Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Nix (by Nathan Hill)

I read this for (what else) the Tournament of Books, and I read it alongside Moonglow.

A lot of the ToB judges and commentators this year seem to have strongly preferred The Nix, but it was an interesting experience for me. Moonglow, despite being almost entirely fictional, is presented with this sheen of verisimilitude that, for me, The Nix lacks.  The ending went a ways towards mitigating this issue, but still -- Moonglow felt true for me; The Nix did not.

That's not to say it was anything less than a pleasure to read. It was deeply enjoyable, sometimes going off on tangents with side characters, most of whom are delightful. (I don't know that I needed Allan Ginsberg's point of view on the Chicago riots, but Pwnage's story is great.)  There's a chapter between Samuel, a professor, and his cheating student, presented in the form of logical fallacies, that is masterful. (And rings so completely true. We've all taught Laura Pottsdam at one point or another.)  There's a Choose Your Own Adventure chapter where the end of each chapter is only one choice. And so forth.

Overall, it's experimental in some ways, an impressive achievement, and very fun to read. I won't be mad to see it advance further in the tournament, and to discuss it more in the comments. But for me in terms of emotional resonance and a sense of authenticity, it falls a bit short.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Moonglow (by Michael Chabon)

The last Chabon book I tried to read was Telegraph Avenue, and I thought the writing was so horrible that I got barely half a chapter into it.  I am very curious to dig it up and see why I hated it so much, given my enjoyment of Moonglow.  Maybe it's a return to Kavalier and Clay form, or maybe Telegraph Avenue caught me on a bad day.

At any rate, this is an account of the life of Chabon's paternal grandfather, and the history he imparted to his grandson in the final days of his life.  Chabon jumps around in time to cover his grandmother's and mother's history as well. And of course, in all the interweaving stories, all the revelations of family secrets, the moon serves as a central theme.  It's assured, well-paced, wonderfully written, funny at times, authentic -- just a classic literary fiction delight.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Version Control (by Dexter Palmer)

As I mentioned in my last post, I loved Version Control! I've already recommended it to half a dozen people.  It's a wonderfully absorbing near-future story about not-quite time travel.  Setting it ten years in the future is so clever -- I'm reading about my daughter's generation, only when they are my age. It's a trippy experience! And that's before you even get to the world-building details -- the self-driving cars and the dining tables with embedded touchscreens and the personalized messages from the president.*

*Amusingly, or "amusingly," the dystopian touches do not go nearly far enough given our current political situation. Like, women still are treated as people and everything! That's how you know it's science fiction.

You also know I'm a sucker for an unreliable narrator. This narrator, Rebecca, is a quasi-functional alcoholic whose husband is a scentist working on a not-quite-time-travel-device. And she keeps getting hints that something about the world is not quite right. She's a great character, and the world is so interesting to read about, you really don't want this book to end. Or at least I didn't.

My only quibble -- actually my only two quibbles. One is that the character of Alicia (sexually voracious, brilliant, emotionally cold scientist) could only have been written by a man.  The other is that the ending didn't quite land for me -- maybe because I didn't fully understand what... a certain character did.  I am being intentionally vague but maybe will head over to Goodreads to see what others have to say.

Highly recommend this novel, and indeed I have slept on my opinions of both of the books in the bracket, and I'm giving the nod to Version Control. 

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Friday, February 10, 2017

My Name Is Lucy Barton (by Elizabeth Strout)

I've been reading two ToB books simultaneously, this one and Version Control.  This was the one I've had to put on my to-do list every day to get through; Version Control has been my fun reward book.  Not that Lucy Barton is at all long, or in any way bad. But being in Lucy's world is being seeped in melancholy. 

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is that Lucy is in the hospital, being visited by her mother and reminiscing. We see flashes of her painful childhood, marked by extreme poverty and abuse, and her own deep emotional damage as a result.  Yet it's written in an understated, spare, meditative way.  Lucy and Lucy (both the character and the book itself) wring your heart as you read.

Let me put it this way: Version Control includes the death of a child and is way less depressing.  These two books are going head-to-head in the first round of the ToB. I can't wait to see how that turns out; when I finish Version Control, I'll let you know how I would vote.

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Saturday, February 04, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky (by Charlie Jane Anders)

I loved this book.  Read for the Tournament of Books and then realized it is set in San Francisco, so qualifies for the RHC as well. (In a category I already completed, but oh well.) (Hey, it's a debut novel! It counts after all.)

This is about two kids who meet in middle school and eventually end up embroiled in a potentially apocalyptic war of science vs. magic: Laurence on the side of science, and Patricia on the side of magic. I loved the magic stuff -- it is reminiscent of The Magicians, if The Magicians actually had good characters and pacing and a plot. And the sci-fi elements are fabulous too -- I loved the world-building of the near-future San Francisco.

The resolution is smart and feels completely earned.  I appreciated the casual queerness that Anders includes, as well as the flashes of humor.  A page-turner, and my favorite read of the year so far!

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Underground Railroad (by Colson Whitehead)

I read and loved Underground Airlines last year, but Underground Railroad is the one that has been getting all the accolades and is of course on the Tournament of Books shortlist. I decided as a point of comparison, I would read it.

