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.

Friday, April 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: April 2021

 


This month has seen a major life change: we've moved! As much as we both loved living less than a ten minute walk from work (our work buildings are actually just across the street from each other), it was time to move on after six years where we'd been. Moving is always stressful, but in the middle of legislative session made this a very hectic month indeed!

In Books...

  • The Girl on the Train: I feel like just about the last person in the world to have read this best-selling thriller, and while I can understand why it was popular (it's fast-paced and reasonably engaging), I have to admit it didn't wow me. I'm not sure she sold me on all of the plot twists, and there were some characterization issues as well. A great airplane/beach read but not much more than that.
  • The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: This is similar to recent smash hit Daisy Jones & The Six in that it's told like an oral history, about a fictional musical act, but that's where the similarities end. This story is deeper and more poignant, about a white man from the UK and a black woman from Detroit who made a few rock'n'roll albums together in the 70s and became notorious when a riot broke out when they were performing. The pacing is inconsistent, but the format keeps it moving along and the story really grabbed me. 
  • Swamplandia!: The people who love this book really love it, but I'd been a little hesitant on it because it just didn't seem like it was going to be for me. It was picked for my book club, which meant I got to confirm yet again that I've developed a pretty good sense of what I'm going to enjoy. The writing was vivid, but I just don't get anything out of the Southern Gothic style and I felt like the plot didn't really go anywhere.
  • Endzone: This nonfiction book has a very specific audience...if you are someone who loves Michigan football, and has less-than-fond memories of Dave Brandon (guilty on both counts), this is a book that will fascinate you. Bacon strives to give a real, three-dimensional portrait of Brandon, and depict the process that led to the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. If you're not interested in those subjects, though, this will be a tough sell. 
  • Fangirl: In a stressful moment, this very sweet YA novel about a girl in her first year of college struggling with social anxiety as she writes slash fanfic about her favorite series (centered on a boy wizard fighting evil) and finding first love went down very smooth. I'd not loved my first try at Rowell but found this one very enjoyable indeed. 


 

In Life...

  • We bought a house: That's right, we didn't just move, we moved into our first house! We started looking in mid-February and put in two offers that didn't work out before we made it happen. Reno is a surprisingly bonkers real estate market! We love our new place and we're super excited to make it our home!
  • I got my first dose of vaccine: My second dose is actually tomorrow, so in just about two weeks I will be about as immune as it is possible to be to COVID. I'll be able to go out to restaurants again, feel mostly comfortable traveling to do things like finally meet my own nephew...after over a year of this disease having changed our world, this is such a relief.

One Thing:

I am a dedicated Oscars-watcher, and have always wondered about the ill-fated year when James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted together. It seemed like such an odd idea, and was so uncomfortable in execution, that I'd been very curious about the thought process. This behind-the-scenes look at it was interesting and entertaining, especially as the ceremony continues to struggle to find secure footing amid ever-declining ratings.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Book 282: The Goldfinch


 

"The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any movement blow me apart."

Dates read: December 7-17, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

When I was little, my mom took me (and later, my sister) often to the Detroit Institute of Arts. When I was really young, we lived in the city, so it wasn't a long drive. But even when we moved out to the suburbs, we went fairly frequently. It's an amazing museum, commensurate with the sophistication of Detroit at the time it was established, and I've been lucky enough to see some truly wonderful art there, but the first painting I remember loving isn't one of the big name pieces (though it is one of the most popular). It's called "The Nut Gatherers", by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and shows two little girls in a forest clearing. It's hard to put my finger on what I've always found so compelling about it, but it's my first memory of art that made me feel something.

While not every artwork is for everyone, great art can have a powerful effect on the viewer. The title work of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is a small painting by Carel Fabritius, showing the namesake bird perched on a feeder to which it is chained. Theo Decker first sees it on what is the worst day of his life. In trouble for getting into some adolescent mischief, he and his mother have been summoned to the principal's office. With time to kill before their meeting, they stop at the MoMA to see an exhibition that includes the title artwork. Theo likes the paintings, but is mostly busy paying attention to a lovely red-haired girl about his age, accompanied by a much older man. He's just spotted her again by the gift shop when his mother goes back to take one last look at the art...and then the bomb goes off. When Theo comes to, the old man he'd seen with the pretty redhead directs him to take The Goldfinch off the wall and keep it, and then dies.

Theo returns home, and when he learns of his mother's death, he's taken in by the upper-crust family of a school friend. He also forges a connection with Hobie, the business partner of the old man, who turns out to have been the great-uncle of Pippa, the red-headed girl he finally actually meets. Of course once Theo is finding some stability and solace, his father (who'd left the family and New York quite a while before) suddenly reappears, taking Theo back with him to his new home in Las Vegas. While there, the traumatized Theo meets fellow damaged teen Boris, who introduces him to drugs and alcohol. After another tragedy strikes, Theo takes back off to New York, going to Hobie for support, and eventually growing up to become his new partner in the antique shop he runs. But when a mysterious customer hints that he knows what happened to the long-missing painting, Theo finds himself drawn into a criminal underworld to try to extricate himself from his problem.

Tartt's The Secret History is an all-time favorite of mine. She's an assured and extremely talented writer, which is a good thing because this is a wildly ambitious novel. And she mostly pulls it off! There's a LOT going on here, but Tartt keeps her plot moving while she develops Theo, Boris, and Hobie into rich, deep characters. The references to classic literature, Great Expectations and Crime & Punishment particularly, are heady comparisons to invite but they feel earned, Tartt's writing quality really holds up to the canon. I was engrossed in the story she was telling me pretty much the whole time. And it's not a big thing, but as a transplant to Nevada myself (albeit the northern end), I thought she captured the feeling of the desert outskirts of Las Vegas beautifully, especially the ridiculous space of it when compared to a city as tightly compacted as New York. And I loved the way she wrote about Popper!

