Sunday, January 20, 2019

The House of Broken Angels (by Luís Alberto Urrea)

This is the saga of a Mexican-American family told via two events: Big Angel's mother's funeral and then, the next day, his last birthday party (he is dying of cancer). The characters are vivid, the writing is fantastic, the compassionate view of all aspects of Mexican-American culture is especially needed at this moment in time. So why didn't I love it more? I don't know. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for a sprawling family saga? It is genuinely a great novel but I didn't fall in love. Maybe the Tournament of Books discussions will add to my appreciation as time goes on.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Wrapup: L.A.

I took a bit of an unexpected trip to Los Angeles last week because my father had to have triple heart bypass surgery. My reading was a bit desultory, as in times of great worry I could focus mostly on random online games and not literature. But I did finish a few books during the trip. And, best of all, dad is on the mend and doing well!

The Parking Lot Attendant (by Nafkote Tamirat)

My notes say: Kind of enjoyable, but ultimately annoying and not grounded in reality. Maybe I'm missing The Metaphor or maybe don't have the patience for it right now. Another ToB disappointment. WHERE ARE THE GOOD BOOKS? 

I would characterize this as an okay read, though I didn't fully buy the characters, and didn't enjoy the ending. Also aych and I just chatted about the Tournament and I now think my main issue this year is that the library wait list is the longest for the top seeds with the most buzz, particularly There There and Washington Black. I should get The Mars Room and Warlight fairly soon. I may end up -- gasp -- actually purchasing a book because I am currently either 99th or 694th on the There There waitlist depending on which library you ask. 

True Porn Clerk Stories (by Ali Davis)

This came up in a thread on Ask Metafilter, I believe. This was a 2002-era online journal that I remembered highly enjoying at the time, and enjoyed revisiting as a time capsule of the video store and VHS porn era at the turn of the century.  It looks like Ali Davis has more recently become a playwright, and I hope to see more of her in the future. (Also this was self-published, so it ticks off a box in the Read Harder Challenge as well. Kismet!)

Born A Crime (by Trevor Noah)

The drive to and from Los Angeles was a good twelve hours, and the Extra Hot Great podcast can only get you so far! Friends had recommended this on audiobook, plus the South Africa aspect would give me and my mom something to chat about during our time together, since she grew up in South Africa (obviously, in a white township).  Well-structured, well-told, and gave me an appreciation of Trevor Noah that I hadn't previously had.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Xenofeminist Manifesto (by Laboria Cuboniks)

Laboria Cuboniks is not a person but a "xenofeminist collective." I got this little book for Christmas and kicked off the Read Harder Challenge with it when I saw it had fewer than 100 Goodreads reviews (one of the categories).

Coming out of this reading experience, I think I would like xenofeminism if I fully understood it. I felt like I was back in grad school reading the words of passionate people with great ideas and inflated ways of conveying them.

What I got out of it in terms of principles: technology has the potential to create an egalitarian world but it needs to be created and maintained by someone other than a group of white men. Everyone has the right to speak without markers of race, sex, class until those markers are abolished.  Yay to both of those points and I would love to know how to personally work towards that! The book is written like this though:  

This non-absolute, generic universality must guard against the facile tendency of conflation with bloated, unmarked particulars -- namely Eurocentric universalism -- whereby the male is mistaken for the sexless, the white for raceless, the cis for the real, and so on. Absent such a universal, the abolition of race will remain a tacit white supremacism, and the absolution of gender will remain a thinly veiled misogyny, even -- especially -- when prosecuted by avowed feminists themselves.

This is one of the clearer passages but it gives you the idea. I would like to learn more about this movement in more actionable terms, but I'm not sure I can read a full book about the"autophagic orgy of indignity," "embedded velocities," or the "insurgent memeplex."

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Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Year-End Book Wrapup '18

My goal this year was to read 50 books and to complete the Read Harder Challenge. (On last year’s post I said my goal was to read 70 books, but then I realized I wanted to prioritize my own writing goal and downshifted to 50. It doesn’t matter because I beat the goal either way and kicked ass on my own writing goal too. Yay me.)

You can see all my Challenge books here on last year’s wrapup. This year, I read 78 books: 47 by women, 30 by men, and one co-authored by both. I recently got a Los Angeles County library card to help feed my insatiable addiction to Kindle books from the library.  I now have four libraries to choose from!

Top five books of the year:

1. My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Still bitter this isn’t on the Tournament of Books shortlist. I adored this book. Maybe it was this year’s Version Control — a book where its quirkiness spoke directly to me and others didn’t love it as much. But I loved this. The author particularly nailed the ending, which isn’t always the case with litfic, I find. And it’s utterly absorbing and unique.

2. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Another book I adored; the main character is so prickly and unlikeable and yet you fall in love with her and root for her and are so moved by her. I am planning to re-read this one in 2019 just to have the experience of reading it again.

3. Homegoing

I put a plus sign next to a book on my list if it was particularly good; Homegoing got three plus signs. It was also the fourth book I read this year. Some of the books with one or two plus signs, I had to go back and look up to remember what I liked about them; Homegoing is indelible. An amazing novel.

4. My Sister the Serial Killer

I’ve brought this up every time I read a Tournament book because this was my Zombie vote and so far I don’t regret it. I’m a sucker for the unreliable narrator and the black comedy of this book. I also love its portrayal of modern-day Nigeria, although the characters and story feel universal.

5. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I had a lot of wonderful and very literary novels duking it out for the fifth place on the list but ultimately I had to give it to the one that I was so charmed by, I’ve already read it twice and watched the movie. I read quite a few great YA novels this year (including Jordi Perez, Foolish Hearts, and Emergency Contact) but this one was my favorite. Even though one of my friends is gonna be real mad at me if she sees this. Sorry, Jen!

Runners up: The Vegetarian, White Tears, Florence Gordon, The Bright Hour, So Much Blue, Goodbye Vitamin, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Eat Pray Love, Catherine Called Birdy, Stronger Faster and More Beautiful

Bottom five books:

1. Chaos Monkeys

Just on principle, I’m putting the one by the douchey tech bro at number one.

2. Inkheart

Ugh this one was boring and lacked stakes. Forced myself to the end because it was a category for the Read Harder Challenge, but I do not recommend.

3. The End of Eddy

A Tournament of Books novel I disliked. (This year I’m setting aside the ones I can't get into; so far I’ve given up on Call Me Zebra, and The Dictionary of Animal Languages might be next.) Just a world and a story I did not enjoy.

4. The Idiot

Boring. Elif Batuman is a super genius and a great writer but I needed a plot.

5. Love Warrior

A memoir that ultimately came across as insincere.

Next year my goal is to read 70 books (apparently it doesn’t cut into my writing time so this seems doable) and complete the Read Harder Challenge. As usual, I’ll be updating this post as I get through the challenge and use a label on my posts so you can follow along.

Here are the categories:

Total: 2/24

[ ]  An epistolary novel or collection of letters
[ ]  An alternate history novel
[ ]  A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018
[ ]  A humor book
[ ]  A book by a journalist or about journalism
[ ]  A book by an AOC set in or about space
[ ]  An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
[ ]  An #ownvoices book set in Oceania
[X]  A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads: The Xenofeminist Manifesto
[ ]  A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman
[ ]  A book of manga
[ ]  A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
[ ]  A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
[ ]  A cozy mystery
[ ]  A book of mythology or folklore
[ ]  An historical romance by an AOC
[ ]  A business book
[ ]  A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
[ ]  A book of nonviolent true crime
[ ]  A book written in prison
[ ]  A comic by an LGBTQIA creator
[ ]  A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009
[X]  A self-published book: True Porn Clerk Stories
[ ]  A collection of poetry published since 2014

I really like this year’s challenges! I love epistolary novels and cozy mysteries, and many of the other categories are intriguing.

I’m so excited for more booky, library goodness in 2019 — thanks so much for reading!

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Monday, December 31, 2018

The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) (by Amy Spalding)

Sneaking one in under the 2018 wire! I picked this up last night for a bit of light reading before bed and ended up staying up until three to finish it.  Such a charming girl-girl romance, set in my beloved Los Angeles, with great humor and a wonderful, plus-sized main character.  A wonderful way to end the year of reading. Year-end wrapup coming soon!

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Christmas Reads 2018

This may be the last batch of reviews before my annual year-end wrapup. Here are the books I finished while on Christmas vacation:

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful (by Arwen Elys)

I get so many science fiction book recommendations via John Scalzi's Big Idea series, and this was one of them. It's a series of six vignettes featuring teenage protagonists, each dealing with the implications of genetic engineering. It starts with the idea of reconstructing organs via stem cells, and by the final vignette, humans have almost evolved into a new species.  It's really great; I particularly loved Milla's story and the final story, either of which could have easily been a novel on its own. Loved the way this is grounded in real science and also in the realities of these characters. Highly recommended for science fiction fans.

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (by James Fallon)

Premise: a neuroscientist is researching psychopathic brains as well as his family, and thinks he's gotten some scans mixed up. He hasn't: he has the brain of a psychopath. There's lots of scidency detail and not a strong sense of narrative. It's obvious Fallon is kind of a dick even if he's not a deranged murderer. And he mentions hiding some of his worst stories. But this is a completely unique perspective and he does attack it (seemingly) with candor.  As I said, definitely unique if you're interested in the science of psychopathy.

