Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book 294: The Buried Giant



"She began to make her way towards the cairn, and something about the way she did so, her shoulders hunched against the wind, caused a fragment of recollection to stir on the edges of Axl's mind. The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness. She had talked of a long night spent alone, tormented by his absence, but could it be he too had known such a night, or several, of similar anguish? Then, as Beatrice stopped before the cairn and bowed her head to the stones as if in apology, he felt both memory and anger growing firmer, and a fear made him turn away from her."

Dates read: February 5-10, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was in middle school, I was on the swim team. I wasn't very fast, but I enjoyed being on the team and going to meets. So when I went to high school, I joined the team at that level. It was a whole different game: our local pool was closed for renovations most of the year, so getting to practices (an hour before school and two hours after) took a long time and I was perfectly miserable. I told my mom I wanted to quit. She insisted that I stay on the team, and I swore that if she didn't let me drop it, I would never seriously swim again. She thought I was bluffing. I wasn't. That was over 20 years ago and I haven't swum a lap since.

I don't especially regret this, I do still work out regularly and the way that chlorine dried out my hair and skin is something I don't miss at all. But more than a disinclination to swim for exercise, what keeps me away from the pool is remembering how angry I was when I had to keep swimming for months after I no longer wanted to. In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, remembering is a struggle for the residents of an immediately post-Arthurian era Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an older couple, Britons, who have been relegated to a restricted existence in the warren-like community they live in, but they don't know quite why. They're sure that they would get better treatment with their son, who lives in a neighboring community, so they take the highly unusual step of leaving to go to him.

Their journey takes an unexpected turn almost immediately. At their first stop, a Saxon village where Beatrice often goes to trade, there's a commotion. A young man named Edwin has been abducted by ogres, and though he's rescued by traveling warrior Wistan, the villagers are suspicious of a bite he's sustained during his captivity. Wistan and Edwin flee, taking Axl and Beatrice with them. They encounter, among others, an elderly Sir Gawain. Both of the fighting men claim to be on a quest to kill the dragon Querig, whose breath turns out to be the reason for the mist of forgetfulness that lays over the land...which could have surprisingly significant consequences if it were to go away.

Ishiguro loves a slow-paced, dreamy sort of narrative that reveals its secrets slowly, but there's an unfocused quality to this book that undermines the effectiveness of that approach. The story threads: Axl and Beatrice's marriage and journey towards their son, the Arthurian past, the simmering tensions between the Britons and the Saxons, and a quest to slay a literal dragon...they're not interwoven as tightly and neatly as they need to be to make the whole thing work. The characters have the level of complexity typical of myth and legend, which is to say that they're all quite shallow, more symbolic than realistic. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in them, despite the fact that Axl and Beatrice's love seems like it should be what roots the story in genuine feeling.

Although the story itself doesn't quite come off, Ishiguro does do solid work on hitting deep themes. The power of remembering (or alternately, of forgetting) on human relationships, both on the personal level, as between Axl and Beatrice, or the group level, as between the Saxons and Britons, is powerfully rendered. The prose is lovely and elegant. I get what Ishiguro was going for here, but the reality is that it just didn't really work. The idea of a fantasy-set novel from an author I love for his ability to evoke strong emotions turned out better than the actual execution. Unless you're really just determined to read everything Ishiguro has written, or you're really looking for a book that's all theme and not much else, I'd skip this one. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: Cat's Eye
 
Two years ago, I was reading: How To Be Good

Three years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress
 
Four years ago, I was reading: Me Talk Pretty One Day
 
Five years ago, I was reading: The White Queen

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Shortest Books I've Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically books we've read in one sitting, but I don't tend to read that way...I pick up books and put them down pretty frequently throughout the day. So I'm focusing instead on short books that really grabbed my attention, even if they took me more than one sitting to finish. 


Civilization and Its Discontents: Breaking the rules here almost immediately, as this isn't really a "one-sitting" kind of book despite being very short. If you've heard of Freud and have an opinion on his theories but have never actually read his work, this is a totally fascinating exploration of the tension between society and the individual.

Men Explain Things to Me: The concept behind the title essay in this collection has become widely recognizable as "mansplaining", but that doesn't mean the essay itself isn't worth reading, along with the others that touch on various aspects of the experience of being a woman in the world.

Number the Stars: A childhood favorite, I recently revisited this story about a Danish girl and the Jewish friend whose family her family helps to escape on audio and honestly I think it holds up.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The "life-changing teacher" is a stock character in media, but this book explores a much darker side of a charismatic educator influencing young minds. 

Lord of the Flies: A lot of people have hated this since they read it in school and had to analyze the obvious symbolism, and while there is certainly room to disagree with its premise, I found it a really interesting examination of the evolution of power dynamics. 

The Sense of an Ending: The story in this novel is the kind that some authors would have indulged themselves padding out to 350 pages, but the sparseness really makes it work.

A Clockwork Orange: Deliberately meant to be hard to get into because of the use of words from its own invented language but once you do get into it, it's great!

Exit West: This one I did come very close to reading in one sitting. The story of immigrants Nadia and Saeed just flew by.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: I love the movie, it's wonderful. The original novella is different...darker, and sadder, and just an incredible piece of writing.

The Awakening: This is one that has hung with me since high school...short, but elegant and powerful.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Book 293: The Mind's Eye

 

"Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms -it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well as to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion.The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections—a network particular, it seems, to the human brain."

Dates read: February 1-5, 2019

Rating: 6/10

I was one of those rare kids that needed neither glasses nor braces. I have plenty of issues on the tooth front (so many crowns!), but they grew in straight. And while my vision has declined some over the years, I still can see when I wake up in the morning without having to do anything besides open my eyes. If I'm anything like my dad, I'll probably eventually need reading glasses, but I'm not there yet. It's not until I spend time with people who do need glasses/contacts do I think about being fortunate that I don't have to rely on something else to be able to be able to comprehend my visual environment.

But of course, not being able to see isn't the only thing that can go wrong with the process of vision. Getting input is just one part of it. Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye takes his usual case study format and applies it specifically to disorders of visual processing...some of which deal with the actual mechanical part of seeing, but others about the part where we transform that information into something that makes sense. There's a pianist who can no longer interpret the squiggles on a page of music as notes, but whose ability to memorize and play back what she's heard allows her to continue to enjoy and be successful in her field, a writer whose ability to read deteriorates even as he continues to be able to write, and people for whom faces remain untied to the ones they know and love.

What's a bit unusual for this series of case studies is how prominent Sacks himself is among them. Not as a doctor, which is his usual role, but as a subject. In discussing prosopagnosia (face blindness), he uses his own experiences to describe the condition and the challenges it can create. But where this self-insertion becomes somewhat problematic is in his description of stereo-blindness. This disorder is at first described using a patient who has had the condition for most of her life, but who learns to train herself to see with depth and her wonder and delight at the new world that opens up before her is enjoyable. But then he goes into an extended discussion of his own health crisis, with eye cancer, that led to a loss of his much-cherished stereo vision. It's self-pitying and grating in a way that's not typical of his work, even that which recounts personal struggles.

