Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2017)

Salvador has grown up with his adoptive gay Mexican father, and they've led a pretty consistent comfortable life until now. Sal's temper is starting to get the best of him and he's getting into fist fights at school, his grandmother Mima is suddenly very ill, and his best friends Sam and Fito are going through their own difficult situations. In addition to the major issues, Sal has a college admissions essay hanging over his head. He struggles with it mostly because he can't figure out why he's special (which I think many of us can relate to, especially as teenagers.)

Sam and Sal are like brother and sister, and I loved their relationship. I especially loved that there's a book with a girl and boy who are friends and there is no romance whatsoever between them. Their friendship was very cute too: they texted each other constantly, even when they were in adjacent rooms, and they often came up with a word for the day (wftd.) They also played a game of "What if?" One person would ask a question like "What if we had never met?" and the other one had to come up with an acceptably creative answer by the end of the day.

Initially Sam doesn't like Sal's friend Fito, but as it turns out she just didn't really know him and as soon as they start spending more time together, they also become good friends. Sam and Fito both have mothers with very serious problems and their relationships are complicated. Sal doesn't have a mother at all, so this is something they all sort of bond over.

Nature vs. nurture came up a lot in this story. Sal has been thinking a lot about his biological father recently, worrying that he somehow inherited this new tendency to fight. He doesn't know who his father was, and his mother died when he was only three years old, so he doesn't even remember her. The family he grew up with is the only family he knows. Not only is he not biologically related to them, but he's also a white kid in a Mexican family.

Sal's family was great, but especially his dad, Vicente. Saenz writes amazing parents, as I discovered when I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Many people will recognize Sal's house - the household teenagers are drawn to, where they feel comfortable with the adults in residence and, more importantly, where they feel welcome to hang out and be themselves. It becomes a hub, and Vicente jokes that he collects 17-year-olds.

Les you think it's all happy and uplifting, I should mention that there was a lot of death in this book. It didn't feel piled on though; it was spread out a bit so the characters had a chance to deal with it. These kids were talkers who worked through their feelings and dealt with the turmoil going on inside of them. Perhaps it's not entirely realistic, but if nothing else it's a great model for how to handle your life.

In a lot of ways, this is an idealistic book (as was Aristotle and Dante) but it still felt genuine. Even though a lot of bad things happened in the course of the story, it's still uplifting because of the way the characters all took care of each other. Sometimes that's exactly the sort of book you need.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Power

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016), narrated by Adjoa Andoh

The world has suddenly changed: teenage girls now carry a power within them to deliver electrical shocks. Female babies are now born with it; and it's possible to awaken the power even in older women. It's game-changing and we see this massive shift primarily through four characters: a young Nigerian journalist; a London teenager from a rough family; a foster girl being raised in an abusive family; and an American senator. The story is framed in a far-future exchange between a male author writing a novel about the "great cataclysm" and his female agent.

What's brilliant about this book is that the whole idea is that whoever has power will abuse it and be in control and oppress others. The far-future framing parts show a world in which roles are reversed. It is men who aren't taken seriously, women who are in charge, and they're convinced it has always been this way. It wouldn't even make sense for men to run things, they think. It seems ridiculous, the way men are viewed, which highlights exactly how ridiculous the treatment of women in our world is.

Once I got the characters straight, they solidified into real people for me, and I was so invested in everyone getting through the very dangerous times unscathed. Allie, once she killed her foster father and left her abusive home, followed the voice in her head and began a new religion, dubbing herself Mother Eve. Streetwise Roxy witnessed her mother's murder and vowed to take revenge on those responsible. Margot is a politician whose teenage daughter helps her awaken her own powers, which she must initially hide out of fear it will hurt her political ambitions. Tunde was a rather aimless young guy who began recording footage of girls using the power, and then became dedicated to documenting everything about this new world landscape, as great risk to himself. At first, this new power was seen as something scary that needed to be contained, and leaders scrambled to make plans to deal with it. But soon it became obvious that the power was there to stay, and that women would use it to hurt men and gain control.

Listening to the audio version meant being a bit disoriented during the first several chapters as they switched back and forth between characters. Once the story returned to the first character, I couldn't remember anything about her character and had to go back and listen to parts of the first chapter again. So in that way, it probably would have been a good choice for me to read in print. But then I would have missed out on the excellent narration by Adjoa Andoh, who is extremely talented at all kinds of accents and did an amazing job with all the characters' voices.

I kind of wish I had read this for a book group because there's just so much to discuss! However, two of my coworkers have read it and I think we'll spend some time talking about it now that I've finally finished it too. Right now, in the current political climate in the U.S., and with all the sexual assault allegations against powerful men coming to light, is probably the perfect time to read a book about women giving men a taste of their own medicine.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Proposal

The Proposal (The Survivor's Club #1) by Mary Balogh (2012)

A young widow named Gwen has just quarreled with the friend she's staying with, and is out walking the beach when she falls, twisting her ankle. Luckily, an imposing stranger named Hugo is standing nearby at the time and rescues her. He takes her back to the house where he's staying with some friends who all met when they were recovering from their war experiences and injuries and now return for a get-together every year. Gwen doesn't want to impose, but her injury is bad enough that she shouldn't be moved. She and Hugo dislike each other from the start, but they begin to warm up to each other quickly. It can't go anywhere though, as she is an aristocrat who does not want to remarry, and Hugo needs to marry now that his title requires it but he's determined to marry someone in his own social sphere.

The premise doesn't sound like anything special, but these two characters make this very different from any romance I've read. These are no young, naive virgins, blushing at any hint of impropriety; both are seasoned and mature, and not afraid to speak of their desires. For one thing, they have sex fairly early in the book, when they still rather dislike each other, and have no illusions that it will lead to anything else. You don't see that very much in historical romance. They have scars from their past, hers in the form of a permanent limp and his of a more internal sort. Because of the kind of people they are, this isn't an all-consuming, passionate romance with dramatic confessions and tears of joy and all the typical trappings of the genre. No, it's like a story about a couple of people you know who develop a mature affection and you're really glad they found each other. It's satisfying.

So what was the tension, the thing that kept them apart? Primarily, it was class. I mean, Gwen didn't want to get married again anyhow. Her first marriage wasn't awesome and I think the fact that she was single made her think she had a second chance to live her life the way she wanted to. She didn't want to leap back into another lifetime commitment. But the real hurdle to overcome was that she was from the upper classes and Hugo earned his title in the war, and inherited his wealth from his businessman father. His people were different from hers, and the life he wanted was on his farm with the lambs and his garden, not in London at fancy boring parties.

In these historical romances, the characters are pretty much always aristocratic. Occasionally there will be an outlier, but this is the first book I've read where they really get into what that means. For instance, when Hugo invites Gwen to stay at his place with his family, he mentions the difficulties of all his relations getting time off work. And his sister Constance, who Gwen introduces to London society, can't get over how idle all the men are. They don't have jobs or any purpose - they're boring. She had a great time at the parties, but when it comes down to it, she's probably going to marry the ironmonger she's known all her life, a good hardworking guy.

I've been in a bit of a reading slump recently, having started and stopped a few different books before picking this up. I spent probably a full week or so reading it, as I was spending much more time catching up on tv. At first I thought it was just ok, but once I started getting to know these characters and their lives - and there's a lot here I didn't even get into about their dark histories that have formed who they are - it became clear that this really stands out among historical romances for it's realism. I was intrigued by the whole idea of this series, as several of the main characters have disabilities, but there's so much more here that is interesting and thought-provoking and refreshing. After trying this one I suspect I'll read more from this series.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Ten Characters Who Would Make Great Leaders


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is 10 characters who would make great leaders.

I think about leadership a lot, and the ways things could be better if, oh, I don't know, someone different had won the U.S. presidential election last year? Or if, in general, women ran the world. Because honestly, I am running out of patience with men and their stupidity and the sexism that so permeates our culture. So here's my list of characters from books who should be running pretty much everything and yes they are all women.

1. Frankie Landau-Banks from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
She's very good at planning, scheming, and plotting, all in secret while maintaining a relationship with the person in charge of the organizing she is undermining. Brilliant.