As good as it is, there are definitely things that don't quite work here. I thought the main female characters (Pippa and Kitsey) were mostly underwritten and sometimes felt contrived. Despite the occasional references to cell phones/modern technology, the book felt old-fashioned in a way that made those references feel shoehorned and anachronistic. It felt like the two "halves" of the book (Theo's childhood and then adulthood) were unbalanced...I thought some of the former could probably have been edited down to let the latter breathe a little more. And while Theo's issues with drugs were written in a way that made them very understandable, I've never found reading about people taking substances all that interesting and the book's continued engagement with it sometimes lost my attention. But all in all, these are fairly minor quibbles. The book is a very very good one, and I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of a doorstoper!

One year ago, I was reading: Foundation

Two years ago, I was reading: Jackaby

Three years ago, I was reading: The Book of Unknown Americans

Four years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Five years ago, I was reading: The President's Club

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Animals In Their Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is meant to be animals in books, but since I just did a list like that about six months ago, I've decided to instead give you a list of ten books off of my TBR list with an animal in their title. There are a LOT of avian ones, so I've started with five of those and then gone on from there!


The Thorn Birds

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Black Swan Green

Silver Sparrow

The Nightingale

Wolf in White Van

Archivist Wasp 

All The Pretty Horses

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

The Tigress of Forli

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Book 281: Interpreter of Maladies


"She was like that, excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream, or dropping a letter in a mailbox. It was a quality he did not understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate, or see. He looked at her face, which, it occurred to him, had not grown out of its girlhood, the eyes untroubled, the pleasing features unfirm, as if they still had to settle into some sort of permanent expression."

Dates read: December 4-7, 20187

Rating: 7/10

Lists/Awards: Pulitzer Prize

When you actually think about it, the United States is an enormous country. If you travel the distance equivalent of a few states in Europe, you're in an entirely different nation, with its own language and culture and customs. So it's no surprise that moving to a new region can feel, in a small way, like immigrating. When I moved from the Midwest to the Deep South for law school, I felt different from many of my classmates. We all spoke the same language and ostensibly had the same national norms, but life there was not like the life I'd known (and before you assume, I am not saying that to denigrate the South...people there were mostly lovely and there are few things that bother me more than people making cheap jokes at the expense of Southerners). And then moving again from the Midwest to the Mountain West, it was the same thing. I've been a Nevadan for nearly a decade now, but there are still little things that happen every so often that remind me that I'm not really from here.

Themes of immigration, of the struggle to understand a new culture, permeate Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. It's not necessarily the central point of every story, though...while all of them do feature Indian people, there are two that are set in India among Indians, and a few of them have white people as main characters. The stories cover a variety of situations, from a young couple struggling to reconnect after a tragedy to second-generation Indians traveling to the country of their parents' birth. Loneliness and disconnection are everywhere, and while many of the stories are more-or-less sad, there are also moments of levity and humor and on the whole this is surprisingly not a bummer collection to read.

I struggle so hard with conveying my thoughts on short stories, y'all, unless they're of the "interlinked" variety. For my money, this is a strong but (as almost always) uneven collection of work. My favorite stories were the opener ("A Temporary Matter") and the closer ("The Third and Final Continent"). That first one, about a couple reconnecting during a utility blackout, was a total incredible gut-punch and had me psyched for more of the same. And while there are high moments (like "This Blessed House", about a couple who keep finding tacky Christian decor in their new home and the tension between the husband and wife about what to do with it, which I found incredibly funny, and the not-at-all-funny-but-heartwrenching "Mrs. Sen's", about a preteen being babysat by a desperately lonely young Indian housewife), nothing comes close again to the impact of the first story until the last one, which relates the tale of a young Indian man who has just moved to the US and his very elderly white landlady.

All of the stories are very technically accomplished...they're well written, the characters are vivid, the prose is insightful. As someone with no gift at all for creative writing, I admire short stories almost more than I do novels. To tell a whole story that emotionally resonates in a limited page count is something fiendishly difficult, and Lahiri does it beautifully. While some of the stories are more closely related than others (there's no crossover in any of them), they all feel like they belong, nothing feels shoehorned in. Even some of the weaker stories, like "Sexy", have moments that I find indelible and remain with me even after reading several more books since I finished this one. If you like short stories, I'd highly recommend this. If you like Lahiri's work generally, I'd also recommend it. There's a reason this one won the Pulitzer, y'all: it's very good.

One year ago, I was reading: Foundation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lowland

Three years ago, I was reading: The Kingmaker's Daughter

Four years ago, I was reading: The Leavers

Five years ago, I was reading: Dune

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Brightly Colored Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Continuing with the colors-type theme of last week, this week we're looking at books with bright covers. And why not? It's springtime! Here are ten books on my TBR list with vivid covers!

 

Here Comes The Sun

Looking for Alibrandi

Homegoing 

The Star Side of Bird Hill

Where The Line Bleeds

Trainwreck

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Foreign Gods Inc

Home Fire

The Impossible Fairy Tale

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book 280: Once Upon A River


"For another hour they talked. Every detail of the day’s events was gone over, the facts were weighed and combined, quantities of surmising, eavesdropping, and supposition were stirred in for flavor, and a good sprinkling of rumor was added like yeast to make it rise."

Dates read: December 1-4, 2018

Rating: 9/10

What makes a good story? As a person who spends a lot of time writing about my reading, I think about this question a lot. It has to have compelling characters, and it has to have an interesting plot, and it has to be skillfully told. If one of those things doesn't quite come together, the experience of the story doesn't work as well as it could. But there will always be dissent on the best stories, because not everyone thinks the same things make them care about the characters, or get them involved in what's happening to those characters, or are pleasing from a audience perspective.

How to tell a good story is at the heart of Diane Setterfield's Once Upon A River. She sets her action in and around a tavern called The Swan, set along the Thames River in a generically old-timey version of England. This tavern, you see, is famous for its storytellers. One dark midwinter's night, when there are just a few people left at the tavern telling each other tales, there's a great commotion at the door. A man bursts in, bloodied and bruised, holding what at first seems to be a doll. Upon closer inspection, she's revealed to be a little girl, beautiful but dead. Her vitals are checked by Rita, a local medic of sorts, but there's no hope...until suddenly her heart begins to beat again, and her chest to rise and fall with breath. However, she does not respond to any questions about her provenance. 