This book, despite being the kind of case study collection where he usually shines, is not Sacks' best. There's the issue I described above, and there's just a lack of coherence and breadth. Even when describing diseases that lead to significant neurological deficits, there's usually a sense of curiosity about what's wrong and cheerful surprise at the adaptations that people are able to make, that's infectious and engaging. While the book starts off that way, by the time it wanders into Sacks' experiences it gets heavy and clunky, and I found myself much less invested in it than I had been previously. If you're intrigued by the ways that perception can go wrong, or you (like me) are an incurable Sacks completist, there's some good stuff here. But if you're not otherwise interested, I don't think the good outweighs the bad significantly enough to recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man In The High Castle

Three years ago, I was reading: My Own Words

Four years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Five years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That are Questions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting books that ask a question right in their titles! I've picked exclusively from my to-be-read list, so here are ten books I am planning to read with questions-as-titles!

 

What Do We Need Men For?

Who is Maud Dixon?

What is a Girl Worth?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Who's That Girl?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

How Should a Person Be?

Who Killed These Girls?

But What If We're Wrong?

Why Not Me?

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Book 292: Hausfrau


 
"The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how."
 
Dates read: January 28- February 1, 2019
 
Rating: 5/10
 
I know this probably makes me sound like a raging egotist, but when two people in my vicinity are communicating in a language I don't understand, I find myself thinking that they're talking about me. I realize that they're almost certainly not. I'm not that interesting. But when you can't comprehend it, it's so easy to assume the worst. This is something I try to work on when I find myself thinking like this, because it's not fair to either me or other people.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum's Haufrau, American Anna Benz has been living in Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, for nearly a decade. He's a banker, so he brings in enough income that she doesn't need to work outside the home, and they have three adorable children, two sons and a baby daughter. But despite her long-time residence in Switzerland, Anna speaks only basic German and virtually none of the Swiss German dialect that most people around her use to talk to each other. She's finally decided to take lessons, and it's here she meets Archie, with whom she begins a torrid affair. And it's not the first time she's done something like this.

In fact, Anna seems hardly able to resist a man who wants to sleep with her, as we quickly find out that her daughter was not fathered by her husband. Unlike the joyless, compulsive sex she has with other men, her relationship with her daughter's father was one where she had genuine feelings for her lover. Over the course of the therapy sessions Anna engages in over the course of the book, she reflects back on her upbringing, her marriage, her motherhood, and the profound emptiness she seems to feel at her core. When Anna makes a mistake and the delicate balance she has made of her life seems about to topple, it's only a matter of time before she finds herself at a tragic precipice.

Obviously, an unfaithful wife is rich literary territory, and the name of her heroine is just the beginning of Essbaum's allusions to perhaps the most famous of fictional cheaters: Anna Karenina. Indeed, although the book is relatively short, I found myself frequently wondering what new territory exactly was trying to be explored here. There's so little that's subtle: the fragments of therapy sessions we get are right on the nose, as are the flashes we get of Anna's language classes. The conclusion seems inevitable within the first few pages, so it's not plot tension that drives the narrative forward. And Anna herself, though perhaps meant to be a reflection of the despair that could come from lifelong untreated depression (which seems most likely to be at the root of Anna's disconnect from her own feelings), is just unpleasant to spend time with.

That's not to say there isn't anything worthwhile here. Essbaum's prose is witty and clever, and enjoyable to read. And her choice to make Anna so profoundly flawed, particularly as a wife and mother, the roles which we put a tremendous amount of pressure on women to perform highly in, makes her an unusual heroine. Male characters are allowed to shirk their responsibilities to their partners and children and still be redeemable. It was challenging to think about how much of the antipathy I felt for Anna was wrapped up in the expectations I brought to the table about the kind of female character I root for or get invested in. But at the end of the day, even recognizing that bias, Anna's joylessness was just exhausting. This book got a lot of buzz when it came out, but fell very flat for me. I enjoyed it so little that I can't recommend it. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: The Residue Years
 
Two years ago, I was reading: Washington Black

Three years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Book 291: Bad Blood

 

"A month or two after Jobs's death, some of Greg's colleagues in the engineering department began to notice that Elizabeth was borrowing behaviors and management techniques described in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple founder. They were all reading the book too and could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating. Elizabeth even gave the miniLab a Jobs-inspired code name: the 4S. It was a reference to the iPhone 4S, which Apple had coincidentally unveiled the day before Jobs passed away"

Dates read: January 24-28, 2019

Rating: 8/10

When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I applied to two colleges: Michigan and Stanford. I'd gone to a summer program at Stanford the summer after my sophomore year and fallen completely in love with it and wanted desperately to go there. And this was back under the old points system that the Supreme Court later tossed, so I was able to do the math for my likelihood to be admitted to Michigan and I knew I'd get in. I sent off my applications and got the small envelope from Stanford. I loved my time at Michigan and am so glad I went there, but a part of me always wonders what my life might have been like if it had worked out differently.

I'm hardly alone at having not gotten into Stanford, as they accept only about one in every twenty applicants. Not everyone who gets in stays there, though, and one dropout is more notorious than the rest: Elizabeth Holmes. At 19, she left the university to found her own company, Theranos, the rise and fall of which is chronicled in John Carreyrou's Bad Blood. Holmes' original idea was a patch that could administer medications directly to the bloodstream. When that proved untenable, though, she turned to blood testing. Terrified of needles, she came up with the idea of being able to run diagnostics using just a few drops from a finger stick instead of the giant scary needles in the arm. It promised to revolutionize the industry, making testing cheaper and easier. There was just one problem: it didn't work.

For a long time, though, she was able to convince people that it did. She raised billions in capital. She built a prestigious board of directors. She was courted by the CEOs of pharmacies and supermarkets, desperate for a chance to implement her technology. And if anyone seemed like they might get in her way or slow her down, she terrified them into silence with legal threats. Eventually, though, a leak sprung, and Carreyrou began to write about the company's struggles in The Wall Street Journal. Despite high-powered lawyers doing their best to separate him from his sources, he was eventually able to expose the massive house of cards that was all Theranos ever was. Holmes and her ex-boyfriend, Sunny Balwani (the company's COO), currently face federal criminal charges that could imprison them for years.

Corporate malfeasance can make for highly entertaining movies, but there's a reason most true crime writers shy away from white collar stuff in favor of murder: it's hard to render bad business practices as exciting on the page. But in Holmes and Balwani, Carreyrou has two striking personalities to work with and he makes the most of them. It might be easy to write Holmes off as a deluded posturer, but he shows how her vindictiveness towards those that might have been able to expose her is the behavior of someone who knows full well what she was doing. And Balwani's fiery temper, the fear he inspired, leap off the page. The writing does sometimes veer into the technical, but the outlines are fundamentally of a confidence scheme, and Carreyrou keeps the book engrossing by focusing on the way it plays out, the way Holmes so often seems trapped in a corner and manages to escape yet again.