I hesitate to use the word "entertaining" to describe a book about slavery, or to imply that I need "entertainment" in my books about slavery. But Underground Airlines was entertaining and a bit of a page-turner -- although I don't think it shied away from the implications of its premise. Underground Railroad was more of a painful experience, so more difficult to read. That's not a criticism, by the way -- but a difference in my experience of each. 

Both of them are slightly alternate histories, though Railroad's is more subtle -- the only change is that the railroad is a literal railroad, with tracks and trains and tunnels, that aids Cora on her attempt to run away from plantation life and find freedom in the South.

It wasn't until the end of the book that I actually got why there was a literal railroad, and it was at that point that my mind was totally blown: Cora herself is a metaphor for the bridge between slavery and present-day America, showing that the damage of slavery is clearly alive and well in the black experience today. That is not a huge surprise, thematically, but the final chapter made both Cora and the railroad more overtly metaphorical than at any point earlier in the book.  And of course, then you know how Cora's story turns out, and it's the story of black America. Cora's life becomes all black lives. It is a brilliant conclusion.

However, I would still rank this below some of the other recent books I've read on the same theme, notably The Good Lord Bird, The Sellout, and yes, Underground Airlines.  For me, the brilliant ending was not enough brilliance to carry me through the painful, and somewhat predictable, and somewhat underdeveloped meat of the story. I expect this to go far in the Tournament of Books, but maybe not win. I'll be interested in the commentary, however!

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (by Benjamin Alire Saenz)

Recommended by the Goodreads RHC group in the category of "YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+."

I really enjoyed this. The writing is sparse and dialogue-heavy, and reminds me of Paula Danzinger.  It's not my favorite style, and it's a little odd when letters are presented in the same style as Aristotle's internal narration, but I went with it and ultimately it worked for me. Ari is a wonderful, complex character. I enjoyed the exploration of sexuality and of culture (the boys are both Mexican-American, and they each grapple with what that means).  And I found the ending very moving. 

SPOILERS BELOW

I'm still pondering the significance of setting this in the late 1980s and not addressing AIDS at all with any of the characters. In fact, all four parents are pretty accepting, even encouraging, of their sons potentially being gay.  I found each character individually persuasive, but it struck me as anachronistic.  Then I wondered why not just set it in the present-day and avoid the anachronism. And then I thought maybe Saenz had a reason for approaching it this way.  I'm curious to know what others who read it thought about it.  (A quick Google search shows me that it's not just me.)

Anyway, overall, thumbs up on this!

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (by Mona Awad)

This linked set of short stories was on the Tournament of Books longlist, but didn't make the shortlist.  But as a linked collection of short stories, it qualifies as a Read Harder Challenge book. And regardless of what list it's on or not on, I am so glad I read it!

If you've ever been a fat girl, you will relate to these stories so hard.  Unflinchingly honest and unafraid of portraying Lizzie as an object of attraction as well as ridicule, the stories delve into her deep insecurities as well as her deep strengths.  The early stories (before there is a weight loss narrative) resonated the most deeply with me,  but the later stories reminded me wonderfully of Jen Larsen's Stranger Here, equally honest and well-written, and equally resistant to the narrative of fat = bad, skinny = good that Awad is grappling with here.

My only criticism is that the ending seemed abrupt -- the stories do form an overall narrative, and it seemed to end with more of Lizzie's story to be told.  I didn't need 100% pat resolution, but a tiny bit more than what we got would have been satisfying. But that's a quibble. I really enjoyed this.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tales of the City (by Armistead Maupin)


My first selection for the Read Harder Challenge*, this book fits the category of "Set within 100 miles of your location."

I enjoyed finally getting a chance to read this groundbreaking novel, and I can see why its frank portrayal of gay life was such a revelation at the time.  As a novel, it's really dialogue heavy and very short on description -- which made me want to see the famed miniseries version, more than anything else. It's a fast, breezy read filled with terrific characters whose lives overlap in a string of implausible coincidences. Entertaining and charming.

In keeping with the RHC category, I also adored all the references to towns all over the Bay Area, not just locations in SF, but all over. I'm not sure if I'll delve into the rest of the series, although this was written and published in the '70s, so I am curious how and when the AIDS crisis impacts our cast of characters.  But I'm going to turn my attention to the Tournament of Books longlist (and soon, I hope, the shortlist) and keep further Tales of the City for future reading enjoyment.

*As a side note, if I re-read Go Tell It on the Mountain, it would check off five categories on this list.  I feel like I can find one that does even better, though. (Not that I want to knock off the list that easily.) 

[ ] Debut novel
[ ] Book you’ve read before
[ ] Classic by an author of color.
[ ] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
[ ] A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

As You Wish (by Cary Elwes)

As you may suspect, this is a memoir of the filming of The Princess Bride by Westley himself. I got this in hardcover last Christmas and mostly wanted to get it off my bookshelf! But it was an enjoyable holiday read. 

The intro starts off a little shaky (the overuse of adverbs is truly astonishing) but I think the ghostwriting kicked in, and then it was an enjoyable and quick read. It includes reminiscences from the rest of the cast, which I loved.  Bill Goldman and Wallace Shawn are apparently completely neurotic. Andre the Giant drank wine by the case. Mandy Patinkin and Elwes went through an astonishing amount of training for that incredible swordfight. And there are strong hints that Westley and Buttercup got it on in their trailers between takes.