Census (by Jesse Ball)

A Tournament of Books entrant. It's a metaphorical novel about the author's relationship with his brother, told via the narrator, a father traveling with his son who has Downs Syndrome. (Although it's alluded to, not actually named -- neither are the other characters and places in the story.) They are conducting a mysterious census on behalf of a mysterious government with a dystopian feel to it. I was expecting some kind of revelatory ending about that, but instead the conclusion is as metaphorical as the rest of it, although quite moving. I didn't love it overall, honestly, but I'm still interested in reading discussions about it when the tournament begins. (When am I going to get to a Tournament book this year that blows me away? Still waiting...)

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Italian Teacher (by Tom Rachman)

I remember having hated The Imperfectionists, but looking back I seem to have kind of liked it? Apparently I was in the throes of new motherhood so really, who can say. (Also gift4gab recommended Kindle books through the library right there in the comments. Somehow it took me like six years to take her advice. Sorry, gift4gab, if you're still out there! You tried to tell me!)

Anyway, I ended up with a handful of ToB books to choose from once I dug into the list. I got about 75 pages or so into Call Me Zebra and disliked it very much, so I gave that one up and tried this one instead. This one I liked! It's kind of a tragicomedy about an incredibly frustrating sad sack named Pinch. (Yes, the names in this book are dumb: Pinch's father is named Bear.) Bear is a famous artist and womanizer who clearly doesn't care about Pinch; Pinch idolizes him.

The book is definitely about the art world and about Pinch (aka Charles) making his way through life mostly in the wake of his famous father. If you want likeable characters, do not read this; everyone is awful. But if you enjoy character sketches and don't need likeability, you may enjoy the story of Pinch: an ultimately poignant figure, very well-realized.

(Definitely does not unseat My Sister the Serial Killer for my zombie vote though.)

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Monday, December 17, 2018

So Lucky (by Nicola Griffith)

And so the Tournament of Books has begun! I have to say I'm surprised by the shortlist. I thought The Great Believers (which I have not read) and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (which I have read, and loved) were shoo-ins. I'm thrilled that My Sister the Serial Killer made it because I loved that one too, but that's the only tournament book, other than this one, I've read so far.

So Lucky is about a community organizer and activist named Mara who is diagnosed with MS at the same time as her wife leaves her. She writes about what it's like to become disabled and how differently she is seen, and she explores many raw and angry feelings about being victimized and fighting back. I gather many elements of the novel are autobiographical, as Griffith identifies as a queer writer and also has MS.

As far as the Tournament goes, although the book is excellently written and the emotion behind it is powerful and the viewpoint is unique, it didn't blow me away. I don't have a "good" reason for why not, but maybe one of the ToB judges will articulate it for me! Overall, this wouldn't change my Zombie vote* for My Sister the Serial Killer. 

*Wherein you vote for your favorite book in the tournament to come back as a zombie.

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The Spaceship Next Door (by Gene Doucette)

As fun as this book is -- about a town affected by the fact that a spaceship has landed in it, and a sixteen-year-old who might hold the key to everything -- there are a couple of off-putting elements. 

First, the sixteen-year-old in question, Annie, is a fun character but so preternaturally brilliant and mature that she comes off as a Mary Sue (or in this case a Gary Stu, I guess). There are parts where she's being snarky at the U.S government and somehow that's okay because Annie is just so amazing. This especially comes into focus at the end.

Second, the way the author harps on two characters being gay and using the adjective lesbian all the time (like "the angry lesbian was in the front seat" or similar) is off putting.  It comes across as an author awkwardly trying to shoehorn in some diversity by way of othering and vague misogyny.

Aside from these two issues I found this a generally entertaining story and a breezy read.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What If It’s Us (by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera)

Yep, still working my way through the Becky Albertalli ouvre! I hadn't ready anything by Silvera yet but I was interested to hear they'd teamed up to write a M/M romance in alternating perspectives.

I liked the full-on awkwardness of this romance. It captured the awkwardness of youth in the way that so many YA novels seem to gloss over.  But there were moments where it felt very co-authored -- not just that the characters' perspectives differed, but that one author made something happen, handed it over to the other who had to shoehorn in a new plot point, and it didn't quite work as seamlessly as I'd hoped. 

I enjoyed the boldness of the ending and it felt right for these particular characters in this particular romance. I have some quibbles but I will definitely check out Adam Silvera's work; I have a feeling I will prefer each of these writers as standalone authors more.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Nine Perfect Strangers (by Liane Moriarty)

I'll always read a good Liane Moriarty (usually on an airplane, but in this case it was just when my library hold popped up and said this book was available -- god I love the library).  This is not her best, I'll say that right away, despite a great concept -- nine strangers at an unorthodox holistic health resort.

