Thursday, October 21, 2021

Book 306: All The President's Men

 


"The August 1 story had carried their joint byline; the day afterward, Woodward asked Sussman if Bernstein's name could appear with his on the follow-up story - though Bernstein was still in Miami and had not worked on it. From the on, any Watergate story would carry both names. Their colleagues melded the two into one and gleefully named their byline Woodstein."

Dates read: March 27- April 3, 2019

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I'm a bad liar. Which isn't to say that I don't lie...like everyone else, I do, but I make an active effort to do so less often than I could. Not because I'm more morally righteous than anyone else, but because being bad at lying means I'm more likely to get caught. It's just mentally exhausting to keep track of who you've lied to, about what, and the stress of how to handle it if two people who each know different versions of the story start to talk to each other is too much for me to handle. I'm more likely to keep secrets than I am to lie, but even that's dicey (I'm a compulsive confessor when I've had a beer or two).

It's hard to think of someone more closely connected in the popular imagination to secrets and lies than one Richard Milhous Nixon. On his way to virtually certain re-election, he just couldn't resist the urge to direct a break-in to the Democratic National Committee office, and the cover-up cost him not only the presidency, but his legacy forevermore. It was the reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that really pushed the story forward, and their book All The President's Men recounts how they came to be major players in the scandal. The book is less about the underlying events than one might think, instead focusing primarily on the reporting process.

It turns out that the process of reporting a major story, involving many sources, is...kind of boring? Woodward and Bernstein try to track down sources, find them, talk to them, go back and talk to the same people again to try to get more information out of them, get referred to new sources, and then lather, rinse, repeat. The tension should build towards the next story, then the next, then the next, but it felt more like a trudge than anything else. I have to imagine that it often felt that way to report, little pieces fitting into a larger puzzle here and there, rather than a swelling towards a crescendo. But realistic or not, it doesn't make for very exciting reading. Especially when the biggest mystery of the book, the identity of Deep Throat, has been solved for those of us reading today.

I found myself wondering as I was reading if this story wouldn't have been better served by having someone else tell it. Obviously I understand why Woodward and Bernstein wanted to write the book about their own deeds, but either they're not particularly gifted at narrative-crafting or they're too far inside of it to see the forest for the trees. They recount giddily the editing that led the placement of sentences within a paragraph, making it clear that as reporters this was a fraught and tense process. But as a reader, it holds little excitement. A book that recounted their investigation and placed it in its context of what was happening at The Washington Post and in the Oval Office in a broader sense would be one I'd be very interested in reading. This one, though, left me mostly feeling like I'd really like to watch the Kirsten Dunst/Michelle Williams comedy Dick again, because if this was the real story the other one is much more entertaining. If you love newspaper/political reporting, or have a deeper interest in Watergate and the Nixon administration, this will be something you'll find it worthwhile to read. If you're looking for more dynamic nonfiction, this may be a classic but it is very skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: The White Princess

Two years ago, I was reading: The Line of Beauty

Three years ago, I was reading: Detroit

Four years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Online Resources for Book Lovers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the internet-based things that make our reading lives better! If you know where to look, there is so much on the internet that is bookish!


Twitter: Book Twitter can be a mixed bag (some people get a little...intense), but finding writers and bloggers whose opinions you respect and agree with and not letting yourself get sucked into the drama can make it a really fun place to connect!

Book Riot: A one-stop internet shop for bookish content! Lists, links to cute merch, deals for e-books, thoughtful articles...it's one of my go-tos for sure!

The book blogosphere: To my eyes, it seems like YA and romance inspire the most blogging, but there is a blog for every sort of reader/genre out there if you look! I've actually discovered several blogs that I personally enjoy through checking out the weekly Top Ten Tuesday post round-ups, so it's a good place to start!

Goodreads: This is the elephant in the room...even if we don't love Amazon (who bought the company several years ago), it's hard to escape the dominance of Goodreads. It desperately needs an improved search function and upgrades to its user interface, but tbh it's functional and widely-used, so it's not going anywhere.

Italic Type: This is one of the two Goodreads replacements that I've been trying out lately. Realistically, this one doesn't seem to have taken off and is the one I like less so I'm likely to give it up, but it's worth checking out if you're looking for something super streamlined!

StoryGraph: This is the other Goodreads competitor, and I really like this one, y'all! I LOVE being able to track the books I'm reading against the prompts in various reading challenges, the content warning system, and the questions they ask of reviewers (like whether the book is plot- or character-driven!). It's functional for free but there is a paid tier and I regret nothing about paying for it!

LibraryThing: This is purely book cataloging for me. I have a huge collection and being able to scan them in and tag them helps keep me organized!

Audible: I know, again with the Amazon companies, but Audible is too good to give up. Yes, I know about Libro.fm. Audible's sales and exclusives keep me coming back, though, and my library there is very large.

Chirp: Another place to find cheap audiobooks! There's no subscription needed here, just the deals.

Overdrive: If you have a library card, check to see if your library is on Overdrive (or its sister app, Libby, which I don't like as much as the original). SO MANY ebooks and audiobooks!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Book 305: The Rules of Attraction

 

"But I was running and I was running because it felt like the 'right' thing to do. It was a chance to show some emotion. I wasn't acting on passion. I was simply acting. Because it seemed the only thing to do. It seemed like something I had been told to do."

Dates read: March 23-27, 2019

Rating: 5/10

I was pretty sheltered in high school. I didn't party, I didn't drink, I didn't do drugs. I did my extracurriculars and then went home and did my homework, for the most part. So when I got to college, and had some freedom...I went a little bonkers. Nothing out of the ordinary, but LOTS of booze and the occasional marijuana cigarette. To me, this felt practically criminal, but when I hear some people's stories about college partying, I think it was all actually pretty tame.

It's a wonder that the students depicted in Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction even have majors, because it's clear that the actual activity that dominates their lives isn't going to class. It's taking drugs and hooking up. There are three primary narrators: Sean, Paul, and Lauren, though there are some chapters from the perspectives of other people in their lives. The story begins literally mid-sentence, as Lauren recounts being drugged and raped at a Dress To Get Screwed party when she was a freshman. One might think this would be a traumatic event, but Lauren's recollection of it is distant, almost bored. The only thing she seems to have strong feelings about at all is her boyfriend, Victor, who took a semester off to travel. The problem is that we get his perspective as well, and he doesn't seem to recall having a girlfriend, much less think that he shouldn't be sleeping with whoever he might like.

There's a loose love triangle that plays out: Lauren used to date Paul, who is bisexual. Paul has a thing for Sean, a rich kid who has managed to find himself in debt to a local drug dealer. Sean is interested in Lauren, who likes him enough to date him for a while, but she's still too hung up on Victor to really get invested. And things might have happened between Paul and Sean...Paul recounts quite a lot of sex, but Sean's own versions of the same nights note nothing of the sort. Everyone's an unreliable narrator, their perspectives are warped not only by their constant drug use, but their own self-centeredness.

This is an odd book. There's a lot in here that I usually would hate: a plot that centers largely around unpleasant people taking a lot of drugs, characters that are difficult to tell apart (I often had to flip back to figure out if it was a Sean or Paul chapter, and struggled to remember which of them dated Lauren when, and which one owed the dealer). But somehow, despite the fact that I don't know that I could say that I liked it, I found it compelling enough. The constantly switching perspectives (including one from Sean's French roommate, entirely in French) keep it interesting, and the unreliability of the narrators made it so that I was always questioning the veracity of their viewpoints.