Definitely a fun read if you enjoy this film!

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year-End Book Wrapup '16

My goal this year was to read 50 books; I achieved this goal and read 57 books this year. 32 were by women, 17 were by men, and 1 was co-authored by both.

Top five books of the year:

1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
I think this was the last book I read for the Read Harder challenge, for the "Set in the Middle East" category. This novel was a wonderful discovery. A quiet, pensive, thoughtful meditation on what literature brings to our lives. I also loved experiencing the life of the Beiruti narrator. My favorite read of the year.

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another Read Harder Challenge book, and also a Tournament of Books finalist. This book changed my perception of the Vietnam War profoundly -- I had been so used to seeing it exclusively through an American lens that I didn't even realize I was doing it. Another highly recommended novel.

3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The memoir of a brilliant neurologist who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and writes up until the end. Profoundly moving and beautifully written.

4. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This comedic exploration of race set in Los Angeles won the Tournament of Books, and deservedly so. Hilarious and urgent. An absolute highlight this year.

5. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
This is Ruth Reichl's first memoir, and it was simply delightful in every way. I must read more from her this year.

Honorable mentions: A Little Life, Slade House, The Good Lord Bird, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Signature of All Things, Underground Airlines, The Last Policeman

Bottom five books:

1. Mislaid by Nell Zink
It's kind of a tossup between my first two "worsts" for which I truly disliked more. I finished this only because it was a book club choice. I did not enjoy it or find it plausible at all.

2. The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak
Finished this out of loyalty to the Tournament of Books but really disliked this one too. Mediocre and irritating.

3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I ranted about this in my previous entry, so I won't belabor the point. I didn't like it though!

4. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Some interesting insights, but torpedoed by casual sexism throughout.

5. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Enjoyable fluff until it completely failed to wrap up its plotlines, much less wrap them up satisfyingly.

Next year I will stick with the same two goals I achieved this year: read at at least 50 books and complete the Read Harder Challenge. I'll be updating this post as the year goes on, as I did last year, with my selections for the challenge.  I'll dig into the Goodreads suggestions soon too; they are how I found An Unnecessary Woman last year! Some good categories this time around, too.

Total: 5/24

[ ] Book about sports
[X] Debut novel: All the Birds in the Sky
[ ] Book about books
[ ] Set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author
[ ] By an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative
[ ] All-ages comic
[ ] Published between 1900 and 1950
[ ] Travel memoir
[ ] Book you’ve read before
[X] Set within 100 miles of your location: Tales of the City and All the Birds in the Sky
[ ] Set more than 5000 miles from your location
[ ] Fantasy novel
[ ] Nonfiction book about technology
[ ] About war
[X] YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+:  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
[ ] Book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country
[ ] Classic by an author of color.
[ ] Superhero comic with a female lead.
[ ] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
[ ] An LGBTQ+ romance novel
[ ] Published by a micropress
[X] Collection of stories by a woman: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
[ ] Collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love
[X] A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe counts, but surprisingly Underground Railroad does not, since there is a chapter from a white character's perspective

Happy new (book) year, everyone!

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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Magicians (by Lev Grossman)

I finished this one out of spite.

I'm not sure what I'm missing here, exactly, since tons of people love these books. But this did not work for me at all. My issues:

For much of the book, there is absolutely no plot. There are some interesting scenes, a cool world, and things start to come together by the end, but by the time the characters had gotten all the way through magic school and graduated and still no plot had appeared, I was over it.

Brakebills= Hogwarts. Fillory = Narnia. So far, so obvious. However, the Harry Potter books are name-checked in the story and exist in this world.  Fillory novels also exist in this world, but once they characters encounter Fillory, they take it for granted that the world is real and not fictional.Why? Why do they take this for granted when clearly fictional magic exists? Why is Harry Potter treated as 100% fictional even though they go to magic school? Why do they accept the Fillory books as 100% accurate rather than a possibly fictionalized version of a real place? No internal logic here!

Also why does everyone love Fillory so much? It is awful. But characters talk about wanting to stay there forever....?

Quentin is a dick. He's supposed to be a dick, I grant you, and part of the point of this novel is to have the main character fail to learn and grow and basically just be a dick the whole time. But once the plot appears, he is kind of just along for the ride, fails to learn and grow but also fails to do anything that impacts anything. What is the point of following him around in the first place?

Female characters are often described in terms of their breasts. I should have highlighted all the gratuitous breast references.

tl;dr: dislike button.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Vacation Reads

I prepared for vacation with a ton of books, and did get through two full books and half of two other ones, but mostly I came down with pneumonia and was too sick to read. Now the next two books that I am halfway through, The Mummy Case and The Magicians, just remind me of how sick I felt. It's the same reason I can't yet look at my vacation photos. Maybe when I'm well again.

Anyway, these are the two I did finish:

The Curse of the Pharaohs (by Elizabeth Peters)

The second book in the Amelia Peabody series. I enjoyed it, I think, but I remember almost nothing about it. I still enjoy Amelia and Emerson, even though they seem to do nothing but have sex. That's all I can remember about this book: lots of fade-to-black sex.  In Egypt.

