Sunday, August 13, 2017

Vacation Reads

We spent last week traveling to and around Boston for a family vacation. I read seven books on the trip (gotta love airplane reads) and it was a nice mix of stuff. Here are my reviews:

Punch Escrow (by Tal M. Klein)

Fun, hard sci-fi. It doesn't quite stick the landing, but I will definitely read the sequel that Klein sets up in the epilogue. I'm picky about sci-fi but all three of my vacation reads in this genre were good! This one was found via Scalzi.

Half a Life (by Darin Strauss)

Memoir that I read for a new book group I'm in at work. This is the story of a guy who, "half-a-life ago" when he was eighteen, hit a classmate with his car and killed her.  Great hook, but this memoir  feels half-baked. (He doesn't address how the accident impacted his passengers, for example.) He's also way too defensive about his own past emotions and apologizes for them a lot, even though there's no need for him to. I got the feeling he might actually not have enough distance yet. Some really excellent writing, and I thought the ending was powerful, but overall this didn't move me the way it should.

Sugar (by Kimberly Stuart)

Super cute rom-com about a pastry chef who takes a new job and ends up on a restaurant reality show with her ex-boyfriend.  Has a couple of "people don't talk like that" dialogue moments (my pet peeve) but only a couple. Sprinkled throughout are some unfortunate anti-fat moments also. But mostly very charming and light, good vacation read, with a fun plot and a good main character.

Texts from Jane Eyre (by Mallory Ortberg)

I wanted an excuse to buy this, and vacation became my excuse. Mallory Ortberg is hilarious and this little book is a gem.

The Custom of the Country (by Edith Wharton)

I needed a book for the "published between 1900 and 1950" category of the Read Harder Challenge, and somehow I had never read this before. How can that even be considering how much I love The Age of Innocence? This was amazing. I love Wharton's anti-heroine, Undine Spragg. I love the classic Whartonian social machinations. I love the subtle, rich writing. This is spectacular in every way. 

The Three-Body Problem (by Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu)

I'm going to swap this out as my "set at least 5000 miles away from your house" pick, because this is set in China and translated from the Chinese, and I think meets the spirit of the challenge better.  I love both the storyline and the style of the translation. Great, Hugo-award-winning sci-fi novel, and the beginning of a trilogy.  Also delves into the Cultural Revolution and that part is interesting as well -- although the virtual reality parts may have been my favorite. Thumbs up!

11/22/63 (by Stephen King)

An excellent pick for the airplane ride home, I have to say, as it is a classic Stephen King doorstoppy page-turner. I was a huge IT fangirl when I was younger, and I loved the Derry side-plot here.  The time travel into the 60s allows King to indulge all his most folksy folksiness (the "Land of Ago" for example) but overall this is a gripping and detailed time-traveling love story. King at the top of his form.

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Friday, August 04, 2017

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X and Alex Haley)

I really do fantasize about creating a syllabus out of the books I've read lately, both fiction and non, that cover the spectrum of the African-American experience in somewhat chronological order. The Autobiography of Malcolm X would spark some amazing student essays, I'm sure.

The best way to describe this book is thought-provoking. I only had a very surface idea of Malcolm X and what he stood for, not even having seen the film about him, and I found him brilliant and surprisingly sympathetic.  His "militant" viewpoints (such as "all white people are the devil") are frankly understandable, especially when you've just finished reading about the history of slavery or you see around you how its effects persist to the present day.  I was far more sympathetic to him, even at his most extreme, than I expected to be, and I enjoyed hearing his viewpoints in his own voice, unfiltered.

You also see his ideas evolve and become more moderate towards the end of his life, which he seems to know is around the corner -- by the end of the book, the Nation of Islam basically has a price on his head, and not long after, he was assassinated. (I should note that his attitudes towards women evolve from "terrible" to "also terrible" but you can't have everything.) It would have been interesting to see how they would evolve further, and how he would have responded to today's movements such as Black Lives Matter. (He also would have approved of white folks getting involved in SURJ, I'm positive.)