Three families believe she could be theirs: Helena and Anthony Vaughn, a young couple whose little daughter was kidnapped and never recovered; Robert and Bess Armstrong, who believe the child could be the hidden offspring of their wayward son Robin; and strange, lonely Lily, who thinks the child could be her long-lost little sister. The girl silently accepts being initially placed with the Vaughns, and while Helena is ecstatic, convinced that this is her own child returned to her, Anthony remains skeptical. And Rita, who has long lived alone, finds herself drawn closer and closer to the girl she continues to monitor as she also helps the photographer who brought the girl into their lives recuperate. The tension between what all of these people want to believe and the truth keeps growing as the real history of the girl continues to elude everyone, until (of course) the stirring climax.

There's magical realism here, which isn't always my favorite, but it's applied with a light and nimble touch, serving the greater emotional truth of the story. And in a book focused on storytelling and the ways that a well-told story can entrance a reader, you're conscious of the emotional manipulation going on, but it's done so well and so satisfyingly that it doesn't matter. It feels very much like a fairy tale, with characters who manage to both be broad enough to be recognizable as archetypes and specific enough to get invested in. And there are callbacks to classic literature (Great Expectations comes particularly to mind) that add to the pleasure for the reader familiar with them, but aren't necessary to understanding or enjoying the book.

Setterfield's prose and plot work beautifully together to grab and keep attention. I honestly found it difficult to put down, but when I did and then picked it back up, it was easy to get reoriented and swept back up in it. If you're someone who's driven batty by a failure to get all plot points resolved, be warned that this book does wind up with some ambiguities. For my part, I thought it was refreshing to have a little mystery left. I really loved reading this and would highly recommend it to all audiences, it's a wonderful book that I think would have a lot of appeal to a wide variety of readers.

One year ago, I was reading: A Beginning at the End

Two years ago, I was reading: The Fever

Three years ago, I was reading: Sex at Dawn

Four years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Five years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That Sound Like They Could Be Crayola Crayon Colors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books on my TBR with titles that also sound like they could be Crayola crayon colors. This was fun to think about, I've never really considered book titles this way!

 

Cinder (very dark grey)

Night (blue-black) 

Lagoon (dark blue-green)

Tiger Lily (rich orange)

Purple Hibiscus (light purple)

Silk (yellowish white)

Heat and Dust (reddish brown)

Midair (bright clear blue)

Gold Fame Citrus (golden yellow)

Oblivion (pitch black)

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Book 279: Messy

 

"On television, big, revealing statements always elicit loud gasps, and then a lot of background whispering with hands clapped to open mouths, while the truth-teller stands by looking refreshingly liberated. But TV is a dirty, dirty liar. Because there were no dramatic sound effects for Max's confession, no slow clap, nor a handy background music swell to let everyone know she'd just done something courageous. There was just silence. And then, fury."

Dates read: November 27- December 1, 2018

Rating: 6/10

As much as I aim for authenticity in this space, there's no denying that I think carefully about what I'm putting up here. Everything gets edited after drafting. There's plenty that I think that never even makes the draft. I don't have my whole name or the most pertinent personal details about myself on here, but it would probably not be at all difficult to find me if you put even a little bit of effort into it, and people that I know in my real life read it. So I have to be mindful of how I present myself, how it reflects on me and the people in my life. Thankfully, there's not much controversial about a book blog!

Curating an online presence is something basic to the life of a millennial. So when teenage wannabe starlet Brooke Berlin is trying to build her profile in Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan's Messy, she seizes on the idea of a blog. She wants it to be witty and dishy and make her seem like the kind of sassy and smart girl that people want to see onscreen. The only problem is that she's not an especially talented writer. She puts up an ad, prepared to pay a generous salary (with an action movie megastar for a father, she's got the resources to make it happen), only to find that the best applicant is her nemesis, Max McCormack...who just so happens to be her sister's best friend.

Max has no real interest in making Brooke look good, but she does need some funding for an NYU summer writing program, so OpenBrooke.com is soon up and running. In order to get the material she needs, Max is forced to spend quite a bit of time with Brooke, including on the set of the Nancy Drew movie Brooke has been cast in the lead role for. A flirty friendship develops between Max and Brady, who's been cast as Brooke's love interest, but when Brooke takes an interest in him, Max finds herself having a much harder time taking those checks and letting everyone think that Max's witty, irreverent personality is actually Brooke's.

This book is a kind of sequel/companion to Cocks and Morgan's debut, Spoiled, though that book's lead character Molly (Brooke's sister) takes a backseat in this one. While I found Spoiled a little too breezy for a book about a teenager who finds herself in the middle of celebrity LA after the death of her mother and the uprooting of her entire life, that same tone works much better here for a story without that kind of heaviness. Messy is funny, and packed with pop culture references that will delight those of us who grew up in the 90s. There's even a makeover montage! And in a nod to Cocks and Morgan's day jobs (they write GoFugYourself.com), we even get excerpts of the blog posts that go up, which are themselves a snarky treat.

The biggest downside here is how predictable it all is. Pretty much as soon as the plot starts to get set up, it's obvious where it's going to go. There isn't much in the way of subverted expectations, which could have elevated this from "fun fluff" to something more. That's not to say this isn't enjoyable, it very much is! But it's so light as to be almost completely forgettable. This is a perfect beach/airplane read...it doesn't require much attention and it's entertaining. If you're looking for that, you've found a great option! If you're looking for anything more, though, look elsewhere.

One year ago, I was reading: Amateur

Two years ago, I was reading: The Last Romantics

Three years ago, I was reading: Silent Spring

Four years ago, I was reading: Moonglow

Five years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Gladly Throw Into the Ocean

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is books we would gladly throw into the ocean. I'm not big on the idea of book destruction, I'll admit. Even if the book isn't really my deal, I'm not usually ready to condemn it for all time. These ones, though...these ones tempt me.


