Sunday, October 30, 2016

Business Trip Reading Roundup

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

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters 

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

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

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

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari 

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

The Likeness by Tana French

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

Okay, maybe I had some issues with the premise. 

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

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Monday, October 24, 2016

In the Woods (by Tana French)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Nao of Brown (by Glyn Dillon)

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple)

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Read Harder Challenge 2016

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

Total: 24/24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Home Land (by Sam Lipsyte)

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

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

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Monday, October 03, 2016

Into the Wild (by Jon Krakauer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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