Monday, May 31, 2021

A Month In The Life: May 2021



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

In Books...

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


In Life...

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


One Thing:

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

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Book 286: The Cuckoo's Calling


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

Dates read: January 1-6, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four years ago, I was reading: The Panopticon

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Quotes About Memory

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Book 285: Margaret Beaufort


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

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

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That Are Complete Sentences

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


This Is How You Lose Her

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty

Everything Is Illuminated

You Should Have Known

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Orange Is The New Black

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book 284: The Island of the Colorblind


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

Dates read: December 24-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Trees on the Cover

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

The Magicians

A Separate Peace

The Snow Child

The City of Trembling Leaves

Beneath the Bonfire


The Cutting Season

Blue Monday

Winter's Bone

The Daughters

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Book 283: The Prince of Tides

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

Dates read: December 17-24, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Most Recent Adds To My TBR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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