American Psycho: Truly the most disturbing thing I've ever read. It's a razor-sharp satire and I appreciate Ellis's talent, but honestly I don't think anyone should read it.

The Circle: This book had the potential to say interesting things about social networking and the way it has changed the way people relate to each other...but instead it told a very simple story about people who are awful in deeply boring ways.

The Sisters Chase: I read this for my book club, and found it manipulative and profoundly unoriginal, but I DID enjoy the experience of ripping it apart in discussion.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: There are not words for how deeply and profoundly I loathed this book.

The Grapes of Wrath: If flat, two-dimensional characters, moralizing, and incredibly obvious metaphors are for you, you'll love this! I read it for AP English and it still makes me angry that I wasted my time on it to this day.

Atlas Shrugged: One of the few books I've ever given up on, during the like 100-page monologue by John Galt. I've actually read the rest of Rand's works and will argue that We The Living is actually pretty solid, but this book is just purely a piece of political propaganda.

Ask The Dust: That the author hated women was very obvious almost immediately, and I never really felt like there was a point to this story at all.

Crime and Punishment: Can you kill someone without feeling guilty? Spoiler alert: no. That's the book. 

The Sun Also Rises: Hemingway's writing just generally don't do it for me, but add in the relentless misogyny and it's a big "no thanks" from me.

Don Quixote: I don't love satire generally, but found this one in particular so very tiresome. It has like three jokes endlessly repeated over what felt like a billion pages.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Book 278: The Possibilities


"Afterward, I had touched my abdomen. I pinched my skin. I thought it was possible that that moment, that particular choice, would hurt me for the rest of my life. Or maybe it wouldn’t. I would never know. Everything just becomes a part of you. Gets woven into the tapestry. The next day was an ordinary day."

Dates read: November 22-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Even though it's now been nearly a decade since I practiced law, both of my parents still want me to go back to it. I feel extremely comfortable with my decision to leave it behind. I was so miserable, and while a significant portion of that misery was related to the exact situation I was in, I figured out enough about the general situation of your average litigator to know that it wasn't for me. Some people thrive under constant pressure, find it exciting and stimulating to never know what the next day will bring. Not me. I crack. Before it was over, I was crying in the shower every morning, terrified of what might be facing me at the office that day. Getting out was 100% the right call and I am very happy doing what I do now.

My parents just want the best for me. They want to see me put that legal education that I paid for to full use, to get to the earning potential that would make it easier to pay off those student loans. They want a life of success and comfort for me because they love me. But children have a way of turning into their own people. In Kaui Hart Hemming's The Possibilities, reporter Sarah St. John is struggling with the recent loss of her son, Cully. In his early 20s, he'd recently moved back in with his mom in their hometown of Breckinridge when he was caught in an avalanche while out on the slopes and killed. A few months after his death, as Sarah is trying to figure out how to start living in, she finds herself confronting the reality that she might not have known him as well as she thought.

First, she and her best friend, Suzanne, find evidence that Cully was selling pot when they're cleaning out his room. But more importantly, a young woman called Kit turns up on Sarah's doorstep out of nowhere. She's pretending to be making some extra cash shoveling snow, but it turns out she was the girl Cully was seeing when he died. And she's pregnant. As his family (Sarah, her father Jack, and Sarah's ex/Cully's father, Billy) prepares for a final celebration of his life, Kit's pregnancy and uncertainty about what to do about it stirs up powerful emotions.

Hemmings clearly has an area of interest in her writing: much like the Kings in The Descendants, the St. Johns in The Possibilities are a family coping with the loss of a loved one in a setting of intense natural loveliness. Each family has a quirky member who serves as empathetic comic relief (foul-mouthed child Scottie in Descendants, here QVC-addicted Jack), and each family deals with an outsider connected to the loved one as they grieve. Ordinarily I wouldn't think it quite fair to compare two of an author's works quite so closely, but the parallels between these books are so strong that it doesn't seem avoidable to do so. Hemmings is far from the only author who writes books that feel like variations on a theme (Jane Austen, for example, wrote wonderful books that aren't actually all that different from each other, plot-wise), but for these two to directly follow each other makes the feeling that this is a bit of a retread even stronger.

And to be honest, of the two, this one is worse. A lot of the elements feel a little half-baked, like Sarah and Suzanne's friendship, and the tension between Suzanne's desire for sympathy for going through a divorce and Sarah's continuing grief. And while the decision Kit wrestles with about her pregnancy is obviously supposed to be the source of great dramatic tension, I never really felt a great deal of suspense about how it would play out. The book does have highlights: Hemmings writes lovely, poignant prose, and for the most part she builds compelling characters and lets them shine. This is a perfectly pleasant book, and if I hadn't read and loved The Descendants before I picked it up, I would probably have liked it more. But it suffered for the inevitable comparison, and I'd recommend the other much more heartily.

One year ago, I was reading: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Two years ago, I was reading: All the President's Men

Three years ago, I was reading: Freedom

Four years ago, I was reading: Innocent Traitor

Five years ago, I was reading: The Group

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: March 2021

 


It's springtime in northern Nevada, which is actually a little worrisome...we didn't get as much snow as it would have been ideal to get in the mountains during the winter, and while the end of March in the Reno area certainly doesn't mark the final end of the snowy season, it's closer to the end than the beginning. We've already had our first 70-degree day! Meanwhile, my reading pace has taken a hit as the challenges of a remote session mean that I am super busy!

In Books...

