Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Vacation Reads: Pacific Northwest Edition

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

Fortune's Children by (Arthur Vanderbilt II)

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

The Sisters Brothers (by Patrick deWitt)

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

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

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

Fame (by Justine Bateman)

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

Leah on the Offbeat (by Becky Albertalli) 

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

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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Lethal White (by Robert Galbraith)

My favorite Cormoran Strike book so far!

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

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

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

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

(I do so love Robin.)

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Shirley, Goodness and Mercy (by Chris van Wyk)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 15, 2018

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (by Edmund Bourne)

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Inkheart (by Cornelia Funke)

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sourdough (by Robin Sloan)

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

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

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

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Eat Pray Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert)

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

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

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

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

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (by Mark Twain)

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Business Trip Reads

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

Pretty Girls (by Karin Slaughter)

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

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

Tell Me Three Things (by Julie Buxbaum)

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

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (by Ottessa Moshfeg)

I loved this weird, surreal novel.

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

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

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

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Pop-Culture Vaycay Reads

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

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

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

Robin (by Dave Itzkoff)

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

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (by Gail Honeyman)

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

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Vacation Reads: Costa Rica Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bachelor Nation (by Amy Kaufman)

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

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

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

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

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Vacation Reads: Glamping Edition

Foolish Hearts (by Emma Mills)

Utterly delightful young adult novel. Great characters, loved the various romances and the Claudia/Iris frenemyship. God, I love a good YA. As soon as I was done with this I immediately put another of her books on hold. I don't have a ton to say about it but I really loved it and as a young adult author, admired the writing on top of that.

Love Warrior (by Glennon Doyle Melton)

I would probably not have finished this memoir, except this was an Oprah Book Club Selection and thus qualified for the Read Harder Challenge. It's not bad, but as honest as Melton seemingly tries to be, it comes across as kind of easy and superficial. So many convenient epiphanies and then smug pontificating.  At one point she's describing a scene where she "told her daughters" this long inspirational speech about beauty and prettiness and sexiness, supposedly off the top of her head, and it simply doesn't feel authentic. Doesn't hold a candle to memoirs like Blackout and Wild, which are both more authentic-feeling and way more compellingly written.

There's also the fact that it's pretty clear between the lines that she's probably gay, although the book ends with her not having reached that conclusion like, at all, except she sort of backpedals her own ending in an epilogue and now she's married to Abby Wambach so yeah.  And it turns out she got her start as a blogger, which, ugh, of course. And the title is dumb. So I don't know, maybe it's not bad but it's also not good.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Business Trip Reads

I went to Austin on business and read some books on the plane, as you do.

So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y'all Don't Even Know (by Retta)
I deeply enjoyed this celebrity memoir by Retta, best known to me as Donna on Parks & Recreation. She's a comedian, so she's hilarious and conversational, but she's also super smart (she studied medicine at Duke) and it shows. This does not come across as crafted or ghost-written, but as a chat with your new bestie, an actual real-life human person. (She loves Memphis Belle! She shops at Dress Barn! She's obsessed with Hamilton!) Anyway, Retta is the best and this memoir is great.

The Immortalists (by Chloe Benjamin) The premise of this novel is that four siblings find out (supposedly) when they're going to die -- how does this affect their lives, or their deaths? Also really enjoyed this, a litfic page-turner that shifts point of view from one sibling to the other. The only one that didn't really gel for me as a character was Daniel, and the climax of his story was ludicrous to me. But I loved reading about the other siblings and I enjoyed meditating on what it means to live a meaningful life.

The Word Is Murder (by Anthony Horowitz)
Yay metafiction! In this book, a Sherlock-esque detective named Daniel Hawthorne approaches Anthony Horowitz and asks him to follow him around solving a case and then write a book about it.  Horowitz weaves together real life elements (such as books he's actually published, people he's actually worked with) with the fictional murder plot to make a satisfying, page-turning read.  I'm usually surprised by murder mystery twists, but in this case there was one clue that gave away the ending for me. However, I didn't guess everything, so there were still some surprises at the end, and it all hangs together very satisfyingly regardless. So happy to hear this is the start of a series!