Each of the characters is well drawn and has a great backstory that unfolds over the course of the book, Moriarty is great at creating vivid characters and making you care about them. But the ending goes off the rails into melodrama -- and it's not all that believable, at that. Still, a page turning and entertaining light read.

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Catherine, Called Birdy (by Karen Cushman)

A historical young adult novel set in the 1200s, in which Catherine narrates her fourteenth year.  She's rebellious (insomuch as she can be in the 13th century) and resisting being married off by her father, while commenting on feudal life and the people around her. 

The diary format and general charm and self-possession of Catherine reminds me a bit of Cassandra and I Capture the Castle. The well-researched historical details makes this immersive and fascinating. It gave me a glimpse into medieval life that managed not to be too anachronistic in a portrayal of a  young woman and her social world. Great read!

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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Gnomon (by Nick Harkaway)

Another pick from the ToB longlist, this is 700 pages of science fiction whose concept led me to put it on my library holds list and whose first few chapters reeled me in for good.  Here's the description:

In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of "transparency." Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories—all in the name of providing the safest society in history. When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. 

And since this doesn't even cover the half of it, here is the rest of the description from Amazon:

Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn't Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter's psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.

I would love to go back and read this all over again, given how much I'm certain I missed the first time, except for the whole "700 pages long" thing.  My favorite of the nested narratives is Neith's in the "real world," which helps ground the rest of them, but I enjoyed all of them.  I love the conclusion this builds to, and the very final chapter is killer.

I put all this description in here to help give you an idea of whether you want to invest in a story of this size and scope and experimental breadth. If it sounds at all up your alley, I definitely recommend it.

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Monday, November 26, 2018

Thanksgiving Reads

Over Thanksgiving break, I finished some books! And here they are:

My Sister the Serial Killer (by Oyinkan Braithwaite)

A Tournament of Books longlist pick and I'm so glad to have been introduced to it! It's a Nigerian novel vaguely reminiscent of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about two sisters, one of whom is a psychopathic serial killer. (The book opens with one sister helping the other dispose of a body.) I tore through this in a day and absolutely loved it. Great characters and a killer (no pun intended) ending. Highly recommended.

The Proposal (by Jasmine Guillory)

A companion to The Wedding Date, about a couple who meets in a baseball stadium when Nikole's casual boyfriend proposes to her on the Jumbotron and she says no. Pretty standard romance formula but still so enjoyable, and I love the feminist flavor and the romance between people of color.  I'm not usually a romance fan but I'll read Guillory's future novels, for sure!

Laura & Emma (by Kate Greathead)

I really loved most of this -- it's a compulsively readable story about a privileged New Yorker who takes full advantage of her privilege while also condemning it and hiding behind it in many ways. It's told in a vignette style that's quite pleasing. But it ends super abruptly and the ending itself, I didn't like. (Nor did most people, I gather, because the author in an interview mentioned how many people have told her they hate it.) So I can't quite recommend it.

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story (by Kheryn Callender)

I love the idea of this book, by a non-binary queer author of color, featuring lots of queer characters, and even a love interest who is hard of hearing. However, it was disappointing. I didn't fall in love with Nate as a main character or most of the other characters. I didn't even like them much (except for Oliver James). The conflicts are pretty much characters behaving like brats and giving each other the silent treatment, and it isn't a good look for anyone.  Plus everyone seems to be bisexual and race and sexuality are not even obliquely addressed. I'll give Callender's next novel a try in the hope that they'll improve on this debut effort.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Fire Sermon (by Jamie Quatro)

I finished the Read Harder Challenge just in time for the Tournament of Books longlist to come out! I've only read two of the longlist books (My Year of Rest and Relaxation and The Immortalists) so I have some catching up to do.

In past years, I've tried to predict what's going to make the final tournament and I've always been wrong. (This year based purely on buzz, I think Washington Black is going to not just make it in, but win. Which probably means it won't even make the shortlist.) So this year I went through and added anything that sounded interesting to my library holds list and am just reading them as they come up.

This is a spare and poetic novel about an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual affair, using a fractured structure and a somewhat unreliable narrator. It's frustrating to see Maggie choose to stay with her husband, who doesn't come across well, until the end, where she unveils some possible hidden motives that offer an interesting shade to the book as a whole. Overall I enjoyed it but it didn't blow me away.

So, will this make the shortlist? It could, but I'm not clamoring to revisit it. On the other hand, I'm really hoping My Year of Rest and Relaxation makes it, because it's definitely one of my top reads of the year!

