleefully dismisses science related to food and nutrition, leaving him free to assert whatever he wants without any pressure to support his positions, because after all, food science is bunk (he does use science to support some of his positions when he can find it, which is hypocritical). As science as a whole feels increasingly under threat, this is concerning to me. Also problematic is the amount of privilege reflected in Pollan's suggestions. The ability to access a place where fresh, whole food is sold, the ability to afford that same food, the ability to find the time to make that trip and spend that money, and then turn around and prepare the food, assumes a great deal about what people's lives look like. While he might tell readers to not eat anything that our grandmothers wouldn't recognize as food, I live a life that neither of my grandmothers would recognize as at familiar. So while the book did inspire me to think more critically about my own consumption patterns, I feel very comfortable in not taking it especially seriously. There are some decent ideas here, but I can't affirmatively recommend a book so dismissive of science.

One year ago, I was reading: Brother of the More Famous Jack

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Three years ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato

Four years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Five years ago, I was reading: The Guest Room

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about funny books. I have kind of an odd sense of humor, and seldom actually giggle at what I read, but here are ten books that managed to at least get a wry smile out of me.


Bridget Jones's Diary: Still the funny book against which I measure all funny books even though I first read it as a literal teenager and don't really like chick lit. 

My Booky Wook: I still remember cackling like a crazy person to myself reading Russell Brand's memoir on an airplane.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Honestly, same thing about giggling constantly on an airplane while reading this one!

Hyberbole and a Half: I loved Allie Brosh's blog, so between the old highlights and new favorites, this was a delight!

Angus, Thongs, And Full-Frontal Snogging: I love this whole series, but to be honest the last ones start to run out of steam a little. The first couple, though, particularly the very first, are truly hilarious. If you like Derry Girls-style "daft teenage girls" humor, you'll likely find these charming!

Good Omens: This end-of-the-world adventure has the wit that only the co-author team of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett could bring to it.

The Moonstone: This is actually a mystery, not a "humor" type book, but the section narrated by the officious Ms. Clack was so funny I actually laughed out loud while reading.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: I'm adding in some audiobooks because I really don't read very many funny books! This one is hysterical, and Samatha Irby is a great narrator of her own work.

Dear Girls: I love Ali Wong and even saw her live a few years ago (remember when we could go see shows?). Her book, structured as a series of stories dedicated to her daughters, isn't as funny as her stand-up but is still definitely amusing.

Believe Me: I'd been generally aware of Eddie Izzard, but had never seen her comedy. This is her memoir and she is both funny and moving.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Book 272: Seduction


"Howard Hughes was not the only mogul in Hollywood who profited off treating actresses as sex goddess flavors of the month, good for consumption in a brief window but disposable as soon as the next variety came along. As with so much in his career, Hughes did the same things that other men did—he just did them more crudely, and with even less of a regard for the person these actresses were before they came into his life, and what would become of them once he had moved on. And he always, eventually, moved on." 

Dates read: October 28- November 3, 2018

Rating: 9/10

If you're a girl, you've probably at some point considered whether you're a Marilyn or an Audrey. I was always a Marilyn myself...when you get bosoms early, you reconcile yourself to being a Marilyn. You lean in to "sultry", because that's the role everyone puts you in anyways. But I always admired the Audreys of the world, and of course Audrey herself. The elegance, grace, and reserve she projected onscreen seemed out of reach to me, and was something I wished I could be even though I knew full well I wasn't.

No matter who we are, female movie stars speak to us. They give us symbols to crush on, or idolize, or reject. For millionaire tycoon Howard Hughes, though, they were what he wanted to collect. Karina Longworth had put together several episodes of her excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, about women who'd been involved personally and/or professionally with Hughes, and compiled that information and more into Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes' Hollywood. For all that his public memory seems to be tied up with the Spruce Goose and being a famous recluse who at one point maybe wandered around the Nevada desert, he not only dated a string of Tinseltown's most famous women, but bought and ran a studio. He was a significant figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Longworth mostly eschews the trappings of traditional biography, except for a relatively brief discussion of Hughes' early life. She's not trying to write that book. Instead, she's trying (and succeeds!) in writing a book that focuses on his connections to the movie industry and the actresses who populated it. From his romancing of silent star Billie Dove, to launching the career of Jean Harlow when he cast her to be "the girl" in the long-gestating aviation epic Hell's Angels, to a serious romance with Katharine Hepburn, to his discovery of Jane Russell and controversial ad campaign for The Outlaw, the movie he made with her, Hughes was deeply immersed in cinema and its world. Through the purchase of the studio RKO, he was also able to gain enormous amounts of control over young women who dreamed of being stars.

This control, that he was able to exert over his contracted actresses and that he attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to exercise over his movie-star girlfriends, tells us a lot about the person Howard Hughes was, how he saw himself, and how he saw women. This is what Longworth bases her narrative on. A clear pattern emerges, of the type of pretty, busty brunette he tended towards, of the Madonna/whore dichotomy in which he placed them, of the way he allowed many of them to disappear from view because he didn't have anything to give them but didn't want anyone else to have them. Hughes was not alone among studio runners in his neglect of contracted talent, or his attempts to run the lives of those women to a certain set of standards. That was par for the (gross) course for the time, but his was especially exacting and rigid. Things come to a close for Longworth's purposes not long after he divested himself of the studio and left California for Nevada, though his marriage to actress Jean Peters and continued obsession with film give some shading to that part of his life.