There's a kind of tenderness there, underneath the jaded exteriors of these students, particularly from Lauren, that drove my continued interest in the book. I'm sure there are those among us who haven't tried to mask pain or feeling lost under substances or experiences, but most people I know have done it at one time or another. The emotional immaturity of the characters is reasonable...they are, after all, quite young. At the same time, it wasn't exactly enjoyable to spend time with anyone in this book. It's not without redeeming qualities, but I'm still not quite sure how I feel about Ellis as a writer. If you're interested in his work, I'd recommend this, but if anything I've described sounds off-putting to you, it's skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: A Bollywood Affair

Two years ago, I was reading: Plagues and Peoples

Three years ago, I was reading: Prep

Four years ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

Five years ago, I was reading: Border Child

Six years ago, I was reading: Unbelievable

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Year 6: An Update (And Giveaway!)

 

It's my 36th birthday! And wow, a lot has happened since the last one! When I turned 30, I set some goals for myself for the next decade. One of those goals was to read at least 50 books per year, or 500 total, so I started the blog a couple months later to hold myself accountable and have a place to talk about all those books! Since my reading years begin and end on my birthday, I like to do a check-in post every year to look back on the year that was, both in books and life. Without further ado:

In Reading

Books read (this year): 69. My reading totals have been trending steadily downward since the blog started, though I am once again comfortably above my goal of 50. This year still featured a very healthy total, to be sure! I think part of it has actually been my transition to primarily working from home. I used to walk home and read after eating a small lunch, but now I don't really have a well-defined lunch hour so that time isn't really set aside the same way. And of course, I read a little less in session years.

Books read (total): 490. This total remains well in excess of where I need to be. Indeed, I will likely finish the 500 before the end of the calendar year. I've got LOTS of backlogged reviews! Which is a good thing because I have to imagine my reading will take quite a hit once the baby arrives.

Male/Female Authors: I read quite a lot more by women this year than I did by men. I made no deliberate effort to do so, but read 44 books by female authors and 25 by male ones. Over the long term, though, the totals remain very close.

Most Read Genres: I trended pretty close to my own usual results here, with just over 2/3 of my books (48) being fiction and a little less than 1/3 of them (21) being nonfiction. Within fiction, I read the most contemporary and historical fiction, with mysteries and thrillers in a close third. Within nonfiction, I read the most history, with memoirs and biographies being tied for second.

Kindle/Hard Copy: This year was pretty even, with 37 books being read in hard copy and 32 being read on my Kindle. The Kindle, as always, remains unmatched for portability and convenience, but I do love books in hard copy the most.

In Life

I became an aunt: My sister had her first child, a son, in December of last year. Because of COVID, I've only gotten to visit him once, but he's completely adorable and I am so excited to be his aunt! I was reading: Can't Even (review to come)

Beginning of my fifth legislative session: It's hard to believe that I've been working in government affairs for close to a decade now! Every session I learn a little more about how to do my job as well as I can, and they're never dull! I was reading: The Secret Life of Bees (review to come)

We bought a house: Buying a housing during the legislative session was...maybe not the best idea I ever had. And getting into the housing market when we did was definitely stressful! We made several offers, but we're happy that the one we made on our house was the one that was accepted. We love our place. I was reading: Endzone (review to come)

End of my fifth legislative session: It was a deeply weird session, seeing as how about 110 of its 120 days were ones I covered from my couch at home. But I did get some in-person time in Carson City there at the end. I was reading: Tooth and Claw (review to come)

I found out I'm having a baby: We actually found out I was pregnant pretty shortly after session ended! Obviously this was extremely exciting, we're very much looking forward to becoming parents! I was reading: The Death of Vivek Oji (review to come)

Fifth wedding anniversary: We've been married for half a decade now! I continue to feel very lucky in having found such a wonderful partner and someone that I'm happy will be the father of our child. I was reading: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch (review to come)

Vacation to Michigan: This was only the second time I've gotten on a plane since the pandemic began, and it was wonderful to have a week back in the homeland to see my family, meet my nephew, have some time with my besties, and eat a TON of Michigan food that I can't get out in Nevada! I was reading: The Walls Around Us (review to come)

The Giveaway

Every year, I give away a copy of the book I loved the most out of the ones I've reviewed on the blog over the past 12 months. I reviewed some fantastic books this year, but the one that really stood out for me was Taylor Jenkins Reid's hit fictional oral history, Daisy Jones and The Six. If you haven't read it, and would like to, here's your chance! Just enter via the Rafflecopter below during the next week and this book could be yours! Apologies to my international friends, but this giveaway is US-only. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Book 304: Inside Edge



"Nearing the end, Boitano passed by the red hockey circle at center ice, which was a landmark to look for to make sure he was on the right path for the final triple axel. He began to hear strange noises in his lead. Please God, please God. They were getting faster and louder until he could barely stand it. As he launched himself into the air, he hoped that all those years of training would come through for him. Muscle memory, they call it. Only when that tiny blade swooped down, reached for the ice, found it, and held him upright did he know he was okay." 

Dates read: March 19-23, 2019

Rating: 5/10

The first team I remember loving is the Red Wings. They went on their Stanley Cup championship runs when I was like 10-11 years old, which are really the best time to hook a kid. I can still name the Russian Five without thinking twice. I love hockey, it's a great sport. But the second sport I remember loving is figure skating. The drama of the Lipinski/Kwan rivalry got me into it, and I've watched it off and on over the years ever since. The intrigue, the competition...and the skating itself, of course, have kept me interested and invested.

Growing up on a lake, I learned how to skate forwards competently enough, but I never took lessons or figured out anything else. I have never been especially well coordinated, so an activity involving razor-sharp blades attached to the bottom of my feet was probably a wise thing for me to skip out on. But some kids do have their skating dreams come true, and Christine Brennan's Inside Edge chronicles a year (specifically, the 94-95 season) on the figure skating circuit for all parts of the skating world: judges, coaches, and of course the skaters themselves. Everyone invests so much time and money and blood and sweat and tears into a sport where the tiniest slip of a blade can be the difference between that glowing moment in the spotlight or the breakdown backstage.

Though there are multiple perspectives wound into her narrative, Brennan does have several connecting throughlines, following particular skaters through the process of the season. There's precocious youngster Michelle Kwan, already poised and assured at only 15. And also talented-but-uncontrolled Nicole Bobek, who could win it all if she could stop sneaking out at night to hang out with boys. There's Rudy Galindo, toiling away and dreaming of reaching the heights of his one-time pairs partner Kristi Yamaguchi. Jenni Tew is an up-and-comer, dreaming of a spot at Nationals. And there are cameos from Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Katerina Witt, and Torvill and Dean for perspective from more established skaters.

It's been well over two decades since the book was published, years in which Christine Brennan has become a respected voice in coverage of the sport. Back then, however, she was fairly new to it, and that newness does show. The drama feels artificially heightened, there's an almost breathless/scandalized quality to it that reads more like gossip than actual reporting. Despite taking some time with a judge and getting information about the amount of (uncompensated!) time it takes to serve as a judge and the seriousness with which they take their responsibilities, there's a lot of aspersions cast at the judging system as a whole, with veiled and not-so-veiled insinuations that judges collude on the basis of nationality and engage in machinations to game the system in favor of particular skaters, no matter what happens on the ice. This was well before the judging scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics that changed the entire way scoring works in the sport, so it was interesting to get some background on how the system used to be before I started paying more active attention to it.