I think this was a really worthwhile read. Also, Starr's father in The Hate U Give has a framed picture of Malcolm X on his wall, so my syllabus really has come full circle.  If anyone wants a suggested reading list and essay topics, do let me know! It would be a great class. :)

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Carry On (by Rainbow Rowell)

If the words Drarry, Johnlock, and slashfic mean nothing to you, you may want to skip this review.

This is a Fangirl spinoff -- it's basically the story that Cath was writing fic about in Fangirl, Rowell's novel about fanfiction -- very meta.  And at the time I read Fangirl, Cath's fic read like Potterlock, aka John/Sherlock fanfic set in the world of Harry Potter.  Carry On still feels very much like Potterlock, except the world is fleshed out more, and so is the relationship between Harry and Draco John and Sherlock Simon and Baz.

The world is still a blatant Harry Potter ripoff, except with some twists on the rules of magic.  Plus, the identity of the bad guy is super obvious, lacking the classic Rowling twist where it's always the person you least suspect! And yet, I enjoyed reading about this world and these characters, especially Penelope and Baz.  Plus, the central relationship and romance was done well.

As a standalone, it works less well. It's like jumping into Harry Potter in book seven, where Rowell kind of handwaves a whole bunch of backstory that would have made this far more satisfying to actually read.  (I feel like actual fanfic writers need to get on this, since they could probably write books 1-6 pretty satisfyingly. And what's a few more extra layers of meta.)

So, I think this is pretty specifically for people who love Harry Potter and don't mind that this is basically a reimagining, but also with slashy versions of John and Sherlock plunked into it somehow.  This is a niche audience, for sure, but I'm definitely one of those people!

(Oh, and in case you think I'm reading too much into this with the Johnlock thing, I present Exhibit A, the cover. Also Exhibit B, Rowell reads both Drarry and Johnlock fic, as she has confirmed on Twitter. I rest my case.)

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Treasure (by Rebekah Weatherspoon)

A quick read for the "LGBTQ romance" category of the Read Harder Challenge.* A lot of the Goodreads group recommendations were books that were not quite romance, more literary fiction (like Sarah Waters's work or The Price of Salt). But I wanted to challenge myself to read actual romance, which is not a genre I normally read.

*I also think this might qualify for the "micropress" category, as this seems to be from a small press specializing in LGBTQ romance. (Also all the POV characters were characters of color, but I've fulfilled that category already.)

This was a fast, enjoyable read. I loved the main characters (Treasure/Tricia and Alexis) and their romance. The sex scenes were sexy. I loved the sex-positive attitude towards stripping. My only problem is that it ended too quickly; it could easily have been twice as long, as I think the central relationship could have been explored in more depth and I wanted to spend more time with the characters. 

Although romance is generally not my thing, Weatherspoon is extremely talented and I would happily read her work again!

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (by Cheryl Strayed)

This was such a bizarre reading experience -- having nothing to do with the book itself, but with the various formats I tried to read it in. First, I read Strayed's piece in The Sun Magazine about the death of her mother and was completely blown away. I found her writing as "Dear Sugar" overly mannered and precious at times, so I had always resisted reading Wild thinking her style was maybe not for me. But I loved that essay so much, I decided to dive in and read Wild.

I was also looking for a new audiobook, and this seemed like a perfect story to listen to. I was hoping Strayed had narrated herself, because I heard her speak at a Hillary Clinton campaign event (sigh) and enjoyed her way of telling a story. But it was a different narrator. And I can't even put my finger on why, exactly, but a few commute-lengths into the book and I was done. I hated the narrator's voice so much that I dreaded pressing play, and it was actually ruining a wonderful book. So then I bought it on Kindle instead.