I found this a truly well-crafted, engaging work of non-fiction. Though my tolerance for "boring" history is substantial, I always appreciate a lively narrative that does more than recite a series of events, and Longworth accomplishes that here. Her background with podcasting does show itself a bit in the slightly episodic form of the book (which I didn't think detracted from it at all), but it also shows itself in her ability to think about the work as a storyteller with an audience to engage. She's very skilled at structuring her material to match a narrative arc, and despite being over 500 pages long it doesn't get dull or drag. Rather, it's a fascinating and sometime enraging portrait of a man with profound psychological demons who was able to mistreat women without consequences because of his wealth and position in the world. I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys not just Old Hollywood, but the movies/celebrity culture in general...a lot of what we see today is different more in scale than substance.

One year ago, I was reading: The Holdout

Two years ago, I was reading: The Silkworm

Three years ago, I was reading: My Name Is Venus Black

Four years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Five years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Purple, Yellow, and Green Book Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is Mardi Gras, which I got to experience in person when I was in law school and was very fun, so we're looking at books with covers on theme, in shades of purple, yellow, and green! 

 

The Yellow House

The Girl With All The Gifts

Hyperbole and a Half

How To Be Good

The Color Purple

Pride and Prejudice

Exit West

Boy, Snow, Bird

A Storm of Swords

Bringing Down The House

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Book 271: Bringing Down The House

 

"Contrary to what many novices believed, the goal of blackjack was not to get the best hand possible; it was to beat the dealer’s hand."

Dates read: October 25-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Despite the fact that I've lived in Nevada since 2012, I can count on one hand the number of times I've gambled. Why? Well, I live here. I know how it works. Casinos aren't profitable because you make money. They're profitable because they make money. You may make money here or there, but on the aggregate, the house wins. That's how the system is designed to work.

But there are always people trying to find an edge, and sometimes they succeed (at least for a while). Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House tells the story of a group of people who did just that. Math nerds! In the 90s, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor developed a method for team-based blackjack play, and recruited students to take his style of card-counting to Las Vegas. Card counting technically isn't illegal, but casinos can and will boot players who engage in it from playing on their floors. So while the teams are winning big, they're ever-watchful for security and the consequences that might come.

Mezrich fictionalizes all of his characters, including the one through whom he tells the story, calling him Kevin Lewis. A senior on track to graduate with an engineering degree and a steady girlfriend, he's intrigued when two of his friends tell him about the blackjack team they're on and take him along for a weekend at the casinos with them. There's the glamour and flash, but there's also the appealing intellectual challenge of the whole thing. He gets drawn into their world, going through their recruiting process to officially join the team, becoming at first a supporting player and then a main figure on the team. He grows distant from his previous life, breaking up with his girlfriend and having less and less he can talk about with his family, just marking time back home between his trips to Las Vegas with his team.

But they've caught the eye of the powers that be, and they can feel the pressure ramping up. Asked to leave from more and more casino floors, they try disguises, have third parties like strippers cash out their chips once they've been busted and banned, and when even those measures fail, seek alternate gaming venues. Riverboats. Reservations. Even overseas, leading to an incident in which team members are roughed up by the locals. Trust fractures between the members, and eventually there's nowhere else to go.

This makes a solid airplane read (which is where I read most of it myself). Kevin is easy to like...he doesn't get in as deep as some of the other players, which makes him seem grounded and more identifiable. There's a kind of fantasy element to it, the idea that you could learn a straightforward (albeit difficult to master) skill that could make you enormous sums of money, have a regular life as a normal person but live it up in VIP style on the weekends. The tension keeps up nicely and the plot moves along quickly. The book doesn't ask you to do too much in the way of critical thinking.

And maybe it's hoping you won't, because it came out afterwards that many of the more salacious aspects of the book were completely made up. The dramatic try-out in an underground gaming parlor, the strippers cashing out chips, even the physical assault...members of the team on which the book is based have come forward to say those are all lies. Which undermines the impact of the book, and completely discredits Mezrich as an author. And on Mezrich's authoring, this book is no great shakes in terms of prose quality. Everyone besides Kevin comes across as a narrow stock character, and the whole thing is written in a "this happened, and then that happened, and then the next thing happened" way that doesn't allow the material (however exaggerated it might be) to really shine the way it could have. It's entertaining enough, if you take it with an enormous grain of salt. It's far from unmissable, though, and if you're not interested in reading the source material for the movie 21 or in stories about Las Vegas/gambling, it probably won't do much for you.

One year ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Two years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Three years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Four years ago, I was reading: Zealot

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Romance Books On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is Valentine's Day, so here are ten books on my to-be-read list that are all about swoony feelings!



Outlander: I've never watched the show but have heard plenty about it and it sounds like it is VERY dramatic and I think I might like the books!

The Fault in our Stars: The teenage romance/weep-y that has gotten raves, I feel like I owe this book a shot at least even though it's outside my wheelhouse.

