Thursday, October 19, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (2017)

It feels like it's been about a decade since John Green's last novel, and for a while there I didn't think he'd write another one. But finally the happy day has arrived! And passed, because I read the book in about two days and now I'm in the same position of being caught up on his books and having who-knows-how-long to wait for another. Possibly for all of eternity. ANYWAY.

The premise of the story is that a billionaire went missing overnight to escape indictment, and there's a very large reward being offered for information on his whereabouts. Sixteen-year-old Aza has taken notice of this situation - or rather her best friend Daisy has - because it so happens that Aza used to be close with the billionaire's son, Davis. Daisy persuades Aza to take the opportunity to rekindle their old friendship and Aza does. Davis sees right through it, but it doesn't actually matter because as it turns out he and Aza hit it off quite well.

But what makes this all so much more interesting is that Aza suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It really screws with her life. She gets into these thought spirals and can't escape and can't participate in what's going on around her while it's happening. She has a cut on her finger that she keeps re-opening and is convinced she's going to die of a bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile or C. diff, which can be fatal. We have access to her thoughts, her conversations about this with her mother and Daisy, and her therapy appointments. I don't think I've read anything about mental illness that put me as a reader quite this effectively into the character's thought processes. It was scary, and I just felt so bad for her because the main issue is that she can't control her thoughts and, I mean, who can? Most of us are just lucky that our thoughts aren't quite like this. It's no secret that John Green has OCD himself, which explains why he has such good insight into this. It must have been painful to write.

I loved Davis and his younger brother Noah. They really were rich beyond rich, but they seemed to realize that their life wasn't exactly normal. Their house had a movie theater and a pool. They had a full staff including a house manager, who was basically their stand-in parent while their father was missing. It was so sad because nobody seemed to appreciate that they needed someone to take care of them. Their mother was already dead, and Davis was old enough that he and Noah could be on their own and just needed a legal guardian, who I think might have been the house manager. But Noah was not dealing well at all with the situation. Davis wasn't crazy about his dad anyway, but Noah really missed him. Aza was the only one who seemed to understand and to empathize with him.

I haven't even mentioned the tuatara. Their father's will left everything to a pet a tuatara. You know, as you do.

Anyhow, if you like John Green I don't even have to tell you to read this. In my opinion it's not, like, TFIOS-level awesome, but it's still a book by John Green which makes it better than the majority of books out there. I really enjoyed the time I spent with it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Binti

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)

As you may know, Nnedi Okorafor is a hot new science fiction author. Every time I turn around someone is recommending one of her books, either at work in the library or on one of the many book blogs that I read. I've been wanting to read her since I saw one of her books listed on For Harriet's books by black women that everyone must read, which I used for a display last January. Finally I requested a copy of her novella, Binti, which is hard to come by since it is pretty much always checked out.

Binti is the first of the Himba people to be offered a place at the elite Oomza University, and her family would not have approved, but it's an opportunity she can't turn down. So she leaves home secretly at night to travel to another planet. Aboard the ship she stands out, with her clay-covered skin that is the hallmark of her tribe, but she quickly makes friends. But just days before arriving at their destination the ship is infiltrated by a deadly enemy.

This is one of the most creative stories I've read, and I can't even compare it to any other scifi I know of. I loved some of the details of this story - for instance, Binti was essentially traveling through space in a giant shrimp. A shrimp! That was their ship! And I don't mean that the ship was made to look like a shrimp - I mean that it was an actual living creature and they were all inside it. WHAT. Also, Binti was super into math in a way that I barely comprehended, but that was one of her special gifts. Her people were very talented with technology, but she went beyond what was usual. She was considered a harmonizer, which had something to do with the way she understood and communicated with circuits and currents. The enemies that board the ship were also fascinating: jellyfish-like creatures called the Meduse who wreak havoc but are strangely unable to harm Binti.

I always appreciate books that are character-driven, and it makes it immensely happy to find character-driven science fiction. This was all about Binti and her experiences, hopes, and fears. As I mentioned it's a novella, but even at 90 pages there was a lot going on and a great deal of world-building. This is a planned trilogy, with the third installment due in January. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Ghost

Ghost by Jason Reynolds (2016), narrated by Guy Lockard

Castle Cranshaw - self-nicknamed Ghost - knows how to run. He's been running fast since he was a kid trying to outrun a bullet. But track has never been his thing, until one day he impulsively shows up a practice and challenges one of the best runners there. The coach takes ghost under his wing and adds him to the team. But it's a challenge. Not the running - that part's easy. What Ghost keeps getting stuck on is the part where he needs to stay out of fights, plus he doesn't have the right gear for running track and the only way he knows how to get it might get him in even more trouble.

Middle-grade fiction has never really been my thing, but I keep hearing about Jason Reynolds and this book in particular recently (partly because a book group at work is reading it) so I downloaded the audio which was a nice short listen between some of my longer audiobooks.

I enjoyed this story way more than I thought I would. Ghost is really a great kid, and Reynolds captures all the difficulties of growing up with it's myriad pressures and few solutions available to kids. Ghost is really doing the best he has with what he has, which isn't much. His father is in jail for trying to shoot Ghost and his mother, and now his mom is working her butt off to take care of him. She works in the cafeteria at a hospital and she's taking classes to be a nurse. Every time she appears in the story she is exhausted, and it's not hard to see why. She's a pretty amazing, strong woman and I think Ghost sees this too.

He's not over what happened when he was so young, but he's never really talked about it. Only when he joins the track team does he have a real support system of peers who help each other out and understand what their friends have been through. This camaraderie is due in no small part to their fantastic coach, a former Olympic medalist who doesn't like to talk about his past but obviously cares more about the kids on his team than pretty much anything else.

The other great adult in Ghost's life is Mr. Charles who owns a store where Ghost goes all the time to buy his favorite snack, sunflower seeds. The two have a great relationship and when Ghost finally gets his track uniform Mr. Charles is the first person he goes to show it to.

Lest we forget how young this kid is, at one point he exclaims how great it would be to own a store because you wouldn't have to buy groceries. I totally remember being young enough to think that makes sense. He's also obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records, memorizing and rattling off the names of people who hold records for various feats, a very common interest for people that age (I also found it fascinating, but never got as far as memorization.)

Guy Lockard captured all the humor and wonder and cleverness of Ghost's personality and made this book a lot of fun to listen to. He narrates some other books by Reynolds too, so if I decide to read more from this author - which seems likely after Ghost - I'll probably listen to the audio version again.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book

Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun (2017)

In this graphic novel, a sad lonely little alien is sent to Earth to study humans. He meets all sorts of "humans" including a tree, a bear, an egg, some bees, a turtle, a dog, and some very smart otters. He feels more at home among all these various earthlings than he does with his own people, who check back on his progress from time to time. They don't seem to think he's doing very well fulfilling his duties, but the little alien is learning so much about friendship and feeling good about oneself that it hardly matters.

This book is apparently based on a Twitter account, which I haven't even checked out since the book is so cute I can't imagine how it would come through on Twitter. I mean, I can imagine and it doesn't seem like the sort of account I'd enjoy following. But I love it as a book.

It's a simple, but also profound. It's adorable, sad, hopeful, and philosophical. It's right up there with Hyperbole and a Half on my just-now-formed list of graphic novels to read when you need to lift yourself out of despair.

Graphic novels always leave me a loss when I'm trying to blog about them. They're so visual and contain so few words, and somehow that translates to me not being able to find enough words to talk about them. So I'm just going to leave you with photos of some of my favorite pages.






Thursday, October 5, 2017

A few I didn't finish

I've failed to read a number of books recently, so I thought it would be fun to do a roundup. (Plus I have nothing else to post about since I haven't finished anything.)

WTF?
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This Pulitzer-winning (2016) novel was one of the nominees for our Community Read. It sounded promising, the story of a Vietnamese double agent in America after the Vietnam War. However, I only managed to read 22 pages of the book. I had no idea what was going on. This author clearly spent immense time and effort in masterfully crafting each sentence, but I have no idea what those beautiful sentences were saying. I feel bad about abandoning a book for the Community Read committee, and I think this is the first time I haven't finished reading one. But it was so clear that this impenetrable book would be a turn-off to a lot of people and that's the opposite of what we're trying to do.

Poor timing.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith

My first (and only?) foray into the work of Zadie Smith did not go nearly as well as I had hoped. For years I've felt like I should try this author and finally I put this book on my Personal Reading Challenge list and, a couple of weeks ago, dove in. The problem is that I knew I was going to start reading Middlemarch soon, and that's a terrible time to pick up a 400+-page novel with tiny print, thinking I could just breeze through it. There's no breezing with this book. It's not bad, actually, and for a while I liked it and assumed I'd read the whole thing. Then, about 75 pages into it, I realized that I just saw no compelling reason to keep going. The characters felt distant and unknowable, and the story had no momentum for me. The writing is perfectly lovely and had I not been just about to embark on an even longer, denser book perhaps I would have kept going. Would I have finished? There's no way to know the answer to that one.

Outcasts United by Warren St. John

Ugh.
Dear readers, this is the second Community Read I failed to finish and it came so soon after the first one. It's almost like the problem is me, not the books. But that's not the case. This book is terrible. It sounds interesting - it's about a group of refugees and their soccer team. This particular edition is adapted for middle-grader readers and it's possible that the adult version is better but I'm not willing to find out. (And the committee was unsure which version we'd be talking about because the person who nominated it hasn't actually read it, and I think this is where we went wrong.) I have two examples of what is wrong with this book. First, there's a scene in which a woman is fleeing her house in Liberia with her children because some men have broken in to murder her husband. It is unclear how many children she has because the book says she lives with her husband and sons and then lists four names, but the first one is definitely a son and if the husband's name was mentioned wouldn't it have been first? So she's fleeing the house and grabbed two sons on the way out, and they escaped to a refugee camp where they lived for 5 years and then got 4 tickets to the US where she then set up house with her three sons. Did she go back for the other son? And how many sons total did she have? It was incredibly unclear. The second example of what is wrong with this book is that all of a sudden on page 92 the author inserts himself in a bit of first-person narration after the entire book so far is in third person and he does not appear in it. Talk about jarring. It was also just kind of boring. I abandoned it soon after, almost halfway through.

So there you have it. All of my recent shame.

Have you read any of these books? Have you given up on anything lately?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mrs. Fletcher

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (2017)

Tom Perrotta's brand new novel is about two characters: a 46-year-old woman and her son. Brendan is a total frat boy, heading off to college. He's not a terrible person, but he's a straight white dude who is completely oblivious to what it's like not be a straight white dude. He's sort of gross to women and doesn't understand that. He just sort of bumps around through his life, without focus or intention, other than having a good time and partying. Eve is sort of glad to have Brendan out of the house (who wouldn't be?) but also feels the empty space that has now opened up in her life. She makes some attempts at friendship, and starts taking a class called Gender and Society at the local community college. One night she gets an anonymous text from someone calling her a MILF, and she gets fixated on the concept and develops an obsession with a porn site called MILFateria.com.

I loved Eve. She ran a Senior Center and was a totally competent and confident professional, but in her personal life she floundered. She was divorced and her dating life is rather stagnant, though her newfound porn habit has made her rather more adventurous in real life. She begins doing lots of ethically-questionable things, and I really rather enjoyed her struggle to behave as a responsible adult and give in (sometimes) to her desires. I found her very genuine and relatable in many ways, and to be honest I feel a bit miffed that a male author created her.

Brendan is another thing altogether. He annoyed me so much, and I kept picturing Tom Perrotta chuckling about Brendan's stupidity as though he was once just like Brendan (though I suspect he wasn't ever like Brendan.) I feel like we were supposed to be annoyed with Brendan but also write him off as young and stupid in a harmless way, but I don't find him - or any guys like him - to be harmless, and couldn't be amused by him. He even once used my most-hated, most-invalidating, male-tone-deaf statement, which is: "Don't be like that." (Does anyone else hate that phrase as much as I do?) He was an interesting character in a way, and he got his comeuppance but didn't actually care because he is so stupid he doesn't know what a jerk he is. I wanted him to grow up more during the course of the novel and develop more self-awareness. Don't get me wrong though; I still liked reading the parts of the story that were narrated by Brendan.

So that's not a criticism of the book AT ALL. My only criticism relates to a transgender character, Eve's class instructor. Margo Fairchild referred to her early life a couple of times saying things like "when I was a guy" and referencing how she "used to be man," which is not how trans people generally think about themselves. I mean, in her mind she was always a woman, right? But trans people are all different just as cis people are all different and it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that someone might speak this way. Just...I find it hard to believe that a trans woman who teaches a college class about gender would speak this way.

Otherwise, I loved this book. Tom Perrotta has never disappointed me. His stories and his style of writing are always a pleasure and and I'm only sad that now I'll have to wait another few years for another book.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

September wrap-up and plans for October


Geez, where did this month even go? I'm scrambling to write this post before October is upon me!

Reading


I read 8 books this month and I'm shocked to realize that 4 of them are nonfiction. I only read one of the Community Read nominees for work (and it was a re-read of Wonder) so I'm behind on that. Let's look at the categories I'm tracking.

Reading Challenge List: Um. Nothing from the list, though I just started reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith, but I completed the race category by reading They Can't Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery.

CBAM: Not participating this month, but am planning to read Angels in America for October.

Romance: The Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean

Nonfiction: Lots! The aforementioned They Can't Kill Us All; self-help book The Miracle Morning; In the Shadow of Liberty; and The Fact of a Body.


Listening

I'd never seen a white squirrel before, but saw one in Montreal
and then this one right in my neighborhood.

I listened to Wonder by R.J. Palacio for the Community Read committee. It was a re-read and I didn't post about it by my original post is here. I was planning to finish off His Dark Materials on audio, but instead have just been catching up on podcasts. By the Book has finished their first season and I'm very sad, but their second season is apparently starting in November and they've promised some mini-episodes between now and then.

Watching


I have finally finished season 9 of Doctor Who and learned that season 10 is only available on Amazon Prime for an additional fee. But there's a new season of Call the Midwife so I'll be starting that soon.

Knitting


Still working on the East Neuk Hoodie. I'm almost back to where I was when I ripped it out, which is definitely a good thing but also doesn't feel like actual progress.

Eating


Everything. All the time. Unhealthy stuff, mostly. Food makes me feel like adulting is just impossible. I mean, we're expect to hold full-time jobs, sleep 8 hours a night, exercise, floss, walk the dog, pay bills, clean our houses, AND prepare delicious wholesome meals. It's not possible. And this is for people without children. And not even counting family obligations, romance, or a social life. Who decided that we all need to do all this stuff? Because I'd like to give them a stern talking-to.

Doing

I took two trips this month! We had planned to go camping the first week and dropped the dog off at boarding on Labor Day. The plan was to leave for camping the next day, but the weather forecast was so bad that at the last minute we booked an Airbnb in Montreal and drove up there for a few days. We visited the botanical gardens and there was a great installation of sculptures made out of branches that you could walk inside. They were so amazing! I kind of want to live inside of one.

Later in the month was my annual trip with my sisters and niece to CT to visit my aunt. We spent a long weekend catching up, maybe doing a couple of activities, and mostly sitting around lazily eating baked goods. We had more activities this year so it flew by faster than usual, but it was still a good time. We went to the Durham Fair and to Old Sturbridge Village, as well as visiting another aunt and uncle who live nearby and making a trip to Little Poland in New Britain to get some
Bernie the labradoodle
kielbasa. (We're part Polish.) We also visited a New Age shop and I bought a Buddha statue, which now resides on a little table near my pew. My aunt has a new puppy, who is very energetic. She is kind of ridiculous, and was maybe a little annoying to the other dog who is elderly.


Plans for October


I'll be reading Middlemarch with some friends, which I'm really looking forward to. I'm also hoping to make real, actual progress on my knitting project. The New England Library Association Conference is later in the month, which is always fun, but even more so this year since it will be in Burlington, VT and our featured author speaker is Chris Bohjalian.

How was your September?