Between Holmes, Anna Delvey, and Fyre Fest, scammers are having a moment in American culture. There's something revolting and yet fascinating about people who operate without any of the fear many of us seem to feel about deserving our place. Anyone inclined to feel sympathy for Holmes, to feel like she just got in over her head, will have a hard time maintaining that once they read the truly heartbreaking account of how a prominent scientist who tried to get things back at least adjacent to the track was preyed upon by both Holmes and Balwani. When he eventually committed suicide, the company's only response was to get his work laptop back. We live in a time when technology companies, and the people who run them, are effectuating enormous changes with very few probing questions asked. This book, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend, demonstrates why we should ask more.

One year ago, I was reading: The Borgias

Two years ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Three years ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

Four years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Five years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: June 2021


June saw a return to normalcy that was unexpected: not only did session end on May 31, meaning that my busy season is over, but masking protocols and social distancing mandates were largely dropped in Nevada, meaning that life feels awfully similar to the way it was before March of 2020. It's an odd feeling, being vaccinated and no longer having to feel significant concern that other people breathing on me could lead to severe illness and death! But a good one, I'd say.

In Books...

  • Tooth and Claw: This book answers a question one may not have been aware was ever asked, namely, "what if a Victorian novel, but dragons?". In Jo Walton's hands, it turns out the answer is "unexpectedly delightful"! I enjoyed the wide cast of characters Walton created, and the way she dealt with Victorian concerns over female purity by having lady dragons literally change color at sexual awakening. If you enjoy both fantasy novels and classic novels, this will be a treat!
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist: I adored Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel, Exit West, and this one was just as wonderful. It traces the story of a young Pakistani immigrant, Changez, and the way his relationship to America changes after his attendance at Princeton and acceptance of a fancy analyst job in the wake of both 9/11 and a romance with Erica, a beautiful, troubled classmate. It's told as a dialogue and is just incredibly rendered. 
  • Throne of Glass: When I first started book blogging, this book (and its sequels) were everywhere! I finally got around to seeing what all the hype was about, and while I found it entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages, it also definitely feels like the debut novel it is. I've heard the series gets better, though, so I'll likely pick up the second at some point. 
  • The Death of Vivek Oji: I really wanted to get into this book club pick about the life and untimely death of a young queer person in Nigeria, written by an author who is themself non-binary. But it didn't quite grab me...the central character is hypothetically compelling, but that's undercut by being virtually only seen through the eyes of others, and I never really connected with the viewpoint characters. 
  • Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: This is a bit of an atypical historical fiction, being set not in a royal court but a small village in medieval Germany. It's based on real events, in which the mother of an imperial mathematician was accused of witchcraft. Katharina, the mother in question, is a funny, vivid character that makes this book compelling despite the underlying sadness of the narrative.
  • American War: Oh man this was bleak. It's the story of a child whose experiences during a second American Civil War (fought over an abolition of fossil fuels in the wake of climate change-driven sea rise) turn her into a revolutionary and it's a very realistic psychological portrait of the effects of war...which also means it is a huge downer.

 



In Life...

  • A little bit of relaxation: Now that session is over, I'm really enjoying having time to read again, and just generally having a less hectic schedule than I have recently. We're also been planning some travel for later this year, which definitely feels like another big step towards a return to normal.  
  • Fifth wedding anniversary: We're officially been married for half a decade (and together for close to a decade now) and I remain the luckiest lady in the world!

One Thing:

When you grow up on a lake that freezes over, your mom buys you and your sister pairs of used skates every year and tosses you outside to figure out how to ice skate/entertain yourselves for a while! But while I absolutely love watching figure skating, I'd never taken actual lessons until now! I've started Learn to Skate (at Basic 1, no need to get ahead of myself) and am having a lot of fun...I'd definitely recommend trying it out if you have a rink near you!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Books of the Second Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, the subject we do twice per year and I whine about but ultimately suck up and do...most anticipated new releases for the rest of the year! I do not tend to read new releases until they've had some time to collect reviews, but here are ten that look promising.


The Council of Animals (July 20): This one seems right up my alley...in a world where humanity seems to have been wiped out, animals are in charge. But when they find a pocket of humanity, what will they do with them?

Once There Were Wolves (August 3): This one is also focused on animals, but in a very different way. It's the story of two sisters with a mysterious past who go to Scotland to reintroduce wolves...only to run into issues when a death is attributed to the pack.

The Human Zoo (August 10): One of the reasons I enjoy reading is the opportunity to discover more about the world, so I am really interested in this book that explores both the history and present of the Philippines.

Dog Park (September 21): I'm always interested in things set in the post-Soviet era, and this book sounds dark and insightful about the ways in which women's bodies have been used over time. I'm also trying to read more literature in translation, so this fits that bill too.

Mr Cadmus (September 21): If a book is about the seemy underbelly of small-town life, I am always interested! This explores the relationship between cousins when a new resident moves to the cottage between the ones they own, and things go very sideways.

The Night The Lights Went Out (October 5): My husband got me into Drew Magary's writing, and I still remember when sports media Twitter was abuzz about when he collapsed suddenly at an event. This is his memoir about the experience and I can't wait to read it!

MacArthur Park (October 12): Another auto-read kind of subject for me are long-term female friendships, and while this one sounds a little on the soap-opera-adjacent side (one marries the other's ex-husband and they end up on a road trip together), it also seems like it could be good!

Dava Shastri's Last Day (November 30): This seems like fun, juicy drama, in which a matriarch with terminal cancer fakes her early death so that she can read her obits...and finds secrets she thought long-buried are still alive and well.

The Ballerinas (December 7): If you tell me your book is about fallout from ballet school secrets, I will read your book.

Beasts of a Little Land (December 7): In Japanese-occupied Korea, a little girl sold into the sex trade becomes friends with an orphaned beggar boy, and their relationship impacts them both throughout the rest of their lives. This is very much up my alley!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Book 290: A Tale For The Time Being


"But since these are my last days on earth, I want to write something important, too. Well, maybe not important, because I don’t know anything important, but something worthwhile. I want to leave something real behind."

Dates read: January 19-24, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I've never been able to regularly keep a diary. I did in middle school, and my mom found and read it, which meant I stopped. But even once I got old enough that the risk of someone else finding and reading my innermost thoughts was unlikely, I've never been able to get back in the habit even when I've tried. On the one hand, I wish I had a chronicle of my past, so I could go back and revisit my own record of my thoughts and feelings about the things that I've done and lived through. On the other hand, though, sometimes I'm glad that I don't have the option to do so. The things that are important, I've remembered. The things that maybe felt like a big deal at the time that have faded away...maybe there's a reason for that and it's better for me.

