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


The Star Side of Bird Hill

Where The Line Bleeds


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 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, 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 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