Cruel Beautiful World (by Caroline Leavitt)

The premise of this is that a young girl named Lucy runs away with her creepo high school teacher in the 1970s. He's a controlling creepo, and the novel follows Lucy's story as well as those of her sister and adoptive mother, who are left behind. I liked the plot structure, the writing was fine, some of the characters were interesting, but I don''t know. I felt meh about it all in the end. 

And sidebar, I will probably finish it eventually, but can I just point out that The Magicians has no plot? I enjoy the whole Hogwarts vibe, but seriously, where is the plot? Anyone?

Addendum: I finished The Mummy Case (the climax at the end was hilarious, and I love the precocious character of Ramses).  I read a bit further into TheMagicians and now not only does it lack plot, but the protagonist is a total dick. Do I give up at this point?

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Crocodile on the Sandbank (by Elizabeth Peters)

I jumped the gun on my vacation reading by finishing the first book in the Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank.  I was downloading Kindle samples as per usual, trying to find something to read on vacation. Given my current mood, some light genre fiction sounded good. I decided to sample this one a little further. And further. And further. And then, oops, I finished it.

This book fit the bill perfectly. Elizabeth Peters is an Egyptologist, so her setting (a trip down the Nile and an archaeological dig of Akhnaten 's palace) is fully realized and detailed. Plus, Akhnaten is my favorite pharaoh! The unspooling of the mystery is fun, but secondary to the wonderful main characters, starting with Amelia herself, a smart, independent, feminist, independently wealthy Englishwoman in 1880. But all four main characters are delightful.

This is the first novel in a 15-book series -- I wonder how many of these I will burn through while on vacation! I'm assiduously saving the second one, which I just downloaded, for the first leg of our trip.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Beauty (by Robin McKinley)

Sorry to drag my election depression over here to my beloved book blog, but I have to say that it is making it really difficult to find something to read. This retelling of Beauty and the Beast hit the sweet spot, though. Genre, nothing political, and decent from a feminist perspective. I really enjoyed it.

McKinley did a second, different retelling of the same fairy tale but the opening didn't grab me.  I may try her Sleeping Beauty retelling next.  But further suggestions welcome, because I honestly have no idea what to read next. (I am listening to the audibook of Scalzi's The Dispatcher, and it is also hitting the spot. So maybe sci-fi/fantasy is where I should be looking.)

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Business Trip Reading Roundup

I'm putting these books in the "vacation" category because I read them on airplanes and in airports, but really it was a business trip. I had six hours of flight delays and traveled cross-country, though, so I did get quite a bit of reading in.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters 

I downloaded a lot of samples on my Kindle while waiting to board my flight, and it was this one, recommended seemingly at random by Amazon, that sucked me in right away with the premise and the writing. This is speculative fiction about a roughly present-day America where the Civil War never happened.  Thanks to some constitutional amendments, there is legal slavery in four states known as the "Hard Four." The main narrator is an undercover U.S. Marshal who hunts escaped slaves and sends them back to the Hard Four. The twist? He's black, and grew up as a slave himself.

This book has some great world-building, with the alternate history sprinkled organically throughout the story. The plot itself is exciting and propulsive, with more than one twist to come. The narrator is flawed and interesting. Of course it speaks to current day issues with race and identity, but also is just plain a good read.  I had been assuming it was written by a black author, and then got all the way to the end and realized it was by Ben H. Winters, the (white) author of the Last Policeman series. So the recommendation wasn't random after all! 

Apart from one development towards the end that did not seem plausible, and apart from the slight cognitive dissonance of having a white guy write this, I really enjoyed it.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari 

This was my obligatory airplane paperback, purchased at good old Hudson News along with my water and gum and what have you.  I flipped through it and it looked very funny and entertaining. Indeed, it is very funny and entertaining! Even though I haven't been in the dating world in well over a decade, it's still fun to read about the Tindering and the texting and everything else the kids are up to these days. It's well-researched (it was co-written by a sociologist) and very often laugh-out-loud funny. It's also not devoid of emotion, as Ansari discusses his own romantic foibles and neuroses along the way. A fast, fun read.

The Likeness by Tana French

The second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, with mostly positive reviews, but a lot of people have issues with the premise. The premise: a murder victim named Lexie looks exactly like detective Cassie Maddox, who goes undercover and moves in with Lexie's roommates in an attempt to figure out who killed her. Yes, they supposedly look so much alike that she's able to fool Lexie's closest friends into thinking they are the same person. No, they are not long-lost twins. Also, despite the fact that they only lived a short distance apart, nobody ever ran across one and said "holy crap, there's someone who looks exactly like you up the road!"

Okay, maybe I had some issues with the premise. 

The writing is very good, and I was interested in Cassie from the previous book, and I definitely was invested in figuring out the mystery, but I do feel like the premise is too absurd to really make it hang together.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

In the Woods (by Tana French)

This novel, the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is oft-recommended in discussions about excellent mysteries.  I decided to give it a try and then, of course, couldn't put it down until it was finished.

It's very well-written. Three kids go into the woods, and only one comes out -- bloody and traumatized, with no memory of what happened.  Twenty years later, that kid is a murder detective, investigating a murder of a child in the same council estate in Ireland where his friends disappeared. (I was hesitant about the whole "child murder" theme, but it was compelling enough based on the sample that I went for it anyway.)