2. & 3.  Vivian Carter and Lucy Hernandez from Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
Viv started Moxie, the zine encouraging girls to fight back misogyny in their school. Lucy was part of the catalyst for Viv to start it and one of her strongest supporters. They worked really well together.

4. Jane Young from Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
A strong capable women who bounces back from being slut-shamed, à la Monica Lewinsky.

5. Elle Burns from An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
She's intuitive, resourceful, with good judgment, a photographic memory and a passion for justice. Any black woman who do something as risky as going undercover as a slave during the Civil War is clearly not afraid of anything.


6. Willowdean Dickson from Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
A self-confident fat girl who assumes she has as much chance of winning a beauty pageant as anyone else is exactly the sort of role model teenage girls need. In fact, she did inspire many other girls who considered themselves misfits to also enter the pageant. She is thoughtful, introspective, self-assured, and very determined.

7. Ifemelu from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As a Nigerian who has also spent years living in America, her perspective on race in America is invaluable. It also helps that she's a fantastic writer and communicator, as we learned from her blog Raceteenth.

8. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I mean, she volunteered as tribute.


9. Binti from Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Here is a woman who left her planet to attend an elite university, the first of her people to do so. On the way there, she was faced with an incredibly dangerous enemy. She's very brave, but maybe more importantly, she's not afraid to be different, nor is she afraid to those who are different from her. Would make an excellent diplomat.

10. Jin Ling from The Walled City by Ryan Graudin 
Jin disguised herself as a boy to survive, determined to get her sister out of the house of prostitution where she was being held captive, whatever the cost. Really anyone who survives and even thrives in a dystopian setting while remaining a good person is someone who should be in charge of things.

And a shoutout to the entire cast of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. A group of beauty queen contestants crash on an island and rather than killing each other to survive, they join forces against a common enemy while encouraging each other to be their true selves.

You know, there are so many great female characters who would be fantastic leaders. Just like there are many women in real life who should be in charge.

Monday, November 6, 2017

On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (2017)

I would have picked this up ages ago had I not conflated it in my head with the almost-700-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But no, this one is only 128 tiny little pages. (Seriously, it's only about 6 inches tall.) Something or someone  recently in the political we-must-do-something-sphere mentioned it and I looked it up again and, realizing my mistake, picked up a copy at work and read it in about 2 short sittings.

Each section begins with one of the 20 lessons, and then a few pages talking about the part of history from which we learned this lesson and how it can be applied today. For instance, lesson 8 is "Stand out" with the explanation, "Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow." This lesson is followed by examples about how in Nazi Germany (which, as you can imagine, is frequently mentioned in this book) most people went along with Hitler's agenda, but it is those who did not who we now remember. Snyder tells the story of a woman named Teresa who snuck into Warsaw ghettos at great risk to herself to bring food and medicine to Jews, both those she knew and those she did not, ultimately helping one family escape and saving their lives.

Other lessons include "defend institutions," "remember professional ethics," "be kinder to our language," "believe in truth," "make eye contact and small talk," "contribute to good causes," "be a patriot," "be as courageous as you can," and several others, all of which are worth carefully considering and applying to your real life. Some are more obvious acts of political resistance, while others are more about taking part in society in smaller, but still important ways. Like the one about making eye contact and small talk is about building relationships, even superficial ones, so that when real oppression arrives people don't just all instinctively fear each other. Snyder says that in fascist Italy in the 20s or Nazi Germany in the 30s, simple smiles and handshakes were viewed with greater significance.

This book was obviously published in response to the current administration in the United States though, interestingly, Snyder never mentions the president by name. Some of the lessons are ones we hopefully won't have to think about, but if we do we'll all be well served by remembering and abiding by them. As I mentioned, I read it very quickly - it's extremely simple and clear and may make it onto my extremely short list of books that everyone should read. I sort of want to buy myself a copy and carry it around with me at all times, right next to my pocket Constitution.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Lady Traveler's Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen

The Lady Traveler's Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen (Lady Travelers Society #1) by Victoria Alexander (2017), narrated by Marian Hussey

India Prendergast's cousin has taken a trip organized by the Lady Travelers Society, but when her letters stop arriving, India knows that something must be terribly wrong. She pays a visit to the Lady Travelers Society and finds they are less than above board, and takes it upon herself to travel to the continent to seek out her cousin. Unfortunately she must travel with Derek Saunders, known scoundrel and the nephew of one of the women who runs the Lady Travelers Society.