Doctor Zhivago: I've seen the movie version of this with Omar Sharif at peak handsomeness and the central romance is epic!

Corelli's Mandolin: I have NOT seen the movie version of this because I have a hard time buying Nicholas Cage as a romantic lead outside of Moonstruck, but I've heard good things about the source material.

Bet Me: An actual, proper romance novel! I do not read much in the way of romance, I must admit, but this was recommended on a list of starter romance novels.

The End of the Affair: As the title suggests, this book centers on an affair, but that's still a love-oriented plotline so I'm counting it.

The Royal We: This book by the authors of fashion blog Go Fug Yourself is very loosely based on Prince William and Kate Middleton's romance, except the lady is an American to boot! It's supposed to be silly and sweet and fun.

The Proposal: I've heard great things about Jasmine Guillory's works, and this one starts out with a situation that has always made me wonder...a (failed) proposal on the jumbotron!

Fangirl: My first Rainbow Rowell wasn't mind-blowing, but this story about a romance that brews between two college students (one of whom writes fan-fiction) is one of her best-reviewed!

The Hating Game: This romance got a lot of positive reviews around the book blogging community, so I'm going to try it out!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Book 270: Detroit

 


"The city, what's left of it, burns night after night. Nature—in the form of pheasants, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs—had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day. The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren't covered in ash. We were alive."

Dates read: October 21-25, 2018

Rating: 6/10

I was born in Detroit. Not "Detroit", the way some people use it, to mean Royal Oak or Birmingham. But actual City of Detroit, in Harper Woods. My mom had lived there for her whole life, from the fifties when she was born until the late eighties when we left. When I was about three, we moved out to what had been her parents' summer lake house, about an hour away, and that's where I was raised. Though I barely lived there, and it was three decades ago now, I'll never stop rooting for my native city.

The City of Detroit's motto is "Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus", which translates to "We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes". Which sounds really on the nose for Detroit now, but actually dates back to 1805 and the aftermath of an actual fire. So how did a city once known for its prosperity and loveliness (called the "Paris of the West"!), turn into...well, Detroit as we know it? When reporter Charlie LeDuff returned to his hometown after spending more than a decade working at The New York Times, he started up at The Detroit News, and his attempts to answer that very question went into his book, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Detroit is a mix of a little bit of several things: part history, part investigation of public corruption, part memoir. The issues of the city aren't just abstract facts to LeDuff...he grew up there, watched his mother struggle to maintain her business and raise her family as the crime rate spiked, and his own sister became addicted to drugs and died young, leaving behind a daughter who's on the same path. He traces the city's boom, and then the white flight that began when the Great Migration brought Southern black people to the industrial north, and then the increasingly shady operations of the City Council. LeDuff began his tenure at the News as Kwame Kilpatrick's reign as Mayor was in its death throes, his misconduct and that of other City electeds like Monica Conyers finally becoming so blatant it could no longer be swept under the rug.

In the strongest portions of the book, LeDuff takes one aspect of the very real consequences of municipal mismanagement, the woeful underfunding of the Fire Department, and uses it as a microcosm of the larger problem. He introduces the firefighters, constantly called out into a sprawling, arson-happy city with trucks and equipment well past expiration dates. But they keep on going anyways, out of love for each other and a sense of duty to the residents, even though the conditions they're put in mean they're at much higher risk of death and injury.

These firehouse sections are so strong, in fact, I found myself wishing they had been the whole book. LeDuff's an undeniably talented writer, but his lack of focus made it less compelling than it could have been. I found the memoir-esque portions least interesting, and while his look at the malfeasance at City Council did grab my attention, it wasn't nearly fleshed out enough to paint a full picture. LeDuff's connection with the firefighters and sympathy for their Sisyphean task is obvious, and the work just comes alive when he's spending time with them. As it is, the book tries to do a little too much, and sacrificing its ability to do any of it to a level of true excellence. It's good, and if you're into reading about Detroit, it's well-worth your time, but if you don't have an underlying interest in the city, it might not be for you.

One year ago, I was reading: Whores of the Devil

Two years ago, I was reading: The Mind's Eye

Three years ago, I was reading: Thank You For Smoking

Four years ago, I was reading: Orange Is the New Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR Written Before I Was Born

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books from before we were born. I've decided to look at my to-be-read list and pick out ten books that were written in the ten years (one for each year) before 1985, which is when I was born!


1984- The Bone People: "Own voices" is not a new phenomenon, this Booker Prize-winner about Maori people in New Zealand was written by a woman who is herself of Maori descent.

1983- Winter's Tale: Fantasy does not often get critical recognition even when it deserves it, so this being a very well-reviewed fantasy novel definitely caught my attention!

1982- A Pale View of Hills: I love Kazuo Ishiguro and this was his debut.

1981- The War at the End of the World: I've always been curious about novels in translation (I read a decent number of them), and this one from a Peruvian writer about a conflict that took place in Brazil sounds fascinating and was included by Harold Bloom in his list of books that make up the western canon.

1980- The Transit of Venus: Everyone I know who has read Shirley Hazzard loves her work, and this and The Great Fire are her books that I see recommended most often so I am looking forward to getting to this!

1979- Kindred: A book I have been meaning to read for years now because I've heard such great things about it.