But not keeping a diary means that if something were to happen to me, my thoughts (besides those captured here!) would be lost forever. When Ruth finds the diary of a young Japanese woman washed up on the shore of her coastal Canadian town in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, she assumes at first that it must be related to the tsunami. Of Japanese descent herself, Ruth (who shares virtually all of her personal details, including her name, the name and occupation of her husband, the small Canadian coastal island where she lives, and her profession as a writer with the author) starts reading it, intrigued by the life of diary-keeper Naoko, Nao for short. The teenager was born in Japan but mostly raised in America before her tech-industry-employee father loses his job and they go back to their homeland. She tells a tale of desperate unhappiness: behind in school, cruelly bullied by her classmates, worried about her father and his withdrawal from life. Her only comfort comes from her grandmother, a centenarian Buddhist nun called Jiko.

Ruth becomes more and more drawn in to Nao's story, distracting her from her own hopelessly mired writing project, a memoir based on caring for her mother in her end years, and drawing her more into the community on the island, which she's never felt connected to. She tries to find out more about Nao and her life, only to find herself mysteriously thwarted...until suddenly the boundaries between their times and worlds begin to blur. Can Ruth somehow save Nao, if in fact Nao needs saving? And can she find a way to solve her own existential crises?

I'm not always a fan of split narratives, since I think one side of the story almost always ends up being more compelling than the other(s). And there was a little bit of that here...Ruth's story wasn't especially boring or anything, but Nao's pieces were so much more interesting that I groaned a little bit internally when things went back to Ruth. And writing about writers (especially when that writer character is heavily based on the author themselves) often veers towards self-indulgence. Again, there was a little of this going on, but not to the extent that it dragged the story down past being mildly irritating every so often. It also steps into magical realism and meta-narrative when Ruth and Nao's stories intersect across time and space, and while the emotional truth of it comes through I'm not sure that it was entirely successful.

Basically, the book takes on a lot of potentially dicey elements and executes them competently-to-well, but not greatly. Even so, there's a lot to like here and I found it an intensely readable book, getting drawn into the mystery of what might have happened to Nao and whether Ruth would ever be able to find out. While I was certainly more engaged with Nao's story, Ruth was also a compelling character, and her issues were less dramatic but no less well-developed. The book is quite long, but it's paced well and doesn't drag or feel padded. It's easy to get drawn in and hard to put down, and feels like it will reward re-reading. Just as a heads up to readers, this book features a lot of very dark things, including merciless bullying and sexual assault, happening to a teenage girl and might not be the best choice for readers not ready for this kind of material for any reason. If you're able to deal with that, though, this is a very good book that doesn't quite get to greatness but is nevertheless a worthwhile read.

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of the Tearling

Two years ago, I was reading: American Psycho

Three years ago, I was reading: The Feast of Love

Four years ago, I was reading: Spook

Five years ago, I was reading: The Relic Master

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Book 289: Say Nothing

 

"Seamus started to ask around Belfast. Once, he ventured into a bar on the Falls Road that was known as an IRA hangout. But when he mentioned the name of his mother-in-law, the place went quiet. An old fellow slipped McKendry a bookie’s docket and asked him to go next door to make a bet. On the docket, the man had written: Get away."

Dates read: January 14-19, 2019

Rating: 7/10

We've all said things like "it looks like a bomb went off in here" or "it was like a war zone" without really thinking much about it. The reality is, of course, that most of us in the First World will never experience an active war zone, or see with our own eyes what the aftermath of an explosion looks like. Our lives are comfortably separated from those kinds of incidents. But as recently as the 1990s, there was a place in what's definitely the first world that knew street-level war: Northern Ireland. We saw some clips on tv, listened to U2 and The Cranberries, but (at least for me) knew actually quite little about what was going on and what life was like through the period called The Troubles.

In Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing, The Troubles are explored primarily through the lens of one disappearance: that of Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten. It opens with a startling scene: Jean at home in the evening, trying to relax a little after a full day of work, when masked figures turn up demanding entrance to the apartment. McConville's children try to resist them, but Jean is taken and goes with them. She never returns home. No one will say what's happened to her. We then go back, and forward, to examine how her abduction came to take place, and what became of all the players in the drama afterwards.

There's a lot of information in here: about the origins of the Irish Republican Army and the offshoots that came into being around the time of the fighting (like the Provisional IRA, the one you're probably thinking about when you think about the IRA), the leadership of that group, the eventual rise of Sinn Fein and end of active hostilities. But just as much, it's about people. Dolours Price and her sister Marian, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams from the IRA; and also Jean McConville and her family, how she might have drawn the attention of the IRA, the ways that the sudden and unexplained loss of their mother affected the children as they grew up.

I'll admit I struggled to get oriented in this book at first. I came in with very little background and a lot of the factual stuff, with often confusingly similarly named organizations and groups, is frontloaded. It was hard to get and stay engaged and I honestly found myself turning to Wikipedia quite a bit to get enough context for what I was reading to get my head around it. But once it finished with the set up and dug into the major figures tied up in the disappearing of Jean McConville, it found much more solid ground and got much more compelling. I was left with indelible impressions of Dolours, Brendan, and Gerry, figures who had been completely unknown to me beforehand.

The book prompted me to do a lot of thinking about the porousness of the line between terrorism and revolution, the astonishing power of pure conviction, and the potential of even violent people to turn over a new leaf and be a perfectly normal member of the community. That the members of the IRA thought of the violent methods through which they sought to achieve their aims as justified and that they were military rather than criminal in their killing of other people is obvious. Is this why people like Dolours were able to transition away from their former lives, because she didn't think of herself as a bad person? I always appreciate when a book is able to make me question my assumptions, and if you're interested in learning more about what happened during The Troubles, this book has a lot to offer. But do beware that the beginning is slow and may not provide enough information to really give the kind of context it's clearly looking to. 

One year ago, I was reading: Daughter of Fortune

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts

Four years ago, I was reading: Shattered

Five years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're previewing our upcoming reading for the season! I know for a lot of people, higher temperatures mean beach read season, but I am a weirdo, so here is what I'll be reading over the next couple months!


American War: This is a literary dystopian-style novel that I've been meaning to read for a couple years now.

The Snow Child: This seems to be loosely based on a Russian fairytale of the same name, but set in Alaska in the 1920s, and I've heard great things!

Pachinko: This book has been recommended to me SO many times!

Dreamland: This is nonfiction about the opioid epidemic, which is something I am always curious to learn more about as it continues to rage.

The Council of Animals: This is a new release, about a world where humanity seems to have wiped itself out and the animals are in charge, and they are faced with making a decision about what to do when they discover some leftover humans. It sounds fascinating!

Nabokov in America: I feel like people making all kind of assumptions when you say that Lolita is your favorite book, but it's one I love very much and this nonfiction work traces his road trips across America with his wife and how the country influenced him as a person and a writer. I can't wait to get into it.