But it's hard to not take that information, and all the rest of it, with a grain of salt. The tell-all tone, the obvious favoritism towards particular skaters...it doesn't make a case for itself to be taken seriously. If you grew up in the Michelle Kwan era, though, and remember these skaters as some of the first ones you watched, it's an interesting read. It's a portrait, albeit a flawed one, of a time and place, and an environment that has changed so fundamentally that it's impossible to compare to the same world as it exists now. But of course, la plus ca change, and right now there are kids strapping on their skates and getting ready for practice, hoping to make it out there on the ice. I'd say this is a solid read for figure-skating fans, especially if you watched during the time chronicled, but there's not much to recommend it otherwise.
 
One year ago, I was reading: Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story
 
Two years ago, I was reading: The Overstory

Three years ago, I was reading: The Library Book
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Royals
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: September 2021

 


And just like that, we're within a stone's throw of the end of 2021! Tomorrow will be October, and from there it's practically the holiday season already! We're finally cooling down towards something resembling fall temperatures, though it's still pretty warm, and the skies have cleared of smoke for the most part, which is a huge relief.

In Books...

  • Absolute Monarchs: For a 500-page history of the papacy, this is pretty lively! I definitely learned a lot I hadn't known before, including about the long history of antipopes, the connection of the pope to the Holy Roman Empire, and how long it actually took for Italy to unify. But even though the writing isn't ponderous or dull, it still took me nearly two weeks to finish and occasionally felt like a slog.
  • The Wrath & The Dawn: This was kind of nice to have as a mental break after the active engagement I had to have with the pope book. It's YA fantasy based on the story of Scheherazade, and I'd read good things about it but it's honestly pretty bad. Thin characters, generically girl-boss type heroine, lots of repetition about things like people's eye color.
  • Hamnet: Honestly one of the best things I've read in years! It's historical fiction based on the actual life of William Shakespeare, whose son Hamnet (or Hamlet, names were kind of loosey-goosy at the time) died in childhood. It's actually quite little about Shakespeare himself, who is never directly named in the text, and more about his wife Ann, or Agnes. Just incredible, elegant writing and a deeply compelling character study.
  • My Brilliant Friend: I had been expecting to absolutely love the first book in this series that I feel like I'm the last one in the world to get to! And I did like it more and more as it went on and I got drawn further into the world that Lenu and Lila live in and the bond between them, but after how amazing Hamnet was it was hard to read virtually anything else and this one was a slow starter.
  • The Indifferent Stars Above: As someone who live in Reno, I've been to Donner Lake, driven over Donner Summit, and been to Donner Memorial State Park. But all I really knew about the Donner Party beforehand was that they'd gotten stuck up in the Sierras and had to turn to cannibalism to survive. This book was informative and very well-written, but also the word "harrowing" in the book's subtitle is there for a reason...Brown really immerses you in the world and experiences of the party and parts of it are incredibly hard to read. It's very good, but it's nightmare fuel. 
  • Dog Park: I thought this book, originally published in Finnish and newly translated into English, was going to be straightforward literary fiction about the commodification of the female body in post-Soviet Europe. And it's about that, but there are also strong thriller elements, and the story goes in directions I wasn't expecting. I found it interesting and propulsive!

 

In Life...

  •  Not a lot, honestly: This was a pretty low-key month. We usually have a weekend up in Tahoe at the beginning of September because of my husband's work convention, but that was canceled this year due to wildfire evacuations. Otherwise, my own work is steady but not madcap like it is during session and I'm just continuing to grow a little person.

One Thing:

Britney Spears's conservatorship has been back in the news with the new Netflix documentary and her recent engagement to her longtime boyfriend. I remember being in my first year of law school, following the gossip as closely as anyone as her life seemed to spin out of control. Celebrity gossip in that era was vicious, and no one was more savage than Perez Hilton. He, and other gossip bloggers of the era who have continued in the space, have apologized...but is it enough? On the one hand, I want to say no. Gleeful participation in, and profit from, the way they treated vulnerable young women is not something that a simple apology can make up for. On the other, though, there's complicity from the people like me who clicked those links. If there hadn't been demand for coverage, not just at the volume but in the tone in which he and others provided it, it would have died out. It was a vicious cycle, and while it seems to have gotten better lately I think there's still a cultural conversation to be had about what the relationship should be between celebrities and the media.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books In Translation On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we've got a freebie, so I've decided to highlight a type of book I'm trying to read more lately...literature in translation. Someone living in China, writing in Chinese (or any other native speaker living in their native country), has a perspective that might be different from but no less valid than someone who grew up outside of China, or whose family had the resources and inclination to ensure they learned to communicate in English. So here are ten books written by native speakers of other languages, translated into English, that I can't wait to read!

 

Woman at Point Zero (Arabic)

The Bridge on the Drina (Bosnian) 

Ladivine (French)

The Tin Drum (German)

The Door (Hungarian) 

The Leopard (Italian)

Confessions of a Mask (Japanese)

Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian) 

Captains of the Sands (Portuguese)

Secondhand Time (Russian)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Book 303: The Stranger

 

"I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so?"

Dates read: March 16-19, 2019

Rating: 4/10

I like to think of myself as a "thinker". But I don't really go for philosophy. Which doesn't mean that I've never enjoyed books that have a philosophical bent. I loved Sophie's World! But the art of arguing about questions to which we can never know the answer gets old after a while. I'm the kind of person who went to law school because I like to be right, and when it comes to fundamental human nature or why we are here in the universe, no one can ever be right. We just don't know.

I remember my high school humanities teacher assigning us Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (the last part of it anyways). But I'd never read anything more by Camus until I picked up his classic The Stranger. It's a very short book and tells a seemingly straightforward story: a French man living in Algeria, Meursault, shortly after the death of his mother, falls into a relationship with a coworker, Marie, and a friendship with his neighbor, Raymond. When on a trip to the beach with Raymond and Marie, Meursault is walking on the beach alone when he encounters an Arab man, part of a group that had previously confronted him, and shoots him. He's put on trial and convicted, and an appeal seems unlikely to succeed. That's it, more or less. There's not a lot of story there.

As a novel, I don't think this is a success. Meursault is a strange character. He's detached from essentially everyone and everything...he seems to feel little sadness about his mother's death, his appreciation for Marie seems primarily carnal, he drifts into a connection with Raymond mostly because he doesn't have anything better to do. He has no depth, and it's impossible to connect with someone so disconnected from his world and even himself. Others fare no better. The plot lurches forward without much energy or tension. And the prose is uninspiring. But it's hard to know if "as a novel" is even the proper mechanism for evaluation.

As a philosophical treatise, though, I don't know that I think it succeeds either. If the point is to illustrate the tension between the human urge to seek meaning and the inherent meaninglessness of life (as posited by Absurdists like Camus), it does do that, but it fails to be at all compelling. If the point is to frustrate the reader by putting forward a text bereft of meaning, therefore pushing the point about the struggle to impose order upon chaos...it also does that, but not in a way that I found especially interesting as a reader who isn't a philosophy student.