1978- Tales of the City: This in the first of a series of books about queer life in San Fransisco, and it having been adapted twice makes me think it must be quite good!

1977- Ceremony: Another own voices book, by a Pueblo woman about Pueblo people. It's a classic of Native American literature!

1976- Roots: Loosely (maybe even very loosely, according to historical experts) based on the story of Alex Haley's own family history, this was a huge bestseller and got good reviews as well.

1975- The Female Man: This is a feminist science fiction book that gets at how conceptions of gender roles are shaped by society, which is extremely my jam.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: January 2021

 

 

And just like that, we've made it through the first month of 2021! Legislative session somehow starts tomorrow already, so the next 120 days are about to be crazy...in an entirely new way, since we won't be on site at least at the beginning here. It may be a new year, but it wasn't much different than the past 10 months have been, as we continued to stay home and wait for our turn at the vaccine. As healthy adults working in non-essential professions, we're likely near the end of the line and that's okay! But even as terrified of needles as I am, when I'm up I will happily put my arm out!

In Books...

  • The Wife Upstairs: This is a spin on Jane Eyre, which is a classic I really like but did not read for the first time until I was an adult so I don't feel a strong sentimental attachment to. I found this Southern-tinged, thriller-type take on it to be fun but ultimately kind of hollow. The twists were not hard to see coming, and though it was definitely a page-turner there's not a lot of there there. A great plane/beach read!
  • The Satanic Verses: I wanted to read this both because Midnight's Children was great and its own notoriety. It's interesting, because while Rushdie's debut felt like a more technically accomplished book, I thought this one (his fourth) demonstrated real growth in storytelling prowess. I enjoyed reading it more even as its flaws (including just way too many characters) were obvious. 
  • Go, Went, Gone: I had some mixed but ultimately positive feelings about this book, which tells the story of Richard, a recently retired classics professor in Berlin who finds himself drawn into the world of a group of African refugees in the city. I wish there was more time given to the perspective of the refugees themselves, but there was some interesting development of themes about borders, about time, and about choices.
  • On Hitler's Mountain: This is a memoir from a woman about her girlhood in a small mountain community very close to Hitler's Eagle's Nest before, during, and after World War 2, and while I can be picky about memoir I do tend to enjoy those by people who lived through important historical events. So I did appreciate this, which is well-constructed and interesting, though I wished there had been more information about the author's later childhood/early adulthood years.
  • Murder on the Orient Express: I'd never read Agatha Christie before, which was a MISTAKE. I really enjoyed this tightly-plotted, clever mystery with fantastic dialogue. Mysteries in general have generally not been my favorite but this was a very entertaining book and I appreciated its quick, efficient storytelling that made it feel like not a word was wasted!
  • The Sea: I wanted to find this novel lackluster after reading that its author, John Banville, made snooty comments after he won the Booker Prize that the Booker usually goes to "middlebrow" novels. Unfortunately, it's actually very good, with beautiful prose and packing a real emotional punch despite being less than 200 pages long.
  • All Girls: I'm a sucker for a boarding-school novel, so this book (which releases in February) about an all-girls school dealing with the aftermath of a resurfaced sex scandal seemed promising. Unfortunately, its multiple-perspective structure kept it from ever settling in or developing momentum, and the Layden indulges in rhetorical devices that make it obvious she's not confident enough that her writing is making its own points by underlining them.

 


In Life...

  • Getting ready for (virtual) session: As to be expected during a global pandemic, for an occurrence that drives hundreds of people to regularly cram into a building for four months, our legislative session will be virtual at least to start. I do have to admit that I won't miss making the 40-minute commute to Carson City, over several bridges that often freeze over, during the month of February (but do hope we make it eventually)!

One Thing:

Looking around here, it should be pretty obvious that I'm not much of a romance reader...and I haven't been much into romantically-focused movies or TV either. But I figured I would give Bridgerton a try on Netflix after hearing some raves and I wound up really enjoying it! Even if it doesn't seem like your thing, I would encourage you to give it a shot, it's fun and dishy!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book 269: We Are Not Ourselves


"She wanted to be in one of those scenes in the windows, frozen in time, in the faultless harmony of parts working in concert, fulfilling the plan of a guiding, designing hand. It would be lovely not to have to make every decision in life, to be part of a spectacle brought out once a year, for the safest of seasons, and put to work amusing people who stared back in mute appreciation. The real world was so messy, the light imperfect, the paint chipped, the happiness only partial."

Dates read: October 15-21, 2018

Rating: 4/10

It can be tempting to think that you can buy your way to happiness. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has a little section of her closet devoted to the things that seemed so right when they were purchased and never quite panned out. There's a rush that comes with hitting the "check out" button, in triumphantly carting your finds up to the register. The little buzz of acquisition. It hits the reward centers in our brains.