The Sisters of Versailles: Probably the closest thing to an actual beach read on my list, this is another "historical fiction based on real events", about four sisters who each became mistresses of French King Louis XV. I need something dishy and fun every once in a while!

On The Move: Anyone who has read here long enough has seen me repeatedly mention how much I love Oliver Sacks, and this is the second of his memoirs about his life.

The Walls Around Us: A book about teenage girls, and ballet, and prison promises some really interesting drama!

The Human Zoo: This book tells the story of a young American woman who goes to her mother's homeland of the Philippines to do research on a book, but gets caught up in the tangled modern politics of the country. It sounds like a fascinating exploration of a country I'd like to be more familiar with!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Book 288: Astonish Me

 

"The motions. She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfected, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

Dates read: January 10-14, 2019

Rating: 8/10

If it's possible to fail out of ballet, I did as a child. First of all, I've been pigeon-toed my whole life, so a proper turnout was something beyond my capabilities. But mostly, I am just completely without grace. Despite my 5'2" frame, my dad nicknamed me "Gabezilla" at one point because I walk so heavily that I sound vaguely dinosaurian. My sister, on the other hand, had talent for lithe and lovely movements and did ballet until she graduated high school. I was always jealous, both of her elegance of movement and toe shoes.

Despite my own lack of capabilities, I've always enjoyed books and movies about ballet. Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me centers around the story of Joan, a young dancer in the corps of a New York company in the 80s when we first meet her. After a steamy romance with a Russian defector, Arslan, left her heartbroken, she reconnected with Jacob, the boy who worshipped her in high school. Now she's pregnant, ready to leave dance and move on. Joan and Jacob marry and move to California with their son, Harry, where he works in educational research and she tries to fit in with the other stay-at-home-mommies, but eventually opens a dance studio.

The story moves back and forth in time to reveal Joan and Jacob's high school friendship, her move to Paris with a ballet company in her early 20s, her role in Arslan's defection, her friend Elaine and her entanglement with the company's artistic director, and then later, after ballet, Joan's brief but unhappy friendship with a neighborhood couple with a daughter the same age as her son, the tension in Joan's marriage, where both parties are aware that she "settled" for him but it remains to be seen how happy that settlement was. Joan's role as a ballet teacher, her ambivalence about her son's interest in and obvious talent for dance, and Harry's own eventual growth into a man round out the narrative.

This book was an excellent example of why I always give an author two chances. Even if I really don't care for one book, if another one by the same author catches my eye, I'll give it a shot: not every book is for every person, after all, and sometimes a book just doesn't work for a reader because of reasons outside the quality of the work. I did not enjoy Maggie Shipstead's previous novel, Seating Arrangements, which mocked the well-off and grasping of Martha's Vineyard through dramatics over a wedding. But this one was wonderful! I found myself enraptured in Shipstead's tale, in the characters, in the various ways she looked at the relationships of artisans to their art. I'm not always big into non-linear narratives when it feels artificial, but the use of both this device and multiple perspectives really worked for the story she was telling.

The bits of this that didn't come together for me mostly happened near the end and while they kept the book from great rather than just good, they didn't derail the whole thing. I was too invested in the characters: Elaine, Jacon, Harry, his friend Chloe, and especially Joan. Joan was sometimes infuriating, sometimes enviable, sometimes mysterious, but always interesting. Her quest for fulfillment and happiness really resonated with me. If you're generally into books in which ballet/dance features prominently, you'll find a lot to like here. But even if what you're looking for is more along the lines of character-driven family drama, this is very satisfying. Highly recommended!

One year ago, I was reading: A Dirty Job

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: The Girl With All The Gifts

Four years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Five years ago, I was reading: The Name Of The Rose

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved that Made Me Want More Books Like Them

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that we loved so much we immediately started looking for the next thing that would scratch the itch. Here are ten books that I have been looking for "the next" version of (but haven't found yet). 


The Bear and the Nightingale: This gave me such a longing for more non-Western mythology (I know Russia can technically be considered Western, but there are equally compelling arguments that it's not) based stories. I haven't yet found anything that comes close.

The Secret History: Like so many others, I keep reading other books described as "dark academia" and they just keep being not as good as this book. 

Speak: I read this my freshman year in high school, and while there have been many books that aim for its blend of dark humor and emotional honesty, I haven't found any that quite measure up.

Stardust: This draws on the tropes of fairy tales to create something that feels both new and timeless in way that nothing else I've read manages to pull off.

The Remains of the Day: This book balances exquisitely restrained writing against big and powerful emotions. I don't think even Ishiguro himself has been able to match it since.

Wicked: Maguire has made a bit of a specialty out of these sorts of children's stories retold, but he hit a peak with this book that neither he nor anyone else has been able to fully replicate.

The Proud Tower: This spurred a deep and profound interest in the pre-WWI era that has driven me to buy and read several other books covering this time period, but none nearly as effectively.

1984: For me, this is the dystopian novel every single other one tries (and fails) to be.

The Red Tent: I have read a lot more Biblical fiction than one would expect for someone who is not religious, and it's because I keep trying to find something that matches this.

The Stranger Beside Me: This is great true crime, but it's made all the more compelling because of the author's personal connection to the killer and nothing else has managed to do it quite as well, for me.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book 287: The Winter of the Witch

 

"But still she crawled out of the cage, put her hands, then her face, into the fire, got to her feet. An instant she stood there, wavering, beyond fear, untouched by the flames. She’d forgotten they could burn her."

Dates read: January 6-10, 2019

Rating: 10/10

I took a creative writing class in college. I can't remember why, it must have been mandatory for my degree somehow, because I haven't ever had any real talent for the subject. It went about as well as anyone could expect given that my gifts lie elsewhere. We had to turn in a piece every week, and I got banned from haiku because I wrote so many. But I struggled hard any time I tried to write a short story, and always for the same reason: I never know how to end it, so it inevitably culminated in the tragic and unexpected death of the main character.

It's hard enough to write an ending to a story, I can't imagine trying to wrap up a whole series. How do you close the door on your characters and their world while making sure that you've done justice to your narrative arc? There have been plenty of authors who've stumbled trying to thread that needle. The first two entries in Katherine Arden's Winternight series have been some of my most-enjoyed books of the past few years, so while I was looking forward to the third and final entry, The Winter of the Witch, I must admit that I was nervous, too. What if the way she wrapped up the story fell flat? Luckily, we as readers have been in good hands so far and Arden proves that the success of the first two entries was no fluke.

As in the previous installment, Arden picks up her narrative right where she'd left off: Moscow is burning and Vasya is a wanted woman. After a narrow, dearly bought escape, she ventures into the realm of Midnight to seek out Morozko, the frost demon with whom she has an increasingly complicated relationship, and free him from the captivity he's been placed under. Meanwhile, her monk brother Sasha is trying to repair his relationship with the Grand Prince of Moscow, now on a seeming collision course for battle with the Mongols. Then there's the influence of the chaos demon Medved, whose interests suddenly have some alignment with Vasya's own. And Baba Yaga herself even shows up. As a decisive conflict draws ever-nearer, Vasya is fighting not just for Rus', but the preservation of the world of sprites and spirits she loves.

