Sunday, February 16, 2020

Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017)

I am on a short story kick the past couple of months. I'm also trying to go back and read the books that have been languishing on my To Read list the longest, which is what made me pick this one up now. Several of my coworkers have read it and raved about it, but somehow I kept putting it off.

There are a total of eight stories in this book, and I'm sorry to admit that I read only seven and a half of them. One is a tediously long list of summaries of (fake?) Law and Order episodes, and it was amusing at first but I've never watched the show so probably am missing a lot of the point and also it went on for far too long. Finally I couldn't stand to read any more so after 35 pages I decided to skip the second half of the story.

Otherwise, the stories were great! They were weird and creepy and I often couldn't tell if something was actually happening or if the person was delusional in some way, but I liked that. Many of them are difficult to describe adequately.

"The Husband Stitch" is the story of a relationship and marriage, and the wife's refusal to explain to her husband why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck. In "Inventory" a woman recounts all her sexual encounters, and after the first few it grew decidedly dark as they all happened against the backdrop of an apocalyptic descent. The main character in "Mothers" has just been handed a baby by her female lover and now has to take care of it...but I'm not sure there is actually a baby. "The Resident" is about a writer attending a residency near where she attended Girl Scout Camp as a kid, and her experiences and the other people there are strange in a way that is hard to describe. It's probably my favorite in the collection, though it's hard to say what it's even about.

Machado's writing is a pleasure to read, and even the story I ultimately didn't like was actually written well, it was just far, far too long. They all have an otherworldly quality to them, yet are still full of sharp, palpable imagery. I'm sorry it took me so long to pick this book up.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Yes No Maybe So

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (2020), narrated by Tiya Sircar and Michael Crouch

Jamie Goldberg's family is very involved in the campaign for their local Senate candidate and Jamie has been happy to volunteer behind the scenes. It's a busy time - in addition to this election, Jamie's sister's bat mitzvah is coming up so there are lots of plans afood for that. Meanwhile, Maya Rehman is having a terrible Ramadan, as her parents have decided to separate and their family trip to Italy has been cancelled. Their lives are getting very complicated and she's having severe transportation issues; but then her parents agree to consider buying her a car, but only if she works on this local Senate campaign. Jamie and Maya end up going door-to-door together, becoming very invested in the political campaign they're working on, and in their new friendship.

There was so much to like about this book! For one thing, the way these teenagers, who weren't old enough to vote, were nonetheless civically engaged. As they learned more about what was at stake in the election, they both approached their canvassing with a new fervor. They learned about a piece of legislation that could prevent Muslim women from wearing hijab while doing everyday activities such as driving, which would adversely affect Maya's mom. Their candidate winning could make all the difference to this legislation. While knocking on doors they had some strange experiences, including meeting a nasty Islamophobic guy.

Speaking of which, I really liked how important a role each of their religions played in the story. For Maya, the story began during Ramadan while she was fasting, which resulted in a couple of awkward exchanges with Jamie when he kept trying to give her food. Also, her family's religion played a big part in how they thought about dating in high school, which came up as she and Jamie realized they were attracted to each other. For Jamie, the story is working up to his sister's bat mitzvah, and also he was subject to an anti-Semitic attack in the form of a sticker put on his car.

I loved the way that Maya and Jamie's relationship developed throughout the book. Maya's best friend was distracted that summer and so Maya turned to Jamie when she needed to talk about her parents' separation. Jamie had a huge crush on Maya from the start but kind of assumed she wouldn't be interested in him. He was so delightfully awkward, and I loved seeing him grow more confident and find his voice. He had dreams of running for office, but worried about the public speaking part, especially since he was filled with such dread about giving the speech at his sister's bat mitzvah.

Becky Albertalli cannot write fast enough for me. I preordered this audiobook and listened to it as soon as I got it, so I have to wait who knows how long for another book. And I really enjoyed Aisha Saeed's book Written in the Stars so I was pleased to see her as co-author. By the way, this book is great on audio, as all of Albertalli's tend to be. Michael Crouch also narrated Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda so I already knew he was an excellent narrator; Tiya Sircar was new to me but also did a great job. This book would be enjoyable anytime, but it is extra relevant during an election year.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Governess Game

The Governess Game (Girls Meets Duke #2) by Tessa Dare (2018)

Alexandra Mountbatten has been on her own for quite a while since her sea captain father died, and she now makes her living setting clocks. But when she loses the instruments of her trade, desperation drives her to take a job as a governess for Chase Reynaud and his two orphan charges. Many a governess has passed through their house and Chase is ready to send the kids off to boarding school far, far away. He can't be bothered to deal with them himself; he's too busy seducing every female in the greater London area. That is, until he can't take his eyes off Alexandra.

Alexandra was a great heroine, with her interest interest in science, especially comets, and her friendship with other smart, single women. Before moving into Chase's house to take care of the two little monster girls, she lived with two of her best friends, who were both fairly eccentric single women. I also like that when Chase finally decides he's in love with her and asks her to marry him, she's like "Meh, it seems like staying single might be better?"

Chase is her employer, which I find a bit distressing (as do her friends.) The power unbalance, especially when so much is riding on her employment, is something we'd never tolerate in a contemporary novel. Chase is also a rogue, a character type I don't especially like. This is one of those situations with a sexually experienced man and a virgin heroine and I'm kind of sick of that whole setup. But despite that, I did really like both of them.

I'm also not a big fan of plot moppets, but although the little girls were just a way to help get Chase and Alex together, I thought Tessa Dare did a good job of making their story, and their relationships with both Chase and Alex, interesting. Alex knew what it was like to be unwanted, to be sent off to school, and to not know what the future brings. She was able to relate to these girls because she knew where they were coming from. She also abandoned thoughts of making them into proper young ladies and started teaching them piracy instead, channeling their natural interests to trick them into learning. Chase insisted he didn't care for the girls but every morning when they announced that their doll Millicent was dead (yet again) from consumption or dropsy or whatever illness Daisy was currently fixated on, he was right there at the funeral.

All in all, I found it to be a pretty well-crafted romance. Maybe not a favorite, but it was exactly what I felt like reading at the time and it was definitely satisfying.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Olive, Again

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (2019)

Olive Kitteridge is back in another set of connected stories that feels like a novel. We meet a slew of interesting characters as Olive finds love and marries for the second time, and the book takes us at least ten years beyond that. We see Olive get into her eighties and decline a bit, but she's not too old to make new friends and to maintain her straightforward, slightly abrasive personality.

It's been a while since I read the first book, but I think she stars in more stories in this one. There were still a few focused on other characters in which she only made a passing appearance, but she maintained a pretty strong presence. Somehow she felt more likable from the beginning of this book, but that may just be because I already got to know her and I know she's not the mean old lady some people find her to be. She doesn't have a great relationship with her son or his wife, so she hasn't even met her grandchildren at the start of the book. But they do end up having a family visit, a struggle that is eventually worth it.

I was pleased to see Olive begin a friendship with a man which turned into a marriage. We get so few stories of older people having relationships, and I like the reminder that romance doesn't have to stop past a certain age. I also enjoyed her new friendship with Isabelle (who we first met in the novel Amy and Isabelle.)

One of the things that so endears me to Olive is that despite coming across as aloof and even unkind, she speaks up on behalf of others. For instance, she had a rotating schedule of home health aides, and the first day that Betty arrived and Olive noticed that her truck had a bumper sticker promoting "that horrible orange-haired man" who is president, Olive told her immediately that they would not discuss politics. One day when Betty was relieved from her shift by a Somalian woman and was rude to her, Olive gave her a very firm talking-to about how she wouldn't have prejudice in her house.

It could have been depressing to see Olive get older, deal with health issues, and lose people she loved. But somehow it didn't. Perhaps because Olive herself didn't want sympathy; she knows that's just the direction life goes. I really enjoyed revisiting Olive and seeing that she isn't letting old age get her down.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Nature Fix

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams (2017)

I first heard about The Nature Fix on the By the Book podcast, which you probably should be listening to if you aren't already. The two hosts live by self-help books for two weeks and then talk about it and have follow-up episodes where they share feedback from listeners. The Nature Fix is by no means a self-help book and now it's been so long since I listened to that episode that I don't remember how they managed to frame it into one, but it was a great episode about getting outside more and encouraged me to pick up this book.

It's arranged in five parts. Part one introduces the two dominant theories about why our brains benefit from nature; the author visits Japan and goes forest bathing, and then spends time in a Utah desert. The next three parts focus on the effects of spending different lengths of time experiencing nature. Part two examines short bursts of nature, like having forest views from your windows, using nature smells in aromatherapy, and listening to nature sounds. Part three focuses on the Finnish recommendation of spending five hours a month and how that affects your body and brain. In part four, she looks at longer forays into the wilderness through some pretty interesting initiatives such as an outdoor school for kids with problems like ADHD and a program that helps veterans with PTSD by taking them on several-day long whitewater rafting trips. In the final part, she examines what all of this means for how most people live, which is in cities, and how we might benefit from letting more nature in.

I am already totally on board with the ideas in this book. Even before reading it, I've been trying to take walks on my lunch break a few times a week (it's winter, but it's a really mild winter!) and I have vague plans to go snowshoeing, if we ever actually have snow. I might go hiking in a couple of weeks. I go camping every summer already. So I'm absolutely the audience for this book and Florence Williams is really preaching to the choir here. But since I listened to that podcast episode I've definitely been thinking about this more, and wondering how certain things affect me, for example, that I live next to a highway. I know that the longer I live here, the more chance I have of developing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases (I was even in a Boston Globe article about this. Yay me.) But now I'm also worried about the effects of listening to traffic constantly. So hooray - now I have even more things to worry about!

I found it disturbing to think about all this in the context of the way we now normally live our lives. Williams shared a lot of scary statistics about kids and illness and vitamin D deficiency and teen suicide and anxiety and depression. Kids stay inside so much these days that rickets, a disease that was once virtually eradicated (and which is caused by lack of vitamin D) has had an upsurge in both the US and UK. It's crazy to think that these issues could be dealt with by simply spending more time outdoors but that we'd rather just medicate everyone. For all our sakes, I really hope the solutions that Williams presents start to catch on.

There were other, more random, interesting bits as well. I was amused by an Oscar Wilde quote that I haven't heard before; he defined nature as "a place where birds fly around uncooked." I was also really intrigued by learning that in Finland the law allows you to traipse all over everyone else's land, pick their berries, and camp out (you can't cut timber or hunt game.) I bet a lot of Americans would be absolutely horrified to hear that, but I think it's kind of nice. Also, Thoreau bloviated about how in order to "preserve his health and spirits" he had to spend at least four hours a day just outside walking, "absolutely free from all worldly engagements" and if that's not privilege, I don't know what is.

Having said all that, and being totally on board with the ideas in this book, this is going to sound kind of strange, but I didn't actually love reading it. I did really like all the stories about the outside trips and forest bathing, and everything that took place somewhere outside of the US, but the science itself didn't really interest me a ton. I may also have really not been in the mood to read nonfiction at the time, which isn't the book's fault. So I guess I can sum it up by saying that I like the book but I love the ideas and it all reinforces something I already believe.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Seep

The Seep by Chana Porter (2020)

When the aliens come, it is in the form of an amorphous substance that makes people kind of high. It also can cure illness and transform things into other things. People don't really die anymore. For some reason there is also no longer money; everyone has a credit stick they use and they all have unlimited credit (which begs the question of why they need to go through the motion at all.) The Seep is so pervasive in society that the small sector who live without it are treated like some kind of a cult.

Trina isn't as into the Seep as some people are, but she also doesn't necessarily want to free herself from it entirely. She used to be an artist but is now a doctor and she sees how important the Seep is to medicine now. But her wife, Deeba, embraces it in a way Trina never will. Deeba decides she wants to be reborn as a baby and live a new life in Europe, a thing you can do now, and Trina is devastated by this. Most of the book is about how she handles this decision and how she lives once Deeba is gone (it primarily involves alcohol).

This whole book is 200 pages and it's a very quick 200 pages. I read half of it one evening after work and finished it on my lunch break the next day. (Normally I can't read more than 20-30 pages on my lunch break.) I'm always happy to read a nice short book but this one....part of me thinks it could have benefited from being fleshed out more, but the other part of me thinks that maybe I just don't like this author's writing. I liked the premise, love the cover, and I like that the main character is transgender but that it's not the point of the story and barely came up at all. The writing style was surreal, which I sometimes like, but a lot about this story and and the style in which it was told just wasn't for me. I couldn't really get into the characters, and I struggled with how little was really explained. We're supposed to just take everything at face value without understanding what the Seep is and how it has caused society to change in these particular ways.

This book had a very intriguing premise, but was ultimately disappointing. I didn't hate reading it, but it just didn't do a lot for me. And now that I've reread the Goodreads description I see that they recommend it for fans of Jeff VanderMeer and Carmen Maria Machado, two authors I'm planning to read very soon but now am suddenly less excited about. For me this book was just okay, but there are some positive reviews out there so you might feel differently.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Nicholas and Alexandra

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie (1967)

Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia before the revolution, and in this classic book by Robert K. Massie, he tells the strange and dramatic story of this last generation of the Romanov family and their downfall. Nicholas and Alexandra had five children, the youngest of whom, being male, was the heir to the throne. He suffered from hemophilia (inherited from his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria) so his family was extremely protective of him. Part of that was a close relationship that developed between the family and Rasputin, who they believed to be a holy man who performed miracles of health on their sick son. But this relationship with Rasputin only exacerbated the growing distrust of the royal family by the public, feeding the flames of the revolution to come until the government was dissolved, Nicholas forced to abdicate, and the entire family was murdered in a cellar in 1918. Spoiler alert.

This is a detailed account that took me more than two weeks to read and I'm not gonna lie - it was a little tough to get through. All of the parts that focused on the family and their domestic life and their friendships with Anna Vyrubova and Rasputin were easy to read, but there's necessarily a lot of politics and details about World War I and that was harder. It was also difficult to keep track of all the different people involved in the government, especially since some of them had similar names. So in this way it wasn't quite as compelling as Massie's Catherine the Great, which I read a little over a year ago. But still, it was quite a story!

What really stands out from all the drama of the last Romanovs is, of course, Rasputin. A peasant who passed himself off as a holy man, he was this unwashed weirdo who would just go up to women and start unbuttoning their clothes. Many women had affairs with him, but he was also accused of attempted rape many times. (The police did not take action.) Despite his known drunken and violent tendencies, he presented a completely different character to the royal family and the Alexandra specifically was very devoted to him. When World War I began and Nicholas was away at the front, she handled some government affairs, always on the advice of Rasputin. He earned her trust when Alexei was sick and seemed to get better with Rasputin at his side. There were a number of times when he seemed to have this effect or when his predictions appeared to come true.

I'm not certain how Massie determined the truth of Rasputin's predictions. I looked in the back of the book at the citations for one instance, and it was from the account of Anna Vyrubova, herself a very loyal friend of Rasputin and hardly an unbiased observer. Perhaps it's true that certain prophecies of his did come to pass, but I have to wonder how many prophecies he made all together. If he made 1000 prophecies and we're only talking about the 10 that came true, those can probably be chalked up to coincidence. But I don't have the information to really know. However, what seems certain is that Rasputin was one creepy dude and the fact that he had to be poisoned, shot several times, AND drowned before he actually died only adds to his creepiness. It was also clear that he was manipulative, as one of his prophecies to the Empress was "If I die or you desert me, you will lose your son and your crown within six months." No wonder she kept him around. (This particular prophecy came true, too.)

As for the family itself, I mostly felt bad for them. They were born into this life (or in Alexandra's case, married into it) and Nicholas was not a terrible ruler. He did the best he could. Of course the children were all just victims. When they were murdered the oldest daughter was twenty-two and Alexei was not quite fourteen. Despite being born into wealth he had a very hard life. He wasn't allowed to run and play the way other kids were (he always forbidden to ride a bike, which he really wanted to do) because of the risk of injury. And when he did manage to hurt himself, he'd be in bed in terrible pain for days at a time, or even weeks. Even though I knew how their lives ended, as I was reading I kept hoping they'd escape and leave Russia to start a new life. None of them were bad people. Alexandra was the worst, and she was more misguided than actually a bad person.

All in all, it seemed a very thorough account of a significant family and period in history. The only thing that really bugged me was how all the names were westernized. Alexei was referred to as Alexis, for example, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was called Kaiser William which really confused me for a while. I had to look up "Kaiser William" to see if that was a person. I'm guessing this must have just been a convention at the time this book was written.

As I said, I didn't love this one as much as Catherine the Great, but it was still quite good. I had already read The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, which was excellent but it was written for teens and was much shorter. Now having read Nicholas and Alexander, it only affirms my opinion of what a good job Fleming did in condensing the story down into a shorter book, but of course there was a lot that was left out. (I just knew there was more to Rasputin's sketchy character than she told us about, for example.) It's altogether a fascinating story, and Robert K. Massie told it well.