  • Forget Me Not: I absolutely loved Alexandra Oliva's debut novel The Last One, so was really eager to get to her follow-up. It's in the general same kind of literary-minded thriller style, but it just did not grab me the way her first did. In part, that's a high bar to meet, but also I guessed a major plot development very early on and I am generally very bad at guessing these sorts of things. Definitely would make a very good beach/plane read!
  • The Romanov Sisters: I love Russian history, and I love royals, so this scratched two itches at once! It's well-researched and engaging, but I found it to be as much about Alexandra as it was about her daughters themselves. There were some historical aspects that went unexplained that I thought would have benefited from getting a little more attention. It's a solid read, but I was hoping to be wowed and I wasn't.
  • Black Tudors: When we think about or see depictions of Tudor England, it tends to be exclusively Caucasian. But though there were certainly lots and lots of white people, that doesn't reflect the real world at the time...Black people lived in cities, in the countryside, and participated in sea voyages. This book looks at the stories of ten different Black Tudors from all sorts of walks of life, and though it leans a little academic, I found it truly interesting!
  • The Grace of Kings: I was really excited for this fantasy epic, which instead of being based on medieval Europe like so many of them are, is based on the Warring States period of Chinese history. The plot takes a while to get going, and while I wouldn't have had an issue with that if the character-building was better, it's actually pretty weak (perhaps because there are just too many of them). It was reasonably engaging, but could have been so much better. 
  • Bad Feminist: I've always enjoyed Roxane Gay's writing, but this was the first time I'd read the essay collection that was a big deal a few years ago. I absolutely loved this book, she is so funny and smart and insightful.

 


In Life...

  • Session continues: We're just about halfway through session now, and as deadlines approach, the challenges of a digital format are becoming more and more apparent. We're all trying our best, but I for one will be glad when we can go back to being in person even if I have to admit that I do not at all miss the commute down to Carson City.

One Thing:

I don't know how much more bananas I would be if I wasn't still working out regularly despite not having stepped foot in a gym since last March. Since October, I've been using Team Body Project workouts, and I appreciate how many low-impact options they have because I have sensitive joints. They have several of their programs on YouTube, which is a good starting point to see if their style works well for you.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Places In Books I’d Love to Live

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about places in books that we'd love to live. Not all of these are necessarily places I'd want to live forever, but would enjoy spending at least a long weekend!

 

Hogwarts (Harry Potter): I mean, of course, right? I think everyone who read these books as a teenager dreamed of their own four-poster bed in the castle!

Pemberley (Pride and Prejudice): Austen is full of covetable houses, and the one so beautiful that it overrides the heroine's reluctance to seriously consider the hero is probably the best one, eh?

Gatsby's mansion (The Great Gatsby): This place hosts a new totally incredible party constantly, I want in on at least one of them!

Highgarden (A Song of Ice and Fire): There hasn't actually been a scene set at the seat of House Tyrell in the books yet as I recall, but it is frequently described as a particularly lovely part of the Seven Kingdoms.

The Abhorsen's House (Sabriel): The Abhorsen's house is where Sabriel meets Mogget (pretty much my favorite character in the series), and I love the idea of the Charter Magic sendings who are so old they just do what they want.

Darlington Hall (The Remains of the Day): The guests that were in attendance there were not ones I'd like to mix with, but the old English country estate itself sounds beautiful.

Rivendell (The Lord of the Rings): It IS the Last Homely House East of the Sea.

Hampden College (The Secret History): I think Ann Arbor was a lovely place to go to school, but there's always been a part of me that wishes I'd gone to a college in the northeast!

Brideshead Castle (Brideshead Revisited): For all of Charles's attachments to the Flyte family, it feels like what he's in love with as much as anything is their beautiful ancestral home of Brideshead Castle, and it's described as so lovely that it's not hard to see why.

Manderley (Rebecca): There's plenty of darkness within, of course, but Manderly was so beautiful to look at that it was on postcards, so I think it would be worth a visit.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Book 277: Dark Places

 

"I am a liar and a thief. Don't let me into your house, and if you do, don't leave me alone. I take things. You can catch me with your string of fine pearls clickering in my greedy little paws, and I'll tell you they reminded me of my mother's and I just had to touch them, just for a second, and I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me. My mom never owned any jewelry that didn't turn her skin green, but you won't know that. And I'll still swipe the pearls when you're not looking."

Dates read: November 19-22, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was in high school, I tore through true crime books. I loved the sense of controlled fear they gave me...sure, people did terrible things, but I knew the police got them in the end. My mom always thought it was a little macabre that I so frequently came home from the library or bookstore with an Ann Rule anthology. These days, though, true crime is big business. Not just books, but the first season of "Serial" kicked off the podcast boom...in particular, those revisiting old crimes. Some of them are more respectful than others (I'm side-eying you, My Favorite Murder), but as a culture, there's no denying we're obsessed with these mysteries, both solved and unsolved.

It wasn't that long ago, though, that people on the whole viewed true crime more along the lines my mother did: kind of morbid. So, in Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, when Libby Day, the only survivor of the murder of her entire family (besides her absentee father and the murderer himself), finds herself hard enough up for cash to attend the meeting of a group of true crime enthusiasts, the people she meets are very weird. The testimony Libby gave as a child put her older brother, Ben, behind bars, where he's been for the 25 years since. Little Libby had attracted donations for her future, and spent years living off of the proceeds, her unhealed psychological wounds (and not especially high levels of motivation) keeping her out of the workforce. But when she encounters the group, she's flat broke, and they offer her money to go back and talk to the people that were around back then...they believe Ben was innocent, and want Libby to help prove it.

The book is told through three perspectives: Libby in the present day, as well as Ben and their mother Patty in the past. We learn about the poverty the four Day children lived in on the family farm, their father's cruelty towards them, their mother's despair. We watch Libby's certitude about what happened on that terrifying night begin to erode as she digs deeper into the story, becomes invested despite herself. And we finally learn the truth of what happened, and Libby finds herself in danger of not surviving this time.

