Thursday, June 17, 2021

Book 289: Say Nothing


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

Dates read: January 14-19, 2019

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: Daughter of Fortune

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts

Four years ago, I was reading: Shattered

Five years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2021 TBR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Book 288: Astonish Me


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

Dates read: January 10-14, 2019

Rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

One year ago, I was reading: A Dirty Job

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book 287: The Winter of the Witch


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

Dates read: January 6-10, 2019

Rating: 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Riddance

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

Four years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Five years ago, I was reading: Spinster