Except then the Kindle version was the "Oprah edition," so every so often a paragraph would be underlined in blue text and there would be a "note from Oprah" telling you some banal thing like "oh, I would have been so scared of the frogs!" or "I really loved this sentence!"  Nothing against Oprah but who gives a rat's ass if Oprah is scared of frogs, I just wanted to read Wild. And it pulled me out of the actual words and story every single time

So I pushed through a lot of irritation, I'm saying, to get to the end of Wild. But it's worth it, because indeed it is wonderful, as wonderful as the essay that kicked off this thing. I returned the stupid Oprah edition on my Kindle though. Whenever I want to re-read it, I'm going back to nature, and buying myself a good old paperback.

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Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom Novel (by Deborah Yaffe)

I enjoyed this exploration of the fandom around Jane Austen -- it reminded me for the 100th time how much I want to do a Jane Austen-themed driving tour around England, because I was extremely jealous that she got to see Jane's cottage, a lock of her hair, and even Norland Park from the wonderful Ang Lee Sense & Sensibility. It also made me realize how long it's been since I've reread Northanger Abbey.  In addition to all the envy she inspires, Yaffe writes with erudition, intellect, and humor about one of my favorite authors ever. What's not to like?

"Austen’s work is not just a Rorschach test, a collection of inkblots with no meaning beyond the mind of the viewer. The rich diversity of responses to Austen captures something real about her—the depth and complexity of her writings, which, like diamonds held up to sunlight, reflect something different from every angle. Her stories are not blank canvases onto which we project ourselves; they are complicated, ambiguous pictures of lived reality. We all find ourselves in her because, in a sense, she contains us all."

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Big Little Lies (by Liane Moriarty)

I thought I was going to have a couple more books finished by the end of my trip because I'm halfway through them, but I picked up a paperback of Big Little Lies in the airport and of course I devoured it on the plane and train rides back home. Perfect airplane read, very juicy, twisty and satisfying. I knew some of the twists, saw others coming, and was completely surprised by a couple. Now I'm excited to see how the miniseries turned out.

(Also, by coincidence, this is set in Australia, over 5,000 miles from my home, and so qualifies for the RHC. Bonus!) 

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Business Trip Reads

I am halfway through my business trip but have already finished reading quite a few things, and I wanted to post about them before I get hopelessly behind.

Unnaturally Green (by Felicia Ricci) 

None of my theater-loving friends called to tell me this memoir existed and I am not sure I forgive them! This is a memoir of Felicia Ricci's time playing Elphaba as a standby in the San Francisco company of Wicked.  Tons of inside theater (and Wicked-specific) detail, and very well-written and edited. This was self-published but Ricci apparently majored in English at Yale, which may explain why she manages to be a talented actor and singer but also an outstanding, funny, engaging writer. Highly recommended for theater fans. 

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South (by Bruce Levine) 

I was interested in reading about the Civil War after finishing Kindred, so I picked this one up. There are so many Civil War books, but I liked that this one focused on the disintegration of the antebellum south, specifically about the ending of slavery. It's a perspective on that war that I haven't read before, and I learned a lot from it. It is a bit too editorial for my taste -- Levine quotes some contemporary Civil War diaries from plantation owners and they are often described as "sniffing" or "sneering" their words. I prefer my non-fiction bone dry. But this lens on history was illuminating.  I'm moving on to the Autobiography of Malcolm X next, and fantasizing about teaching a literature class including these three books and The Hate U Give. Oh, the essays I could assign!

Also, this is yet another book I've read this year that makes Lincoln in the Bardo feel toothless.

Finally, two Read Harder Challenge books, an all-ages comic and a superhero comic with a female lead:

Princeless: Save Yourself (by Jeremy Whitley) 

This one was the all-ages comic. I don’t think I really “get” comic books. Graphic novels, I get -- they have a beginning, middle, and end. But comic books have a beginning and that’s it. Plus, I find them unsatisfying because it takes me maybe 15 minutes to read one. Is the idea that you spend some time appreciating the artwork and not just reading the words? Because mostly, comic art doesn’t really do it for me. (I did love the art in Fray, the Buffy spinoff comic.) So, I don’t know. I'm glad this exists and has a great message, and I will definitely save it for Mina. But I'll probably wait until there's a collection and not a single issue.  Such as...


Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal (by G. Willow Wilson)

This is a collection of the first five Ms. Marvel comics. Right away I found this more my speed, as the main character, a Muslim girl named Kamala Khan, has more complexity and and there is more of an overarching narrative. It does leave in a "to be continued" moment though, and it did read extremely quickly even though I tried to spend more time appreciating the artwork. Anyway, I really am glad Ms. Marvel exists, but I probably won't continue with the series until, again, there's a collected volume that actually has a complete story in it.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Upside of Unrequited (by Becky Albertalli)

Super charming YA novel seemingly designed to push all my buttons -- a witty chubby girl heroine,  nerdy love interest, lesbian interracial moms, an exploration of the bonds of sisterhood, progressive politics, a fun plot, an ending that resonated emotionally. Recommended to me by Jenfu, who knew it would be Mo-nip. Definitely loved it.

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Monday, July 03, 2017

Kindred (by Octavia Butler)

My "classic by a person of color" pick for the Read Harder Challenge.  The premise is that Dana, a black woman living in modern-day 1978, is somehow pulled back into the past of her ancestors by Rufus, a boy whose life is in danger.  (Whenever he is near death, Dana is "summoned" from the future to save him.) Rufus is the son of a slaveowner, and lives on a plantation, and as he grows up, Dana returns to him over and over again, trying to navigate life as a slave and among slaves, adjust to her changing relationship with Rufus, and not lose her modern sense of self or her relationship with her (white) husband.

Having read a lot of painful narratives of slavery lately, what surprised me most is what a fast read this was and how little Butler deals with the modern-day narrative. I expected much more about Kevin's and Dana's contrasting experiences in the past, and how it might pull them apart in various ways.  It definitely feels like a book written decades ago, in that sense -- it does not grapple with issues of race the way I feel like we are in 2017 grappling with those issues. Instead, it focuses on telling Dana's story of her experience in a complex and painful past.

Overall, it's a riveting story, well-told. Dana is a great character and the pace is unrelenting (she spends hours or days at home while in Rufus's world, years pass.) I couldn't put this one down, and really enjoyed it.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

My (Not So) Perfect Life (by Sophie Kinsella)

"Women's contemporary fiction" (aka chick lit) is one of my favorite genres to listen to in audio format, as it is breezy and fun, and not too mentally taxing while driving. It made my commute much more pleasant when I was listening to the story of Cat/Katie, aspiring branding genius who idolizes but also resents her boss's glamorous, seemingly perfect life.

Katie is quite a sympathetic character throughout and is intelligent and funny. (In other words, she is not a vain nitwit like the Shopaholic protagonist.) Her relationships are developed well and feel plausible (except a bit of the Demeter relationship didn't feel quite earned, but I enjoyed it so I'll let it slide). Her emotional life is complex. Demeter, the boss who is more than what she appears on the surface, is a fabulous character too.  I particularly like how this book, although it does contain a romance, really focuses on the relationship between Cat and Demeter, and the romance is very cute, but secondary.

As for the audiobook format, the narrator is excellent as well. Overall a fun lady fic pick.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Startup (by Doree Shafrir)

A fun read that would work great on an airplane or on the beach. It's a lightly satirical look at tech culture in New York, and as someone who works in tech, albeit in SF, it hits way too close to home way too much of the time.  (Douchey tech-bro Mack goes into a meeting repeating be the change... be the change.... I have a banner over my desk with the same slogan on it.)

