Sunday, January 31, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air (by Paul Kalanithi)

For maybe the first time this year, I decided to read something not for either the Tournament of Books or the Read Harder Challenge. When Breath Becomes Air is the posthumous memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon diagnosed with cancer right before completing his residency, who spent his final months writing a meditation on the meaning of life and death. You can get a bit of a flavor of Kalanithi's writing by reading his essay for the New York Times, "How Long Have I Got Left?"

Kalanithi didn't live long enough to tie it all together in a neat bow -- he wrote part of the book when the cancer had already metastasized into his brain -- so the book reads as a bit unresolved. But maybe it's not possible to "resolve" the meaning of life, and of death, in the first place, and this is part of Kalanithi's point. His wife, also a doctor, contributes a deeply moving epilogue on his behalf that helps fill in the blanks of his last weeks.

This is a beautiful book. Kalanithi had a brilliance of mind and generosity of spirit that is undeniable. He grapples with big questions and doesn't provide you with answers -- just the space for you to grapple with them too. It's profoundly moving and profoundly profound. I can see why it's become a huge bestseller.  Unforgettable.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home (by Leah Lax)

This memoir is fascinating but somewhat slow to get going. It begins with the author's wedding day and then flashes back to childhood and adolescence. Although it's well-written throughout, I found the background a bit too fleshed out. In particular, there are multiple stories that boil down to "I was a teenager and was drawn to Orthodox Judaism."  After a while, we really just want to get on with it -- what will married life be like?  How will her faith evolve?

It's when the narrative catches up to that wedding scene and beyond that it becomes fascinating. I've enjoyed reading the work of Orthodox Jewish women in the past, particularly Chaya Kurtz and blogs about Jewish infertility and the mikveh (yes, they exist -- or existed, anyway).  But this is a much more in-depth look at that life, and how that life can stifle a young person and force them to deny an essential part of their identity -- in Ms. Lax's case, her lesbianism.

Seeing her finally break free and come into her own towards the end of the book is deeply moving. The revelation by her sister, unlocking the key to why she may have been drawn to Orthodoxy in the first place, is well-timed. The writing is assured and lyrical, clearly influenced by the poetry that we see her discover during her marriage. And the evidence of this faith's misogyny and stifling patriarchy is maddening, although she lets us see much beauty in it too.

I'm glad I decided to pick this one up for the Read Harder Challenge. I recommend it, and recommend sticking with it if, like me, you find it slow going at first.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

The Invaders (by Karolina Waclawiak)

I don't know what the Tournament of Books was thinking with this one. It's like a mediocre Tom Perrotta, and I'm not a Tom Perrotta fan to begin with. I gather that it was very well-reviewed; maybe it just wasn't for me.

There are two narrators, Teddy and Cheryl. They live in a wealthy beach town, where Cheryl is Teddy's stepmother. The people in the town don't accept Cheryl, and Teddy is a bit of a douche. The beach community is insular and snobbish. From there, the story unfolds in unpredictable ways, which I did appreciate.

I had problems with each of the main characters, though. I found Teddy's first-person dialogue unconvincing and Cheryl is so frustratingly passive and opaque that it is difficult to care about her at all. Her husband, Teddy's father, is an over-the-top asshole. Actually the people in the town -- meant to embody white wealthy privilege, I guess -- are unconvincing too. It's a novel filled with caricatures. Even the names -- like who is named Teddy or Cheryl? I don't need sympathetic characters, but they never felt real to me in any way.  And actually, as unpredictable as the ending is, it's also implausible.

Again, up against Fates and Furies or A Little Life, this one loses bigtime. You never know which way the ToB is going to go, but for me, no contest. It shouldn't even be on the shortlist as far as I'm concerned.

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Predictably Irrational (by Dan Ariely)

This is a book on behavioral economics that I was assigned to read for an upcoming work conference. The subtitle is "the hidden forces that shape our decisions" and it has some interesting insights about our reluctance to rule out options, the efficacy of placebos, our inability to predict our behavior rationally, etc.