This book is indeed very well written and compelling all the way through. There are some definite frustrations, though -- and spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs, so avert your eyes, RSS readers.

First of all, the relationship between Rob and Cassie was just weird. I liked their closeness and their friendship, but it was so over-the-top at times to be almost unbelievable. I mean, would he really be rubbing her feet while hanging out with another colleague? Cassie seemed like a manic pixie dream detective, doing cartwheels on the beach and also being the best detective and amateur profiler ever.  And Rob's behavior at the end of the book makes very little sense either. It's not nuanced; he's just an enormous asshole for no reason.

Secondly, only one of the two central mysteries is solved. I actually didn't need the other one to be solved completely, but French takes us right up to the edge of it and then leaves us with nothing -- really, not even a vague clue (unless I missed something). Of course I was expecting something to be discovered in the dig at the end, to set up the sequel. I knew this was a series. But nothing is discovered, and then it turns out the next five books focus on completely different characters, and the cliffhangers (both the mystery and Rob's relationship with Cassie) are (forever?) unresolved.

So, it is good but it's ultimately frustrating. I'm getting on a plane tomorrow though, and I have to say I will at least give the second book a shot. Seems like it could make a really great airplane read.

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Nao of Brown (by Glyn Dillon)

This graphic novel also could have served as an entry in the Read Harder Challenge; it was released around the same time as my beloved Building Stories.

The Nao of Brown is about a half-English, half-Japanese resident of London who suffers from the "bad thoughts" version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We experience her inner life as she works in her friend Steve's shop, interacts with her roommate, meets a washing-maching repairman she's drawn to, and explores Buddhism -- all the while dealing with her mental illness.

I will start with the things that work less well: an extremely overly pat ending, the fact that Gregory's narrative is centered over Nao's in the end, and the interstitial comic about the half-man, half-tree, which doesn't really work for me thematically or visually.

But there is more here that really works: the wonderful visuals, the off-kilter authenticity of the story, the secondary characters, and most of all Nao herself, who is so endearing and vulnerable even as she is convinced she is a monster.

I don't know how I stumbled across this book -- almost certainly a recommendation on Goodreads -- but I'm glad I did. If you like more adult-flavored graphic novels, give it a look.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple)

I no longer have the Read Harder Challenge looming, so now I get to read at random, for fun! What a novelty.  Today Will Be Different is Maria Semple's follow-up to Where'd You Go Bernadette? and in my opinion, it's better.

It's also set in Seattle and has a frisson of satire aimed at Seattle parenthood and family life. Mostly it's about a somewhat unsympathetic mom, Eleanor, who vows to "be different" but who largely fails and fumbles her way through one particular day. In between vignettes we get some backstory about Eleanor's history and relationship with her estranged sister, and even a wonderful mini-graphic novel tucked into one of the chapters. I don't mind unsympathetic characters; I loved the art; I was on board with Eleanor's urban Seattle adventures; I enjoyed this novel.

Side note: One of my weird pet peeves is names that are like made-up versions of traditional names. (For example one of our local traffic newscasters is named Kiffany.)  I realize this is an unfair pet peeve and people don't choose their own names. But in this case Maria Semple did choose the name "Timby" for Eleanor's son and it annoyed me to read it every single time. Sorry 'bout it.  

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Read Harder Challenge 2016

And with that, I've officially completed the 2016 Read Harder Challenge. This was really fun, and I will almost certainly do it again in 2017.  Below is the final list of what I read for each category, with a link back to the review.

Total: 24/24

[X] A horror book: Slade House 
[X] A nonfiction book about science: Come as You Are
[X] A collection of essays: Men Explain Things to Me, Gratitude
[X] Out loud to someone else: King of the Cats (read; not reviewed)
[X] Middle grade novel: The Graveyard Book
[X] Biography (not memoir): Into the Wild
[X] Dystopian or post-apocalyptic: Find Me 
[X] Published in the 1970s: The Dog of the South
[X] Audie-award-winning audiobook: The Graveyard Book
[X] Over 500 pages: A Little Life           
[X] Under 100 pages: Gratitude
[X] By or about a transgender person: If I Was Your Girl

[X] Set in Middle East: An Unnecessary Woman
[X] Author from Southeast Asia: The Sympathizer
[X] Historical fiction set before 1900: The Signature of All Things
[X] First book in series by person of color: Blanche on the Lam
[X] Non-superhero comic in last three years: Lumberjanes, Vol. 1
[X] Book adapted into movie (then see movie): Olive Kitteridge.
[X] Nonfiction about feminism:  Men Explain Things to Me  
[X] About religion: Uncovered
[X] About politics: Double Down  
[X] Food memoir: Tender at the Bone
[X] A play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
[X] Main character has mental illness: Let's Pretend this Never Happened

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Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke A. Allen)

I needed to read a comic from the last few years to finish off the Read Harder Challenge, so I went with Lumberjanes, Volume 1.  Much to my surprise, this was not a book about a bunch of camping lesbians, but instead a Buffy-esque story about supernatural goings on at a camp for Girls Hardcore Lady Types.