I was a bit disappointed that what started out as a somewhat morally ambiguous plot coalesced into an obvious good vs evil showdown at the end, turning Mack into a caricature in the process.  Plus the ending is way too abrupt (is it trying to be "literary" in quotation marks all of a sudden) for the relative straightforwardness of the rest of the plot.

But, of course, I tore through this in a day and was wildly entertained. Shafrir got the details so right, I love-hated the window into my life. Very fun.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo (by George Saunders)*

Buzzy novel about the death of Willie Lincoln, his father’s grief, and a chorus of spirits in the graveyard where he is laid to rest. I listened to this on audiobook. I have to say the audiobook production is  spectacular. The main narrators are Saunders, David Sedaris, and the delightful Nick Offerman. I also recognized the voices of Susan Sarandon, Ben Stiller, Bill Hader, Jeffery Tambor, and Rainn Wilson. But there is a cast of 166, both very famous and very not. Reminded me of The Graveyard Book, another chorus-of-spirits novel with an excellent audiobook. But of course, this is much darker and deals with more adult themes.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the main characters are male: Abraham Lincoln and the three main spirits who narrate the story Mary Lincoln is barely touched on, and although some of the stories involve female spirits, and some of those are very good, most don’t; men are really central here, and by the end I came to find that that irritating. There is also an awkward ending where an African-American spirit kind of “influences” Lincoln to free the slaves or something? It felt like a concession to the fact that this book focuses on the sadz of Lincoln and the experiences of white men at the expense of a lot of other voices.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the sadz when the novel focuses on the grief of a losing a son, and the realization that the Civil War is leading to many more deaths of many other parents’ sons. That was quite powerful. But otherwise this novel felt discursive and unresolved. (Of course, death is always unresolved and that's part of the point. But I was really hoping to learn the Reverend’s ultimate fate, and more of the “rules” of the bardo.) Anyway, if I did star ratings, I'd give it three stars.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Hate U Give (by Angie Thomas)

A young adult novel highly recommended to me, and now highly recommended by me.  Salon called it "required reading for clueless white people" and although I don't consider myself totally clueless, and live in a diverse community, it did challenge some of my preconceptions and my comfortable ideas about contemporary black life.

It's also entertaining. The protagonist, Starr, is a wonderful, relatable character with an authentic voice. But a friend of hers from her neighborhood is killed in a routine police stop, and Thomas delves deeply into what this means for Starr herself, for her neighborhood, and for her as a black girl. She's also dating a white boy from her fancy private school, and Thomas delves into what it means for Starr to be caught between two worlds.

Excellent -- even if you're not typically a young adult fan, The Hate U Give is well worth your time.

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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Queens of Geek (by Jen Wilde)

A fun YA that is very much a love letter to geek culture. Three best friends attend the ComiCon-esque SupaCon and have various adventures. One is an out bisexual YouTube star trying to avoid her ex-boyfriend and dealing with a crush on a fellow YouTuber. One is a "big name fan" who is socially anxious in real life (and also in love with her best friend). The third is the aforementioned best friend, who is supportive and nerdy and kind of dreamy.

I loved the feminist sensibility, the diversity, the focus on the female characters.  (Only Tay and Charlie, the two female characters, get point of view chapters.) (All three main characters also have gender-neutral names, which I found interesting.) Clearly Jen Wilde is intimately familiar with fandom and fandom culture, and it shows. Highly recommended for YA fans and nerds!

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale (by Margaret Atwood)

Another way-too-plausible present-day dystopia; in fact, I was surprised by a reference to cassette tapes as current technology. Like, oh yeah, this was written in the 80s!  The characters are also compelling, particularly Offred herself, whose voice and story are so compelling. I loved the richness of the world of Gilead as well as Offred's understated but tragic backstory. The ambiguity of the ending was powerful.

I wanted to watch this before seeing the miniseries (which I hear resolves some of the ambiguity, which is a bit disappointing), but it also qualifies for the Read Harder Challenge as a banned book. Though soon it will be the GOP's how-to manual.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Princess Diarist (by Carrie Fisher)

Carrie Fisher's Star Wars memoir that actually is more a meditation on celebrity, with an emphasis on her affair with Harrison Ford. (I had imagined this was more of  a casual mention, but it's really a huge part of the book).  She narrates the book herself and her daughter, Billie Lourde, narrates the diary excerpts.

The diary excerpts mostly qualify as emo poetry and are heavy on wordplay and very light on actual concrete detail and gossip.  I was hoping for more details about the movies themselves. The memoir that frames the diary is also heavy on wordplay and wit (in the classic Carrie Fisher style) and is honest, funny, and sometimes sadly ironic (references to her eventual demise).  I was disappointed in the diary parts, and really enjoyed the other parts.

RIP Carrie Fisher. You are missed.

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Wonder (by R. J. Palacio)

Recommended by Ian, who has this in hardcover. This is a multi-point-of-view novel chronicling a school year in the life of Auggie, a kid with a severe cranio-facial abnormality. The book addresses how the other kids relate to him, and how he navigates his first-ever foray into school. It's funny, touching, and very real.

I found this book compelling. The multiple points of view = unreliable narrators which I always love. I definitely fell in love with the characters, and enjoyed the special bonus "villain chapter" that was originally a bonus ebook (though it seemed a little too-dramatic-to-be-true in terms of the plot). I'm not sure whether to call this middle grade because of the age level or YA because it has a lot of sophistication and depth. I went with both! 

Thumbs up!

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dykes to Watch Out For (by Alison Bechdel)

This was a birthday gift! Written during the George W years, it's so politically relevant and so prescient it's scary. It's partly comforting -- we've been in this state of panic before -- and partly terrifying -- little did we know what was coming. (At least on the gay marriage front, it illuminates what a long way we've come. At least in this country.)

The characters are also great -- I loved the soap opera elements of following the characters and their various tribulations and love life complications.   The complete lack of male gaze is also incredibly refreshing -- different body types and gender presentations are treated matter-of-factly and it is liberating in that sense. So great, and exactly what I needed to read this month.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Arrangement (by Sarah Dunn)

A suburban satire that straddles the line between litfic and chicklit; not sure which side I would place this on. Lucy and Owen, our main characters, decide to try having an open marriage for six months. Complications ensue.

The part of this that really didn't work for me is the ending. (Spoilers ahead.) There are hints throughout that The Arrangement will blow up in their faces and lead to tragic consequences. And it kind of does. Then we immediately flash forward by 15 months and the reset button has been totally hit on all the consequences, and now everything's fine again. Stakes completely undermined. It soured me on the entire rest of the book.  Also I did not enjoy the little epigraphs that began each chapter. On the nose and added nothing.

As a suburban satire it works, and is at times amusingly recognizeable, but doesn't hold a candle to Maria Semple's recent novel. Still, it's an entertaining and naughty novel that goes down easy. So to speak.

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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: 18/24

[ ] Book about sports
[X] Debut novel: All the Birds in the Sky
[X] Book about books: Among the Janeites
[ ] Set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author
[ ] By an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative
[X] All-ages comic: Princeless
[X] Published between 1900 and 1950: The Custom of the Country
[X] Travel memoir: Wild
[X] Book you’ve read before: I re-read, but did not blog about, Murder on the Orient Express
[X] Set within 100 miles of your location: Tales of the City and All the Birds in the Sky
[X] Set more than 5000 miles from your location: The Three-Body Problem
[X] Fantasy novel: Carry On
[ ] Nonfiction book about technology
[X] About war: The Fall of the House of Dixie
[X] YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+:  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
[X] Book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country: The Handmaid's Tale
[X] Classic by an author of color: Kindred
[X] Superhero comic with a female lead. Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1
[X] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
[X] An LGBTQ+ romance novel: Treasure
[ ] Published by a micropress: Treasure? Not sure.
[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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