Tuesday, October 31, 2017

P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean (by Jenny Han)

Books two and three in the delightful trilogy by Jenny Han. I felt no guilt scarfing them down like candy because they were, you guessed it, from the library.

This is a terrific trilogy, though. Well-drawn characters, organic conflicts, an unpredictable central romance. The main character is half-Korean and this informs the plot in an authentic way without dominating it. Everything I said about the previous one holds true here too.  And I absolutely loved the ending. Highly recommended for YA fans.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down (by John Green)

The Fault in Our Stars isn't perfect, but I love it anyway. It sits on my app and is a frequent re-read.  I am also a fan of John Green in general and I was happy to hear he was writing a book about anxiety issues. So my expectations were super high.

I'm still processing how I felt about this and may need to re-read it. For some reason, it was really difficult for me to read the main character as female. Possibly the Sherlock Holmes association (her irritating best friend, Daisy, calls her "Holmsey" approximately once per sentence) or possibly projection because I know it is based on Green? My own internalized sexism? I don't know. I didn't have this issue at all with Hazel, so not sure what's going on there.

The portrayal of anxiety is clearly, viscerally authentic. Aza's inner monologue and narrative voice work really well. On the other hand, the plotline that it's built around -- the storyline with the billionaire neighbor and the 100K reward and everything being left to a lizard -- seems very at odds with the realism of the novel, and I'm not sure it quite works. Half of it is very much grounded in reality; the other half is very much not.

So, not bad, but not my favorite John Green novel. As I said, I'd like to re-read it, but not sure I can handle a second helping of Daisy.  (She's annoying, y'all. She's annoying.)

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere (by Celeste Ng)

Absolutely wonderful. Marvelously written, expertly paced and plotted, with delicious characters.  I loved how the framing story of Mirabelle / May Ling almost seemed to comment on the other plotlines. I loved the narrative style, an omniscient narrator who towards the end of the novel starts to hint at the distant future.  I also loved the ambiguities of the ending, the descriptions of Mia's artwork, the character of Izzy and her fraught relationship with her mother, the exploration of adolescence...

And, especially being an adoptee, I really resonated with the stories of these two families and their secrets, as well as the meditations on motherhood and daughterhood throughout the novel.  Here's just one quote that hit me right in the solar plexus: 

To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place.

One of my favorite reads of the year, no doubt.

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The Unit (by Ninni Holmqvist)

Super enjoyed this one. I forget where I read about it, but was probably seduced by the premise, which is extremely similar to that of one of my favorite novels, Never Let Me Go.  In this version, women over 50 and men over 60 who have not yet had children are considered "dispensible," live their final years in an all-inclusive luxury resort prison, have a variety of experiments performed on them, and gradually donate their organs to the "needed," people with children and families of their own.

The main character (and unreliable narrator, everyone knows how much I love a good unreliable narrator) is Dorrit, and the book discusses her life in The Unit, the friendships she makes, the difficulty of leaving behind her life and her dog Jake, and what happens when (like Kath in Never Let Me Go) she falls in love.  The premise is similar and yet where the two novels end up is so different. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil it, but as a woman in her 40s who could easily see herself living Dorrit's solitary life and enjoying it, I found it thought provoking and moving.

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Monday, October 23, 2017

The Terranauts (by T.C. Boyle)

I loved the concept of this book; loosely based on Biosphere 2, a real experiment in the Arizona desert in the 1990s that I knew almost nothing about. (Like, I think I heard about it when Biodome came out. Not exactly a scientific deep-dive.) And I enjoyed the three narrators, particularly the unreliable and very unlikeable Linda. (My god, Linda is the worst.) But the execution left much to be desired:
  • The science is not detailed enough. I wanted The Martian-level nerdery about the science, and the novel never really delved into any of it that deeply -- it was more of a framework for the soap opera plot, mostly about who was sleeping with whom. Which is fine and all, but: nerdy science!
  • The characters are undeveloped. I mean not to compare it to The Martian again but allow me to compare it to the The Martian again: The Martian does a better job of sketching out its team of astronauts with a far smaller word count.  Plus, all eight of the Terranaut scientists are white, and the one character of color inside or out is (arguably) the villain.  I guess that was true to life but I would rather have read about a more diverse cast with more distinctive personalities. 
  •  The novel opens with Dawn and Linda both desperate to get inside E2, but I never quite understood why. Why were the stakes so high when there was another mission coming along in a couple of years? Why was Linda so psychologically devastated to miss out? I didn't quite get that.  And the motivations of the secondary characters are never explored.
  • The ending feels abrupt -- I would keep reading (gladly) a series that continued on to discuss Mission 3 and Mission 4. Who knows, maybe there are sequels planned. But as it stands, the ending is a bit unsatisfying.
Overall, this review is not a pan: I actually really enjoyed it and found it a page-turner -- I would love to read more! But I felt like a lot of potential was wasted here. I found myself looking for any other books on similar themes that might be, for me, more well-constructed.  Maybe there's a good non-fiction account out there that may scratch that itch.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women (by Ch'oe Sung-Ja, Kim Hyesoon, Yi Yon-ju, trans. Don Mee Choi)

This was one of the harder categories for the Read Harder Challenge: collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.  Based on recommendations on Goodreads I selected this volume of contemporary Korean poetry by women, and I'm glad I did.  It's been a while since I sat down and read a book of poetry cover-to-cover, and these poems churned up emotions around womanhood, depression, suicide (one of the poets ultimately killed herself), motherhood, and more. Here's one I particularly loved:

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Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway's Most Remarkable Songs (by Gerald Nachman)

Ooh, this one was fun -- even when I disagreed with Nachman it was fun. It's set up to discuss various "showstoppers," some of which are arguable.  ("Johnny One-Note"? "Mr. Cellophane"? "Adalaide's Lament" -- and not "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat"?). But it's so fun to read someone discuss each song and each show in depth, even the shows I don't know well. And fun to disagree!

(Sidebar: my most disagreed-with statement was this one: "Shows, let alone solos, rarely create overnight stars on today’s Broadway. Can anyone name the stars from The Lion King, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Newsies, or Matilda?" I mean okay, maybe Andrew Rannells and Sutton Foster and Ben Platt and Cynthia Erivo aren't famous enough to count as stars, and those shows he lists aren't the best examples, but "today's Broadway" still produces plenty of stars. Lea Michele and Jon Groff in Spring Awakening? Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked? Lin-Manuel Miranda for the love of god?!??)

His biases come through loud and clear. He's a huge fan of Rodgers and Hart. He hates all movie musicals. He seems to be biased against every musical made after Rodgers hooked up with Hammerstein, except, inexplicably, Jersey Boys, which he loves and shoehorns into the book despite it being a jukebox musical. This book also has great interviews with everyone from Tommy Tune to Patty LuPone to Stephen Schwartz. (Oh, Wicked. He really lets loose on Wicked, and bashes teenage girls in the process.)  The LuPone one, discussing how she didn't know what the hell Evita was talking about in "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." is a standout.

The editing isn't perfect (some repeated sentences and people introduced twice; some confusion about who Gwen Verdon played in Chicago, some other factual errors) and there isn't an ending at all. He briefly bashes Phantom of the Opera and then it abruptly ends. I would have really enjoyed discussions of Rent and Hamilton (which get brief mentions) and more in-depth discussions of the more contemporary shows, which are the ones I grew up on. But as a Broadway fan, I really enjoyed this. Must be accompanied by YouTube clips of the performances he praises and pans, for full effect.

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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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