If you've read Flynn's enormously-bestselling Gone Girl (and you probably have, everyone has at this point, right?), you know that she really enjoys writing unlikable characters. Dark Places is not different on that score: Libby is prickly and angry, and although she obviously suffering from untreated PTSD and depression, it doesn't make her a pleasant person to spend time with. Teenage Ben has an inexplicable relationship with his rich and mean high school girlfriend, and a deeply problematic involvement with an elementary school girl. Patty is probably the most sympathetic, but her inability to protect her children from their father and the consequences of her own decisions make her difficult to really emotionally invest with. Everyone here is miserable and unable to cope with it, and while they do all feel realistic, it's very dark to spend time with them.

Unpleasant though they may be, the characters are richly realized, and Flynn's writing is compelling and vivid. The plot mostly hangs together through its twists and turns...at least, until the end. I'm not going to spoil it, but the ending feels incongruous with the rest of the book, taking a very different tone, and feels very out-of-left-field in a bad way. I'm not big into mystery/thrillers, so I'm not really sure how this fits into it and who exactly Flynn was writing for. It, like Gone Girl, is very interested in exploring female rage, and it feels by virtue of its character development more literary than typical for the genre. But it's also very bleak, with very little humor or lightness to break it up. It's well-constructed and interesting, but was not especially enjoyable for me to read. If what I've written sounds like something you're interested in checking out, I'd recommend it. But if it doesn't sound like it's for you, I assure you this is not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: White Teeth

Two years ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction

Three years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

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

Five years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Funny Book Titles On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're taking a look at books with titles that give us a giggle, so here are ten books on my to-be-read list with titles I think are kind of silly!


Bonk

A Confederacy of Dunces

I Woke Up Dead At The Mall

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero

A Field Guide to Awkward Silences

Don't Worry, It Gets Worse

Everyone Wants To Be Me Or Do Me

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Solutions and Other Problems

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Book 276: Uncle Tungsten

 

"My own mood had been predominantly scientific for four years; a passion for order, for formal beauty, had drawn me on—the beauty of the periodic table, the beauty of Dalton's atoms. Bohr's quantal atom seemed to me a heavenly thing, groomed, as it were, to last for an eternity. At times I felt a sort of ecstasy at the formal intellectual beauty of the universe." 

Dates read: November 14-19, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes I wonder how much our family has to do with who we turn out to be. Would I love reading so much if I hadn't grown up in a household where it was heavily encouraged? Then again, I do love TV even though my mom didn't let us have very much of it when I was growing up. And you hear all the time about nerdy kids who grew up in Sports Families (and vice versa). I guess the only thing I feel comfortable concluding is that raising can encourage latent tendencies in a child that already exist.

That being said, though, is it any surprise that Oliver Sacks grew up to be a scientist? The world-famous neurologist was himself the son of doctors, and had several aunts and uncles who made their living from science. The title personage of Sacks' memoir Uncle Tungsten was an uncle who owned a lightbulb factory that made filaments from, well, tungsten, and gave young Oliver the inspiration to study chemistry, which persisted through his London childhood. As Sacks got older, he became more and more engaged in studying the periodic table, and the book uses its development as a framework for Sacks' own.

In many ways, his recollections are tales from a lost world...not just the major historical events like the Blitz (which sent Sacks and one of his brothers to a boarding school in the countryside where they were treated with cruelty), but of a time when a child could get himself to the chemistry supply store and just buy the things they needed to perform their own experiments. Sacks built himself a chemical lab station in his room and happily produced minor explosions without much in the way of adult involvement. He recounts these experiments, along with the development of the periodic table and the discovery of new elements, in sometimes-tedious detail, but by the time he reaches his story's end, he's entered his teenage years and his interest in chemistry is no longer as all-consuming as it once was.

Much to the consternation of my own pharmacist mother, I never really took to chemistry. I found it dry and complicated in a way that did not engage my brain. This book's emphasis on the subject, therefore, kept me from being as fully immersed in it as I'd hoped to be. It is as much a book about how the elements were discovered and organized as it is about the childhood of Oliver Sacks. I actually found it fairly interesting despite myself, at least until it got later on when the naturally occurring elements were all on there and it turned towards the chemically derived ones.

On the whole, though, if you're inclined to like Oliver Sacks, you'll likely enjoy this memoir. In both this book and A Leg To Stand On, he treats his own experiences much like those that he recounts of his patients in his other work...with kindness and genuine curiosity. A lesser writer would have used the pathos of the awful boarding school experience he had to manipulate the emotions of his readers, but Sacks recounts it straightforwardly and without dismissing its ultimate importance, lets it slide mostly into the background. At the end of the day, this book recounts the childhood of a well-off British Jewish boy, surrounded by high achievers, who became deeply entranced with chemistry and grew up to be a neurologist. Very little exciting actually happens, but Sacks' skill with words and the obvious delight he takes in learning and sharing his knowledge, it ends up being a compelling read. I'd recommend it for anyone, especially Sacks fans and people who enjoy memoirs.

One year ago, I was reading: Lost Children Archive

Two years ago, I was reading: The Stranger

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Chemistry

Five years ago, I was reading: The Nazi Hunters

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With the first day of spring (at least, on the calendar) right around the corner, it's time to take a look at some of the books I'll be reading this season!

 

Bad Feminist: I love Roxane Gay's writing and am excited to read this very well-regarded essay collection!

The Girl on the Train: One of those books that was very trendy a few years ago and I still haven't actually read.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: I'm really excited about having gotten an advance review copy of this, which sounds like it'll mine similar territory to Daisy Jones and the Six but with more complexity and thoughtfulness.

Endzone: Always read John U. Bacon on Michigan football.

Fangirl: This is one of the Rainbow Rowell titles I see most often recommended and I'm very curious to try it!

The Golem and the Jinni: I loved The Bear and the Nightingale so much, I am definitely interested in other fantasy stories inspired by folklore!

The Royal We: Super excited for this book by the Fug Girls, very loosely inspired by the British Royal Family!

Madam: I'm a sucker for dark academia.

The Robber Bride: I am also a sucker for Margaret Atwood.