It's that intrinsic feedback loop that makes humans such good little consumers, and of course Western culture has figured out how to play off that susceptibility expertly. It's no mistake that the much-vaunted American Dream is ultimately the pursuit of...stuff. Homes, cars, the latest toys for the kids. With her hardscrabble childhood, it's no wonder that Eileen Tumulty, protagonist of Matthew Thomas' We Are Not Ourselves, gives in completely to the siren song of that American Dream. Her Irish immigrant parents are poor and both struggle with addiction, but raise Eileen to set her sights higher. Indeed, as she grows up, she becomes almost paralyzingly envious of anyone who gets the access to privileges she herself longs for. She dreams of marrying rich to allow her to live a life of ease, but can't stand any of the men who could make this happen. Instead, she falls for a brilliant young scientist, Ed Leary, and they're hopeful for a bright future together.

But a bright future looks different to each of them. Eileen despairs when Ed turns down opportunities to go into pharmaceutical development or be promoted into administration, seeking only to be a good teacher to the community college students who enter his classroom. They have a child, Connell, and eventually buy the multi-family home in which they live, but it's not enough for Eileen. As they approach 50, she becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a new home, just for them, in a fancier (read: whiter) neighborhood of New York City. So obsessed, in fact, that she ignores her husband's increasingly odd behavior. Once she's finally managed to buy them a fixer-upper in the right zip code, she can't ignore it anymore: something is very wrong with Ed. Something that threatens to tear their family apart.

I'm usually a sucker for a family saga, especially one that immerses itself in one central character over time. And the portrait Thomas paints of Eileen feels real. She's very much a product of her childhood and her culture. Aging is no guarantee of personal growth, and while she does make some minor self-modifications, she remains consistent at her core. That's about all the praise I can offer this novel. Because while Eileen feels real and well-characterized, she's also deeply unpleasant and honestly boring. I'm not a person who needs characters to be likable in order to appreciate a book, but I do need them to be interesting. Eileen's concerns are so petty and small and pedestrian, and she's so personally cold (almost every reference she makes to her only child is as "the boy", with virtually no affection), that she's just tedious to spend time with.

And since the book is almost entirely from her perspective, that's a problem. We do get some portions from Connell, but his characterization is nowhere as good as Eileen's, and I think the book would have been stronger without those chapters entirely. The person from whom we never hear, and who I found myself the most interested in, was Ed himself. Why did he stay with Eileen? A sense of duty to keep the family together while their son grew up? I can understand that his perspective during his decline would have been difficult to write, but he never quite made sense to me even before. And once his decline begins, the book turns into tragedy porn. I think the reader is meant to feel for Eileen, but she'd been built up as a shallow, grasping asshole so thoroughly by that point that even her devotion to Ed didn't redeem her. Thomas had plenty of ambition here, with the scope and scale of the book he wanted to write, but he came nowhere close to achieving it. His skill with prose and characterization are real, but he undermined himself with the character he created. All I could think at the end was how much I hated her and how glad I was to be done reading about her. Needless to say, I do not recommend this book. 

One year ago, I was reading: Perfume

Two years ago, I was reading: Hausfrau

Three years ago, I was reading: Mansfield Park

Four years ago, I was reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week it's time to look back again, at the authors we read for the first time last year. I am always a little embarrassed about these, there are so many great authors I've still never read!

 

Chang-Rae Lee: I'd heard good things about his work even before his Native Speaker was selected for my book club, and I'm really excited to read more from him because I thought that book was very good.

Jennifer Egan: I actually had kind of mixed feelings about A Visit From The Goon Squad (mostly related to my ongoing resentment about being tricked into reading books of short stories that call themselves novels), but thought highly enough of her actual writing that I'll read more from her.

Zadie Smith: I finally got to White Teeth, which I'd had recommended to me for ages, in 2020 and it was just as good as I had been lead to believe. I'm definitely planning to read her other books!

Jo Nesbo: I did not read one of his acclaimed Harry Hole novels, but the standalone The Son, but I'll honestly say I was not particularly impressed and am unlikely to read more from him. 

Laila Lalami: The Moor's Account was an interesting book club choice, there was a lot to digest there, and I found her a strong enough storyteller that her other books, which were already on my to-read list, are still there!

Isabel Allende: Daughter of Fortune is a book I've seen frequently enough in thrift stores (which is absolutely where I picked up my own copy) that I wondered if maybe it wasn't actually that good and that's why people give their copies away? Nope, it was very good and entertaining and House of Spirits is next up from her for me.

Christopher Hibbert: I love royal histories and he writes quite a lot of them. His book on the Borgias was competent...informative, certainly, but not really told with a strong sense of narrative, so while I'll read the other ones he's done that I already have, I probably won't buy more from him. 

Philip Roth: He's one of those authors that's a big enough deal that you feel like you should read, and my best friend loved The Human Stain, so I tried it and it did not work for me. I actually do still want to read a couple other Roths but I am going to be very judicious about them going forward. 

John Green: I don't read much young adult anymore, but he'd been praised quite a bit and so this year I picked up Looking for Alaska. I did not find it incredible, but did think it was solid YA and I'll read more from him probably!

Rebecca Solnit: I found her feminist essay collection Men Explain Things To Me to be fascinating and resonant. I am definitely going to be reading more of her essays, as well as her other nonfiction!

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book 268: Prep


"The big occurrences in life, the serious ones, have for me always been nearly impossible to recognize because they never feel big or serious. In the moment, you have to pee, your arm itches, or what people are saying strikes you as melodramatic or sentimental, and it's hard not to smirk. You have a sense of what this type of situation should be like - for one thing, all-consuming - and this isn't it. But then you look back, and it was that; it did happen."