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Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The Female Persuasion (by Meg Wolitzer)+

I liked, but did not love, The Interestings, but the premise of The Female Persuasion (young feminist is mentored by older feminist) and the rainbow stripey cover and the fact that I now have a library card and the fact that I have read a lot of man-books this year all nudged me towards reading this, and I'm glad I did. 

Nothing in this book, particularly the exploration of different generations of feminism, is particularly thought-provoking or earth-shattering. (Intersectional feminism gets particularly short shrift here.) But it's a solid, entertaining story featuring well-drawn characters. Once again, as with the cast of The Interestings, Wolitzer draws them throughout decades of their lives, and I really liked all these characters as characters, and enjoyed watching them evolve.

The political backdrop is just that, a backdrop, but there are allusions to the political climate and to the Trump bomb dropping that made me wish we could go even further in time and see the characters' privileged white feminism more challenged in the era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

So although this isn't as challenging as maybe one would hope, it is still a solid, entertaining, likeable novel -- from my privileged white feminist perspective, of course.

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Saturday, June 02, 2018

Head On (by John Scalzi)

I'm holding off on reading the latest Scalzi series because I don't like cliffhangers (by the time I read the next book, I'll have forgotten everything) so in the meantime, I read the sequel to Lock In, the delightful Head On. 

It's a fast-paced, Salzi-esque style mystery about Chris Shane and his/her partner, Leslie Vann. (The gender of Chris is deliberately unspecified; my evidence that Chris is male is the phrase "take a piss" in the first book and "barbershop" in this one.) (Chris is not canonically either gender, John has made that clear.) (But he also said the book belongs to the reader so I'm going male.) (Although if I listen on audiobook I'm totally going for Amber Benson's version.)

This was difficult for John to write (as he's been open about on his blog) but it doesn't show. It's tightly plotted, with a great cast of characters and enough suspects to make the mystery interesting. It all unfolds in a way that is fun and makes sense. There's a pretty high body count if you're sensitive to these types of things.  Obviously the best character is Donut the cat.

A fun read; thanks for a distraction from the dumpster fire, John.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Emergency Contact (by Mary H.K. Choi)

A charming young adult romance about Penny, a girl off to college for the first time, and Sam, a boy who works and lives in an Austin coffee shop. Their romance evolves in a realistic way, with each of them having some real issues to work through as they find intimacy with each other and work throug relationships with their parents and friends.

At first the overuse of slang is a bit off-putting ("bless," "slay, hunty!" etc.), but it doesn't take long for the reader to be completely charmed by Penny's voice (and Sam's too, but Penny is the one we really root for). By the end, I appreciated how Choi integrated contemporary slang, and the voice of the characters (whether in dialogue or by text) feels very authentic.

Also, I'm currently working on a draft of my own novel, and one thing I admired here is how Jude (who seems like a classic sidekick character) had a real story arc and dimension by the end of it. I'm working on adding depth to my characters and I found it really useful. I'm also writing one non-white character and I like how Penny's Korean-ness is clearly an integral part of her personality but not in a stereotypical, over-emphasized way. This is a novel I not only truly enjoyed, but was inspired by. So hats off to Mary H.K. Choi!

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)

This book was recommended by my sister and her partner many years ago, and it was one of the many books I bought when Mina was a baby that I never got around to reading. But it was always on the top of my list and made it to my 2018 master to-do list, which motivated me to finally cross it off.

I definitely think it is a worthwhile read and has a lot of good tips in it. (It also validates some of the things that we are already doing.). It does feel regressive and dated at times -- for example, the cartoon fathers are doing crosswords and paying bills, while the cartoon mothers are ironing and vacuuming.  There are also kind of offhand references to hitting children as if it's a common thing to do (in my Northern Californian parent community, it is definitely not). 