It is interesting to think about this in contrast to Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which takes pretty much the opposite viewpoint. Both men accept the idea as the world as a place where the events that transpire are not necessarily connected to the actions people take: good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, and there's no way to understand why, or how. For Camus, comfort comes from embracing this meaninglessness and accepting oneself as at the mercy of the whims of fate. For Frankl, comfort comes from identifying a purpose and working toward that purpose, regardless of the obstacles that life puts in one's path. I personally probably tend towards the latter, but understand the idea behind the former. And would have without ever having read the book, which I didn't like and don't recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: Naked

Two years ago, I was reading: Soon The Light Will Be Perfect

Three years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

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

Five years ago, I was reading: David and Goliath

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall 2021 To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our upcoming to-be-read books. This fall, like most seasons, I've got a variety of reads coming up...a biography, some short stories, fantasy, a memoir, and the continuation of one of my favorite young adult series of all time!



Alice: Teddy's Roosevelt's oldest child was reportedly the source behind one of my favorite quotes ("If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me"), and lived a fascinating life as a demi-celebrity, political wife, and behind-the-scenes puller-of-strings.

French Concession: This is a noir novel set in 1930s Shanghai, and the English-language debut of a highly-regarded Chinese author!

Land of Big Numbers: Another China-based book, this is a collection of short stories by a Chinese-American writer and like most short story collections I read, is a book club selection rather than something I picked for myself.

Uprooted: I've heard wonderful things about this adult fantasy book, set in eastern Europe, so I'm really looking forward to it!

The Lace Reader: This genre-blender (a little bit mystery, a little bit fantasy, a little bit historical fiction) was a recommendation from a good friend.

The Night the Lights Went Out: I love Drew Magary's writing on Defector (and what he wrote previously on Deadspin) and remember following the story about his unexpected medical episode as it was happening so I'm really interested in reading his recounting of it!

Cleopatra's Shadows: Like many other basic bitches before me, I've found Cleopatra's life and legend to be fascinating for years. This historical fiction looks at the legendary queen through the eyes of her younger sister Arsinoe.

Dumplin': Even your favorite lover of bummer books needs an occasional upper, so this story about the overweight daughter of a beauty queen who starts dating a cute, popular boy and enters a beauty pageant for herself promises to lighten the mood.

Clariel: The books of The Old Kingdom trilogy were some of my very favorites as a teenager (and I'm still pretty fond of them). Author Garth Nix took quite a bit of time off from the series before he returned with its fourth installment, which I am both nervous and excited to read.

Shadowshaper: This urban young adult fantasy got some good word-of-mouth when it was released, and it's been living on my list ever since.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Book 302: The Club

 

"Long before that evening, in my first boxing lessons, I’d learnt that it’s not the punch that hurts, because skulls are hard: it’s the humiliation. And because I was a small man who no one would expect to beat a hundred-kilo hulk in a light blue blazer, I could only win. You can’t box well if you’re afraid."

Dates read: March 12-26, 2019

Rating: 6/10

There's a reason there's so much media focused on the elites: our culture is both fascinated and repulsed by them in equal measure. We love to read about and watch the ways the rich are "just like us" and then, at the end, not like us at all. The teenagers at the exclusive Constance Billiard School on Gossip Girl want to be liked and accepted and fight with their friends and worry about grades like every teenage girl, but The Great Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan is able to just...move on with her life after committing vehicular homicide. And even as many of us proclaim that we like our lives and wouldn't want the scrutiny and pressure that wealth and fame brings, we all buy lotto tickets when the jackpot gets high enough.

In Takis Wurger's The Club, we first meet our protagonist Hans as a young boy, solitary at heart but happy, living with his parents in a small town in Germany. But when both of those loving parents die in quick succession, his only living relative is his strange aunt Alex, a professor at Cambridge University. She sends him off to boarding school, where one of the teachers helps him to channel his depression into athletics and he becomes a skilled boxer. When he graduates, his aunt approaches him with an offer: she will get him into Cambridge, in exchange for his agreement to infiltrate the Pitt Club, one of the campus's private social groups.

Once Hans reaches England, Alex arranges for him to meet up with Charlotte, one of her graduate students. At first, Charlotte is necessary for Hans to gain entry to the Pitt Club's world, through her wealthy and well-connected father, but the two form a genuine connection. Hans gets drawn deeper into the Club as his pugilistic talents cement his place inside of it. But Alex didn't ask him to become one of them for his own enjoyment...she has plans to expose a secret and revenge a wrong in a way that could bring it all crashing down.

Look away if you're not interested in spoilers! Though it hardly feels fair to talk about it as such. The secrets here are not too difficult to guess at: there's no surprise that groups of young, privileged men engage in drug use and sexual assault, and then manage largely to escape consequences for it. What makes this particular account of this phenomenon more interesting than many is its air of reality: Wurger himself attended Cambridge and was a member of the Pitt Club before leaving the university. And the book is lucky that it has that additional angle, because as a mystery/thriller it isn't really successful...the plot development is straightforward and goes pretty much exactly where you expect it to go.

Which isn't to say that it doesn't do some things well! Wurger's technique of narrating the story through multiple perspectives (Hans is the most prominent, but Charlotte, Alex, fellow Club member Josh, and a Chinese student desperate to be accepted are heard from, among others) is effective and keeps the story moving forward briskly. Hans, drawn as a self-sufficient introvert, is a refreshing character to spend time with...while he certainly does appreciate the finer things in life he's able to access once he's inside, we don't get the dazzled-then-disillusioned arc typical in this kind of work. The subject matters feels timely and relevant. If you like these kinds of books, you'll likely find this solid yet unremarkable. If you're looking for something to take you somewhere unexpected, though, look elsewhere.

One year ago, I was reading: Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.

Two years ago, I was reading: Empire Falls

Three years ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

Four years ago, I was reading: Duel with the Devil

Five years ago, I was reading: The Wolf in the Attic

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Numbers In the Title

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books with numbers in their titles. This was actually a topic just about a year ago, but since I did books I'd already read for that one, this time I'm digging into my own to-be-read list. I tried to go in numerical order here, but nothing in my gigantic list has either nine or ten in the title so I skipped those two!

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Two Old Women

Three Junes

Four Queens

Five Days at Memorial

Six of Crows

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Eight Pieces of Empire

Eleven Hours

The Twelve-Mile Straight

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Book 301: Man's Search For Meaning

 

"Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind."

Dates read: March 9-12, 2019

Rating: 7/10

One of the interesting/terrifying things about the world as we know it is the amount of information we have access to at any given time. We can learn about virtually anything we want, whenever we want. We can see the world's greatest art works on demand. And we can see the worst things that people are doing to each other all over the globe. If you start looking, the tragedy in your hometown alone could break your heart.

In the face of profound despair, it can be easy to wonder what the point even is. The Holocaust, of course, is one of the worst events the world has ever seen. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist living in Austria when Hitler came to power, and like most European Jews, he ended up in a concentration camp. He survived Auschwitz, though, and wrote about how he did so in Man's Search for Meaning. The book is divided roughly in half: in the first, he tells his own story, and in the second, he expounds upon the therapeutic technique he used to make it through, which he calls logotherapy. Essentially, logotherapy consists of finding meaning in one's life, no matter how meaningless it might seem.