Arden has built a beautiful, enchanting world over the course of this series, and this book is a fantastic conclusion to it. I've gotten so interested in Slavic folklore over the course of my reading this series, and this entry added even more shading to this rich background. I was really curious as to how Arden would handle the slow-burning romance between Vasya and Morozko...she's never shied away from the wildly imbalanced power dynamics between them and I thought her resolution to their story hit exactly the right note. And the constant reference to political and religious power struggles within Rus' over the course of the series turn out to be more than just window dressing, introducing me to historical events I'd had no knowledge of beforehand.

There are some little things that I wished had been done differently...I found myself wishing for just a little reorientation at the beginning of the book (unless you've literally read the first two within the past couple months, you'll probably be a little bit lost, like I was). And I admit I'd hoped for a bigger role for Baba Yaga. She's such a prominent figure in Russian mythology that everyone knows she's got to make an appearance in this book, but I wish there'd been more of her. But honestly, this is one of the best series closers I've ever read, wrapping up the story in a way that felt natural rather than forced. This series is amazing and I recommend it to everyone! I can't wait to see what Katherine Arden does next!

One year ago, I was reading: The Moor's Account

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Riddance

Three years ago, I was reading: Boy, Snow, Bird

Four years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Five years ago, I was reading: Spinster

Monday, May 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: May 2021

 

 

Going to be honest here: the only reason this post is going up as usual in the morning is auto-scheduling. It's the last day of session, so as you read this, I am in Carson City madly running around and trying to keep on top of everything. By midnight Pacific time, it will be over and I will be able to read at my former pace again (hopefully)

In Books...

  • The Golem and the Jinni: I was so excited for this well-received story about two beings from Middle Eastern folklore living as humans at the turn of the 20th century in New York City. Unfortunately, it has significant pacing issues (often dragging until it hurtles forward at breakneck pace in the last 100 pages) and the characters felt flat. I couldn't really get into it.
  • The Royal We: When American Bex Porter does a study-abroad semester at Oxford, she's mostly looking for a fun escape...and to get out of the shadow of her over-achieving twin sister Lacey. Instead, she falls into the circle of and then in love with the handsome heir to the English throne, Prince Nicholas. This is very thinly-disguised Will-and-Kate fanfiction, and as long as that doesn't bug you, there's much to enjoy about this fluffy contemporary romance. 
  • Madam: I had high hopes for what looked like a creepy boarding school story set in remote Scotland, but this was a mess. The main character, young teacher Rose, is very underdeveloped and not especially interesting, and the school's secrets are not very difficult to guess. There's just not a full novel's worth of material here.
  • The Robber Bride: I love Margaret Atwood and I love character studies, which means this was right up my alley. Not only for its portrayals of college acquaintances who become bound together after having been scammed and undermined by fellow student Zenia, but for the mystery of Zenia herself.

 


In Life...

  • The last month of (hopefully) the weirdest session ever: I only started coming down to Carson City about 10 days before the end, having gone through 110 days of virtual meetings and monitoring committee meetings from my couch in my sweatpants. While I am never bummed to get to skip driving in the snow, I mostly hated not being able to see my friends and it was definitely worse rather than better.  

 

One Thing:

I spent years wearing cardigans instead of blazers because with an odd figure (strong shoulders, heavy bust, and smaller waist), I had a really hard time finding a coat that didn't make me look like a box. I've been trying to dial up my professional wardrobe, though, so invested in a J Crew Going-Out Blazer and then quickly picked up two more in different colors. It's so flattering and quite comfortable! Not cheap, but very worth the cost (and wait for sales!).

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Book 286: The Cuckoo's Calling

 

"Her bloodshot eyes squinted at nothing; she seemed momentarily mesmerized, lost in contemplations of sums so vast and dazzling that they were beyond her ken, like an image of infinity. Merely to speak of them was to taste the power of money, to roll dreams of wealth around in her mouth."

Dates read: January 1-6, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I can't imagine the pressure of being the author of a wildly successful and beloved series and getting ready to write your next book. The expectations are so high. People already have a set opinion about who you are and what you do as a writer, and are extremely attached to that opinion. Writing a book that's solid but not sensational means getting pilloried, having your whole career questioned. Anything less than magic creates its own news cycle.

For what it's worth, I thought The Casual Vacancy was good. Not great, flawed, but good. But from the reaction to it on the internet, you'd have thought J.K. Rowling followed up Harry Potter with a total dud. So I understand why, when she started her next project, she opted for a pseudonym. It's under "Robert Galbraith" that she's publishing her next series, mystery novels set in England starring a private detective called Cormoran Strike. In The Cuckoo's Calling, the first entry, we meet Strike, the illegitimate son of a rock star and a groupie, and veteran whose service in Afghanistan cost him part of a leg. We also meet his brand-new temp assistant, the young, intelligent, and newly-engaged Robin Ellacot. She's only supposed to stay for a week, as Strike can't afford an assistant and she's interviewing for "real jobs", but when she proves capable as a new case is brought into the office, she winds up staying on. The new case is a doozy, too: a young supermodel called Lula Landry has fallen from her balcony to her death, ruled a suicide, but her brother wants to prove that she was murdered.

The investigation takes Strike inside the worlds of the wealthy and high fashion, neither of which he fits into with any grace. He conducts his investigation methodically and thoroughly, interviewing her neighbors, the upper-class white mother that adopted the biracial Lula, her designer and model friends, shopgirls who saw her the day she died. When one of his contacts, a poor girl from a rehab group, turns up dead, Strike knows he's on the trail of someone truly dangerous. With Robin's help, he draws a trap for his suspect...while dealing with his own personal drama, like a sister he loves but struggles to connect with and the breaking of his engagement to a beautiful, unpredictable socialite.

I don't often read mysteries...the genre just doesn't do much for me. If it's too simple, I'm bored, but if it's convoluted, I get annoyed. This mystery wasn't much of the exception I was hoping it might be. I followed the interviews one-by-one, and while I can say that I never guessed the outcome, I also didn't quite buy it. The murderer's motives never really fell into place for me. It also just feels like the first in a series. There are plenty of allusions to both Cormoran and Robin's personal lives and issues, and they're given a little bit of context, but it seems clear that they're meant to be fleshed out properly with later books.

That being said, though, Rowling's writing is as good as ever. Both of the primary characters are vivid, and I enjoyed the non-romantic relationship she built between them. As to be expected, the world-building is also a high point. Rowling's London feels like neither the brightly burnished version we see on tourism ads nor Dickensian in its roughness. It feels like a modern, cosmopolitan city, with wealth and class and race divides and pockets of ease mixed alongside areas you might not want to walk alone at night. The storyline was engaging enough, for what it was, but I'm not much of an expert on what makes a good mystery. This is a promising series debut, and I'm interested to see how it develops!