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Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Vacation Reads: Pacific Northwest Edition

I spent a long weekend in the PNW visiting my friends Jen and Annie (and the town of Forks, yay Twilight, you are so good and terrible) and text banking and reading books on planes! Here are the books I finished while on the trip:

Fortune's Children by (Arthur Vanderbilt II)

After visiting The Breakers recently (one of the fancy mansions in Newport, Rhode Island) I wanted to read more about the Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age. (It doesn't hurt that Edith Wharton and Henry James, who lived in and wrote about that milieu, are two of my favorite writers.) This book is well-researched and full of rich, fascinating detail. Loved it.

The Sisters Brothers (by Patrick deWitt)

This was the final book for the 2018 Read Harder Challenge! It was most difficult because I'm not a Western fan. (I bailed out of Lonesome Dove after the first sentence, sorry.) But this is well written, vivid characters, lots of pathos and grimness and adventure. It went down easy. But the adventures of white men pillaging a country and displacing its people is never going to be my favorite genre, and I'm at peace with that.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (by Becky Albertalli) 

The movie producers were right: Love, Simon is a better name for it. Overall I was very charmed. by this. The central romance is so adorable. I want to see the movie, too! Jen pointed out that this is a middle-aged woman writing a queer narrative and this is somewhat icky. I can understand that but was won over by the cuteness in spite of myself.

Fame (by Justine Bateman)

I didn't tag this with "memoir "because as Bateman says, "this is not a fucking memoir, I hate memoirs." Instead, it's a meditation on the nature of fame and the experience of famousness. This made me so excited to see what she's been writing and directing because her voice is truly original: it's natural, authentic, grounded, and fearless. Worth a read, especially if you have ever had tangential connections to the fame machine.

Leah on the Offbeat (by Becky Albertalli) 

Sequel to Simon, focusing on character Leah. She's fat and bisexual so of course I was excited about this, and it does have charm, but so much is left unresolved and she doesn't grow as a character. The treatment of Nick is weird. The romance isn't fully plausible. It felt rushed. I'm hoping if she revisits this group of characters, she'll tie up some of the millions of loose ends here.

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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Lethal White (by Robert Galbraith)

My favorite Cormoran Strike book so far!

I will confess that I'm never as interested in the mystery as in the relationship between Strike and Robin, which played itself out so deliciously in this book. But I did enjoy the mystery in this case too! In fact I didn't mind the book being overly long-winded (it's 650 pages long) because I was engrossed in the details and the characters.

Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) does a great job with tiny scenes and details (upper crust people have names like Fizzy and Torquil, it's delightful) and kept me engrossed while I was waiting for the next interaction between the two colleagues.

One thing I will say is that Matthew was always hateable but in this book he's a caricature. (Spoilers ahead; RSS readers skip to the next paragraph) I really wanted Robin to come to the realization that she didn't love him even if he wasn't a complete asshole. But of course he has to cross the line and she can leave with a clear conscience. It's not always that simple and I wished the book had reflected that. On the other hand, her PTSD and anxiety are treated with the nuance missing from the Matthew storyline.

The cliffhanger at the end of book three was a killer, and we had to wait a long time for book four, so I'm glad we're left on a less tense relationship moment. I still can't wait for book five, though! Mostly to see what happens next with Strike and Robin....

(I do so love Robin.)

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Shirley, Goodness and Mercy (by Chris van Wyk)

One of the categories of the Read Harder Challenge this year was books set in one of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). I decided I wanted to read about South Africa, since my mother spent her childhood (ages 2-11) there. 

It is surprisingly hard to find South African literature. Born a Crime is still on my list, but I was attracted to van Wyk's memoir because he grew up in the 60s, in a township like my mother. I assumed from his last name that he was Dutch and white, and I was interested in that perspective for obvious reasons. But I learned a lot from the get-go, first off that there were three classes -- white, coloured, and black. Coloured people, like van Wyk, had mixed ancestry and was considered "coloured."

I'm glad I read it through his perspective, which jumps back and forth with individual stories, some about his family and growing up, some humorous, some about apartheid in the background, and some with apartheid front and center, particularly when he becomes older and is an author and an activist. Some of his poems are included throughout, which span from personal to political. And the idea that the first election in which non-whites could vote was in 1994, so recent, really brings it into perspective.

I was sad to read that van Wyk died a few years ago and really loved his book. I learned more about apartheid than I'd ever known before, and am left wanting to learn more and talk to my mother more about her experiences there. 

A side note, I learned the word kaffir, which was a derogatory term for blacks in South Africa. At the same time, my mother found an old photo album of my grandmother's, and in it is a picture of her smiling "kaffirmaid."  I remember conversations with my grandmother about her experiences (after all, she was an adult and understood much more about what was going on) but she died almost 20 years ago.  What I wouldn't give to have another one of those conversations with her today -- for so many reasons.