Dates read: October 10-15, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

Every once in a while I'll be just doing something normal, sitting on the couch or researching something at work, and a memory of something embarrassing I did in high school will run across my mind. Though I graduated nearly two decades ago now, and I'm almost certainly the only person that still remembers some of these things, I'll still blush. I know adults like to tell teenagers that high school doesn't matter, but if we're honest with ourselves, I think a lot of us would admit that not all of those wounds from those four years have completely healed over.

Like many middle-class middle Americans, I've always been kind of both mystified and fascinated by the idea of prep school. What do the children of the wealthy get up to? It is exactly middle-class middle America (South Bend, specifically) that Lee Fiora of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep hails from. She impulsively applied to the exclusive Ault School, outside of Boston, and her middle school grades earn her a scholarship. Once she gets there, though, she doesn't know quite how to proceed fitting into her new milieu. She feels awkward, uncomfortable, and very much like an outsider among her privileged classmates.

Lee does eventually make at least some friends, but continues to struggle both socially and academically as time progresses. She nurses a long-burning crush on Cross Sugarman, the most popular guy in her class. She becomes more and more estranged from her family and roots in the Midwest. She is desperately, achingly self-conscious about everything, and possesses no more ability to articulate exactly what it is she wants than to do anything as drastic as taking steps to get it. So when a national newspaper reporter is looking for interview subjects for a piece on what boarding school is really like and reaches out to Lee right before graduation, her decision to talk about her experience winds up being part of what colors the whole thing for her in retrospect.

This was often a difficult book to read. Not because it was bad (it was in fact very good), but because Sittenfeld is so good at recreating that agonizing mental experience of being an adolescent. Lee wants so much to be liked, accepted, popular, but she can't get out of her own way. She passively observes her classmates, so afraid to be thought of as annoying or stupid or dorky that she can barely interact with them even when they're receptive to her. Being trapped inside her head while reading reminded me so much of being trapped inside the darker corners of my own head during high school that I had to put the book down even when I was into it. It's brilliant in that way, and (appropriately, given Sittenfeld's own experience in prep school both as a student and as a teacher) in nailing the little nuances of the upper class. The names alone (Cross, Aspeth, Horton, Gaines) are dead-on.

While the atmosphere and writing quality are excellent, the book does have plotting and characterization issues that hold it back from being great. Sittenfeld tells Lee's story through just a brief stretch of time during each semester as she goes through school. It leaves a lot of gaps, and I found myself wondering what exactly Lee did each summer when she went home...the one time we follow her back to Indiana for a winter break we get a picture of some deep-seated conflict that I would have been interested in seeing explored more. And it leads to only getting little slices of characters that should be important, like Lee's best friend Martha. Despite the closeness Lee relates and we're clearly meant to understand, the reader gets almost no sense of who Martha is or the usual way in which they interact, getting just a handful of conversations between them. It's frustrating, and keeps the book feeling just-a-bit underbaked. It's an interesting, compelling book, and a clear indicator of significant talent in its author, but its flaws are real. I'd recommend this book, though it does have sexual content that might mean a more immature teen reader might not be ready for it.

One year ago, I was reading: Mozart in the Jungle

Two years ago, I was reading: A Tale for the Time Being

Three years ago, I was reading: An American Marriage

Four years ago, I was reading: Snow

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: 2020 Releases Still High On My Priority List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking back into 2020 a bit, at books that came out last year that we still really want to read. Because I read so much backlist, I've always got books still on my list when the year changes over, so here are ten books that I have ARCs for but haven't had a chance to read yet and really am looking forward to!


Sharks in the Time of Saviors: This Hawaiian family epic got good reviews and I haven't read any books that have a basis in Hawaiian folklore and am interested in doing so, so this seems like something I'd enjoy!

Chosen Ones: The trope of "the chosen one", particularly a teenage one, is a familiar one in fantasy media, but usually the story ends shortly after they've achieved their destiny. This book explores what happens afterwards to five people who saved the world when they were younger, and I think that sounds like an interesting thing to explore!

A Children's Bible: I've heard great things from people who read this dystopian/post-apocalyptic story about a group of children who run away from their families and find themselves in biblical situations. 

Boys of Alabama: A little bit of Southern Gothic, a little bit of magical realism, a little bit of an LGBT story, a little bit of coming of age...which sounds like a recipe I'll really enjoy!

Thin Girls: I'll read anything Roxane Gay tells me to, and this book about twin sisters and their relationships with food seems super interesting.

You Again: A woman in her mid-40s, with a stable life and family, thinks she sees her younger self on the street and becomes obsessed with tracking her down as her life starts to come apart, which seems like my kind of twisty!

Who Is Alex Trebek?: Trebek's own memoir got most of the press, but a biography of him also came out last year and I am really curious to see how they compare and contrast. 

Against The Loveless World: This book looks at radicalization through the life of a woman trying to make a better life against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I am really intrigued by it!

We Keep The Dead Close: This is nonfiction about a murder that took place at Harvard in the late 60s, and the student who hears about it and starts investigating it, and I love me some dark academia so adding that to true crime is definitely something I want to read!