Tooth & Claw: A family drama...with dragons!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Book 275: Everything Under

 

"But I love you, you say to me in the supermarket, and I want to say it back but I can't, not yet; I can't give you that. And I want to tell you that I think we made it. Whatever it was that pressed through the cold, calm waters that winter, that wrapped itself around our dreams and left its clawed footprints in our heads. I want to tell you that it might never have been there if we hadn't thought it up."

Dates read: November 11-14, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes I feel like all the old versions of myself are fitted inside me like nesting dolls. The child I was, and teenager, and young adult aren't gone, they're just each obscured by the next layer I added. But they're never far away. I've never lost that excitement over going to the local ice cream shop in my hometown, it makes me feel like a kid again. Feeling socially rejected brings out that high-schooler who never felt cool enough. Sometimes just being back in my childhood home brings out the snotty teenager. If I get too much new information too quickly and feel overwhelmed, it takes me back to law school and how scary it was to not just instinctively "get it" like I always had in classes.

Gretel, in Daisy Johnson's debut novel Everything Under, seems to live a very normal life. She's a lexicographer in her early 30s, living alone in a normal home in England. But her childhood was very different than you might expect: she and her mother, Sarah, were river people who lived on a houseboat. There was no school, so Sarah taught her out of encyclopedias and dictionaries while they moved around, constantly wary of a threatening presence they call "the bonak". Briefly, a young man called Marcus stayed with them, but he mysteriously vanished. When Gretel was sixteen, her mother abandoned her and never returned. Gretel has never stopped looking for her, and frequently calls local hospitals and morgues in case she's turned up somewhere. Then, one day, she gets a call that leads her to an area near where she grew up and the pieces of her past start coming together.

We learn that she finds Sarah, and brings her home to care for her as something isn't right. And we also learn about Marcus, and what brought him into their world. The resulting story is a modern-day twist on the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus. It's difficult to share more about the book, both in an effort to avoid spoilers and because the book does not lend itself to being related straightforwardly. It's told from multiple perspectives, and across multiple timelines in a way that isn't always easy to understand.

This book is a very impressive debut in some respects. Johnson's prose is confident and thematically rich. The atmosphere and imagery is lush and vivid. Water, its depths and the way those depths can hide things, runs throughout the book (yes, that pun is deliberate). So too does the theme of language, the importance of the act of naming. I loved that the thing Gretel and Sarah are trying to flee, the source of their dread is called "the bonak". It just sounds like something that goes bump in the night. And, like the play that inspired it, it spends a lot of time playing with the idea of fate. How much do we make our own choices, as compared to being helplessly buffeted by the winds of circumstances that surround us? There's a sequence in the book where a woman, touched with foresight, helps avert crisis situations...only to find that every bad thing she thought she prevented just came back around in the end, that's so poignant that it remained in my head long after I closed the book.

As promising as the book might be, though, there are some major issues that kept me from being able to properly enjoy it. It manages to feel both overstuffed and underbaked in under 300 pages. The plot structure was often confusing, making it difficult to figure out what timeline the book is meant to be on, who is referring to who when they use pronouns. Though it was clearly meant to have the heightened drama of an ancient tragedy and not be strictly realistic, some of the decisions Johnson made for her characters were so jarringly odd that they didn't work. A few of the direct callbacks to the original Oedipus play, like the riddle book, felt shoehorned in, and it sometimes seemed like she was leaning both on our cultural knowledge of the play and her own evocative language to kind of "do the work" for her in a sense. I longed for an editor that could have shaped what is a powerful narrative by a gifted writer into something cohesive that really landed the big emotional punches it was swinging, but it missed as often as hit for me. This is a difficult book to read, featuring child abandonment and incest, and I would not recommend it for younger readers. Even for mature ones, though, it might prove unpleasant, and I found it off-putting enough that I can't affirmatively recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Til The Well Runs Dry

Two years ago, I was reading: Man's Search For Meaning

Three years ago, I was reading: Court Justice

Four years ago, I was reading: City of Thieves

Five years ago, I was reading: American Gods

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Precipitation in Their Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a "spring cleaning" themed freebie, so I thought I'd focus on the precipitation that washes the sidewalks clean in this season...and since I live in a place where early March is very much still winter, half of this list is books with "snow" in the title, and the other half is "rain"! These aren't books I've read yet, they're all on my to-be-read list!


Snow in August

The Snow Child

Snowflake, AZ

Moon of the Crusted Snow

Snow Crash

The Rain Heron

History of the Rain

Fifty Words for Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain

June Rain

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Book 274: The Gathering



"I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass."


Dates read: November 7-11, 2018

Rating: 5/10

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

It's weird what I do and don't remember from my childhood. There are moments that stand out in my mind clearly, the feeling of swinging on the swingset at home and launching myself into the air, of jumping on the trampoline, of the stinging black flies on the shores of Lake Superior. And then there are things that I know happened but I couldn't provide a clear recollection of if you paid me. And then there are some in-between, neither clearly recalled nor completely blank, that almost feel like memories out of dreams. Did they actually happen? Was I just told about them so many times I feel like the memory is my own now? Or did I just make them up playing pretend and they stuck?

Human memory is deeply fallible. Being a psychology major who went to law school, I was and continue to be horrified at the credibility of eyewitness testimony. We think of memories as files in a cabinet or videos that can be played on demand, but in actuality they're as malleable as clay. The unreliability of memory is key to Anne Enright's The Gathering. In it, Veronica Hegarty is reuniting with her large family in Ireland for the funeral of one of her many siblings...Liam, with whom Veronica was particularly close. She meditates on her current unhappiness while also trying to figure out her brother's, who died from alcoholism, and to what extent the way their lives have turned out is rooted in a hazy memory from their childhood.