Next: Born a Crime, and any non-fiction books about apartheid you can recommend!

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Monday, October 15, 2018

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (by Edmund Bourne)

One of my new year's resolutions this year was to work my way through this highly recommended book. I see a therapist for anxiety, but he's a Freudian, and I am super goal oriented so was interested in reading about a more cognitive behavioral approach.

I found this book super useful. I am shocked at how well the techniques have worked for addressing my injection phobia.  I still am nervous about it and still took half a Xanax before my flu shot, but it is a marked improvement. And I haven't even done full-on exposure therapy, just "let the anxiety wash over you and get used to it." It has helped!

I also loved the part where I had to get into different "voices" in my head like the Victim and the Critic, and write out all the things "they" tell me about myself. Then I wrote counterstatements that I turned into affirmations. I use an affirmation app on my phone to display the affirmations daily so I can read through them. Affirmations = also super great!

On the not-so-great side is the medical quackery (the nutrition chapter was like carrying on a conversation with a random customer in our local hippie vitamin store) and the attitude towards weight. (You should be able to "overcome" anxiety the way you "overcome" obesity -- luckily the book had enough "be kind to yourself" messaging to override the shame of that statement.)

Overall, very glad I stuck with it and will have to go back and re-read all my notes and dog-ears. I'm still working through some of the exercises, too.  With some caveats about the nutrition and body stuff... recommended.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Inkheart (by Cornelia Funke)

I would not have finished this if not for the Read Harder Challenge and its "genre fiction in translation" category.  This is the first book in a well-regarded trilogy by German writer Cornelia Funke, about a world where those with talent can read characters into and out of books. 12-year-old Meggie has a father who has this talent, he's on the run from characters he has released from books, and adventure ensues.

The main issue I had with this book: the main villains. We are told they are is awful and sadistic, and love inflicting pain on people. This group captures our heroes -- including six different people and an animal -- on two separate occasions, and does literally nothing to harm them. The heroes even get to share rooms. After about a third of the novel you realize that there are no stakes, because nothing actually bad is ever going to happen. So when the heroes escape and get recaptured and escape again and get recaptured, it's not only that the novel is going in plot circles, it's that there's no tension whatsoever.

Also the world of the titular novel Inkheart, which is supposed to be so great, is not really well-drawn or interesting. The villains are boring. The world is boring.

People love this book and this series, but it is emphatically Not For Me and I was glad to be done with it.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sourdough (by Robin Sloan)

Sourdough is about a woman named Lois Clary who works at a tech company in San Francisco and then gets a mysterious sourdough starter that changes the course of her life.

I didn't realize Robin Sloan was also the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, but that makes so much sense. (And it looks like they changed the cover and added a subtitle to make that clearer. I like the first cover so much better, and I'm not even going to pretend that dumb subtitle is part of this situation.) Sourdough has got the Sloan quirkiness, and so many Bay Area references that I, who work at a tech company in San Francisco, was delighted.

So yep, overall charming. I liked the first half better than the back half (Lois getting the starter and figuring out where to go from there) but still was happy to finish it and would give it a thumbs up in particular for SF locals.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (by Bill Bryson)

My first Bill Bryson book and it isn't bad. Full disclosure: for the "nature" category of the Read Harder Challenge I got over halfway through The Death and Life of the Great Lakes and then couldn't take it anymore, god it was so boring and so depressing, I was like, I can't. I'd heard Bryson was funny and breezy, so I switched books, and this was a super fast read, especially in comparison.

I didn't love Bryson's attitude about his fellow hikers; for example, he was pretty condescending towards his hiking companion, who hiked with him for hundreds of miles, because he was fatter and slower.  (Lots of little jabs at fat people throughout, which you know I don't find charming.)  He discusses the nature of the trail and some of the history, which was fun.

The thing I that I have already read Wild, which is similarly themed but ten million times better. So this suffered in comparison.  Still, it was a fast and mostly enjoyable read.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Eat Pray Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert)

After reading and enjoying The Signature of All Things, I realized Elizabeth Gilbert is not a fluffy lady author, as the Eat Pray Love pop-culture phenomenon (and the patriarchy) sort of implied, and that someday I should maybe read her memoir. Dear readers, that someday is now.

And this memoir is well-written and enjoyable. Yes, she is a privileged white lady traveling around the world, but she still genuinely engages with the places she visits in a sincere way, and seems to be  thoughtful about how she does so. She is likeable and honest, and her emotional journey resonated with me as I read it.

Probably most people have read this if they're going to read it; I'm about a decade late on this particular bandwagon. But this is a classic example of why I love ebooks from the library so much: if I'd had to pay for this book I might not have taken the chance, but I'm glad I did.