Like most Holocaust memoirs, this is difficult to read. Frankl's pre-existing training in psychology is obvious, as he breaks down the ways in which people were psychologically broken upon entering the camps. The procedures used by the Nazis to strip their prisoners of their humanity, their sense of personal dignity and purpose, were brutal and effective. And then, of course, there were the actual physical dangers of the camps: starvation and overwork, which took away strength and energy. For those that did manage to survive, their liberation was not the end of their story. They had to go on to live in the world, and Frankl also talks about the difficulties of re-adjusting to life on the outside.

While not "enjoyable" per se, the portion of the book concerned with Frankl's own experiences is the most compelling and powerful. The actual detailing of logotherpy in the back half of the book feels almost superfluous, because it's both described and demonstrated in how he used it to survive. The more it's described, honestly, the less impact it has...it boils down essentially to the power of positive thinking, to refusing to succumb to the darkness. While it clearly was tremendously important to Frankl, and has surely been helpful to others in their own struggles, it's not all that interesting or novel to read about. If you're looking for a Holocaust memoir with unique psychological insight, this is something you'll really get a lot out of. Just...skip the part at the end with all the psychobabble.

One year ago, I was reading: The Good Soldier

Two years ago, I was reading: Seeing

Three years ago, I was reading: Juliet Naked

Four years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls

Five years ago, I was reading: The Other Side of the River

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Will Make You Feel Good

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's topic is actually "books guaranteed to put a smile on your face", but I LOVE a downer so that would be a struggle for me. My heart doesn't particularly care for warming. So I'm trying to go with a more attainable goal: books that will make you feel good!


Pride & Prejudice: I feel like Jane Austen gets dismissed by people who haven't read her as fluffy, but once you actually read it you're treated to razor-sharp social satire...but also love stories! We have all at the very least seen an adaptation at this point, so it's no surprise to say that at the end, three sisters are wed (two of them happily) and it's all very charming.

The Rosie Project: If you want feel-good, romance is a genre that will probably offer what you're looking for...after all, if there is no Happily Ever After, some people don't think it's even a romance at all. I'm not usually particularly compelled by the genre, but found this one quite enjoyable!

Matilda: A childhood classic, but if you don't feel good by the end when Matilda and Miss Honey are both free from their unpleasant family members and have each other as chosen family, you have no heart.

Fangirl: This one isn't quite a straight romance, it's as much (or more) a story about a young woman coming of age, but there's such a sweetness to the central love story that it's hard to not feel good about it.

Less: This is a book I recommend all the time, because it is funny and feel-good without being light or treacly. Like the Oscars, the Pulitzers rarely reward comedy, which just goes to show how good this one is seeing as how it won!

Stardust: This is a modern-day fairy tale (not modern-day in setting, but in authorship), so while there are witches, and magic, and ghosts, and evil, there are also unicorns and of course true love, for a book that is ultimately uplifting.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: There's a lot of dark stuff in this book: alcoholic parents, heartbreak, a girl being held back because of her gender. But it is still fundamentally hopeful, with just enough wins for Francie to counter her losses, and ends on an upbeat note.

About A Boy: Nick Hornby is a little cynical on the outside, but usually pretty sentimental on the inside. I appreciate that he avoids the kind of expected angle of getting the titular child's father figure and actual mother together, but it's still big-hearted and ultimately sweet.

A Wind in the Door: While I think all of the books in the Time Quartet are ultimately pretty feel-good, the central theme of this book in particular is the importance of human connection, even (and maybe especially) with those who you may not like.

Emma: I usually try to not include the same author more than once, but I was not joking about my fondness for bummer books, y'all. There are some definite similarities, plot-wise, between Emma and P&P, including a high-spirited heroine who thinks she knows best but has her assumptions and self-regard challenged pointedly but without cruelty and, of course, a clearly-meant-to-be couple who do get together at the end. But Emma has charms all of its own and is a fun read!

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Book 300: If Beale Street Could Talk

 

"The world sees what it wishes to see, or, when the chips are down, what you tell it to see: it does not wish to see who, or what, or why you are."

Dates read: March 5-9, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I thought I understood the world at 16...didn't we all? When you grow up in a small homogenous town, things seem so simple. I was so sure that affirmative action was bad, undocumented immigrants getting deported were getting what they deserved, and that everyone who was in jail belonged there. Since I held those kinds of beliefs, I've left my hometown. I've lived life, gained experiences. I am about to be 36, and the person who thought that way feels so long ago.

My AP English course was the only one that exposed me to African-American literature, and I wish that curriculum had included James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. Reading it at 33 was powerful. Reading it in high school would have been that much more so. The story it tells is simple yet indelible. Tish and Fonny are teenagers who've grown up in the same neighborhood in New York City their whole lives. They've always been friends, but as they approach adulthood they both come to realize that their bond is love. They're happy, looking forward to starting their lives together, scoping out a loft in which they can live and has space for Fonny to pursue his dreams of being a sculptor. But then there's an accusation: a woman claims that Fonny raped her, and he's jailed pending trial.

Shortly after he's sent away, Tish discovers she's pregnant. Her warm, loving family accepts the news with joy, as does Fonny's father, but his primly religious mother and sisters disapprove. The urgency of Fonny's plight escalates enormously: Tish and her unborn child need him home. Their loved ones undertake extraordinary efforts to gain his release as Tish gets closer to her due date, and she reminisces about how they found themselves in this predicament.

I tend to find, in stories about young lovers, that the lovers themselves are often the least interesting part of it, and it was true for me here as well. While Tish and Fonny's story and the forces that play upon them are powerful, neither of them is an especially vivid character. They're sweet, their love is pure, and it's easy to feel outraged about the injustices visited upon them. Thankfully, Baldwin has surrounded them with an engaging supporting cast. The way Tish's family mobilizes to secure a lawyer for Fonny, and her mother's trip to Puerto Rico to try to find the woman who accused him in particular, create intrigue and drama that keep the story moving forward.

I'll be honest, though: the plot, as thought-provoking and heartwrenching as it can be, isn't the main attraction here. It's the writing. This was my first Baldwin book, and I fell in love with his powerful, lyrical prose. It's not dense, but it is a book that encourages you to read it slowly...each word is chosen with obvious care, and the way he strings them together is masterful. The book may be relatively short, but there's a lot there. I can already tell this is one I'll return to and be able to get even more out of with subsequent readings. I would recommend this book widely, it's beautifully written with a message no less relevant today than when it was published.

One year ago, I was reading: Yakuza Moon

Two years ago, I was reading: Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: Paint It Black

Four years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Five years ago, I was reading: Life Itself

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Fictional Crushes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the characters from books that make our hearts go pitter-patter and give us little fictional crushes. I'm going to split my list and first talk about the characters that I had crushes on as a teenager (when I read the most books that had swoony characters) and then ones that appeal to grown-up me!


Calvin O'Keefe (A Wrinkle In Time): A cute, popular boy who's super into the angry, awkward teenage heroine? Definitely something teenage me hoped (and failed) to find. 

Logan Bruno (The Baby-Sitters Club): This is another one where a cute boy was into the "nerdy one" and I'm starting to see a pattern here.  

Dave the Laugh (On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God): Robbie was the dreamy, older musician, but Dave is the one Georgia actually likes and that makes her, well, laugh. Even teenage me knew that was a better deal than the dude who's super cute but you can't talk to. 

Will Parry (The Amber Spyglass): I have to admit I'm not sure how much of my teenage book crush on Will was related to being all that interested in the character rather than investment in the love story Phillip Pullman tells for him and Lyra, but I definitely got all heart-eyes emoji. 

Edward Cullen (Twilight): I am not proud of this one, but years of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer primed me to think that an immortal vampire obsessed with a teenage girl is romantic and not creepy! I know better now!

Morozko (The Bear and the Nightingale): These books only came out after I was an adult but I looooved this character even though there is a similar kind of "immortal being obsessed with teenage girl" vibe...except that Vasilisa is given actual agency and I'm not sorry about this!

Eric Northman (Dead to the World): Okay, but these are mostly the closest things I've read to romance novels and the storyline in this book is like, designed to make the reader fall in love with Eric.

Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings): I'm sure this has been influenced by seeing Viggo Mortenson in the movies so many times at this point, but an adult man in literature who is responsible and faithful is pretty hot stuff. 

Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion): I just re-read this recently and while he's a little bland, the romantic letter at the end would many any lady swoon. 

Andrei Bolkonsky (War and Peace): Apparently becoming an adult means that reading about handsome men who are mature and kind-hearted is what makes for a crush!

Monday, August 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: August 2021

 


A big month! We took our first significant vacation since before the pandemic, and were able to celebrate some big news with friends and family, which was super nice. Also nice: being able to breathe normally outside! But it was only a week, and now we're back in the smoke with no end in sight. Keep the emergency personnel fighting the Dixie and Caldor fires in your thoughts, y'all...it's been a long summer for firefighters in the West and their work is nowhere near done.

In Books...

  • The Sisters of Versailles: Based in actual history, this is the story of four sisters (out of five) who each become mistresses of King Louis XV of France. It's an entertaining, relatively fluffy read that moves pretty quickly, though characterizations tend to be flat and a lot of the same notes are hit again and again. I would LOVE an actual high-quality biography of the de Nesle sisters, but this is fine for what it's trying to be
  • On The Move: My love for Oliver Sacks is well-documented, and I am happy to report that his second memoir (covering much of his adult life, as his first focused on his childhood) is wonderful. He recounts his struggles to live his life fully as a gay man, his love for motorcycles, living his life in the United States while never becoming a citizen, weightlifting, and professional difficulties in practicing medicine which ultimately culminated in his extraordinary writing career. I loved it.
  • The Man Who Killed Rasputin: This was my first time reading Greg King, who writes a lot about Imperial Russian history, and I was surprised that he seems to be a bit of a Rasputin apologist. He's much less charitable towards his actual subject- Prince Felix Yusupov, the fabulously wealthy and often impetuous aristocrat who was the ringleader of the group that carried out the titular assassination. I appreciate that he explored multiple accounts how events unfolded, though he seems to give unusual credence to some sources (like Rasputin's daughter, who was not present) that would not tend to be overly reliable. I'm now more interested in reading Yusupov's own memoirs.
  • The Walls Around Us: This book seemed to have less of an actual plot than just...vibes. It's successful at creating a unsettling atmosphere, but not as much at telling a coherent story. I'm often a sucker for a ballet book, but the parts of this story that could have been the most interesting to me (the actual details of how one of two best friends that might have been suspects in the murder of two of their classmates ends up in detention, while the other escapes suspicion) are glossed over. It's not what Nova Ren Suma was trying to do, and I get it, but that didn't make it any more satisfying to me.
  • The Human Zoo: This was a new release and I was intrigued by the idea of reading more about The Philippines from someone who had actual spent several years living there. The framing device is that a writer, whose mother is from the Philippines and who had spent many years of her childhood there, is trying to write a book about natives who became part of human zoos while she deals with the realities of the leadership of a Duterte-type figure. But I found the protagonist too passive of a figure to really get invested in, which meant the book didn't quite work since it's much more about her relationships than anything else.

 

In Life...

  • I'm having a baby: In February of next year, my husband and I will become parents! We're very excited, of course, and also a little bit freaked out about how much our lives will change. I know my reading pace is going to fall off quite a bit for a while there, so my monthly posts will likely be pretty boring for a bit! I do plan to integrate kid-centric content in here every so often, but that's not really the point of the blog so it won't be constant.
  • Vacation to Michigan: Besides a brief spin back for my sister's baby shower last September, I hadn't been back to Michigan with my husband for two years! We had a lovely week visiting with family and friends (and meeting our little nephew, who is eight months old and ADORABLE), and hope that the COVID situation allows for us to do the same next year as well.

One Thing:

The Caldor Fire may be wreaking havoc on Reno's air quality, but it's tearing through small communities in the Sierra Nevadas at an alarming rate and the people who live there are losing everything. While there are always many worthy causes out there (Hurricane Ida's impact on New Orleans will be devastating for the residents of that city for some time to come), if you'd like to join me in making a donation to support victims of the Caldor Fire, I'm supporting the El Dorado Community Foundation.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:


 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Book 299: Going Clear


"Scientology is not just a matter of belief, the recruits were constantly told; it is a step-by-step scientific process that will help you overcome your limitations and realize your full potential for greatness. Only Scientology can awaken individuals to the joyful truth of their immortal state. Only Scientology can rescue humanity from its inevitable doom. The recruits were infused with a sense of mystery, purpose, and intrigue. Life inside Scientology was just so much more compelling than life outside."

Dates read: February 27- March 5, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I was not a popular child in my catechism class. When we learned about the transubstantiation of the host during communion, I asked if eating the literal flesh of Christ made me a cannibal. I was not shy about raising the hypocrisy of church leadership who engaged in the Inquisition while ignoring their own long history of sin. I suspect no one was disappointed when I finally stopped bringing a book to Mass and just ceased to attend entirely.

Lots of religious beliefs, like the aforementioned communion issue, sound really weird when you take them out of contexts. But it's difficult to top Scientology for oddball beliefs. It's hard to understand why public figures like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Laura Prepon and Elisabeth Moss would subscribe to a faith that features ancient aliens in volcanos and a galactic overlord named Xenu. Lawrence Wright's Going Clear takes a hard look at Scientology, the life of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and how the new religious movement took root and grew into the David Miscavige-controlled version we know today.

Much of what the book recounts is eyebrow-raising: Hubbard clearly was not entirely mentally well, and embellished his biography at best (at worst, he compulsively lied). His pride, his vanity, his use of the Sea Org as personal indentured servants are grotesque. But worst, and sadly, least surprising of all is his truly awful treatment of the women in his life. And things didn't get better when he passed on and control of the organization passed to Miscavige. If anything, they managed to get worse, with the harassment of critics and defectors taken to astonishing levels.

This was a fascinating book, full of information that was new to even someone like me who has enjoyed tabloid coverage of the faith (though I will say a lot of things that I used to read in The National Enquirer, which I loved in high school, were in here as well). Wright has clearly done his homework: his portrait of Hubbard is in-depth and revealing. He has a harder time with Miscavige, who would seem to have taken action to ensure that details about his life are difficult to come by. As such, the book loses some steam after Hubbard's passing. It's a story with enough drama that it doesn't unduly detract from it, but the focus is diluted.

One of Wright's primary sources for information about life inside of Scientology is Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis. As such, we end up getting quite a lot of information about Haggis' life, and to be honest this is the least compelling part of the book. Every time the narrative returned to Haggis, I groaned. Leaving the church behind isn't easy to begin with, and to do so knowing full well the kind of targeting he would experience by speaking to a writer working on something destined to be less than glowing is brave, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the details of his personal story are all that interesting. As a whole, though, if you've ever been interested in new religious movements, or Scientology in particular, I would definitely recommend this book, as it manages to be both readable and thorough, a tricky feat.

One year ago, I was reading: The Moonstone

Two years ago, I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes

Three years ago, I was reading: Oryx and Crake

Four years ago, I was reading: The Idiot

Five years ago, I was reading: Bel Canto

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books we wish we could open for the first time all over again. I'm a big re-reader, but there is something magical about discovering where the narrative is going as you read along, so here are ten books that I'd love to experience for the first time again!


The Secret History: I first read this as a senior in high school and it was so completely unlike anything I'd ever read before, it just blew my mind.

The Bear and the Nightingale: I'd always been interested in Russia, but this book spurred it to a full-blown obsession and it was just so rich and magical and I love it!

The Queen of the Night: I read this as an advance review copy so I had NO idea where it was going and each twist and turn of the plot surprised me.

The Amber Spyglass: I remember how excited I was to read this book, to find out how the story that had been told through the first two books would be wrapped up...and I was not at all disappointed!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: I really wish I could go back to the time before I knew that J.K. Rowling was a transphobe and just enjoy the magic of these books.

1984: I'm pretty sure I was 12 or 13 when I read this for the first time, launching a lifetime love of dystopian stories.

Gone Girl: I did NOT see that twist coming and it completely melted my brain.

Wicked: I read this at some point during high school and it introduced me to the concept of retellings for the first time ever, which has become a mini-genre of books that I really enjoy.

The Remains of the Day: I had no idea how much this book was going to emotionally wreck me until the end and going in blind made it hit that much harder.

A Wrinkle in Time: For me, this book was special because it was the first time I felt like I really saw myself in a work of fiction...as an angry, awkward, smart-but-underachieving middle schooler, Meg Murray was EVERYTHING.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Book 298: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

"She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed."

Dates read: February 24-27, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Like everyone who's ever been to school, I've had teachers that run the gamut. Most of them were decent. Some were awful. Some were great. There was my fourth grade teacher, who was personally offended that I would read during class because I was bored and made it her mission to embarrass me by catching me not paying attention (she never succeeded). And then there was Mrs. Helppie, my AP English teacher who single-handedly taught me to write with anything approximating skill and would make us kettle corn and show us movies based on books/plays on Fridays. I will never forget her or her truly impressive selection of jewelry.

For most of us, our formative teachers are people whose influence on us was in the classroom, where their inspiration was related to learning about the world. In Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, things are different. The titular Ms. Brodie cultivates a group of girls at their school in Scotland, seeming to be one of those "inspirational" teachers often idealized in books and film: she believes that what happens outside of the classroom can be just as important if not more so than what happens inside of it. She invites them (brainy Monica, pretty Jenny, sporty Eunice, sultry Rose, observant Sandy, and the poor scapegoat, Mary) to her home, takes them on cultural outings. But along with art and history, Ms. Brodie is also a big fan of fascism. And her interest goes beyond just being a role model for her girls...as they grow up, she begins to manipulate them.

Ms. Brodie is a single woman, and falls in love with Mr. Lloyd, the married art teacher. Their mutual affection is never consummated, so even while Ms. Brodie carries on a relationship with the bachelor singing teacher Mr. Lowther, she schemes to get one of her girls to have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her stead, confiding in Sandy about her plans. While Rose is her intended proxy, it is Sandy who winds up sleeping with him, and who adopts his Catholic faith and becomes a nun. It is from the convent that she is recounting her youth and the role Ms. Brodie played in her life.

This is a brief work, only about 150 pages. As such, many of the characters are flat, even most of the "Brodie set" outside of Sandy. But generally speaking, it paints a vivid portrait of a time, and a place, and the people involved. Jean Brodie is a character who soars off the page, complex and interesting and so deeply flawed. For all her bluster and bravado and determination to avoid pity, she's ultimately a pitiful figure. And one who's careless of the damage she causes, inspiring a student to run away to fight for Franco, which leads to her death. On a lesser level, Sandy's assignation with her art teacher does not leave her without damage.

I was of two minds about the length. On the one hand, I wish there had been more time to develop the other girls, and the relationships between them as well their connection to Ms. Brodie. On the other hand, I don't know that the plot would have the same power, the same feeling of a drive toward the inevitable conclusion, if it had to persist over a longer period of time. This is a solid book, and an unusual twist on the stories about teachers who change lives. I'd recommend it for a quick, engaging read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B

Two years ago, I was reading: The Forgotten Sister

Three years ago, I was reading: Life After Life

Four years ago, I was reading: Mildred Pierce

Five years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Book 297: The Silkworm

 

"Pain and fear were making him angry: fear that he would have to give up the prosthesis and resort to crutches again, his trouser leg pinned up, staring eyes, pity. He hated hard plastic chairs in disinfected corridors; hated his voluminous notes being unearthed and pored over, murmurs about changes to his prosthesis, advice from calm medical men to rest, to mollycoddle his leg as though it were a sick child he had to carry everywhere with him. In his dreams he was not one-legged; in his dreams he was whole."

Dates read: February 28-24, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Like any people pleaser, I'm always both desperately curious about and deeply afraid of learning what other people really think of me. I try to be a person that I myself would like, but you never know how it's coming off. Do people think I'm fake? Irritating? A disastrous social experience my freshman year of college made it hard for me to trust my own perceptions of how I'm actually thought of by others. It's one of the reasons they say you shouldn't snoop: you might not like what you find.

In Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling's second entry in the Cormoran Strike mystery series, The Silkworm, private detective Strike is hired to investigate the disappearance of small-time novelist Owen Quine. Quine seemed right on the verge of potentially making it big: he'd written a "poison pen" novel revealing the secrets of all his acquaintances, including the ones much more famous than he. But as Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, are busier than ever in the wake of solving the Lula Landry murder, Owen's wife Leonora approaches him to help find her husband. He's always been mercurial and has disappeared before, but she needs him to come back home, and blithely assures them that his agent, Elizabeth Tassel, will pay for the investigation. Intrigued despite himself (and despite the fact that Tassel does not in fact want to pay him), Strike digs in.

What he finds is first the body of Owen Quine, and then, as the investigation continues, the remnants of the life of a very unhappy man. Quine was unfaithful and often cruel to his wife, and bitter about the success his former friend Michael Fancourt had experienced as a writer. The manuscript of his latest work, the "poison pen" one (called Bombyx Mori, the silkworm of the title), is utterly rife with contemptuous portraits of others. And perhaps that is why his body is grotesquely disfigured, the result of a certainly painful death. As Strike and Ellacott get closer to tracking down who might have killed Quine, they find themselves increasingly in danger.

If you liked The Cuckoo's Calling, you'll also enjoy this. They proceed in a similar way: interview-by-interview investigation, with occasional indulgences of the writing "hiding" the answers from the reader in a trope that I tend to find highly irritating. Because we did a lot of the introductory work in the previous entry in the series, Rowling is able to better flesh out the characters: both Cormoran and his family and Robin and her fiance Matthew get more layers to them this time. I particularly enjoyed that Rowling gives Robin stunt-driving skills, as they play against the "spunky but ultimately passive" type I thought the character was starting to fall into.

I have liked reading both of the books in this series, but not enthusiastically. Part of it is that the genre doesn't especially appeal to me. I'm just not big into mysteries. Part of it is the way she characterizes Cormoran as someone who thinks of himself as ugly but has no problem attracting attention from women, which is something I do not care when either men or woman are written that way. The prose and plot are mostly fine, though I did think this had a few too many characters. There's obviously plenty good here, as you can tell by my rating, but I don't know that this is going to be a series that I feel compelled to closely follow. I do recommend it, but be prepared for some gruesomeness in the text.

One year ago, I was reading: Ivanhoe

Two years ago, I was reading: Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams

Three years ago, I was reading: The Informant

Four years ago, I was reading: The Sense of An Ending

Five years ago, I was reading: A Passage to India

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Book 296: Daisy Jones & The Six

 

"'She had written something that felt like I could have written it, except that I knew I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t have come up with something like that. Which is what we all want from art, isn’t it? When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you?'"

Dates read: February 15-18, 2019

Rating: 9/10

I've read enough Hollywood memoirs to know that being talented isn't necessarily a ticket to automatic success, fame, and happiness. First of all, there are plenty of talented people who never make it at all because they just didn't get the right break at the right time. And if you do get that break, the team that surrounds you can help leverage it in the right direction...or the wrong advice can send it all crashing down. And then, of course, there are the things you get access to once you've made it to a decent level of success: the sycophants, the drugs, the partying. So many chances to go wrong.

Told in the style of an oral history or Behind The Music special, Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & The Six gives us the story of a band who create a legendary album...and break up right in the middle of the tour, never to perform together again. Daisy is an LA girl who mostly raises herself, and rises above her It Girl beginnings through the strength of her talent as a singer and songwriter. The Six are a band rooted in the collaboration between the two Dunne brothers (Billy the lead singer, Graham the guitarist), with the remaining four drawn into their orbit over time. After some initial minor success leads Billy down the road of partying, sex, and drugs, his wife Camila helps him get clean for her and their new baby daughter. The band seems destined to work steadily but never really break out until their shared label puts Daisy on a single with The Six. It's such a hit that a joint record seems the only logical next step.

It's the writing and recording of that record, Aurora, which forms the core of the narrative. The tensions between Daisy and the already established The Six (who have internal fissures of their own) roil, over who will be writing the songs and how the album will be put together. And Daisy's own drug use, already established but increasing as things progress, adds another layer of complications. And most problematic of all, the chemistry that makes Daisy and Billy compelling co-writers and duet partners isn't just in the recording booth. Once it all comes together, the album is an undeniable smash, but a confrontation tears it all apart.

This book was optioned for a series adaptation before it was even released to shelves, and it's not hard to see why: there are vivid characters, plenty of storylines, and real drama. I was at first put off a bit by the lack of actual narrative structure (the entire book consists of snippets of interviews laced together), but the style wound up suiting the story, for me. It gives the reader the chance to get to know characters through both their own perspectives and the perspectives of others, and it keeps things moving along quickly. It's easy to devour large portions of the book in one sitting, easy to convince yourself that it won't take too long to read 10 more pages, which becomes 20, and then 50. I got so emotionally invested in the characters that even though the actual plot varied quite little from where I thought it would go, I wanted to see how it all played out.

Though it was a fantastically enjoyable book, it wasn't without flaws for me. For one thing, Daisy's slim frame, acknowledged to be at least in part owed to her addiction issues, is fetishized in a way that felt weird. And it didn't quite stick the landing...the reveal of the person behind the interviews felt inorganic, and the actual closing note also rang false. But mostly, I thought it was textured, layered, and enormously entertaining and compelling. I really loved it and would highly recommend it to all readers!

One year ago, I was reading: The Thirteenth Tale

Two years ago, I was reading: Marie Antoinette

Three years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Four years ago, I was reading: Party Monster

Five years ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Covers That Made Want to Read/Buy the Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a pretty covers week...we're talking about books we decided to read because we liked the cover! I don't know that the cover has ever actually been the deciding factor for me, but I won't lie that the good ones catch my eye and make me curious about what they might be about...which sometimes results in a purchase/read! 

 

A Tale For The Time Being 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Interestings

Sabriel

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

The Fountainhead

Stardust

The Luminaries

Shantaram

Saturday, July 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: July 2021

 


The summer after session is a glorious time...there's still work to do, of course, but it's such a dramatic stepdown from the headlong rush of the session that it all feels very leisurely. It would be a great time to hang out on the deck outside, but unfortunately, Reno is not really cooperating with those sorts of plans. It has been beastly hot, so we are very grateful that our air conditioning is working at least!

In Books...

  • The Snow Child: I love stories based on folklore, and had heard good things about this, so I was really excited to read this take on the Russian tale of "Snegurochka". An older couple who can't have children move to Alaska to forget their woes, and after a night where they build a snowgirl together, they start seeing a child in the woods. I just never got drawn in and thought the attempts to play both sides as to the child's origin worked against the book.
  • Pachinko: I came into this having gotten tons of hype from friends, which can be a double-edged sword, but it delivered for me. Multi-generational family stories often appeal to me, and this one taught me quite a lot that I hadn't known about the relationship between Korea and Japan while telling a powerful story. I really loved it!
  • Homeland Elegies: Another month, another book club selection that didn't quite come together for me as a reader. I'm always a little leery of autofiction, and this was the sort that I tend to find irritating (where the memoir-esque elements are very strong). And while I understand the vignette-type structure, I rarely enjoy reading it and that held true here as well. 
  • Dreamland: In 2021, we're reading headlines about players in the pharmaceutical industry settling enormous, multi-state lawsuits. But in 2015, when this book was published, the opiate epidemic was really just starting to fully come into focus. This is sometimes repetitive and bounces around a little too much for my personal taste, but it's a wide-ranging look at the factors that came together to create one of the most devastating public health crises of our time. 
  • The Council of Animals: This is a short little book, about several animals trying to decide what to do with a small group of surviving humans that have been discovered after a never-specified-but-human-caused Calamity. I was worried it was going to go hard in an Animal Farm direction, which it didn't, but it also failed to really capture my attention. Pleasant enough but insubstantial. 
  • Nabokov in America: I'd been looking forward to getting to this one for ages but honestly, I was really underwhelmed. Lolita is one of my all-time favorite books, so reading about the author's time in America (where he wrote the book) seemed like it would provide an interesting perspective, but this was criminally boring. I'm always wary of a non-fiction book that constantly excerpts large chunks of its sources because it seldom has much original to say, and books like this are why.


 

In Life...

  • It is smoky and disgusting outside: Wildfires are a fact of life in the West in the summer, but it feels a little early for it to be as bad as it is. This is especially dismaying because recent research has shown that the smoke makes COVID symptoms worse and COVID numbers in Nevada (mostly in Clark County where Las Vegas is, but in northern Nevada too) aren't looking very good recently

One Thing:

I've long had mixed feelings about the current state of YA, a genre I read heavily as a teenager but only occasionally now. It seems like virtually anything with a teenage central character (particularly a girl) is labeled as "young adult", even when it seems much more directly targeted at an adult audience. This article, written be someone who was a literal teenager at the time the YA boom really started taking off and writes about what it was like to be in the Twitter community around YA, allegedly the intended consumer, and experience the intensity and harassment of the adult participants. It's a really interesting read!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: