Monday, June 18, 2018

The Outsider

The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)

A child is horribly murdered and mutilated, and all evidence on the scene points to an unlikely suspect - local Little League coach and all-around great guy Terry Maitland. However, Maitland also has an air-tight alibi. He was out of town with several of his teacher colleagues at a conference and was even caught on film at right around the time the child was killed. But how can you argue with DNA evidence? Detective Ralph Anderson and his colleagues don't think you can, but after arresting Maitland publicly and learning of his alibi, he has a lot to answer for. This is just the beginning of Stephen King's newest novel, which goes on for over 500 pages and ends up somewhere unexpected.

Somehow, I thought this book was more of a crime/mystery novel than traditional Stephen King fare. It's definitely about a crime, but things got pretty weird quickly. Without giving too much away (because everything I describe above happens very early) I will mention that the story brings in some elements inspired by folklore which can, of course, be incredibly creepy and I like how it was used here. There was also a real-life tragic event that happened in the past at a tourist attraction which also lent quite a creepy feeling to the story.

If you've read King's Bill Hodges trilogy you'll recognize one character, Holly Gibney, who is intriguing enough in her own right to make me want to finally pick those books up. As always, King seems to pull his characters out of real life, each one fully-formed and multi-dimensional as people you see every day. I don't know how he does this. They're all imperfect - some more than others - and watching Ralph Anderson grapple to explain something inexplicable, or Marcy Maitland try to reconcile her husband with the horrible person who committed a violent crime was satisfying, but familiar to anyone who's read Stephen King before.

The Outsider is pretty long, and I spent a full week and a half reading it, but it was well worth the ride. I can't exactly say I enjoyed it, as so much of it made me feel rather uncomfortable and a bit icky, but it was so well crafted and satisfying and I definitely liked spending time with these characters as they tried to unravel this strange mystery.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Long Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (2017)

Long Way Down is a novel in verse about a teenager named Will whose older brother was just shot and killed. Will has been taught the rules since a young age: no crying, no snitching, get revenge. So he finds his brother's gun and sets out to get revenge on the person he's sure is responsible for his brother's murder. He gets in the elevator and starts down. On every floor, another person gets on - a person who is dead and who tells Will another part of the interconnected story leading up to this moment.

It was a very quick read, though you do get a lot of story. At least enough to know that Will is learning a lot about where and how things can go very wrong when you follow these rules he's been given. It's clear that following them will only lead to more violence and death. It's also clear that he doesn't even know for sure who killed his brother, even though he feels sure about it.

I keep hearing in my head what my former Teen Librarian from a couple of years ago would say every time she read something about a black kid that involved the inner city and violence. She got very frustrated that the only black kids represented in teen lit lived in the inner city, came from broken homes, were involved in gangs, etc. So I do keep thinking about that. However, that's taking a broad view of teen books which, while important, isn't the whole story. This book itself is undoubtedly good. It's popular and has won awards. It really packs a punch. It says a lot with relatively few words.

At the same time, this sparseness of words is what I think kept me from getting into this story as much as I would have liked. I think I just don't love the novel-in-verse format. I know I loved The Good Braider, but that used a slightly different style of verse that was a little denser. Here, there really were just a smattering of words on each page. They were well-chosen words, but for me, I just like more of them, if that makes sense.

As a side note, I've heard that the audio version of this book, which Reynolds narrates, is fantastic. I considered that format, but it's only about an hour and a half long and I was looking for something to fill more hours of my commute.

This is the second book by Jason Reynolds that I've read (after Ghost, which I liked more) and I think I'll probably read more of his books. I'm especially interested in The Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017)


A newly-retired professor in Berlin is faced with empty, unstructured days. Not long into his retirement, Richard learns that a group of African refugees are demonstrating in Alexanderplatz. He becomes curious and goes to visit them, becoming very invested in their lives as he continues to learn their stories and educate himself about their home countries and the situation they are now in.

They came from different countries in Africa, all by way of Libya. From there they made it to Italy and were there for a while before ending up in Germany. This complicated route also complicated their legal status, so although they all wanted to find work and start their new lives, they were instead relegated to temporary shelters where they need to wait for their cases to be processed. Richard stuck with them as they were moved to a different facility, and tried to help them with their cases as much as possible.

There was so much to like about this book. Richard's quiet, routine life. The way he was drawn slowly into the lives of these men just because he didn't have much to do and his curiosity was piqued. There was a point at which I was afraid he was just being nosy or a half-hearted do-gooder white person, but he really cared and he took steps to try and help, with little regard for his own comfort and convenience. He really was a decent human being who wanted other human beings to have the lives they deserved.

I loved how closely he listened to the stories the refugees told him, and how he started spending time learning everything he could about their countries and their situations. He really thought about what they were going through, and what it must be like to be in their situations. It spilled over into his private life, of course, through conversations with various friends. Some also took up the cause, while others were less empathetic.

He's not perfect. He had a lover, even while his wife was alive, and he doesn't feel bad about it. Even as he visits the refugees, he becomes attracted to the Ethiopian woman who is teaching them German, and tries to maneuver opportunities to talk to her. But his heart is in the right place, and he's a humble man who is willing to admit what he doesn't know and tries to learn as much as he can in order to be a better person.

The writing was lovely, which I always feel strange commenting on when the book has been translated because I don't know how faithful it is to the original. But much of the pleasure of this book is how it's written. Here's a passage I like:

"He walks past the vacant lot where until recently a large villa stood with bay windows, a glassed-in veranda, and carved wooden ornaments, but now there's nothing but pallid sand waiting for the new construction to begin-- there's no better way to make history disappear than to unleash money, money roaming free has a worse bite than an attack dog, it can effortlessly bite an entire building out of existence, Richard thinks."

Through it all is another small thread, in which a man drowned in the lake near Richard's house last summer and the body has not yet been recovered. Nobody will swim there, except tourists who don't know better, and Richard thinks about it now and then throughout the book. It's just a little thing in the background, but it somehow added to the overall feeling of the story. Similarly, Richard often hearkens back to the days when Berlin was divided by a wall and he lived in the East. Borders are important in this story.

This isn't a fast-paced novel by any means and there's not a lot of action. It's literary to be sure (even though I'm not certain exactly what that means.) It's quiet and introspective and rather beautiful. Of course it's also timely, with today's divisive conversations about immigration and who should be living where, and what reasons are good enough to seek asylum in another country. It hasn't garnered a lot of attention - I hadn't even heard of it until I received it as a gift - but it absolutely deserves to be widely read.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Girl is Trouble

The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Miller Haines (2012), narrated by Rachel Botchan

I recently re-read The Girl is Murder for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group, and it spurred me to finally listen to the follow-up. In the first book, Iris and her dad had recently moved to the Lower East Side. He was injured at Pearl Harbor and her mother committed suicide, and now Iris had to leave her private school and nice neighborhood and live with a father she barely knew in modest accommodations while attending a new public school. He's a private investigator and she started helping him on cases, which he wasn't crazy about, and specifically one case involving a missing boy from Iris's school.

But now, we're getting back to Iris's mother's death. In the last book Iris heard a rumor that her mother had been having an affair, which maybe factored into her suicide. Now it looks like maybe it wasn't suicide at all. Meanwhile at school, someone has been putting anti-Semitic notes in the lockers of Jewish students, and Iris has been asked to investigate. It's World War II after all, and there are Nazi sympathizers even in the U.S. Although Iris herself is Jewish, she had felt relatively untouched by these sentiments though she was aware of Hitler and his ideas.

Iris and her friend Pearl have a conversation in which Iris mentions suspecting someone of being behind the notes, but says she can't believe it about them but if they did it they must have a good reason. Pearl says something very insightful to her. She says that even if it's her best friend she can't excuse them for it, because that's what leads to situations like in Europe. You need to speak up when someone does something wrong even if you like the person. It doesn't matter if they're a good person otherwise. The Nazis came to power in Europe because of otherwise good people being excused for bad behavior. I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it and it was a very powerful moment in this story, and also true. It's a valuable lesson for all of us, not just Iris.

There's so much more about this I found fascinating and relevant to any time where there's a rise in hatred towards certain groups of people and society is divisive in response. It gets very morally questionable in a way that I found kind of fascinating. It could lead to some great discussions, I think!

All the while, Iris is trying to chase down the person who she thinks murdered her mother, while ascertaining how much her father knows, and trying to figure out how her uncle Adam fits in. Plus, she's pretty sure her dad is hiding something from her and lying about where he's spending his time. She's also seeing a boy named Benny, who she became interested in during the first book, despite the fact that he insists on calling her Nancy Drew. (Ugh, boys and their stupid nicknames.)

As much as I liked the first book, I think this one was even better. Everything about the anti-Semitic notes at school, and the mysteries surrounding her mother was just SO interesting when you start finding out the secrets. Although it's a sequel and I do recommend the first book, I think this one can stand on its own. They were both great on audio too!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

April/May Wrap-Up and Plans for June



Oh my gosh, I completely missed the April wrap-up! A few days into May I realized I didn't do it and at that point it felt too overwhelming to do all at once so suddenly. I usually start it in the middle of the month and work on it a bit here and there until I can finalize it at the end of the month. ANYWAY. Here's two months of my life at one time!

Reading

I read some hot new books: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. And in the not-as-popular as it should be category was the new Peter Swanson book All the Beautiful Lies. And a hot-off-the-press nonfiction book that I highly recommend, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. This is probably why I forgot to do my monthly wrap-up - all these amazing books I was reading!

My April read for my TBR Pile Challenge was The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. It was actually an alternate, but it was what I was in the mood to read. In May, I've tackled A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

I've handed off my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group to our new librarian after the May meeting, so now I'm completely free of assigned reading for the foreseeable future. I'm sure I'll do something silly like sign up for a mid-year reading challenge or start another book group or something, but in the meantime I'm going to enjoy reading whatever I want to read in the moment (aside from my TBR Pile Challenge Books, but I did pick all of those myself.)

Listening

Notable audiobooks I listened to were The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley, which I bought on sale from Audible and then totally forgot about about for several months, and the new Alissa Nutting novel, Made For Love.

I saw Pink perform in early April, which was amazing, especially since we had crazy good seats like I've never had at this kind of show before. A couple of weeks later I went to see George Ezra. He's always fun to see perform live!

I've also been listening to the new Janelle Monae album, Dirty Computer, and will be seeing her perform in July. I never used to even listen to her and then I saw her open for Prince, and wow, she's an amazing performer. I'm very excited to see her again!

Watching


I'm watching the second season of The Handmaid's Tale, which is very good but also traumatic. Honestly, I know they've renewed for season 3 but I hope that's it because I'd like to think this situation comes to a happy end before too long.

Speaking of unhappy stories, I also watched the second season of A Series of Unfortunate Events and enjoyed it a whole lot! There will be another season, I imagine, because there are 4 more books, but I don't know if it will follow the book trajectory and end there, or continue.

The only movie I've gone to see recently is Black Panther, which, if you're only going to see one movie in a stupidly long period of time, this is definitely the one to see. I don't really like superhero movies - they're so samey and cliche and sexist - but this one really knocked it out of the park. Even if you don't compare it to the low bar of superhero movies, but movies in general, it's really good!

Knitting

I finished a sleeve and started another. I'm so slow! Also, sleeves are boring! At this point I definitely won't be wearing it until fall which makes it even harder to motivate myself. But I'm trying to tell myself that when I finish this I can start on some socks which a) I need, and b) will be a nice summer project to take on the bus with me.

Cooking

Delicious scones!
I think I've gotten bread out of my system, at least for now. I made Whole Wheat Quinoa Bread from America's Test Kitchen's Bread Illustrated a couple of times in April and by the second time it came out quite well. I made Anadema bread, from the same cookbook, for the second time in May and it came out very well also. So now I think I can move on. Plus, it's hard to use up the fresh bread before it goes stale unless I eat it all right out of the oven, which is tempting but probably not a great idea. Oh! I also made Quick Cheese Bread from Bread Illustrated, which was pretty delicious - I've never made a savory quick bread before. I made that again in late May for a goodbye party for someone at work. So delicious and unhealthy.

All that bread baking meant that I hadn't gotten around to trying to make scones, which I had been wanting to do for a while. In May I finally did so and was very happy with the result. They were the Cream Scones from America's Test Kitchen Cooking school. I had only tried scones once before, years ago, and they didn't turn out well at all so this felt like a huge success.

Chickpea Shwarma Flatbread from
Pretty Simple Cooking
In April I hosted the Cookbook Club and Potluck at my library. We cooked from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, and I made a simple dessert of pears poached in white wine and cardamom.

I recently checked out a cookbook called Pretty Simple Cooking, about which I was skeptical, but I tried three different recipes and they all turned out well. And they were fairly simple, as promised. I copied those recipes from the book before returning it in case I want to make those dishes again.

Doing

In early April I took some days off to go visit my aunt in CT with my niece, and we went into New York for the day, which was fun. Then my niece and I came back to MA and we saw the Pink concert. It was a great trip!

As part of my season tickets to the American Repertory Theater, I saw Jagged Little Pill which is a musical created by Diablo Cody based on the Alanis Morissette album. It wasn't quite what I expected, but it was a great show! I can't imagine how difficult it must be to come up with a story to go along with an album of songs that have already been written.

Obligatory dog photo. Action shot!
I've been running more, sometimes with the dog. She does...ok? But the problem really is when we encounter other dogs and she completely loses her shit. And when the weather is nice, ALL the dogs come out to play.

What else? I almost stopped blogging. I felt overwhelmed with keeping up with everything, and also I feel bad that I never change the look of my blog, but I HATE all the technical finagling that's involved and it's always more time-consuming than you think it will be. I didn't post anything for a couple of weeks and it felt very liberating but then I panicked because I really depend on all my blog posts to remind me about books I read and what I thought of them.

Work has been...a lot. A couple of people left so we need to hire replacements, and also I got approved for a new full-time person in my department - a position I've been trying to get back since I lost it in late 2013, so this is a huge success! But it means that I'll be spending most of my summer interviewing, and I used to love hiring people but now it's not as fun anymore. I mean, it turns out well - we've got some great people on our staff - but it's just so hard to tell from resumes and interviews what someone will be like to work with.

Plans for June

I'm throwing myself a birthday party because why not? I haven't done so in ages, and I'm turning 45 which seems kind of numerically significant. We're also going camping later in the month for the first time since we got a dog and we're taking her with us. We bought a larger tent and everything. Worst-case scenario she's horrible and won't stop barking and nobody gets any sleep so we call it quits after one night. We're not going very far away and it's only $17/night so we'd only be out $17 for the second night. It's worth trying!

How was your April and May?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)

Well, I kind of regretted putting this on my list for the TBR Pile Challenge, but all the same I was determined to finish it once I started. It's a condensed history of everything, but everything in the sense of what exists rather than events: space, the earth, life. Chapters focus on topics such as the solar system, measuring the earth, cells, plate tectonics, DNA, and extinct animals. The subject matter is vast and specific at the same time, and all explored with Bryson's trademark wit and conversational style.

It is often, but not always, about the how. For instance, there's a whole chapter about the history of attempts to measure the size of the Earth and how it was done and the scientists who did it. On the other hand, it tells us what the Earth's mantle is made of but doesn't tell us how that was discovered, though it does say we've never dug down that far. Sometimes we learn a lot about the scientists and how they went about their discoveries, yet learn little of what they discovered. I wish the book was one or the other - the history of scientific discovery or the actual content - but instead it's sort of an inconsistent hodgepodge. In a way I liked it, since the more academic scientific parts were broken up by stories about people, but the overall effect was uneven. Rather than a blend of the content and how we know it, it was more a patchwork of the two with a lot left out.

Bryson covered so much it is really crammed in there, and I fear that little of it will actually stick with me. Just as I was gaining an understanding of one thing, it moved on to something else. A better way to read this would probably be to do so very slowly, putting it down to research things a little more elsewhere before moving on to the next chapter. But if you know anything about me it's that I don't have patience for that sort of thing.

Definitely not the sort of patience displayed by scientists who spend the better part of their career studying, say, slime molds. I was struck by how dedicated some of these people were to learning everything about their little corner of the world. If only I could be so focused on one thing. Another thing I can't help but notice whenever I read about great people of the past is how much leisure time they apparently had to pursue their interests. It seems that quite a number of these men (for the majority were men) had independent means to support them while they caroused about looking at mosses and shooting birds into extinction in order to study them.

It was a little under 500 pages, which is pretty doable but still kind of a slog. I definitely enjoyed it in parts and feel more interested in someday reading some more focused books about the natural world. For now, though, I'm really looking forward to reading a novel.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor (2018)

The Night Masquerade concludes the imaginative Afrocentric science fiction trilogy which began with Binti and continued with Binti: Home.

In this third and final volume, Binti is away from her family's home when the village is attacked by the Khoush, a people with  a long-standing rivalry with the Meduse. She rushes home but it is too late. Now Binti must try to prevent the situation from escalating into war.

This story contains many surprising and creative elements, just as the first two did. Binti continues to evolve as a character - not just emotionally, but physically, as she becomes part of many different kinds of people. In the first book she became part Meduse, and in the second she discovered and awakened her powers as one of the Enyi Zinariya. Now, after an act of violence she becomes one with yet another life form. We are transported from her family's village through the rings of Saturn, as Binti tries to save her people from destruction.

This was the longest book in the trilogy, and although the story continued to be very creative and full of surprises, I had a harder time getting into it than the first two books. In the beginning of the series it was all strange and new, and I think now a lot of the basics have already been introduced so it's harder to sustain the novelty, even though there were some new elements that appeared here. Although it didn't pull me in the way the first two books did, I still liked watching Binti develop as a character and, honestly, just wanted the girl to get a break. She's been through a lot.

Okorafor has written a number of other books, and I'm especially intrigued by her teen book Akata Witch and its follow-up Akata Warrior (I'm not sure if there are more coming in that series) so I may check those out sometime. If you're looking for something out of the ordinary, I highly recommend checking out this author.