Overall I found it disappointing. There wasn't a lot of truly actionable practical advice in here for me, and much of what I did find relevant was stuff I already knew.  I definitely noted some insights and I look forward to discussing it with my colleagues, but overall I was expecting more depth and detail than I ultimately got, and more examples of how to apply the knowledge professionally and personally.

Also I found the casual sexism in here very grating. All of Ariely's examples seemed to be male-centric and heteronormative, assuming the reader is a male and basically defaulting to men for everything. There are examples of spending a lot of money on your date and expecting sex, bringing wine to your mother-in-law's house on Thanksgiving since she cooked everything, women being crazed shoppers, you (the reader) watching football with your (male) roommates. There are references to congressmen, doctors (all presumed male), hackers (all presumed male). I would have thrown the book across the room by the end of it if it hadn't been assigned reading.

I'm having fun preparing my upcoming feminist rant though. I'm sure my colleagues will appreciate it.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

The New World (by Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz)

It's weird. It's not weird enough.

Someone on Goodreads said the final Tournament of Books slate was "hipster" and I think if any book deserves that label, it's probably The New World. (The most hipstery thing for me was the authors refusing to capitalize acronyms. The main character, a doctor, goes into the or or the icu. Struck me as a pointless affectation.) I gather this was originally presented as an interactive ebook, so reading it on Kindle I may have lost some of the impact. The publishing house is now defunct, so I think we're stuck with the non-interactive version for now.

It has a crackerjack premise -- Jim has had his head cryogenically preserved and wakes up in a distant future, and Jane is the wife he has left behind. By far, the most interesting parts are the future -- will he turn out to be a computer simulation? Is the future in any way real? Can and will Jane join him there? Is he doomed to forget her? Is he willing to? What happens after his "Debut"? Sadly, most of these very interesting questions are never answered.

Beneath the hipster gimmickry, there's a beating heart, which I appreciate -- but ultimately it develops into a conventional love story that I never quite buy. For example [SPOILERS], what evidence is there that Jane loves Jim? She guilts herself into marrying him, then cheats on him, and never particularly seems to like him. Yet we're supposed to be moved by their love that transcends death? I'm not convinced.

This is going to be an interesting book to discuss in the early ToB rounds, but I don't think it will go particularly far -- put it up against A Little Life, say, and it crumbles to dust.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Find Me (by Laura van den Berg)

I'm not sure what to think about this one. The first half introduces us to the main character, Joy, who is living in a former insane asylum, now a hospital (or "hospital"), during an epidemic. A disease that makes you first forget everything and then die is sweeping through the country, but Joy is immune. Her fellow patients sometimes are, sometimes aren't.

This first half of the book is pleasurably ooky (patent pending) and full of detail. Joy was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a series of foster homes; as the epidemic was spreading, she was working in a Stop & Shop, stealing and drinking cherry Robitussin. (I would read an entire novel about her life in the Stop & Shop.) She's fixated on the mother who abandoned her, just one of the many hints toward the meaning (or meanings) of the novel's title.

The second half is a post-epidemic road trip to find the mother whose whereabouts she thinks she's discovered. It's during the second half that the book seems to slip into dream or allegory. It is too full of coincidence to be literal -- and there are findings everywhere.  (Spoilers: Someone finds a body in the snow. Her former foster brother finds her on a bus. She finds someone who once came to the hospital as a pilgrim. She finds out what memory from her past she has repressed. She finds out she is pregnant. Lots of findings.)

I liked thinking about the underlying themes here, but it is in this second half that the narrative stalls out. The whole episode at the Mansion, for example, is several chapters of wheel-spinning. The characters seem more like surrealist avatars than actual people. I really enjoyed Marcus, and how he and Joy fuse into one brain such that Joy seems able to read his mind, but even he is always wearing masks and doesn't feel quite three-dimensional. On the pure story level, I was disappointed.

That said, I'd be interested in hearing from other people on this -- do you agree with the idea that it's allegorical? And if so, what is the central metaphor? My theory is that it might be about what it feels like to bring a child into a world where dangers abound. Climate change is referenced, sexual abuse, abandonment, disease, all the things that make the world frightening. And yet Joy manages to find some kind of peace, and belonging, and identity, and absolution. Ultimately it feels hopeful -- at least I left the novel with that impression. This might be one I need to turn around in my brain a bit before I can fully process. At the very least, it was interesting!

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Saturday, January 09, 2016

A Little Life (by Hanya Yanagihara)

This book appeared on the top of many "best book of the year" lists last year. But every review made sure to mention that it's grim, that it delves into the life of a man whose past is devastatingly traumatic, and that we slowly learn the details of that devastatingly traumatic life over the course of 720 pages. So I downloaded a sample on my Kindle and then never managed to bring myself to dive in. But then I opened my Kindle app and started reading a novel at random -- not realizing what I was reading or remembering what I'd heard about it -- and was hooked.

It starts off as a fairly standard, if extremely well wrought, story of four multi-ethnic friends in a timeless New York City.  Willem, a waiter and aspiring actor, JB, a spoiled artist, Malcolm, an aspiring architect with daddy issues, and Jude, who cuts himself, who is disabled in some vague way, whose past is a mystery. All four characters are compelling and their stories are well told. As I said, it captivates the reader immediately. Slowly, the focus shifts to center on Jude. Slowly, his past is revealed. Slowly, the novel asks the question: what defines the value of a life? What healing is possible when you've been traumatized to your very soul? Will Jude be redeemed? Can he be? What about the people who love him?

We joke around that the movie of Ian's dreams would be the most depressing movie of all time, with a title like Holocaust Barn. It would be a black-and-white Swedish documentary where nothing happens except maybe in the third act a horse commits suicide. And also there's the Holocaust. But unlike Ian, I like my entertainment more escapist. And at points, this novel did start to feel like tragedy piled on top of tragedy, trauma on top of trauma, until it was basically a Lars von Trier film without the misogyny. Holocaust Barn: The Novel. But then I read this Atlantic piece by Garth Greenwell, which argues that A Little Life is purposely operatic tragedy, an allegory for the experiences of gay men:

Just as Yanagihara’s characters challenge conventional categories of gay identity, so A Little Life avoids the familiar narratives of gay fiction. Yanagihara approaches the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped modern gay identity—sickness and discrimination—obliquely, avoiding the conventions of the coming-out narrative or the AIDS novel. But queer suffering is at the heart of A Little Life... Jude’s childhood is an extreme iteration of the abandonment, exploitation, and abuse that remain endemic in the experience of queer young people. Recent discussion of that experience has been dominated by an affirmative narrative—“It Gets Better”—that may be true for most. But it isn’t true for Jude.

I don't know if this is what Yanagihara intended, but this reading unlocked the novel for me, and made it possible for me to appreciate the experience of reading it without getting derailed by the "tragedy porn" argument. It's not that. It's something deeper, something more profound.

I actually knew what was going to happen in advance (I read the Wikipedia summary so I could brace myself for how bad it was going to get) but it's still hard reading. The full meaning of the title comes as a punch in the gut. The cover art is horrible. The horse jumps off the barn roof. And yet I agree with all those glowing reviews -- it's a powerful, unforgettable tour de force of a novel.  If I haven't scared you off completely, brace yourself and dive in.

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Friday, January 08, 2016

Slade House (by David Mitchell)

I am a David Mitchell fan (and so far, a completist) so I had to put this one on my Christmas list. As an aside, I've read a lot of books on Kindle lately, so this beautiful little volume with the keyhole cover and pages that turn delighted me even before I started reading it. I'm glad to have this one in tangible form.

Although of course all Mitchell's novels are connected, this one is most closely connected to the main storyline of The Bone Clocks. It's made up of short chapters that take place every nine years, from 1979 to 2015.  The somewhat fantastical premise is that these creepy twins, Jonah and Norah, have to ingest someone's soul every nine years to remain immortal. Every nine years, then, they find someone with certain qualifications, lure them to Slade House, which may or may not be entirely real, and complete a bizarre soul-ingesting ritual. I've already said too much.

I mentioned that this had been labeled a "horror novel" and indeed, it is filled with Annihilation-style pleasurable ookiness. Also it pulls off the classic Mitchell move, presenting a series of vignettes that are all linked somehow, with quicky and richly drawn characters. I particularly liked Nathan Bishop and Sally Timms, and it was delightful to see Iris from The Bone Clocks again. I actually think the short length and simplified premise means it hangs together even better than The Bone Clocks. I also think it would work well coming to it as a standalone, although I defy anyone to read it and not move on to The Bone Clocks immediately.

Do you like David Mitchell? Pleasurable ookiness? Stories about soul ingestion? Then Slade House is the read for you!

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Thursday, January 07, 2016

Blanche on the Lam (by Barbara Neely)

I'm still making my way through A Little Life, but it's the kind of novel that requires a break for some lighter fare, so I chose a book that was recommended by the Goodreads group for the Read Harder challenge, a "cozy mystery" that is the first in a series by a person of color.

The point of view of the main character, an African-American housekeeper named Blanche White, is challenging and refreshing. I absolutely loved Blanche. She's intelligent, perceptive, and often  analyzes the world around her in terms of racial subtext -- as the housekeeper in the home of Southern rich white people, there is a lot to mine here. Sample quote: "Blanche was unimpressed by the tears, and Grace's Mammy-save-me eyes. Mammy-savers regularly peeped out at her from the faces of some white women for whom she worked, and lately, in this age of the touchy-feely model of manhood, an occasional white man." There are a lot of complex interactions with white people, fellow black people to whom she feels immediate loyalty, and white people she likes but whom she won't quite allow herself to fully care for. Blanche's perspective throughout is complicated and compelling.

I found two negatives with this book. First, the premise bothered me: the book begins with Blanche running away as she's being sent to prison for check fraud. The idea that nobody would track her down (when there is an obvious trail to follow) and that there wouldn't be major, immediate consequences for her actions was so ludicrous that it was impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. The second issue was the mystery itself -- it takes half the book for a murder to actually happen. I enjoyed Blanche's perspective so much that I wasn't completely put off by this, but I think it's a failure in pacing. And the plotting of the central mystery is not bad, but also not particularly awesome.

That being said, I enjoyed this novel despite some flaws, and I will definitely give the next one in the series a try. 

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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Gratitude (by Oliver Sacks)

For the Read Harder challenge to read a book under 100 pages, I took a suggestion from Goodreads to read Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. This is a 48-page collection that includes On the Move (which I had read before, a powerful essay about his terminal cancer diagnosis) and three other essays.

I actually haven't read any of Sacks's longer works, which I know I need to remedy at some point. His essays are tiny gems, and my husband and in-laws are all big fans of his. My favorite essay here was Elemental, a meditation on living, dying, and the chemical elements.  

Gratitude is a slim collection that took me all of a half hour to get through, but these essays are meant to be read, savored, and re-read, and they are lovely.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (by Jenny Lawson)

The tag "i know this person" is somewhat misleading here. It would be more accurate to say "i am one degree of separation away from this person" but that would make for a long tag.  And I feel like although I don't know Jenny, I also don't not know Jenny, in that I met her once at BlogHer and a couple of my friends are mentioned in the book. So I basically know her. I know of her! Okay, you're right, it doesn't count.

I don't read her blog regularly, but I do read it from time to time and admire what she does. She's managed to stay funny, relevant, and real and avoid the whole "mommyblog" pigeonhole while the whole concept of "blogging" has withered on the vine. (Maybe it's resurging. In fact, here's an outstanding blog post by Evany about this very book.) I have been disappointed in the past by blog books that are just recycling of existing posts (Dooce's book, I am looking at you). And I don't know how much of this material is "recycled" since I'm not a regular reader. But I think it reads cohesively, at least as cohesively as possible given her writing style, which is sort of stream-of-consciousness discursive comedic riffing.

This doesn't always work for me in that "humorist" writing doesn't always work for me in general. I have the same issue with David Sedaris, the trying-to-be-funny taking precedence over telling a real story. But oh my god, Jenny Lawson can be funny. There's the classic story of Beyonce the chicken (which I have, in fact, also read on her blog) and a story about her cooking skills that made me laugh out loud as I was reading. And her writing is bold and witty as hell -- she throws in fake notes from her editor, chapters that don't make sense chronologically, and tons of meta notes about all of the above.

This also qualifies for the Read Harder Challenge in the category "Main character has mental illness" -- I would not have thought of this for this category, but the New York Public Library recommended her second memoir for this, so I figure the first also counts. She does address her mental issues, and writes about them humorously but also openly.

Overall, an entertaining read: recommended.

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Friday, January 01, 2016

Year-End Book Wrapup '15

This year I read 39 books (and lots of fanfiction, oops). 19 were by women and 17 were by men, and 3 co-authored by both.  I read 8 of the books on my wishlist for last year, and didn't get to 12 of them.  I can't believe I didn't even hit 50 books. In fact, that's my main reading resolution for next year: read 50 books. Lots more after the lists.

Top five books of the year:

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book is just terrific, in a different way than I was anticipating. Do yourself a favor and read it if you haven't yet. It's not a broccoli book at all; it's a fun but expansive read.

2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
There was some backlash against this book during the Tournament of Books, and it's not undeserved; I agree with some of the criticisms that it was a bit sentimental. But I loved it all the same and was profoundly moved by it; a very close second for my favorite read of the year.

3. The Martian by Andy Wier
I read this book twice this year and saw the movie. If I wanted to impress you all with my erudition I would put Don Quijote on here instead and pretend I enjoyed one of the great masterpieces of literature more than The Martian, but that would be a lie.  I don't pretend that it even comes close in terms of literary merit, but based on pure entertainment, The Martian wins.

4. Blackout: Remembering the Things We Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
A wonderfully written memoir, up there with Liars Club. Super good.

5. The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
Gets this year's Station Eleven Award for books that lingered with me long after I finished them. This was particularly true about the first book in the series, Annihilation. Awesome trilogy.

Runners up: Don Quijote, The Bone Clocks, Dead Wake, Seveneves, A Constant Love, Fates and Furies, A Confederacy of Dunces, Brown Girl Dreaming, Dept. of Speculation. And obviously Macbeth is one of the best things I read this year, but not a novel so it gets its own special side award.

Once again, the Tournament of Books has a way of picking winners -- I wouldn't have read Southern Reach or Dept. of Speculation otherwise, and All the Light was a finalist. Already salivating over the 2016 longlist...

Bottom three books:

1. 50 Shades of Gray by E.L. James
This is a gimme. I knew it would be terribly written, but thought it would at least be full of kinky sex, but it was not. As far as erotica goes, she is no Chuck Tingle. And again, as previously admitted, I do read fanfiction.

2. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Fell flat, and the narrator being men who have died from AIDS came across as patronizing. I was not the audience for this one.

3. Live from New York by James Miller and Tom Shales
This is actually mostly great, but the "updated" version was my biggest disappointment of the year. New interviews were tacked on and lacked depth, the the introductory material was notably worse. Could have been so much better.

I've started giving up on books that I don't like, which means that I rarely get to the end of a bad book anymore. No honorable mentions here, really.

As for next year, as I said, read at least 50 books is my main goal. I would also like to read A Hundred Years of Solitude as my "classic I should have read by now" selection for the year, plus Between the World and Me for its cultural importance and as much of the Tournament of Books as I can handle. And Best American Short Stories 2015, since I enjoyed last year's so much! I'm actually in the middle of the Finnegans Wake river chapter. I'm going to let go of the dream of some of the other ones. Clean slate!

I'm also intrigued by the Read Harder Challenge. If I were applying it to last year, I would have completed the following: Read a book out loud to someone else (I have a four-year old so, of course); Read a middle grade novel (Brown Girl Dreaming); Read a post-apocalyptic novel (Seveneves); Read a book over 500 pages long (Don Quixote); Read a book, then watch the movie (The Martian); Read a play (Macbeth); Read a book with a main character who has mental illness (several); Read a book dealing with feminist themes (Dept. of Speculation, among others); Historical fiction set before 1900 (A Constant Love); Horror novel (the Southern Reach trilogy). I almost did one in the decade I was born -- Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980.

I'll see how I do this year. I have some ideas about what I'll read for each category, some leftover from last year, but I will swap out as needed: 

Total: 24/24

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

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

As always, looking forward to a brand new year of awesome reading, book clubbing, and blogging. Follow along and talk to me about books, won't you?

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