Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Top Ten Things I'm Thankful for This Year

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is a Thanksgiving themed freebie. I'm listing 10 things I'm thankful for this year, but they are not necessarily book-related. This is a rare personal post so, um, enjoy it?

This year I'm thankful for:

1. Finally going to Russia. I've been wanting to go for about 20 years and it was amazing. I already want to go back.

2. Getting a dog, maybe. The jury is still out on whether I'm feeling thankful for the dog or regretting my poor life choice, but it's such a huge big deal that it would be weird not to mention on any list of things about my life this year. I haven't posted about the dog because she is incredibly difficult and we weren't sure that we'd be able to keep her. But right now she's away at an intense board and train program and we actually miss her a little. Presumably she'll come back better-behaved and we will all live happily ever after. The end.

Dog with elk antler
3. My job. I've now been there for over 4 years, which for me is nothing short of miraculous, and I still like it. I'm at the exact level of management that I prefer and things are going pretty well.

4. Stitch Fix. It has changed my life. I hate shopping for clothes, and I am so grateful I can pay someone to chose them for me and I don't need to go anywhere or talk to anyone.

5. Plated. I don't really like cooking but I really dislike is the planning. Every weekend when sitting down to plan meals for the week I would ask myself "What have I been eating for the last 20 years?" and just couldn't come up with ideas that were both tasty and easy. The food we've gotten so far has been quite tasty and pretty easy to prepare. (In summary, I heart subscription boxes.) I'm sure we won't do this forever, but I kind of love it for right now.

6. The wisdom and strength to get rid of my to-read list. I am actually considering bringing it back, but if so I will be more responsible with it. It's enough to know that I can do away with it if needed. (I sound like an addict, right? I can stop at any time!)

7. Having a gym really close by. That's the only way I'd ever join one, and I'm very happy to have one that is nearby, cheap, and super friendly. Even if I don't always go consistently.

8. That my community read committee picked Americanah, one of the best books I've read in the past few years. We wanted to pick something on race and I'm so glad it's not some lukewarm written-by-a-white-lady Oprah book (as much as I liked The Invention of Wings.) I'm happy that we picked a modern-day book that tackles race and immigration and is a very well-written story. The decision was a little contentious, but in the end wonderfulness prevailed and I am very excited about our choice!

9. The few people who I actually hang out with and the really great people I work with, plus all the great librarians I have befriended. I have a ton of acquaintances, but few close friends, and I don't go out a whole lot. I am tired and lazy and introverted and just want to read all the time, but somehow I've managed to fill my life with a ton of really awesome people. I suppose I am even grateful for my husband because who else would put up with my desire to just be left alone to read, and do so much of the cooking and, like, all of the dog-walking.

10. Books! They are so good! I even like the ones that are terrible because they are still fun to talk about and make fun of. Sometimes I think there are too many books and that stresses me out, but too many books is a pretty great problem to have.

What are you thankful for this year?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Delicious Foods

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (2015), narrated by the author

The story opens with a teenaged boy named Eddie escaping a farm where he has lived for six years. He's driving a car but has no hands, his stumps bleeding through the makeshift coverings. Eddie has been living and working alongside his mother Darlene at a company called Delicious Foods, where they have basically been held captive since they were hired. Eddie drives to his aunt's house in Minnesota where he becomes the Handyman Without Hands. The story pauses and goes back to the beginning, telling us the whole story about Eddie and Darlene and how they came to be where there are.

Darlene is a crack addict, falling prey to drugs because she was so distraught after her husband's death. Then she fell prey to Delicious out of desperation brought about by being a crack addict. Crack, also called Scotty, is its own character here, narrating some of the chapters. They're told in a rough street voice that is both friendly and funny, narrating Darlene's life as though she is a close friend.

Darlene is college educated, and as I mentioned earlier, only turned to drugs after her husband was killed. She is racked with guilt because he died after going out for Tylenol that she requested though, of course, his death is not her fault. But I find it interesting that the author chose to make her an educated woman who was an upstanding citizen until something tragic turned her into an addict. Is this supposed to make it more ok to become a drug abuser than someone who simply makes a few poor choices? Are we supposed to be more sympathetic to her because of it?

An obvious theme here is modern-day slavery. Delicious Foods is clearly a sketchy business, and they treat their workers horribly. Basically a van goes out and finds really vulnerable people on the street, convinces them to sign a contract for this great job opportunity, and then whisks them away to a farm far enough from civilization that it's hard to leave. The workers are paid very little, and are charged for room and board and every little infraction of the rules possible. There's no way to earn enough to get out of debt with the company, and corporal punishment is common. Also common? Crack. They like their employees to be weak and muddled. I don't know how many of the employees are black (though Eddie and Darlene are) and I'm not certain that the owners are white, but I think they are, so the racial implications are obvious. I am also horrified to think that this could exist in modern America, but I fear it is all too true. (According to the New York Times review, it's based on a real case.)

When I first listened to a sample of the audio, I was hesitant. It's obvious that Hannaham is not a professional narrator. But as I got going, I really came to appreciate how he reads his story. His talent especially shines through as he switches between the third person narration of Eddie's story, and the chapters narrated by crack. Those are in a sort of street dialect that not just anyone can pull off. He really gets the tone just right, which I suppose is one advantage of reading one's own work.

Delicious Foods isn't really the kind of story that you enjoy exactly, because it's really just one bad thing after another happening to these people. It is, however, very well told and you will want to keep reading. The writing style is maybe not for everyone. There's lots of swearing, and lots of the n-word in the dialogue. As I've mentioned some parts are pretty funny, but the overall story is not one that is enjoyable to be immersed in because it's so upsetting. But you will become immersed and not soon forget Eddie or Darlene.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

In which I chat about books I read long ago that have stuck with me, though my recollections might be vague.

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading Stephen King since I was a teenager (in Maine - I think it's required there.) Many years ago when I had a driving commute I began listening to audiobooks and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was one of the first. In the story, a young girl gets lost in the woods with only her radio as a companion. She listens to baseball and thinks about her favorite player, Tom Gordon, while hoping for rescue. Meanwhile she feels like there may be something in the woods with her, something more dangerous than what is found in nature.

This isn't a horror novel, not really. Though Trisha is afraid there's something after her, it could so easily just be her own imagination. I don't even really remember that part of the story. What has stuck with me is Anne Heche's voice as narrator reading about this little girl in the woods being bitten by insects, clutching her radio and listening to baseball games. The story had such a lonely feel and somewhat desperate as Trisha suffered minor irritations like bug bites while knowing there was a real possibility she could die if she stayed lost for too long.

It has been close to 15 years since I listened to this audiobook, but I can still remember listening raptly while clutching my steering wheel and making my way through rush-hour traffic on the highway. It didn't matter how many cars were around me, I felt like I was alone in the scary woods, lost and waiting for rescue. Like much of Stephen King's work, this is very character-driven, creepy, and atmospheric story. If you like King, this is a must-read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Home-Maker

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)

Evangeline Knapp runs a tight ship in her household. She is devoted to keeping house, throws herself into it, and prioritizes it over all house. But she doesn't really enjoy her domestic duties or spending time with her kids; it's more that she likes managing the work. Her husband Lester works at a department store in town, but he isn't interested in his work. Often, he is thinking of poetry when he's supposed to be thinking of numbers. When tragedy strikes, the two find themselves switching roles, and the results are surprising. Or maybe not.

This isn't a particularly complicated or nuanced story, but I really loved reading it. I first heard about it from a post on Shelf Love, and was drawn to the surprisingly modern take on marriage. I was surprised at how modern. At one point Lester Knapp has this epiphany: "Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women's work in the home." Sadly, that idea is just as fresh today as I imagine it was then. Many of the issues in this novel regarding domestic life are still being debated. I don't know if that's a statement about how forward this author is, or how backwards we are today, but I suspect it's a bit of both.

When Lester Knapp is greviously injured - in a possible suicide attempt after being fired - Eva goes to his store to ask for a job to support the family now that her husband cannot work. She doesn't know that just before his accident he was fired and his boss doesn't let on, but he knows that Mrs. Knapp is more interested in the work than her husband ever was. She positively thrives and wants to learn everything she can about her new job, at which she quickly excels. Meanwhile, as soon as Lester is healed from his injuries he takes on many of the domestic duties she despised and finds great satisfaction in them. He has a way with the children, who he has taken the time to finally get to know, and even begins darning socks and cooking. Mysteriously, several family members have suddenly recovered from chronic conditions like eczema and stomach ailments that plagued them for years, and the youngest child leaves behind his serious behavioral issues.

Written in a straight-forward simple style, it retains one of my favorite features of books from that era: dialogue tags. I don't know why current literature is so determined to obfuscate who is speaking, but it drives me bananas. Here, they even include adverbs. One of my favorites was "'He would!' ejaculated Jerome, pregnantly." So quaint! (I swear they weren't all so ridiculous sounding.)

Other charming historical details included how free with information Dr. Merritt was in discussing Lester's condition with everyone in the neighborhood. How ripe with possibilities were stories pre-HIPPA! Similarly, Eva found out as much about her customers as she could (which would make her seem positively stalker-ish today) and would contact them to let them know if the store got something new they would like. What great service!

I really found everything about The Home-Maker delightful, and I'm so glad I happened to stumble across a blog post about it. It's not well-known, and in fact I ended up purchasing a copy because there's only one in my whole library system and I can imagine what sort of condition it's probably in. Sometimes old books make me want to read absolutely nothing except old books.

This was on my list for the TBR Pile Challenge, which I've been grossly neglecting. It's only the eighth one I've read, so obviously I won't be finishing all twelve by the end of the year. In fact, I've rather lost interest in a few of them, but I feel strangely complacent about my failure. Let's see if I end up squeezing in one more from my list before the end of December!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Top Ten Quotes From Books I've Read Recently

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Quotes I Love From Books I've Read In the Past Year Or So. I don't generally keep track of quotes, but occasionally I think of it and will include one in my Goodreads review space or on the blog. I went through the last year or so's worth and, surprisingly, there were enough that it was hard to narrow it down to just ten. For each one I've listed the author and title, with a link to my review.

1. "Everything in the world either is or isn't pandas." - Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy

2. "The world seems to me such a poor and barren place, I can't imagine what a soul would find to live on here." - Sam Savage, It Will End With Us

3. "Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It's completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to give a shit about everything." - Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

4. "Conclusion is simply the place where you tired of thinking." - Dan Chaon, Stay Awake

5. "The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way." - Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

6. "I think we should stop asking people in their 20s what they want to do and start asking them what they don't want to do. Instead of asking students to declare their major we should ask students to list what they will do anything to avoid. It just makes a lot more sense." - Amy Poehler, Yes Please

7. "Being rotten was like being poor, but in your heart. Nothing to be done. You get what you get and you don't get upset." - Rebecca Scherm, Unbecoming

8. "All these years there had been a Tupperware container of bad language sitting off to the side in her head, and now she'd opened it and all those crisp, crunchy words were lovely and fresh, ready to be used." - Liane Moriarty, The Husband's Secret

9. "None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended." - Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

10. "They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?" - Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

As you can see, two of these are from the same book, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Some books are just very quotable!

Do you have any favorite recent book quotes?

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Status of All Things

The Status of All Things by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke (2015)

Social media-obsessed Kate wants her Hawaii wedding to be perfect. But at the rehearsal dinner her fiance Max calls it off, leaving her devastated. When her Facebook statuses start coming true, Kate uses this power to go back in time and try to save her relationship. She knows that Max had fallen for her coworker Courtney, so Kate uses this information to try and sabotage their budding relationship before it starts. Instead, it seems like everything she does just pushes them closer together.

Be warned, there are spoilers ahead because otherwise it's too difficult to describe some of the most important shortcomings of this book. Up front, I'll just tell you that I don't recommend it. Read on to find out why.

This book had such promise from what I gleaned about this from this post. I thought it was going to be all about how we present ourselves online, and how we get so caught up in creating our social media selves that we miss the opportunity to actually live our lives. In reality, it's about someone who is granted a power to control events, except that her power is pretty limited because certain things are just meant to be. She keeps making the same stupid decisions over and over and not learning. Then all at once she figures it out. The end.

Ok, it also is a bit about how she wants her life to be perfect because she keeps comparing herself to her old college roommate who, based on her Facebook posts, has a perfect life. Which is a great theme, but feels secondary. She even has a moment where she notes that during some of the happiest times of her life she didn't post to social media, but she doesn't reflect on this long enough to learn anything from it.

This novel was disappointing in many ways, but I could forgive the two-dimensional characters and awkward dialogue if the story arc flowed a bit more gracefully. However, Kate's path was not simply meandering, she was going in circles like a dog chasing its tail. Several times it was basically spelled out to her that if she and Max aren't meant to be together maybe she should stop trying to force the situation. Each time she was like "Hmm, maybe I'll try this other thing to win Max back." There is a point at which the source of her wishes says "Some things just aren't meant to be fixed" after which Kate decides that she should use her one remaining wish to go farther back in time. I mean, how stupid are you, Kate? No wonder Max dumped you.

I can suspend disbelief enough for sudden granting of wishes, but I can't stand such bone-headed characters and contrived situations. Everything about this book felt stilted and poorly cobbled together. The characters weren't developed, and one of the lessons of the story seems to be that heterosexual men and women can't be just friends with each other. I expected it to be fairly light and fluffy, but this wasn't even very much fun and was annoying at times. There are plenty of light stories about friendship and romance that are far more satisfying.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Welcome to my new blog feature in which I'll chat a bit about books I read long ago. There are so many memorable books I read before I started documenting them all here, and this will give me an opportunity to finally tell you about them. Maybe I'll even unearth old posts about books I wrote about in the early days of my blog that I want to remind you about.

This week I want to talk about The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which I first read way back when I began reading YA books in library school. It's ridiculous that I've never written about it here because I own a copy of it and have read it four times. Four! So far.

The protagonist is Charlie, a high school boy who is recovering from a very rough time and trying to get himself off the sidelines and back into living his life. His English teacher keeps urging him to "participate" and he makes concentrated efforts to do so. He develops friendships with Patrick and Samantha (who he has a huge crush on) and they listen to the Smiths and go to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As Charlie becomes more involved with his friends he is eventually forced to confront the difficult feelings he has been hiding from.

Structured as a series of letters to an anonymous friend, Charlie's voice is what makes this novel special. He is naive and awkward and earnest, and his best qualities are also his faults. For instance, he starts dating a perfectly nice girl but totally screws it up because he likes Sam more and can't help but be honest about that. Reading this book I felt like I really got to know Charlie, and when he talks about driving around with Sam and Patrick listening to music, and how in these moments he feels infinite, it is easy to completely understand what he means.

This is one of the first teen books I read that tackled serious issues without being an "issues" book, and it has really stuck with me. I read it in my 20s after a period in which I went to see Rocky Horror a lot myself, and used to hang out with people in the show, so that part of it was very familiar and relatable. I think anyone who remembers being a teenager and trying to fit in would find something in this book that resonates.

I've heard that the movie was really good, but I have been unable to watch it for fear that it will break the spell. Plus I saw the trailer and that is not how Patrick looked in my head and I cannot get past it. However, there is really no need to see the movie as the book will always be wonderful and I can just read my copy again.

What is the first YA book that really resonated with you? Are there books that you read over and over?