To explain what might have happened, Veronica spins stories about her grandparents. She does not know to what extent any of them might be true, but she's desperate to explain the complex bonds between them that might shed light on what occurred later, when she and Liam were living with them. In the meantime, her own marriage is struggling to survive, and going back home and dealing with all of her relatives again further stresses her. It's a portrait of a woman at a loss, trapped in her own ruminations, needing a path forward but (to borrow a line) borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Anyone who's wondered if we can ever really escape from ourselves and our pasts will appreciate Enright's work here. Her language is lush and evocative, and Veronica's struggle to understand her family history and her own life is rendered powerfully. That feeling of childhood memory, the way the details get harder to recall the more we try, and the challenge of trying to extract meaning from it is also captured poignantly. Veronica's heartache feels real, wanting neither to fall into the easy trap of blaming everything on family but unable to figure out how much blame to assign where.

While I appreciated aspects of Enright's craft, I did not like this book. It's often confusing to read, moving back and forth in time without clarity. When we're introduced to Veronica's imaginings about her grandparents' early lives, it's not clear until later on that these are rooted in nothing more than her own imagination. And while I'm no prude, I have never read a book so fixated on describing erections in my life and hope I never do again. While it kind of made sense, based on what's revealed over time, it was awkward and honestly unnecessary. It took me out of the book entirely. And although it's less than 300 pages long, the book honestly feels like it's been puffed out and was in real need of editing. Usually the Booker is a good list for me in terms of books I'm likely to enjoy reading, but this one just did nothing at all for me. I do not recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: We Are Our Brains

Two years ago, I was reading: Going Clear

Three years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Four years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Five years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters Whose Jobs I'd Love To Have

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about characters with jobs we would want to have. I don't read a lot of books that take place in the workplace, but here is what I came up with! 

  

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): Who doesn't want to be handsome, clever, and rich...and bored enough because you don't need to do anything productive that you start playing matchmaker with your friends?

Margo Manning (Death Prefers Blondes): I mean, I don't know that I would have ever come up with "ringleader of a group of drag queen catburglars" as a job description, but now that I know it's out there I want it. 

Daisy Jones (Daisy Jones and the Six): A beautiful, talented singer developing a slow burn attraction to a hot, talented musician? There are worse jobs to have!

Selin (The Idiot): I sometimes wish I had the chance to go back to college and do it over, I feel like I would pick more interesting classes! Being a college student again, especially at Harvard, would be so interesting.

Georgie McCool (Landline): I don't know that I think I would be any good at it, but working as a TV comedy writer sounds like fun! 

Maud Bailey (Possession): There's a part of me that always wishes I'd gone into academia, which may be one of the reasons I think longingly about being a college student again. Honestly, the idea of getting to research my interests all day every day is the dream!

Tess Durbeyfield (Tess of the D'Urbervilles): It's not so much that I think I have any natural gift or even longing for outdoor work, but the book makes Tess's experience as a shepherdess feel so idyllic that I want to give it a try.

Vianne Rocher (Chocolat): I don't actually have any particular fondness for eating chocolate, though I do love the smell, so I think I might make a good chocolatier. At least I wouldn't be tempted to eat my wares!

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo): Being a genius hacker helping solve mysteries and take down hateful people wouldn't suck.

Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs): Doing criminal profiling for the FBI was at one point very much my dream job!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Month In The Life: February 2021

 


Well, we made it through February! Since we're in a remote session, I'm not making my commute down to Carson City, which is good from the sense of weather but bad from the sense of cutting into my audiobook time! The 40-minute commute each way makes for speedy progress through my listens. And in other news, today is my mother's birthday! Happy birthday Mom!

In Books...

  • The Secret Life of Bees: I don't read a lot of what might get categorized as "chick lit", but I found this story about a 14 year-old girl who finds family and community in a place she might never have imagined to be sweet and an easy read. It wasn't challenging, and I didn't find it especially moving or lovely, but sometimes something nice to read and satisfying hits the spot. 
  • Shuggie Bain: This book is definitely depressing, but it's also definitely incredibly good. The bond between young Shuggie, whose sexuality already marks him as different even from a young age, and his beautiful alcoholic mother Agnes in Thatcher-era Scotland is beautifully, heartbreakingly rendered. It's not just tragedy porn, there are little nuggets of hope in there too that keep it from collapsing in under its own weight. 
  • The Leftovers: This book is ostensibly "about" the world after a Rapture-like event, but is actually about the differing ways in which a family deals with trauma. It was interesting enough but never really captured me in the way I was hoping it would. 
  • The Eyre Affair: This fast-paced genre hybrid kind of confused me, but it entertained me quite a bit while it did so. It's difficult to explain, but essentially our heroine is detective-type Thursday Next, who lives in an alternate history world in which jet propulsion was never invented and dodos have been restored through genetic engineering. When a supervillain threatens the titular character of Jane Eyre, she's off on a quest to protect one of England's most beloved heroines. Fforde doesn't do a great job of fleshing out his world, but it was fun enough to read that I mostly just kept turning pages without asking questions. 
  • Vivian Apple at the End of the World: Another Rapture story, but so different than The Leftovers that it didn't feel like too much of the same. This one is really more of a young adult novel, in which the titular Vivian finds herself on the road with her best friend and a boy she likes after it seems like the world might be ending on the schedule predicted by a powerful preacher. It's charming and engaging.


 

In Life...

  • The beginning of my fifth session: It seems hard to believe that I'm on my fifth go-round with a Nevada Legislative Session, but here I am! In this case, there "here" is at home...like I said, we're not making the commute down to Carson. It feels very odd to be trying to do this job from a distance, and I miss my session friends, but man being able to work in sweatpants is not the worst.

One Thing:

This is where I usually talk about something I like or find interesting, but this month I'm switching it up to talk about something I didn't find interesting...namely, the new Tiger Woods documentary on HBO. Tiger has lived an interesting life, and something looking at his experience through the lens of child stardom, or the invasiveness of the paparazzi during the era in which they were at their peak, or his self-destructive spiral would have been compelling. Instead, it tells a story immediately familiar to anyone who has ever watched a bio-pic: there's talent, and hard work, and a skyrocketing rise. Then a self-inflicted fall, followed by another rise. It was like watching a movie of a Wikipedia entry.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: