Monday, October 16, 2017

Vacation Reads

We've been dealing with crazy smoke from the fires here in Northern California, so we booked a last-minute house in the mountains for a weekend getaway with friends. There was no internet, but there was a yurt! And also, there were books. (By the way I now added a third library to my Overdrive app, and I now have a constant stream of free books on my phone, and it is amazing.) Here is what I read:

The Year of Magical Thinking (by Joan Didion)

I loved Play It As It Lays, but The Year of Magical Thinking left me cold. Didion's overwhelming New York privilege and pretension are presented in such an off-putting way, even while I feel for what she's experiencing (and, with the subsequent death of her daughter, about to experience). It's not that I think her wealth and power insulate her from grief in any way; it's not even that she intellectualizes her grief; it's something about the character of herself that she creates here that I simply, guiltily, did not like.

The most moving passage was actually an excerpt from C.S. Lewis's book on grieving his wife; it makes me think I should read that instead. Here's the quote:

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through to H. I set out on one of them. But now there's an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once, now so many culs de sac.

Landline (by Rainbow Rowell)

The premise of this one is completely ridiculous. A couple has to split up for the holidays because of the woman's job, and then it turns out the landline phone at her mother's house allows her to call her husband's past self.  I could suspend my disbelief over the magic phone, I suppose, but the machinations to get this plot into place make no sense.  (Why would she completely disintegrate emotionally when she seems like a competent professional? Why would she not buy a phone charger? Why would she not just go back to her house? Why would Neal not call her from Omaha or answer her calls?)

Speaking of which, the main issue with this book is that the character of Neal is such an a-hole that you don't actually root for their love story. Georgie I found charming, if flawed, and I enjoyed reading about her showbiz career. I thought her rationale for not going to Omaha made sense and if Neal was supposedly so "supportive," ignoring her for a week belied that characterization. He's basically an a-hole the whole time, even early in their relationship, and Georgie admits she tends to fall for unavailable assholes. Yet we're supposed to root for them? Rowell's sheer charm as a writer almost carries it off, but in the end, this is... not her best.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (by Jenny Han) 

Great, great, young adult romance.  The characters are terrific, especially the main character, Lara Jean. The interactions among the three sisters and their father have complexity and realism. The plot is actually quite unpredictable -- I loved that moment where what you think is the obvious endgame might not be the endgame after all. But maybe it is? But maybe not? This was overall a sheer joy to read, and I was delighted to find out that there are two sequels. And I can get them all from the library!

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (by Joshua Foer)

A fun memoir! Joshua Foer covers the U.S. Memory World Championships as a journalist, and then dedicates a year to the study of memory,  seeing if he can be a contender in the following year's championship. He studies with memory experts, learns the tricks of the trade, and tells us all about the history of memory and his own experiences. Thoroughly enjoyable -- and incidentally, left me with a wonderful mnemonic device to remember my husband's new phone number.

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Friday, October 06, 2017

Even More Business Trip Reads

100 Years of Solitude (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) 

I read this for the Read Harder Challenge (category: Set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author) and it was definitely a challenge. This is one classic that I've picked up many times over the years and have somehow never made it past the first few pages. It took real effort for me to finish it. So very much in keeping with the spirit of the RHC.  I also read it on paper because there doesn't seem to be an electronic version --which was another blocker, as most of my reading these days is on my Kindle app.

I enjoyed 100 Years of Solitude once I'd finished it, more academically or abstractly than anything else. It's like that feeling after going to the gym -- you enjoy the feeling of having done something more than the actual doing.  I enjoyed reading criticism about it, about the metaphors of Latin American colonialism and the ties to Garcia Marquez's own experiences in chidhood.  But it didn't quite touch me emotionally -- it was too symbolic, I suppose, to feel truly real to me. But intellectually, I appreciated it.

And I'm very glad I read it, as it was a major gap in my list of "must-read" classics. Frankly I'm not sure what's left after this.   (Oh, I do know! I don't think I've actually read Huck Finn all the way through. But after that I will be stumped. Ian will tell me to read The Magic Mountain, which I want to read, but I don't think of that as a "must-read" cultural touchstone in the same way that, say, War and Peace or Ulysses or Don Quixote is. 

Truly, Madly, Guilty (by Liane Moriarty)

And now for something completely different: Liane Moriarty! This was a great airplane read.  Like Big Little Lies, it's "women's contemporary fiction" with depth that tackles complex, well-rounded characters and packs many emotional punches. My eyes welled up with tears a few times when reading this.  I'm on the waiting list for several more of her novels, and I'm excited to read them.