One year ago, I was reading: The Space Between Us

Two years ago, I was reading: Midnight's Children

Three years ago, I was reading: The Sky Is Yours

Four years ago, I was reading: The Panopticon

Five years ago, I was reading: Shylock Is My Name

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Quotes About Memory

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at book quotes on a theme, and we get to pick that theme! I'm pretty sure I've done ones for things like love and friendship, so this time I'm showing you some book quotes about memory.

 

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.” - Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It's the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” - Lois Lowry, The Giver

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” - John Banville, The Sea

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” - Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

“Memory's truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own.” - Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

 It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk. The anticipation of dinner and a book. The dinner is by now forgotten; Lessing has been long overshadowed by other writers. What lives undimmed in Clarissa's mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it's perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.” - Michael Cunningham, The Hours

“And the more I thought about it, the more I dug out my memory things I had overlooked or forgotten. I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored. In a way, it was an advantage.”- Albert Camus, The Stranger

Neither question nor answer was meant as anything more than a polite preamble to conversation. Both she and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot—that sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds with baleful, sideways-staring eyes." - Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things 

“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out." - Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve." - Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Book 285: Margaret Beaufort

 


"Edward IV's death ushered in a new period of uncertainty in England. With an underage king, it was clear that some kind of regency would have to be declared. Edward IV had brought a stability to the English crown that it had not known since the 1440s, but his dynasty survived him by a period of only just over two years. As one historian has commented, Margaret played a major role in presenting her son, for the first time, as a credible candidate for the throne. She can be considered the second great kingmaker of the Wars of the Roses..."

Dates read: December 28, 2018- January 1, 2019

Rating: 7/10

As we all know, history is written by the victors. But it's broader than that: history is written by the powerful. Which helps explain why we have so many stories by and/or about wealthy, usually white, men. Those were the people with status, who had the means to have their lives and thoughts recorded and taken seriously by the kinds of people who would preserve them. It can be easy to conflate the fact that these stories exist with the idea that they're therefore the most important ones.

It was her connection to a powerful man that gave Margaret Beaufort's life the weight it needed to be documented at all. And what a life it was! In her book, Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty, Elizabeth Norton chronicles the times of the woman who gave birth to Henry Tudor, later to become King Henry VII of England. At age 12, she was married to Edmund Tudor, the son of former Queen Catherine of Valois with her second husband, who was literally twice her age. Despite this gap, she became pregnant before Edmund was slain when fighting for Lancaster against the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses, leaving her a 13 year-old pregnant widow. The birth was apparently traumatic...despite two subsequent marriages during her potential childbearing years, there's no reason to believe she ever again became pregnant.

As was not uncommon at the time, Henry's life diverged from his mother's. Only about a year after she had him, she was married to Henry Stafford, while Henry remained with his father's family. Her marriage to Stafford lasted longer than her first one, but he too perished in the Wars of the Roses (fighting for York) and Margaret became a widow again in her late 20s. This time, she married Thomas Stanley, whose military support would prove crucial to Henry's eventual reign. While the conflict was ongoing, though, she almost certainly plotted with her former rival, Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, against King Richard III. After Henry became king, Margaret exercised a significant amount of control over his court, almost equal to his queen. She outlived not only her third husband but ultimately, her son.

What I found remarkable about this book was how little Norton had to go on until after Henry's reign began. Margaret Beaufort was a significant heiress, close to the royal family, and a political player in the power games of the day. This, however, was not enough to create much of a record about her life...Norton does an excellent job of walking the line between a very dry recitation of the bare facts Margaret's life and extrapolating too heavily to make things more exciting but less accurate. When she does draw conclusions about subjective reality from the objective record, she explains how she got there, such as when she concludes that Margaret's second marriage was likely a fairly happy one because there's evidence that the couple renewed their vows.

Margaret's life had some quality high drama, and I appreciated the way Norton told her story. As fun as it can be to read something embellished like Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen, getting a sense of the actual person that existed, who is plenty interesting on her own, was something I thought Norton did well. The readership for this book is honestly probably pretty niche: unless you're particularly interested in the history of the English monarchy, particularly the Wars of the Roses, you're not likely to find this especially engaging. If you are interested in historical royal women, though, this is a very solid read and I'd recommend it!
 
One year ago, I was reading: The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires
 
Two years ago, I was reading: Midnight's Children
 
Three years ago, I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is
 
Four years ago, I was reading: Migraine
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That Are Complete Sentences

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting titles that are complete sentences. I've broken mine below into two sections...first up, books from my endless to-be-read pile, then books I've already read!

 

This Is How You Lose Her

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty

Everything Is Illuminated

You Should Have Known

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Orange Is The New Black

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book 284: The Island of the Colorblind

 


"Hearing this mix of languages started to give me a sense of Micronesia as an immense archipelago, a nebula of islands, thousands in all, scattered across the Pacific, each as remote, as space surrounded, as stars in the sky. It was to these islands, to the vast contiguous galaxy of Polynesia, that the greatest mariners in history had been driven – by curiosity, desire, fear, starvation, religion, war, whatever – with only their uncanny knowledge of the ocean and the stars for guidance."

Dates read: December 24-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Islands loom large in the cultural imagination. It's easy to project our own subconscious stuff onto them. For some they seem dangerously isolated and lonely. For others, they conjure up images of exclusivity and "getting away from it all". Some might see a place to explore and conquer for their own. For the super-rich, it seems like buying a private island is practically a rite of passage. A whole territory where you can make all the rules.

But islands aren't just symbolically important. They're also important from a scientific perspective...after all, it was the Galapagos Islands that helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution. And the kind of isolated community that islands usually were until very recently, when more of them became accessible through trans-oceanic flight, provide all kinds of data about what can happen to a population that extensively intermarries. Neurologist Oliver Sacks details his travels to two island groups to examine these kinds of phenomena in The Island of the Colorblind. It's really almost two books in one: in the first segment, he goes to Pingelap (in Micronesia) to learn more about the community there, which has a significant incidence of total colorblindness. And in the second, he goes to Guam to look into a unique neurological condition called Lytico-Bodig disease that may be linked to the local cycad flora.

The book departs from Sacks' more usual case study format, instead looking at larger populations with a few specific examples from each. Perhaps this is why I found it by far the least compelling of his work that I've read thus far. The front half of the book was solid but unspectacular, focusing not just on the mechanics of total colorblindness but (as is typical in his work) the experience of life with colorblindness and a thoughtful consideration of whether it should be considered something to be "fixed" if it were possible to do so. The back half was where it fell apart: there's no scientific consensus on what does cause Lytico-Bodig, which is a syndrome with varying symptoms, and Sacks indulges himself in long meditations on the cycad plants that may or may not contribute to the disease's development.

I love reading Sacks' work because of the way he presents his patients as full people, considering not just the obstacles they face from neurological disorder but the ways in which they are able to adapt to their new circumstances. I walk away in awe of how the brain works and the strength and ingenuity of people to cope when their brains stop working the way they used to. The book did none of that for me. That's not to say I didn't get anything out of it! Like I mentioned above, I did find the discussion of colorblindness compelling, if unfocused. But once the book moves to Guam and Sacks begins rhapsodizing about the greenery, it lost me. In Uncle Tungsten, his memoir of his childhood, he did manage to attract and hold my interest with the way he wrote about his love of chemistry and the elements even though neither of those subjects really does much for me on their own. But he fails to bring that same magic to cycads. Another thing that didn't really work for me was Sacks' tendency toward extensive footnoting. Usually it doesn't bother me, but the interruptions to the narrative for footnotes was so frequent that it broke up any momentum it might have been gathering and left this feeling like a slog to read. As you can tell, I didn't love this book. I'd recommend it to Sacks completists only. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: The Weight of Silence
 
Two years ago, I was reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
 
Three years ago, I was reading: Stiff
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Skies Belong to Us
 
Five years ago, I was reading: I Am Livia

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Trees on the Cover

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's theme is books with nature images on the cover, and I've decided to pick trees as my subject, so here are ten books with arboreal covers that are on my TBR!


The Magicians

A Separate Peace

The Snow Child

The City of Trembling Leaves

Beneath the Bonfire

Harmony

The Cutting Season

Blue Monday

Winter's Bone

The Daughters

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Book 283: The Prince of Tides


"From my father I inherited a sense of humor, a capacity for hard work, physical strength, a dangerous temper, a love of the sea, and an attraction to failure. From my mother I received far darker and more valuable gifts: a love of language, the ability to lie without remorse, a killer instinct, a passion to teach, madness, and the romance of fanaticism." 

Dates read: December 17-24, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

When you're little, your parents are like gods...they have all the power and you assume that they're "normal" because they're all you've ever known. When you get older, though, it's easy to get angry at your parents for the ways they failed you. And all parents fail their children in one way or another, no matter how hard they try. The hard part about growing up is letting go of that upset, of recognizing your parents as flawed but (usually) trying as best as they could. Which is all well and nice to say, of course, but it can be very difficult to put into practice.

And, of course, the scars for some people are deeper than those for others. The Wingos, of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, had a particularly brutal childhood in coastal South Carolina. Father Henry is a talented shrimper, but throws himself into get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably fail and takes out his frustrations physically on his wife and children. Mother Lila desires nothing more than to be accepted by the upper-class women who live the life of ease she covets and refuses to acknowledge, either publicly or privately, the abuse she and the kids suffer for fear of losing face. Older brother Luke is physically tough but open-hearted and fiercely protective of his younger siblings, twins Tom and Savannah. The twins are sensitive and smart, so much so that Savannah moves to New York City when she graduates to become a writer, and has some success. But the story begins with her suicide attempt, and Tom, whose own life is falling apart, is summoned north to help her therapist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, piece together the childhood that left her so fragile.

It's a wild and desperately sad tale, of mental illness and horrifying violence and even a tiger. But even with the sometimes-outlandish storytelling touches, most of the story is rooted in strong, real emotions: desperation, shame, greed. And Tom isn't the only one with a dysfunctional family: Lowenstein herself, lovely and intelligent as she might be, is locked into a toxic dynamic with her faithless musician husband. Her teenage son's need for an identity outside his parents' aspirations for him gives Tom a chance to regain his own footing as a football coach and the competent, capable person he'd forgotten he could be after the tragedies he endures. Eventually, Tom and Lowenstein are drawn into a bond of their own as they race through Tom's memories to help his sister.

This is the second Conroy I've read, and I'll be honest: if it had been the first, I might not have been so eager to continue reading his work. There are aspects of this that shine, but it's less compelling than The Lords of Discipline (despite being better known because of the movie adaptation). Conroy has a clear predilection for high drama, which doesn't bother me in and of itself, but some of the plot turns here verge on the ridiculous. That the Wingos acquire and manage to keep a young tiger, for instance, despite the crucial role it plays in a climactic scene, strained my investment in the story because it was so unbelievable. And I wasn't sure about how the story handled Savannah's schizophrenia, treating her struggle with a mental illness as a problem that could be solved by putting together her life story.

What saved the book from devolving into cheesiness is Conroy's commitment to emotional truth. He has a unique talent for investing the male struggle with what it means to "be a man" (particularly, a Southern man, which has its own added level of complication) with real poignancy. The relationships he portrays between Tom and his siblings are rich and deep and realistic, and despite the more melodramatic elements what really drives the action are the kind of everyday human failures that we've all watched happen in our own lives. It took me a while to get into the book, as I struggled to get invested in the self-pity of a middle-aged white dude, but once I did get into it I thought it was solid. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it (I'd point anyone to Discipline first) because it was so uneven for me, but if you like stories about families or the South or want to read the book behind the movie, it's worth reading. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: Bird Box
 
Two years ago, I was reading: First
 
Three years ago, I was reading: On Trails
 
Four years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights
 
Five years ago, I was reading: The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Most Recent Adds To My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically our ten most recent reads, but I tell you about those in my monthly updates anyways. So I thought I'd talk about the ten most recent additions to my to-be-read list instead!


Assembly: This book, about a Black British woman who reconsiders her life and choices as she prepares to go to a fancy party at her fancy boyfriend's fancy house, sounds thoughtful and interesting!

The Nakano Thrift Shop: I will read nearly anything published by Europa Editions, and I do like to try out things that are meant to be charming rather than total downers every once in a while. 

Never Saw Me Coming: I am not big into thrillers, but this one seems like something I'll like...it's about a group of sociopathic students enrolled in a study at their college when one of their own is murdered, and they have to decide how much they can trust each other.

Everybody Behaves Badly: Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is one of my least favorite books I've ever read, but I am intrigued by the real-life story that inspired it. 

Black Water Sister: This is part of my efforts to read more books set outside of the US/Europe, and is a fantasy novel set in Malaysia about a young woman possessed by a vengeful spirit.

Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was A Girl: This one is going to be heavy...it's a memoir a woman who was raped by a close friend as a teenager, and what that meant for her and her life and their continued friendship, and her meeting with him to talk about it years later. It's supposed to be very very good. 

Bad Girls Never Say Die: This is apparently inspired by The Outsiders, which is one of those classics I've never actually read, but anything that gets really into the friendships of teenage girls is something I want to try!

The Robber Barons: I have turned into a full History Dad in some ways, so this look at the era of the super rich "robber barons" sounds fascinating. 

The Final Girl Support Group: I really enjoyed Hendrix's previous book and think this looks just as entertaining!

The Fabric of Civilization: I've always had an interest in these sorts of "a look at history through the viewpoint of [thing]", and this one is about textiles and I am very curious.