Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Sunlight Pilgrims

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (2016)

It's the beginning of winter in 2020, and it will be the worst winter since the last ice age. Dylan MacRae leaves the small cinema where he grew up with his mother and grandmother to live in a caravan park in Clachan Fells, Scotland. Living in a neighboring caravan are Constance, a woman perpetually caught between two lovers with no desire to settle down, and her trans teen daughter, Stella. Each of these characters is alone or isolated in some way when the story begins, but as temperatures plummet they come to depend on each other and grow closer as the winter settles around them.

Constance is single at the beginning, which is good news to Dylan who is smitten with her pretty instantly, but everyone else knows it's only a matter of time before she gets back with Alistair and/or Caleb. Dylan has recently lost the only family he's had, his mother leaving him the caravan to which he moves when he loses the theater for financial reasons. He brings two tubs of ashes and his gin still, which is all he needs to start over again. Stella has been living as a girl for about a year, and feels like her only friend is Vito, an Italian who she met online, until she meets Dylan. Stella is on the cusp of adolescence, and is desperate to get started on hormone blockers, but their location in rural Scotland and the impending winter are making anything short of survival a low priority.

All of these people are sympathetic but imperfect, as the best characters are. Of course I felt so much for Stella, alienated from her peers, her own father refusing to call her by her new name. She's a tough kid though, just like her mother. I loved Constance, actually. One of her lovers, Stella's father Alistair was married three times in the course of his relationship with Constance, but it wasn't like she was sitting around waiting for him to come to her. This is just how she was, and she was completely unapologetic. When Stella began transitioning, it of course required lots of meetings with the school regarding use of bathrooms and locker rooms and whatnot. "At one of the meetings Mother Superior asked her mother why her father wasn't there. Constance said he was with his wife, and she could bring her other boyfriend in if it helped any." This isn't Constance being stupid; she owns her lifestyle and doesn't care what anyone - even the nuns - think about it. I suspect that is part of what makes Dylan love her. Poor Dylan. He's a good guy, just trying to do what's right and provide everyone with quality gin from his grandmother's recipe to take them through the long winter.

As much as I liked these characters, I think my favorite part of this book is the language. Fagan describes the snow and ice so beautifully throughout the story, that it was easy to forget how deadly it was.

"Sun spirals down through treetops showing up sediments of silver and amber dust. A frozen pond. Curls of ice make a frost flower on a fallen bough. Each iced petal is perfectly curled and see-through. Winter has been hand-carving them overnight. Placing them here."

Isn't that exquisite? It was just lovely to read, all the way through. This is neither a plus nor a minus, I don't think, but I encountered more unfamiliar words than I have in quite a long time. Petiole? Chimenea? Tannoy? Penitentes? I don't know if some of these are just regional to Scotland, or if Fagan has a huge vocabulary she's showing off, but I don't remember this from The Panopticon. (Speaking of which, I can't really compare this to Fagan's first book. I read it more than two years ago, and it was a very different story.)

I think I wanted a little more about the environmental catastrophe. The world is essentially freezing over and it's devastating, and nobody was sure if the winter would end or if they'd enter another ice age. You know I love a good apocalyptic novel, so I can't get enough of the destruction, but this novel was definitely more focused on the people. And that's fine - it's good at what it is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ten Books Sitting On My Shelves Unread


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books That Have Been On Your Shelf (Or TBR) From Before You Started Blogging That You STILL Haven't Read Yet. I started blogging in 2007 and I honestly have no sense of time, but I doubt I have many books still sitting around that long because I don't tend to keep books. But I do have some unread books on my shelves that I really should have read by now so I'll list those!

1. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
I'm listing these first because I know I've had them since 2000-2001 which is definitely pre-blog. They were a gift from a boyfriend and I read about half of The Winds of War and stopped for some reason even though it was very good, and I don't know how to come back from that. It's like 900 pages and I'll have to start over and that's a lot to re-read. I keep thinking these books would be great fodder if I were trapped somewhere for a long period of time.

2. The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
I bought this whole series for my mother and after she died I took them back. I've read two and just need to read the third. I loved the first two and I have no idea why I wait so long between them.

3. House of the Dead/Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I was on a Dostoyevsky kick once, and got as far as buying this volume of two short novels but still haven't read it.

4. No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah Maclean
I snagged this from the library book sale after reading Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover. Then I also bought the ebook of A Rogue By Any Other Name and read that first. Then she released a new book called The Rogue Not Taken, which starts a new series and now I want to read that next.

5. Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix
This was an impulse buy on a trip to St. Louis a couple of years ago, but I still kind of want to read it so I can't manage to give it up. I keep thinking I'll read it in October, as if that's the only time to read horror.

6. Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood
I put this on a table and then set a taxidermied mounted fish on top of it and forgot it existed. When I picked up the fish to return it to my sister, there was a whole pile of books, including this one. (What? You don't borrow taxidermied animals from family members?)

7. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
A gift from a friend, not that long ago actually. This past Christmas, I think? The point is that I was really looking forward to reading it very soon and now it's August.

8. Inbound 4: A Comic Book History of Boston
I picked this up on a whim at Hub Comics a few years ago, and it's ridiculous that I haven't read it yet because it's a very thin comic book. Come on.

9. Grandville by Bryan Talbot
Also from Hub Comics, I grabbed this the moment I saw it because I love Bryan Talbot and I was still on an Alice in Sunderland high. I'm really looking forward to the day that I eventually crack this one open.

10. Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill
The difficulty with this one is that it's a large, heavy, oddly-shaped hardcover that is not the sort of book you carry around. Or the sort you read comfortably in bed. So I need to have some sort of a plan for when or how I manage it.

And a shoutout to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, which I eventually got rid of even though I still want to read it. I know I've been wanting to read this one since pre-blog and I even had it on a TBR Pile Challenge list once and still failed to read it. Why can't I read this book?

So that's my list of shame for the week! Do you have any books that have been sitting on your shelves unread for an embarrassingly long time?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sweetbitter

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)

Twenty-two-year-old Tess comes to New York and finds a job in a well-known restaurant in Union Square. It's competitive and merciless, but she makes herself part of the restaurant and the odd family of people who work there. Among the busyness of the restaurant - both choreographed and chaotic - she learns about food and especially about wine, and develops an obsession with the bartender, Jake, and a slightly different kind of obsession with a server and Jake's close friend, Simone.

The story was told in first person by Tess, whose name I don't think was mentioned until about 200 pages in. Her coworkers had a series of nicknames for her: The New Girl, Fluffer, Skipper, Baby Monster. It takes place over the course of the year, told in four parts for each of the four seasons. There's not much of a plot, and maybe a little character development thought I still don't really know Tess. It's more slice-of-life, and I liked it, getting inside the world of this shmancy restaurant in New York. The prose is pretty straight-forward, but sprinkled through here and there was a page that looked like poetry, but was actually random snippets of conversation. I liked these parts, the conversations all running together in a cacophony of voices speaking all at once.

What's interesting is that the novel begins with Tess's arrival in New York and is entirely focused on her experience working in this restaurant and her relationships with her co-workers. We know that she's from a small town somewhere (eventually her home state is revealed as Ohio), but we know nothing about her life before she came to New York. She mentions a family so we know she has one, but we know little about it. Nor do we know anything about her interests, her hopes and dreams, her past experiences with anything at all.  It all gives me the feeling that her life is entirely consumed by her job at the restaurant, which I imagine is how it feels to her. It all painted a pretty vivid picture of her experiences, so vivid that during one passage describing a frenetic shift I felt incredibly anxious. 

I also moved to a new place when I was 22, and got a job that was really hard and time-consuming and exhausting and ate up my life, and I did little outside of work, and I eventually left under circumstances that were in some ways similar to Tess's. (But not too similar - let me just make that clear.) So now that I think about it, part of the reason this book felt a bit stressful is because it felt so real to me, although in my case I didn't socialize with my coworkers and there was no drinking or drugs at my job (though it might have improved things.)

I didn't especially like Tess, but I was sympathetic enough to her. It's not her fault that she's only 22. She was young and naive and became completely caught up in the life of the restaurant. At times I cringed at her behavior, especially toward Jake and Simone. The two were very close and Tess was constantly trying to suss out their relationship. She made a fool of herself in other ways too, drinking so heavily she would be sick all over herself, and it seemed like the only reason the others weren't put off by this is because they had probably been the same way once.

This was a book I heard about around a year ago from the Books on the Nightstand podcast, so I've been looking forward to it for quite a while. It's been very popular, with hundreds of people on hold at the library, yet it doesn't strike me as the sort of book that would be insanely popular for some reason. The Goodreads rating is fairly low, and it's a bit literary in that it's not plot-driven. The strength of the novel is more in how the story is told than the story itself, but although Tess is not super-appealing and we don't know much about her, she feels very real. Possibly because it's based heavily on a period in the author's own life.

I didn't love it exactly, but I liked it well enough and I think it does stand out in its uniqueness. As I write this, I'm starting to like it more than I did when I finished, so I think it might really lend itself to more thought and discussion than I originally gave it credit for.

Have you read it? I'd love to know your thoughts!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Great and Terrible Beauty


In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

In this Gothic story, Gemma Doyle attends a boarding school with a mysterious burned-out wing and a connection to another world. Gemma involves her clique of friends in her strange other-worldly journeys, which become very dark and dangerous. But the promise of a future as something other than an oppressed Victorian wife is enough to keep them going back.

I loved this book so much! The story and the characters and the writing all came together to create such an immersive experience. I read this probably ten years ago and still remember how much I loved it. Immediately after finishing I grabbed the second one, Rebel Angels, which I also loved. I had to wait for the next book to come out, but by the time The Sweet Far Thing was released a couple of years later I had forgotten enough that I felt like I should re-read the first two before tackling it. And that's where it all ended.

I still have fantasies that someday I'll re-read the whole series, and I think it would really be worth it. I'd love to relive the first two books and finally experience the conclusion. Maybe some day when I'm caught up on everything else I want to read...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

One True Loves

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2016), narrated by Julia Whelan

Emma Blair married the love of her life, the boy she crushed on throughout high school. Defying their parents' expectations, they move from Acton, MA to California and pursue their dreams, which take them on exciting trips all over the world. Just before their first anniversary, Jesse gets a last-minute job that takes him on a helicopter over the Pacific. The helicopter is lost and, with it, Emma's husband and all her hopes and dreams.

Three and a half years later, Emma is back in Massachusetts and has moved on with her life. She works in her parents' bookstore and she's newly engaged to a wonderful guy named Sam. And then Jesse is found, alive, and he's coming back for Emma.

What a torturous premise for a book! I love it! The best part about this is that Jesse and Emma had a really really fantastic life together and were madly in love. His death destroyed her. She couldn't function for a really long time. But finally, she realized that although he was dead, she was still alive, and deserved - and needed - to move on. When she ran into Sam, a guy she knew back in high school, she couldn't believe her good fortune at finding love for a second time. Sam is also a really wonderful guy. So when Jesse returns, it isn't at all obvious what she should do or who she should be with. It's Jesse who she has grieved for all these years, who she never wanted to be separated from. But what about Sam? He hasn't done anything wrong and doesn't deserve to be abandoned. It's really kind of an impossible situation and I couldn't get enough of it.

I love everything about Emma and her family and friends. Her parents own a bookstore and always wanted one of their daughters to run it, but that was going to be Emma's sister Marie. The two women weren't ever close until after Jesse went missing and then Marie went through a rough time and they really bonded and became good friends. Her best friend was Olive, who she had been friends with since high school and they kept in touch even though they lived far apart. I like how Emma's trajectory took her away from her hometown but then brought her back there later.

And the two men! Jesse was adventurous and passionate and shared Emma's desire to get away from their little town and see the world. Sam stayed there after high school and became a music teacher. The life he and Emma built together was totally different from her previous lifestyle, but great in a different way.

My ONLY issue with this book has to do with Jesse's time away when he was missing. When he tells his story, the time doesn't add up - it's been 3.5 years, but his story only covers a little over 2 years. I don't want to give too much away, but it also wasn't very realistic. However, I was willing to suspend disbelief because that's not really what the story was about - it was about Emma's dilemma.

Also, Emma is one of those heroines who doesn't eat when she's upset, which is one of my pet peeves. But then she'll realize she didn't eat all day and is starving and she'll hork down a whopper and fries. So I forgive her. If I was Emma, I would have been totally stress eating my way through this whole situation. I knew what I wanted her to do. But I knew before I even started the book, because of the way I look at the situation, so obviously this is just my mindset and I had no idea if that is at all what Emma would do. It was very anxiety-producing and I wasn't even the one having to figure out something so impossible.

Despite being a librarian and reading a ton of book reviews and book blogs and listening to book podcasts, the only place I heard about this book was on the Perpetual Page-Turner blog. I read her review and was like GIVE ME IT NOW. How had I not heard of this author before? She has a few other books and I'm especially interested in After I Do, which I will likely also listen to on audio. By the way, the narrator was great, and this was one of those audiobooks that made it possible for me to run two miles without dying, so thank you Taylor Jenkins Reid and Julie Whelan for contributing to my physical fitness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Top Ten Books Set in a Boarding School


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Books With X Setting. One of their examples is boarding school, which made me laugh and I knew instantly that would be my topic. I read a lot of teen books, and at my job I run a book group called the Not-So-Young Adult book group, which is a book group for adults in which we read and discuss books written for teens. We have kind of a running joke about boarding schools because it seems like there are just SO MANY books set in boarding schools. It's kind of a thing. Oh, and there are never any adults around and the kids are all running wild and it sounds AMAZING. I feel like I've read a ton of books that take place in boarding schools!

Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

1. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

2. Winger by Andrew Smith

3. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

4. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

5. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

6. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

7. The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

8. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

9. The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

10. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Oh man, I totally want to re-read all of those again right now. And also The Secret History, which I was reminded of by making this list, but which actually takes place at a college. It's interesting how many of these are pre-blog (the ones with no links), yet they still came easily to mind when I thought about boarding school books.

Have you read many books set in boarding schools? What are your favorites?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Waking Up White

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving (2014)

Debby Irving grew up in the very white and wealthy community of Winchester, MA. Being white was never something she thought much about, though she was concerned about diversity and race relations. In her career she tried to reach out to diverse populations, but she couldn't understand why her well-intentioned efforts kept failing. While taking a class at Wheelock college called "Racial and Cultural Identity," Irving had an "Aha!" moment that changed the course of her career and her life. She began examining her own white culture and privilege and has devoted herself to racial justice education.

As a white person myself, I was very interested in this book and its promise of helping me understand how to be a better ally to people of color. I knew it was also a memoir, and I was happy to read about her discovery and analysis of her race and how it affects her worldview. Unfortunately, it was tedious and repetitive, and I got really tired of hearing about how privileged and entitled she was, without learning much that was helpful.

Irving speaks about country clubs, unrelenting politeness, getting jobs and rent-controlled apartments because of family connections and refers to this all as white privilege. But they are all things that are completely alien to me and many, many other white people. She does a bit of lip service to class differences among white people, but I honestly felt like she just stuck that sentence in at the end, because she continued to muddy the waters by conflating white privilege and the privilege that comes from being wealthy through the entire book. Race and class are entwined, but they aren't the same. My issue with her treatment of these issues is that there is such a thing as white privilege, but she is conflating it with class privilege.

The book was mostly about Irving's journey and was introspective and navel-gazey but provided little real insight or advice that would be helpful to other white people seeking to gain perspective on race. Repeatedly she pointed out situations where her privilege helped her or conversations where she made unintentionally problematic statements or situations that put up barriers to people of color, but didn't actually explain what about the situations or statements were racist, much less describe helpful alternatives that would have made more sense. This was very frustrating as it did not help me understand the issues at all.

Only near the end - around the last 50 pages of the 250-page book - did I find the real meat of the book, and even that was fairly lean meat. For instance, at a conference when she asked a black man what he does for work, someone later explained to her that that question is a "social locater" and many people who aren't white Americans find it offensive. That was an insight that I found actually helpful, but she provided few alternatives of things to ask someone to get to know them. Likewise, in another section she presents a list of dominant white culture behaviors, such as conflict avoidance, defensiveness, and competitiveness, which I found rather enlightening, because I didn't realize these were not common traits in non-white culture. But it would have been much more helpful if it was more than just a list - some explanations or advice about beliefs and behaviors more common in other cultures would have been valuable. Here, as in several parts, she came quite close to laying out something concrete and helpful, but didn't quite get there.

This was sort of a memoir and sort of a guide for white people trying not to be racists, but it didn't really deliver either. I read this for the community read committee at my library, and I really like the idea of planning programs around the idea of white people acknowledging that whiteness is a culture and trying to change things a bit, but I don't know about trying to sell people on this book. In addition to everything I mentioned above, I also noticed that many of her cultural references were very dated, like I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. When choosing a book we always keep a diverse population in mind, and consider teenagers and younger adults and I just don't think this book would really speak to them. Also, some of her revelations are things I just don't think would be shocking to most people these days. For instance, when planning a trip for inner city students to attend a dance performance, she was shocked at how many of the students were black. (Then again, when she was a teenager she thought that feminists were "poorly-raised women" who should stop complaining, so that just goes to show you what sort of a mindset she comes from.)

Near the end she mentions teaching a class called White People Challenging Racism at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, a class I have seen listed in their course catalogue many times and sort of puzzled over and moved on. I'm much more intrigued by it now, because I'm very interested in the sorts of things she talks about in her book. I doubt I'll actually sign up for the class, but I'd be willing to read another book (or article - an article would be even better!) that provides actual advice on these topics. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

I didn't dislike this as much as it sounds like I did. I definitely had to push myself through, but I found the topic interesting, it just didn't really deliver on its promises, and now I feel like I need something more.