It's a definite contrast to 100 Years of Solitude -- obviously it's not a literary masterpiece and didn't make me go seeking out literary criticism to help understand and appreciate it, but it did make me feel and kept me entertained.  And sometimes that's exactly what you want.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Place of Execution (by Val McDermid)

This is the audiobook I picked up right after reading her nonfiction Forensics. I think it was partly due to the audiobook format, and partly due to my expectations, but I found this disappointing. It has gotten amazing reviews everywhere so I am in the minority here. I will explain my feelings anyway.  (This review is slightly spoilery so if you think you might like this book, go read it instead of my review.  Just not on audiobook.)

This is divided into two halves. The first half is a crime and its investigation, the second half is 30 years later, when a woman is writing the story of the crime and some new truths are uncovered. First of all, the pace of that first half is glacial. The audiobook thing meant that I couldn't skim, and I think if I'd been able to skim over the endless descriptions of people smoking, or the pages where nothing happens, I would have enjoyed this more. I also knew there was going to be some kind of twist in the second half, and I wanted to  get to the payoff at the end, so that was frustrating.

Plus, Forensics made me think McDermid was going to get in depth into the forensic details of the crime, but as much as the detectives are supposedly "investigating," the few forensic clues that there are kind of seem to be ignored and aren't ever put together in a satisfying way. (There is never a plausible timeline presented for the crime, for example.) It makes sense at the end, because if anyone had put the clues together or paid attention to the plot holes earlier they would have figured out the true story. But I was desperately wishing for an intelligent investigator to show up and do some, like investigating, instead of smoking a million cigarettes while waiting for something to happen.

Did I enjoy the twist at the end? I did think it was interesting, although it strained credulity at points.  I would call it more satisfying than not.  So I don't exactly not recommend this, I just recommend, once again, you avoid the audio version. (The narrator was great though, for what it's worth.)

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Scrappy Little Nobody (by Anna Kendrick)

A quick read via my beloved Overdrive library app.  Funny, real, gossipy, very much in keeping with Kendrick's charming Twitter feed. I loved the behind-the-scenes views of awards shows and the like, and the reality of her life as a "movie star" not quite being an instant ticket to having it all figured out. It's hard to come out of this book not wanting Anna Kendrick to be your best friend.  Anna, call me!

(Oh, and apparently she was in a cult musical about a theater camp -- the movie is called Camp -- and clearly I am some kind of failure because I not already seen and fallen in love with this. I'll get on it immediately.)

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

More Business Trip Reads

This time, it was short trip to Los Angeles, but it did involve airports and flights, ergo, reading, ergo, here are my reviews:

Closed Casket (by Sophia Hannah)

Airplane fluff for sure. This is an "authorized by the estate of Agatha Christie" mystery with Hercule Poirot at the center.  I saw it in the airport bookstore and then checked to see if it was free via my library app. IT WAS. (Still not over it.) So it was easy to take a chance on, and a fun, breezy mystery. It doesn't approach classic Christie (obviously) and really reads more like really excellent Poirot fanfic (yes, it exists).  But I enjoyed it enough to download the other Hannah/Christie novel, The Monogram Murders (see below) for the flight back.

City of the Lost Monkey God (by Douglas Preston)

A non-fiction pick for my work book club. This is the story of the search for a lost city in Honduras, the titular city of the lost monkey god. The author's time spent at the site (on two occasions) was fairly brief and the story wouldn't really work chronologically, so the narrative was choppy as a result, lacking the  tension, depth, or pacing of Into Thin Air. (I immediately downloaded and reread Into Thin Air, one of my all-time favorite books to reread, as you may remember.) It's interesting nonetheless, if ultimately depressing, and I did learn a lot about Honduras and the inevitability of a global pandemic. So that was fun.

The Monogram Murders (by Sophia Hannah)

The other fake Agatha Christie, and equally fluffy and enjoyable. I thought this plot was way too complicated; the reveal didn't have a fun "aha" moment because I'd lost track of who was connected with whom and what, and there was a bit too much going on with the final denouement. But it was a fun library book I read on an airplane, so in that sense, it was perfect! I will definitely gobble up any other entries in this series.

Joy (by S. Kay)

An old online journal acquaintance posted about her novella in our Faebook group, and I noticed that it had been published by a micro-press (Maudlin House), which enabled me to check out the book, support a former journaler, and check off one of the categories of the Read Harder Challenge, all at the same time. This is an enjoyable little novella that reads like a prose poem, with anti-heroine Joy at the center of it all.  Texts, tweets, blog posts, poems, all play a part in this work. I would have enjoyed this if it was many times longer, as I loved Joy, but the small size makes it easy to digest, ponder, and re-read. Thumbs up!

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Fever Dream (by Samanta Schweblin)

I didn't participate in the Tournament of Books summer reading event, but I did pay attention to the final winner, which will automatically get a pass into next year's ToB. When it showed up on my library app* I grabbed it. Hooray, a head start!

Fever Dream is not an exact translation of the original title, but it's an excellent description of what this book is. A woman is in an unknown location, recounting a story in which something bad may or may not have happened to her child, and another child (who is talking her through the story) may or may not have had his soul moved out of his body. Also, this novella may or may not be (but probably is) an allegory for the real-life use in Argentina of a carcinogenic pesticide called glyphosate.

This is a novella, not a novel -- it really can be read in one sitting and I believe is fewer than 100 pages long. It reminded me a bit of Annihilation, in terms of the vague creeping horror.  As a mother to a small daughter, it was a tense experience; I had to keep reading to find out how things would turn out. I'm looking forward to the discussion of this during the Tournament of Books. If you don't mind experimental literature that reads like a prose poem of creeping dread, you may want to give it a go.

*After reading The To-Do List, I made a long to-do list. One of the items was "figure out how to borrow library books on my Kindle." Since the last time I'd tried it, Amazon has built an integration, so it means I can use the Overload app to reserve books via my local library, and then download them right from my Kindle app, which is how I read everything anyway. This is going to save me a fortune on books! I did have to stop by my local branch to renew my library card but it was super easy. That's my PSA for the day for fellow Kindle lovers.

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Friday, September 08, 2017

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime (by Val McDermid)

This was my latest audiobook, read by a female narrator who had a deep Scottish accent, presumably echoing McDermid's, and whose American accent was not bad but also not great. (Do we really sound like that?) So that was fairly amusing and added a layer of entertainment to the experience. 

I enjoyed the deep dive into forensic science, particularly the chapter on forensic psychology (which could have been even longer; forensic psychology is fascinating).  Some chapters were more compelling than others, some of the crimes were more compelling (or harrowing, or tragic) than others, but it was consistently interesting and a good selection for the "book about science" category of the Read Harder Challenge.

I've moved straight from this audiobook to one of McDermid's mysteries. I enjoyed her writing and she clearly knows her stuff, so I'm hoping there is more forensic goodness to be found in her fiction.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

IQ (by Joe Ide)

The second selection for the book group we started at work. The genre we chose for this round was mystery and this was the book I put in the hat. There's a lot of pressure when your blind recommendation gets chosen! Happily, I thought this was terrific; I hope my fellow clubbies agree.

Joe Ide grew up in South Central Los Angeles and loved Sherlock Holmes. So he's created a character, Isaiah Quintabe, or IQ, who is the South Central version of Sherlock.  The central case here involves a rapper who is afraid someone is trying to kill him, but there are side cases here and there as well, a backstory that unfolds throughout the book, and a nice sense of closure at the end while still setting up for a sequel.

I loved Isaiah (and by the end Dodgson -- his Watson -- as well). Such a likeable hero, a well-drawn setting, a fun mystery, a sprinkling of humor, and an emotional journey for the main character. If you like contemporary mysteries, I highly recommend this one and will be first in (virtual) line for the next one.

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Friday, September 01, 2017

The To-Do List (by Mike Gayle)

Mike Gayle writes a 1200-item to-do list and spends a year trying to check everything off.  You may have noticed how much I love lists -- daily, weekly, monthly to-dos, reading lists, life lists, short-term and long term lists.  So this was the book for me.

As soon as I got to the appendix (where he publishes the full list) I broke out a notebook and pen. I think I ended up with 125 new items to add to my various and sundry lists, and one of my items is "consolidate to-do lists."

I mean this was entertaining, funny, and well-written, but mostly it was inspirational and hit me right in the sweet spot. How much do I love a to-do list? So, so much.  I can't wait to start crossing stuff off!

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score ― from Nadia to Now (by Dvora Meyers)

The "sports" category in the RHC was a tricky one, but I enjoy gymnastics and decided to go with this one.  It was overall a fairly light, enjoyable read. I would have liked a little more inside baseball (er, gymnastics) about scoring data, the specifics of the new system, etc. I could tell the author knew her stuff, but missed the hardcore data nerd stuff.  I would have liked fewer awkward pop culture references (sample quote: "[N]o one was going to hop on the podium like Kanye to protest your medal: 'Imma let your national anthem finish, but Dominique Dawes had the best floor routine of the meet'").  But overall, a fairly enjoyable way to check another item off the list for the year.

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How to Murder Your Life (by Cat Marnell)

I used to be a devout xoJane reader and found Cat Marnell to be equal parts fascinating trainwreck and talented writer, so naturally when this memoir went on sale for Kindle, I snatched it up.

Cat and I probably have literally zero in common -- I don't care about beauty or fashion, certainly don't think it should be aspirational at all costs, and neither have a trust fund nor enjoy snorting angel dust. But the woman can write. I'm not even sure how she does it -- there's a spark to her writing that I can't pin down.

And so, despite disagreeing with her worldview on almost every page, and completely in spite of myself, I devoured and loved this book.

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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.


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.


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!


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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