I kind of wish I graded books. I'd give this one a B+!

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (by Mark Twain)

So this was my choice for the Read Harder Challenge category "An assigned book you hated (or never finished)." This isn't one I hated, but I took over teaching a course in the Great American Novel while the students were midway through this book, and I graded their essays without actually reading the book. (Frankly it made no difference in my ability to assess their arguments and use of textual evidence to make those arguments.) 

I haven't read anything about this novel since then (it was over a decade ago), and I know if I do I'll fully understand why this 19th century work is the Great American Novel and all that. But I've read too many slave narratives to find the whole "ha ha, Tom and Huck do crazy things to set Jim free!" plot amusing in the slightest. The n-word aside, and Jim's humanity aside, and the happy ending aside, this massively downplays the horrors of slavery and here, in 2018, I can't deal with it.

I can work hard to get the historical context and appreciation of this novel -- and I probably should, since this is really the last book in the American canon that I haven't read or studied.  But I'm starting to think the American canon is bullshit anyway, and I have better things to do with my time. So, yeah. Fine. I read it. It's a classic. Whatevs.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Business Trip Reads

As per usual, I'm lumping all the books I read on my recent business trip together. I also read 40% of three other books (two for the Read Harder Challenge) but haven't finished any of them yet!

Pretty Girls (by Karin Slaughter)

This is a fairly lurid thriller. It is a page turner and well-plotted, but also disturbing, and I had to take breaks sometimes because of that! I'm not sure whether I'll read more by her or if they're a bit too gruesome for me -- anyone have any thoughts or recommendations?
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America (Edied by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding)

This was my anthology selection for the Read Harder Challenge and I really loved it. I had to read it an essay at a time because as Kate Harding's essay explores, the pain of losing the election in 2016 is still fresh. My favorite piece is the one by Randa Jarrar, a Muslim woman traveling in America. I would love to read a memoir by her! But I loved a lot of them and found it an incredibly worthwhile, if sometimes painful, read.

Tell Me Three Things (by Julie Buxbaum)

I took breaks from the above two books, each difficult in its own way, to read this fluffy YA romance. Great choice for a flight, too! This is a You've Got Mail-style romance via instant message and email.  (Yes, I know the original was Shop Around the Corner, but... email.)  Pretty predictable, but satisfying anyway, and the throughline of our protagonist dealing with her mom's death is poignant.

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art (by Sam Wasson)

A history of improv, from the Compass Players to Anchorman.  Deeply researched and a lot of interesting tidbits*, although I feel the writing is flawed.

For one, it seems a bit over-written, with some florid sentences and tortured metaphors. I got the sense this was just Wasson's style, but it sometimes was distracting.  The information is also presented in a fragmented way, jumping around among different groups and people from paragraph to paragraph.  And my final complaint: not enough specifics about the structure of improv itself. 

In a way, it's a result of having so much to cover -- you could easily write a 500 page book just about Christopher Guest movies or Gilda Radner or Nichols and May. (I would read all of these books.) So it's definitely worth a read if you're interested in the topic, but expect to jump around a bit.

*My favorite one: Bob Odenkirk wrote the original "living in a van down by the river" Matt Foley sketch with Chris Farley when they were at Second City.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (by Ottessa Moshfeg)

I loved this weird, surreal novel.

The unnammed protagonist takes a whole cocktail of medications in the effort to sleep for an entire year. She has a best friend who she hates, a douchey ex-boyfriend, and sees and talks to no-one else. She is obsessed with Whoopi Goldberg. 

The novel opens in September 2000; in spite of the fact that the protagonist tries to avoid all news, the backdrop of Bush entering office and the fact that her "year" expires in September 2001 means the time and place (Manhattan) are very vivid.

It's not really a novel of incident, more an exploration of the narrator's untethered mental state. It's funny and whimsical, strange and painful. The ending is perfection. This would make a terrific Tournament of Books novel and my fingers are crossed it makes the shortlist. I really loved it.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Pop-Culture Vaycay Reads

I read two books on my weekend trip to Cleveland, and they group together nicely since they're both nonfiction and pop-culture related:

Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love (by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong)

I love this show despite its profound flaws, and deeply enjoyed reading this and revisiting the show.  Nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering, although I did like the observation, on the "feud" between Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall, that nobody ever asked James Gandolfini if he was friends with everyone else on The Sopranos. As problematic as the show is -- and the book doesn't shy away from it -- it is also in many ways underrated. A fun read.