Here is the Beehive: An estate lawyer's client dying is not surprising. What is surprising is that the lawyer was having a long-term affair with that client, and finds herself drawn closer and closer to his widow in the aftermath of his death, and I am more drawn to antiheroes lately so this seems interesting!

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book 267: The Library Book

 

 

"I was transfixed. It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever."

Dates read: October 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I don't remember the first time I went to the library. I'm sure I went quite often as a small child, but my first memories are of the Hamburg Township Library when I was probably about 8ish. There was a small market nearby to the original location, the one that was there for most of my childhood, and my mom would often drop me off to find a book while she took my sister and picked up some extra things for the week. As I got older, we'd spend more time at the library in Brighton, a neighboring bigger town with fancier facilities and wider selection. When my mom was mad at me for mouthing off, I'd be punished by being excluded from the next trip there. I can still conjure up in my mind the exact way the young readers section looked at Hamburg, the way the floors creaked. I remember how the nonfiction section smelled at Brighton, the older books with their distinctive aroma.

Like millions of people all over the world, I have a fond, deep attachment to libraries. Author and journalist Susan Orlean is one of those people who grew up loving the library, but found herself not visiting it as much as an adult. But then she had a kid, started visiting her local branch in Los Angeles, and found out for the first time about a major fire there in the 80s that burned hundreds of thousands of books...assumed to be arson, but never actually solved. This inspired her to write The Library Book, which explores not just that fire and the recovery afterwards, but also the history of the Los Angeles Public Library in general and the changing role of it (and other libraries) as the greater world has become a different place.

As you might be able to tell from that description, there's not one particularly strong focus for the book. The closest thing to a through-line is a true-crime-esque accounting of the investigation of the fire, and the primary suspect, a failed actor named Harry Peak. But along the way, Orlean touches on the history of libraries, especially the one in Los Angeles, highlighting several of the more interesting directors it has had along the way. While the image of a library in the popular consciousness tends to be of a somewhat stuffy institution, Orlean talks to librarians on the ground to get a more nuanced view, particularly about the role they play in coordinating community and social programming for their users, from children, to new Americans learning English, to the homeless. And she also includes input from the library staff that were there at the time of the fire, the way it impacted them, and how they and the library itself got back to normal.

Orlean's genuine appreciation and love for reading, books, and libraries shines through the text, making an instant connection with the reader. It's impossible to not happily recall your own wonder at the library the first time you went in and realized that all these books are just here, for anyone to take with them and read. And while it might not work for everyone, I found Orlean's subject-hopping to be refreshing...it kept any one portion from bogging down or getting boring. Her descriptions of how the Los Angeles Public Library came to be designed and built made me want to visit it, to see it for myself, and reflect on the ways that public good buildings like libraries have seen their value, in the eyes of the public, decline over the years. Older libraries were often constructed as grand, their mission seen as important and necessary. Nowadays, it's about how to keep costs down, aiming for sturdy functionality over inspiration.

The way Orlean unwinds her story may prove irritating to a reader who prefers a strictly linear narrative. And after spending quite a bit of time going down a path which makes you think she's relatively convinced of Peak's guilt for setting the library ablaze, she refuses to draw that conclusion, leaving it ambiguous in a way that could be frustrating for someone who really wants closure. But her storytelling skills are top-notch, and if you're willing to follow her, you'll be rewarded by a genuinely compelling work of non-fiction. While I'll admit it didn't have the little something extra that would have pushed it to "great" in my mind, it was very good and I happily and highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who love to read. 

One year ago, I was reading: Sin in the Second City

Two years ago, I was reading: Say Nothing

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

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

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Resolutions for 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It being the new year and all, this week we're talking about resolutions. I've decided to split mine up into five each, personal and bookish both!


Personal

Have a successful fifth session: February will mark the beginning of the fifth session I've spent working in government affairs, and though it will be a challenging one because of the pandemic, I'm ready to do my best!

Visit my new nephew: This will have to be after session at some point, which means I likely won't get to meet him until after he's six months old! I'm glad we've been able to facetime regularly with my sister so I've gotten to see him but I really want to meet the little guy in person!

Take vacations when it's safe: I made a trip to Michigan in the fall for my sister's baby shower, but that was the only time I've left Reno since last March. When it's safe to travel again, we are definitely going to spend more time out of town than we'd been doing!

Keep working out regularly: This is something I sometimes have a hard time with during sessions because of the scheduling difficulties that inevitably arise, but working out on a regular basis has been something that's been really important to me during the pandemic, both for my mental health and my physical health, so I want to keep it up as much as I can!

Watch more movies: I'm a former Blockbuster clerk, I used to watch so many movies! As I've focused more and more on books, though, I am now lucky to get to more than a dozen per year. I love movies, and I really want to focus on seeing more of them this year!

Bookish

Read 75 books: I know, my actual goal is always 50. But I've got a lot of books to get through, and I've been able to get to at leas 75 for the past five years now, so here's hoping I can get there this year too.

Read fewer white men: I have passionately loved books written by white men, but I have also read quite a lot of them over the years. There are so many books in the world written by people who aren't white men, so I'm going to try to read more of them.

Buy fewer books: I own enough books. I own MORE than enough books. I don't need more (but I really, really want them!).

Get more involved with bookish social media: I've made this resolution before, but I really do want to be more engaged with the book community on social media, but my actual job requires so much social media engagement that it's difficult to find the time. I'm going to work on this more this year!

Talk about books with other people more: I'm in one book club (which has been meeting on Zoom these days, which is honestly not ideal), but I have plenty of friends not in that book club who like to read and I want to talk about books with them more often because talking about books makes me happy!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Book 266: The Fly Trap

 



"People sometimes call me for help in investigating the possibilities. I am a biologist, after all. Their projects are often said to have an environmental dimension—the infallible key to getting grants—so I’m considered a good person to talk to. When we were new out here, I used to say that I was a writer, but all the women on the island felt so sorry for my wife that I started insisting I was a biologist instead. What else could I do? And if you’re a biologist on an island widely known for its rich biosphere, you have to put up with a lot of phone calls from morons. They always seem to assume that I’m a moron myself."

Dates read: October 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

For my dad, it's lizards. For my mom, hearts. For me, my book stockpiling has reached critical mass. Most of us collect something. And the rest of you can Marie Kondo your lives as many times as you like, you'll never convince me that the reason so many of us have so much stuff isn't that there's a primal human urge to gather. For most of us, it's just a side habit. But depending on your line of work, it can literally be your actual job!

If I had to come up with an insect that people collect, I'd get to butterflies, and maybe moths and dragonflies, before running out of ideas. Those are the good ones, right? But Fredrik Sjoberg catches and studies nothing so glamorous. Rather, near his home on a tiny Swedish island, he collects hoverflies. In case you, like me, have no idea what those are, they're large flies that look like bees. In The Fly Trap, he ruminates on a life devoted to an obscure bug, as well as the story of the man, Rene Malaise, who invented the fly trap with which he does most of his work.

Like me when this was announced as a selection for my book club, you might be extremely skeptical about the idea of a book about a guy who collects flies. I was very sure it would be either weird or boring or both. Surprise! It's delightful! Funny and smart! It feels like having a conversation with the slightly odd but very charming person sitting next to you on an airplane...there's a circuitousness to the narrative, with Sjoberg starting on one subject but getting sidetracked into another, but it's carried off with humor and verve. The way the narrative thread keeps looping also ensures that the pace is lively and it doesn't get bogged down anywhere.

There's also, as you realize when you get to the end, surprisingly little about Sjoberg himself. There's a remove to it that feels Scandinavian, very pleasant but ultimately very firmly impersonal. There's a lot about the nature of being a collector, pleasure of focusing your attention on one little small facet of the world and working inside that little niche, the thrills of finding something rare in your chosen field, the loneliness that can come from essentially solitary pursuits. It's thought-provoking in its own way, not in the heavy way that the term is usually used. This is a lightweight little snack of a book, enjoyable but not especially memorable in any way, and I would recommend it. Hey, at least now I know what a hoverfly is!

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of Scots

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Five years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the First Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's my biannual least-favorite topic: upcoming releases I'm looking forward to! I always have a hard time with these, I really prefer to wait for reviews to start coming in before I decide what I'm really amped for. But here are ten that look good coming out before the end of June (all of which I am fortunate enough to have gotten digital advance copies of)! And I did not realize it until I was almost finished writing the post, but all of these are by female authors!


The Wife Upstairs: Rachel Hawkins has been a favorite Twitter follow of mine for a while, but I've never read one of her books before! I love a twist on a familiar story, so I'm super interested in her take on Jane Eyre!

All Girls: This promises to blend three of my favorite sub-genres...closed scholastic environment, coming-of-age, and female friendship.

Forget Me Not: I loved Oliva's debut The Last One so much I was automatically on-board for her next work! That it's about the life of a little girl raised in isolation who escapes into the wider world and then has to continue to deal with the fallout of her upbringing is even better.

The Babysitter: One of the things I find fascinating about serial killers is that they aren't just, like, out doing bad things all the time. Most of them have something resembling a normal life with people who would find it hard to believe their friend would do wrong. Some would even leave their children with them, and this is the true story of a girl coming to terms with the fact that her beloved childhood babysitter killed people.

The Rebel Nun: Historical fiction based on the true story of a nun in the Middle Ages who led a group of sisters in a rebellion against ecclesiastical authority? Yes please!

There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job: This story of a young woman looking for the least taxing job she can find seems like a brand of weird I can get behind.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: This seems Daisy Jones-esque in that it's a story about a musical act that broke up, but it has the added layer of complexity of dealing with issues of race in the 1970s, which seems like it'll make for a compelling read!

A Special Place For Women: I have found the dialogue about the exclusive female-only coworking/collective franchise The Wing to be really interesting, so the idea of a book that mines the idea of a place like that having an actively nefarious side seems right up my alley.

Madam: I am always looking for books to scratch my The Secret History itch, and this one, about a boarding school in Scotland harboring dark secrets, would seem to be right in that kind of dark academia wheelhouse.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: Another Middle-Ages-set historical fiction, this one about a small town beset with fear, a woman accused of witchcraft and the scientist son who tries to defend her.