The good: Shoutouts to feminist icons. Awesome and diverse characters. Written and illustrated by women. Funny and witty, with clever dialogue -- hence the Buffy comparisons.

The less-than-good: Disclaimer: I am not a comics person. I read this entire volume in half an hour because it goes so fast. I love some of the alternate concept art much more than the final artwork (especially how Molly and Mal are plus-sized girls). This volume read like midway through the story -- the characters, the setting, and the world are not established at all, so it is a bit disjointed, and the supernatural business isn't really smoothly introduced.  The characters overuse "What the junk?" a lot. A lot. And the excerpts from the "Lumberjanes Guide" are in desperate need of proofreading.

The verdict: If I could get these at the library, I'd keep reading them. In a couple of years I'd be happy to read them to Mina. They seem fun, feminist, accessible, clever.  As far as comics go, they seem to be a worthy entry into the canon.

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We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (by Yael Kohen)

Another book in the "insidery books about comedy" genre.  Also the "I am laid up with a bad foot and have taken some Percoset so I need something easy to digest."  This is an interesting and very detailed oral history of woman in comedy, from Elaine May to Mitzi Shore to Roseanne to Sarah Silverman.  The author interviews dozens of female (and a few male) comedians, club owners, improv artists, and classic comediennes, and crafts it into a very solid history of the form.

Most conspicuously missing interview: Tina Fey. (She came up a lot, of course, but was not interviewed.)  Most egregious oversight: no mention of Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin of SCTV fame.  Most unfortunate timing: the final chapter kind of treats Chelsea Handler as the present-day culmination of all of this wonderful comedy. Chelsea Handler. And she comes off as a brat, to boot. Unfortunately this book pre-dates the rise of Amy Schumer, who would have been a better choice. Maybe it's just my dislike of Chelsea Handler talking here. But you could also make a case for Kate McKinnon, the other women of SNL, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones if you were writing it today. In fact, this would be a great candidate for a follow-up book in a couple of years, since it's been such a terrific time for women in comedy!

Anyway, thumbs up -- I enjoyed this a lot. And hopefully it wasn't just because I was high on Percoset.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Home Land (by Sam Lipsyte)

I won this as a prize in our Tournament of Books pool this year, and started reading it on vacation. It's loosely epistolary, in the form of letters from the narrator, Lewis "Teabag" Miner, to his alumni association. The letters are crude, filthy, and honest to a fault, so they remain unpublished.

This book is entertaining as hell, a Bukowski-esque and very funny exploration of failed masculinity.  I dog eared half the book because it kept making me laugh out loud. I feel like it's probably not for everyone -- it's only very loosely plotted and it's very penisy.  (Focuses on men, lots of masturbation references, you know how it is.) But for sheer amusement factor, it's a lot of fun.

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Monday, October 03, 2016

Into the Wild (by Jon Krakauer)

You may recall that one of my most frequently re-read books of all time is Into Thin Air. I don't know why I never had much of an interest in Into the Wild and then suddenly I did, but when I was looking for a new "gym book" (the books I read while exercising) I decided to give in to my Krakauer love and give it a shot.

Krakauer's writing is never less than great, but the story to me is less compelling than Into Thin Air. In fact, the best part of this memoir is Krakauer's own account of his ascent of the Devil's Thumb. He includes this to show why he empathizes so strongly with the somewhat foolhardy Chris McCandless, but it is by far the most compelling and exhilarating part of the book.

The problem is, there isn't much to McCandless's story. He meets some people on the road, hikes into the Alaska wilderness, finds a bus, moves in, kills some animals, eats some poison berries (or seeds, or mold, or potatoes -- this part has some controversy surrounding it) and doesn't make it out again.  It's more about whether you think McCandless was young, reckless, and noble, or young, reckless, and dumb. 

I felt for the kid, in the end -- Krakauer makes a good argument about the folly of youth in general and about what McCandless did manage to achieve -- but I was left not really getting why this one dumb adventure was worthy of a whole book. And McCandless came across as a somewhat stereotypically pretentious twentysomething. No shade: we've all been pretentous twentysomethings. But he's not exactly a figure to admire.

It did make me eager to read Eiger Dreams, however -- a book of essays about Krakauer's own experiences climbing. I don't know why I, voted Least Likely to Climb a Mountain by the award committee of me, am so fascinated by the climbing stories, but I am!

Oh, and halfway through this book I realized it counts as a biography for the Read Harder Challenge. Yay! A freebie!

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If I Was Your Girl (by Meredith Russo)

I was researching possibilities for my next Read Harder Challenge book, and stumbled upon this YA novel that is both about a trans girl, and by a trans author. (One category is "by a trans author or about a trans character" -- this has both, and as a bonus, uses a trans model on the cover.) Instead of clicking "download sample" I accidentally clicked "buy" and after reading the first chapter, I was sucked in and decided to go with it.

This is the story of Amanda, a girl who moves in with her father after a Difficult Past and starts over at a new school.  And the story hangs largely on her narration and characterization, as Russo explores her inner conflicts and her negotiation of relationships while learning to live as herself for the first time in her life. What Russo has done here is not only make Amanda a wonderful character you really root for, but also has given all the secondary characters -- who sometimes get short shrift in YA novels -- full inner lives and story arcs of their own. I loved that.

At heart it's a YA romance -- Amanda falls in love with a boy at school, but will he still love her once he learns her secret? But it's a nuanced examination of what it means to be a trans girl, the good the bad and the ugly. I read this book in a day (could not put it down) and cried through the entire denouement.

I particularly appreciated Russo's author note (where she mentions she herself is trans) because she acknowledges some of the more "fairy tale" aspects of Amanda's character and explains why she made those choices. It completely worked for me, as a cisgender reader -- although if I were a trans reader or the parent of a trans child, it might work less well, I can't speak for those audiences. From where I'm sitting though, I think this is not only an Important book for teens to read, but also a very well-written one. Really, really great YA.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Tender at the Bone (by Ruth Reichl)

Oh, I loved this. I needed a "food memoir" for the Read Harder Challenge and was familiar with Ruth Reichl from Top Chef Masters, but I did not anticipate her writing to be so delightful, wry, honest, witty, and charming, or her life to be so fascinating.

From hanging out with hangers on of Andy Warhol, to inviting herself to France with Kermit Lynch, to telling stories about her manic-depressive mother poisoning an entire party with rotten crab, every page of this is delightful. An excellent food memoir.

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Mislaid (by Nell Zink)

I feel like I cannot improve upon this review. But I will try, because panning a book is fun!

I truly disliked this book. The writing is precious and mannered -- I kept visualizing the author as an MFA student who was very pleased with herself -- and the characters behave in zero ways that are recognizably human. The "satire" of race is completely nonexistent -- compare to something like The Sellout or The Good Lord Bird and you see how it fails. I care about the teenage characters marginally more than the adult characters, but they all seem like shadow puppets of people. There is no authenticity here.

My notes: "Characters and their choices seem implausible." "Do not care for writing style." "Ending fun but way too pat and again, implausible." "Dislike button."

 tl;dr: hated it.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

An Unnecessary Woman (by Rabih Alameddine)

I read this for the Read Harder Challenge category "book set in Middle East." This was a tricky category considering I did not feel like reading about terrorism and war, and a lot of Middle East-set books cover those topics. However, someone in the Goodreads group recommended this one, set in Beirut in the (roughly) present-day.

It's the narrative of a 72-yeard-old woman who translates literature into Arabic -- but she translates only translations in French and English. So for example rather than translating Tolstoy directly, she translates Constance Garnett's translation of Tolstoy. This is a quiet character study that takes place all in one day, like Mrs Dalloway (which of course is referenced).  It's not about what "happens" so much as it is what Aaliyah, our main character, is thinking: about literature, about her life, about whether she -- a reclusive widow -- is in fact "unnecessary."

About halfway through I wrote a note: "This novel is an erudite character study about the culmination of a life of reading." That held through to the end. The shoutouts to literature are like wonderful little gifts -- mentions of everything from Pale Fire to The Ashley Book of Knots, from James Joyce to Proust. But they are often subverted.  I highlighted so many quotes but here is just one. (Also: read this book. It's wonderful.)

If you think that Marcello of The Conformist becomes a porcine fascist because he killed lizards when he was a boy, then you assure yourself that you can never be so. If you think Madame Bovary commits adultery because she’s trying to escape the banality of Pleistocene morals, then her betrayals are not yours. If you read about hunger in Ethiopia or violence in Kazakhstan, it isn’t about you.

We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.


When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.


I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.


I am you.

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Friday, September 02, 2016

The Dog of the South (by Charles Portis)

This was the latest selection for our long-distance book club, the League of Unreliable Narrators. This is one that Chris had already read and loved, but I had never read. (I'd never read any Portis.) It also qualifies for the Read Harder Challenge in the category of "book published in the decade you were born," since it was published in 1979. 

This book is hilarious, with some pitch-perfect dialogue and one of the best closing paragraphs of all time. It's a bit of a shaggy dog story with -- appropriately enough -- a slightly unreliable narrator. Ray Midge's wife runs off with another man, and Midge heads down to Honduras to track them down. He runs into many interesting characters. Adventures ensue.

The Dog of the South really is a book that is about the experience and not the destination. It's about the many lines that I underlined -- for example, when Midge sees a pelican get hit by lightning and says, "I was astonished. I knew I would tell this pelican story over and over again and that it would be met with widespread disbelief but I thought I might as well get started and so I turned to the woman and the boy and told them what I had seen." These funny run-on sentences and strange moments are what The Dog of the South is all about.

One question we pondered at our meeting: metaphorically, who is the dog of the south? Is it Midge? Reo Symes? Is it a literal dog, with booties on its feet? Is it the marriage of Norma and Midge? Is it a dead pelican? All or none of the above? A question for the ages.

Thumbs up!

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Crazy Rich Asians (by Kevin Kwan)

This is by a guy, but I'm still giving it the "women's contemporary fiction" label because this falls into that category. It's the story of a regular New Yorker named Rachel Chu, engaged to a man named Nick Young who invites her back to Singapore to meet his family. Little does she know, they are rich. Not just rich, but filthy rich. Not just filthy rich, but crazy rich.

Kwan is familiar with this subculture of extreme wealth (where everyone has billions and one wedding costs $40 million) and the descriptions are extremely detailed, with conspicuous consumption and cutting-edge brand names everywhere. It's satirical and entertaining. For the first two thirds, I enjoyed it as a fluffy and fun vacation read. Then it went downhill for me.

The last third switches from each chapter being from the point of view of a single character to being scenes set in various places that jump around into various characters' points of view, often gratuitously. This leads to a lot of akward showing instead of telling. "He wondered what he could do to reassure her in this moment. He stroked her back."  We don't need to go into his point of view for this, we can just see him stroking her back and understand it's meant to be reassuring. Lots of weird awkward writing like that.

There's also the issue that Rachel Chu, our "fish out of water" character, is not that well developed. She is supposedly an economist with a Ph.D. but comes across as bland and generic, albeit sympathetic. I wanted a bit more intelligence, a bit more Elizabeth Bennet out of her.

The biggest issue is that almost no plotlines get resolved. It's 500 pages long! It's fun and fluffy! Where is my ending? Where is my resolution? Where is the comeuppance for the bad guys?  Of course, as soon as I finished it I learned there was a sequel. But even if that's the case, and threads are left dangling, at least one or two main plotlines should be resolved, shouldn't they?

Anyway, meh. Fun, but could have been much better. I will not be picking up the sequel.  

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything (by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong)

This history of Seinfeld seemed right up my alley as soon as I first heard about it, and I preordered it immediately. It's the classic fun book that I like to parcel out to myself at the gym, and I do love insidery books about the comedy scene (see also: the SNL oral history).

I was not the world's biggest Seinfeld fan, but I really grew to appreciate it as time went on, it appeared in syndication, and I realized how many real-life situations bring to mind this or that episode of Seinfeld. Also: it is a crime that Jason Alexander never won an Emmy for playing George Costanza. It's not quite Steve Carell levels of egregious but it's close, Jerry! It's close!

I would have enjoyed a book twice as long and with twice as much depth. This book is really great when it talks about the minutia of individual scripts and episodes, or even the stories of individual writers, but the title "Seinfeldia" is a reference to the fandom around Seinfeld, and this is interesting at first, but wears a bit thin and comes across at times as a bit of a stretch. (For example, much of the final chapter of the book is devoted to dueling parody Seinfeld Twitter accounts. Did we really need the inside story of @Seinfeld2000? Not really. Or certainly not to this extent.)

Also the photos at the end are interesting but it weirdly over-emphasizes writer Andy Robin's extended family. (There is a picture of his grandmother-in-law at one point.) This seems like Seinfeldian nitpicking but it is odd: there are seven pictures of Andy Robin and his family members, and only two of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.)

This is absolutely a fun read though, and I recommend it to Seinfeld fans. I also did immediately fire up Amazon Video so I could watch, not Seinfeld, but the Seinfeld reunion episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Pretty pretty pretty pretty good.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Countdown City and World of Trouble (by Ben H. Winters)

I'm putting these together because after finishing Countdown City, I didn't have enough to say to fill out a whole post. Now I've finished World of Trouble and with it, completed the Last Policeman trilogy, so I figured I'd post them both together.

Countdown City is the second book in the trilogy.  I liked it less than the first one -- feels a little bit like marking time, and the central mystery (revolving around a missing person) is not that interesting, whereas the mystery in the first one is terrific. I did enjoy the background apocalypse stuff, though, particularly the chilling scene with the boats.

World of Trouble is the third book and in my opinion much stronger than the second. It wraps up the trilogy nicely. No spoilers, but I will says I especially loved the twists towards the end and the extremely moving final scene. It's a bit gruesome at points but, you know. Apocalypse and all.

Did I already mention Last Night in my previous review? It's a Canadian film about the end of the world that I kept being strongly reminded of as I read this.  I recommend this trilogy (even with the slow second installment) but I recommend Last Night even more.


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Monday, August 01, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (by Jack Thorne)

Quite convenient that the Read Harder Challenge includes "a play" in the same year that the new Harry Potter play comes out, hmm?

I have no idea how the Harry Potter fandom feels about this play. (Actually I do have one idea: I guarantee they are 'shipping Albus and Scorpius hardcore -- that relationship is pure romance.)  But I enjoyed it! After a bit of a blip at the beginning with the use of some ableist language that bothered me. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It actually fixes a lot of the things that bugged me about the series -- Ron and Hermione's marriage is shown as bringing out the best in each of them, which I was not convinced of fully by the novels. The trope of "all Slytherins are evil" is finally subverted. The Albus/Scorpius friendship is what I wanted from Draco/Harry, so I loved it. Snape's motivations are fleshed out in a way that makes more sense to me.

Other good stuff: Scorpius is a wonderful character. There is some nicely progressive gender stuff: Hermione has massive career success, Ron is a stay-at-home-dad, and Harry does all the cooking.  And Hermione is black (at least the stage version of Hermione is played by a black actress) which I effing love. And I enjoyed the story (a clever time-travel story) even if it didn't feel quite in line with how time travel worked in the past. It was just so satisfying to be back in that world. The twists were good and very Rowlingesque.

I'm not sure about the retcon of the whole Bellatrix thing, and of course I would much rather have read this in insanely detailed novel form. I also wish we had gotten a glimpse of Fred, too. #NotOverIt. But other than that, it's pure joy to be at Hogwarts again!



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