I think where we could use the help as parents is in encouraging more independence and autonomy.  So I liked the tips around that, and will photocopy the cheat sheets to keep as reference. We are also guilty of "did you have fun?" and this book made me think about the downsides of that question.  I think you can pick and choose what resonates with you, but if you're a parent, I would be surprised if you didn't get at least one good tip out of this book!

Could use some updated cartoons, though.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Vegetarian (by Han Kang)

The New York Times recently listed The Vegetarian as one of its top 15 books by women; I've loved most of the other books on the list that I've read (with the notable exception of Mislaid, blech) and we even had this in the house in real-life paper book form.

Well, I loved it. It's the eerie story of a Korean woman named Yeong-hye who reclaims her autonomy (after being abused by her father and dominated by her husband) by giving up meat. The story is told from the perspectives of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, all of whom have various degrees of concern and a desire to control her.

As you can tell, I read it allegorically in many ways -- especially with the mirror of her sister at the end, it seems like a meditation on male rebellion to patriarchal power.  It also has beautiful, poetic imagery and is also at points quite creepy and sad. Loved it all!

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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Your Black Friend (by Ben Passmore)

Picked up for the Read Harder Challenge, this comic is only 11 pages long, but still packs a punch. It's a message to white liberals from "your black friend" and serves as an illumination of the black experience as well as a call to action to actually use your privilege in ways that help black people. 

It reminds me of The Hate U Give in some parts, where Passmore talks about being too black for white people and too white for black people.  It's also personally challenging to me as I think about how movements like #MeToo and #NeverAgain have effected real change, while we still have black men getting shot in their backyards in California.

11 pages, but thought-provoking for sure.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Down and Across (by Arvin Ahmadi)

A young adult book about crosswords! I didn't know this existed, but my friend Miriam sent it to me because I love both young adult novels and crosswords. Thank you, Miriam! 

The downfall of being a young adult fan when you yourself are an adult is that sometimes you're on the side of the parents.  Sakeet/Scott's parents are supposed to be unreasonable, overly strict Persian parents, but in the opening, the dad is like "We're going to Iran for a month. You can throw a party if you want. Just do this one internship you committed to." This not make me think he was unreasonable or overly strict at all, and Scott running away to Washington D.C. seemed like a bratty overreaction. #TeamDad.

(We find out later that Sakeett possibly has a mental health issue that they don't let him get assessed for, which is a much larger issue that is totally dropped after a single mention. I'm on team Scott for that one, but I think it could have paid off more in the narrative itself.)

As the novel progressed to Sakeett's D.C. adventures, I liked him more. But I still have many issues with the novel: not enough crossword puzzles, for a start.  Fiora is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the nth power, and is kind of a less well-developed version of the Alaska character in Looking for Alaska. Ahmadi does have at least one cringey description of her, too. ("The skin of her hips jutted out above the waistline of her ripped jeans, rocking with a seductive rhythm as she moved." BLECH.)

Things I did enjoy: the diversity. The handling of gay characters. The quick pace. The unpredictability (as the blurb mentions). The fact that Sakeet's quest isn't that he wants something, but more that he is trying to figure out what he wants. The ambiguity of the ending.

Also there is something about this cover that I don't like, and I don't know what it is. I mean it's not like the cover of A Little Life, which I really, truly loathe. But I still kind of don't like it and thus am using this for the "book with a cover you hate" category of the Read Harder Challenge. (You can follow along on this year's progress here.). I may find a cover I dislike more later in the year, so I reserve the right to swap this out.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

vN (by Madeline Ashby)

Trying to sum up the premise of this book feels impossible (a longer review by Charlie Jane Anders is here) but my best try: a sentient humanoid robot child eats her evil robot granny, grows up overnight, and goes on the run.

The world-building here is fascinating and dark. (Like, human-on-robot pedophilia dark.) I enjoyed the characters, particularly protagonist Amy and her (human) father.

The storyline is sometimes a bit confusing (for example, at one point there is a prison escape but it kind of cuts from Amy trying to escape to a scene where nobody's chasing her, and it's confusing how she got from point A to point B). But the worldbuilding and overall story makes up for it.

I'm intrigued enough to give the second book in the series a shot. Hopefully we get to find out more about what happens after the (also somewhat confusing) ending.

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A Study in Scarlet (by Arthur Conan Doyle)

When I was growing up, I had an anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories that I read obsessively. ("The Red-Headed League" was always my favorite.) But I'd never read A Study in Scarlet, so I picked it up for the "classic of genre fiction" category of the Read Harder Challenge.

Having seen the first episode of Sherlock many times, and having read a lot of Sherlock-related fanfiction, it was fun to see the origin of so many of the elements of the pilot. It reminded me of finally seeing Star Wars after having seen Spaceballs over and over again. I was surprised by the random "Mormons are evil" interlude, which has a compelling plot but feels to me like padding on a short story. 

I think ultimately I prefer Holmes more concentrated, in the short-story format. But that said, I always enjoy Holmes stories and overall enjoyed finally getting to experience this essential part of the Holmes canon.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (by Antonio García Martinez)

The first part of this book is about Martinez creating and selling a startup, deciding between offers from Facebook and Twitter, semi-stabbing his co-founders in the back, and giving a sardonic, inside look into Silicon Valley culture.  His writing style is impressive and his personality in this first half is almost endearingly douchey. (Like douchey, clearly a tech bro of the highest order, but self-aware about it.)

Part two is all about his tenure at Facebook, developing an ad product that he's way more interested in explicating than his readers are in reading about it. I work in the tech industry and had friends at Facebook at the same time as Martinez, and he's pretty no-holds-barred in how he discusses the various players, so that part is fun. But that sense of self-awareness seems to dim and although he pays lip service to the gender issues in tech, he clearly has no interest in helping to solve them.  (He goes to Facebook rather than Twitter because he scorns the idea of work-life balance, which is one way the tech industry excludes women, and also, he has children, so.... maybe give that a thought.) And the way he describes women -- essentially only as potential sex partners -- is wearying. 

Also, by the end he is bitter that Facebook made all this money off of his engineering brilliance and he "only" makes a million dollars a year, so he decides he has this dream to sail around the world, while his only interest in his young children seems to be throwing enough money at them that they can to go Stanford and he doesn't actually need to interact with them.

So the guy doesn't come off well by the end of it. But his writing is surprisingly erudite and seems authentic to who he is -- which is, again, a douchey tech bro. If you work in the Valley, you may be entertained enough to read it all the way to the end. I was.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

What The Neighbours Did, And Other Stories (by Philippa Pearce)

Read for my resurrected book club with my friends in Chicago, the League of Unreliable Narrators! This is a middle-grade short story collection full of tiny gems of stories that reminded me strongly of the stories we used to read in Junior Great Books -- like "All Summer in a Day" or "The Veldt."

These ambiguous, Joycean little stories are set in a small British village, focus primarily on boys, and are out of print. They should not be -- they are wonderful. And they were tremendously fun to talk about! I highly recommend "Fresh" and "Return to Air" -- if you can find them.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

I’ll Be Gone In the Dark (by Michelle McNamara)

I made the mistake of reading this late at night, on vacation, while staying in a room with a glass sliding door.  Well, that was a miscalculation.

Michelle McNamara was the late wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She also founded the True Crime Diary website, and was an amateur sleuth trying to find the identity of a never-caught California serial rapist and murderer, the Golden State Killer (aka EAR-ONS).   This book was in progress when she died, and does have sections pieced together from her notes.

What there is of her writing is wonderful. She writes with compassion and clarity, and draws you into the puzzle of who EAR-ONS is, or was, whether he's still alive somewhere, and of possible theories and evidence about who he may have been or how to find him.  It's a terrific true crime book about a killer I hadn't even known existed -- despite being from California.

It's a real loss that McNamara wasn't able to finish the book and write many more.

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