Robin (by Dave Itzkoff)

Meticulously researched, a definitive biography of Robin Williams. Well worth reading if you've ever admired his work, and absolutely full of new insight and perspective about this talented performer. Although he wasn't always my cup of tea, especially when his work got overly manic or mawkish, but I admired many of his performances greatly, especially those in Aladdin and Dead Poets Society. I also met him once, circa 1990, when I was working on a TV special, and he effortlessly cracked up the cast and crew between takes. It was the "on" and hilarious version of him that many in this memoir spoke about, and I'm lucky to have gotten to experience a sprinkle of that myself.  Oh, and I have to say my favorite part was the examination of his relationship with Billy Crystal. What a true, touching friendship.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (by Gail Honeyman)

Oh wow, I fell in love with this book. I loved prickly, oblivious Eleanor and her way of coping with a traumatic past. I loved being inside her brain and experiencing the world through her.  It's funny but with an undercurrent of tragedy. I feel like I should have seen the ending coming from a mile away, but didn't.  Love, love, loved this book.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Vacation Reads: Costa Rica Edition

It's time for another edition of Vacation Reads! I went with a "light and fun" theme, because my vacation was really about relaxing and unplugging from the hellscape that is today's America. Also, all these books start with a T.

The Glitch (by Elisabeth Cohen)
Hilarious, satirical novel about a type-A CEO who is so clueless and such a terrible wife/mother, but you root for her anyway! A delightful skewering of Silicon Valley and Leaning In to the extreme.
Things I Should Have Known (by Claire Scovell LaZebnik)
A young adult romance about a girl with an older sister who is autistic. I liked the concept a lot, but I also liked it more than the execution. I didn't connect to the main character that much, and things seemed to come a bit too easily for her.

Truly Devious (by Maureen Johnson)
Part one of a planned trilogy, and I'm glad I knew that because it's definitely not a standalone (almost nothing gets resolved). A Sherlock Holmesy girl is trying to solve a 1936 murder at an eccentric boarding school -- and the murderer may have struck again in the present. A scene-setting novel, but I'm definitely in for the next one!

Tell the Machine Goodnight (by Katie Williams)
I was most excited to read this one because I loved the concept -- this is a sci-fi novel about a machine that tells you things to do (like eat tangerines or stop talking to your brother) to make you happier. I was hoping this would go into a harder sci-fit direction but it is more of a character exploration that reads as linked short stories. I ended up really enjoying it once I got into it, and could have happily lived in this near-future world much longer.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (by Becky Chambers)
This is less plotty and more of an introduction to the ragtag crew of a spaceship as they go on a mission to punch a hole in space. Although the overarching plot is a bit slight, the worldbuilding is creative and delightful, with great characters of many fascinating species. Very happy there's a sequel; I put the next one on hold immediately, of course!

The Death of Mrs. Westaway (by Ruth Ware)
Not bad -- a good page-turner for an airplane, with a good mystery plot and a satisfying conclusion. But I found it to be somewhat flimsy and desultory, somehow? I enjoy Ruth Ware but she's more of a B-minus read for me, I'm finding.

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bachelor Nation (by Amy Kaufman)

I tried to save this to read on vacation next week, but that plan didn't last long.

I don't watch The Bachelor, although I did watch the first season of The Bachelorette and then Trista and Ryan's wedding. I tried to watch the new Bachelorette season because hooray for diversity, but I think I only made it through about half an episode.  But I do watch UnREAL (by a former Bachelor producer) and love behind-the-scenes industry gossip.

This is fun, breezy, dishy and entertaining. Would have loved more chapters and even more depth (ooh, oral history style perhaps?) but not mad at it. The interstitial celebrity interviews are fun too! Who knew that Melanie Lynskey and Jason Ritter a) are married to each other, and b) are fans of The Bachelor? Who knew that Donnie Wahlberg was a huge fan?

Enjoyed this fluffy, fun read. Hopefully the Sex and the City book will get released from my library holds at just the right moment to read on an airplane...

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (by Barbara Ehrenreich)

A pretty famous pop culture touchstone, but one I had never read. It's an interesting read -- Ehrenreich spends a month each dabbling in minimum wage jobs and trying to make ends meet, works hard, and does end up with some insightful observations about the plight of the minimum wage worker (though she doesn't address the fact that so many of these jobs are done by women, but that's a whole other story). I sympathize with what critics attack as her "socialist politics" and the conclusion she draws -- that the minimum wage is unliveable for many -- is pretty incontrovertible. 

However,  Ehrenreich-as-narrator never really breaks through her privilege and simply doesn't go far enough. She starts with seed money, she walks away from jobs when she can't make them work, at one point she calls her dermatologist for a long-distance prescription! As a middle-aged privileged white lady myself, some of the parts where her privilege shows through hit a bit close to home.  Erenreich got an important conversation started, but it's a decade old now -- maybe it's time for a real minimum wage worker to tell her story.

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