The party includes Derek, India, and a couple who served as chaperones, and they begin by going to Paris as that is where India's cousin's last letter was sent from. They decided to try to find out whether or not she was still in the city and if not they'd then go to the next destination on the itinerary. This must have been in 1889 because the Eiffel Tower was new and the Paris Exposition was happening, so they couldn't get a hotel. They instead stay with Derek's step-brother Val, who was even more of a rogue than Derek (but was also actually a good guy.)

The trip is not off to a great start when India's trunk goes astray and she is left in fashionable Paris with only her dowdy grey traveling dress. Her chaperone lends her some clothing, but it's far showier than the practical clothing India usually wears. This might be a good time to mention that India is very set in her ways, completely practical, and rather a prude. She's almost 30 and therefore a confirmed spinster, which suits her just fine. She's not at all the sort of woman Derek is used to being around, but despite how different they are they do become friends on this journey, and of course that friendship turns into something more.

I heard of this described as a romance, and I suppose it is that, but almost nothing happens in that direction until about halfway through. Up until that point, the story is occupied with the disappearance of India's cousin, the nefarious doings of the Lady Travelers Society, Derek's reputation and attempt to get back on the straight and narrow path, and all the logistics of the trip to Europe. Some of the Goodreads reviews said that the story was very slow to start, but I think they mean the romance because I think there was a lot happening aside from that. To me, this is less a romance novel than a work of historical fiction that has a romance as one of the plotlines.

But who cares how it's categorized. It was an engrossing, fun story that I enjoyed a lot from the very beginning. I loved India, despite how rigid she was. Raised by her cousin, she was determined not to be a burden, so she had been working for 8 years as a secretary to a man she considered a friend. She was smart and capable and more open to new experiences than even she realized. Because of her unfortunate background, I think she never expected much for her life and just decided to be satisfied with what she had. Derek was a bit put off by her at first - neither of them liked the other until they decided to make an attempt at friendship since they'd be traveling together for a while. He was really a decent guy who had been a bit irresponsible in his youth and had earned a reputation. But he was sincerely trying to put that all behind him and be a responsible adult.

Part of what made this book such a great experience was the narration of Marian Hussey. Her clipped British accent was just perfect for India Prendergast, but she read the other voices very well too. I listened to the bulk of the book while driving to and from Burlington, VT for a conference, which was close to 7 hours of listening time. There's little that is better than using a long drive to listen to most of a book. What a great use of time, and I can't think of a better way to make a drive pleasant. I probably won't be able to ever think of this book without seeing colorful fall leaves.

This is the first in a series, so yay! I hope the same narrator reads the future books, in which case I'll be experiencing them all on audio. If you like historical novels about independent women where romance is a large part of the story - but not the whole plot - I suggest you try this book.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October wrap-up and plans for November


Reading

Snail I saw at the bus stop

I've begun Middlemarch and am so far on track with our reading schedule.

Reading Challenge List: Nothing.

CBAM: Angels in America by Tony Kushner, parts 1 & 2

Romance: The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen by Victoria Alexander (review coming soon!)

Nonfiction: Hunger by Roxane Gay

Listening


The Lady Travelers Guide was on audio so I spent some time listening to that. I've also spent a great deal of time with the new Pink album, Beautiful Trauma. It's so perfect for my mood right now.


Watching

terrible pic of my new dress from eShakti

The latest season of Call the Midwife. I'm also almost finished with Miss Fisher's Mysteries, and I've begun season 2 of Stranger Things.

Knitting


My East Neuk Hoodie is progressing! I've divided for the armholes and I'm nearing the end of the back. I was stymied a bit for a moment there, but realized I cannot count. Thank goodness for simple math to get me back on the right track.

I also worked on a little cross stitch project, and now that I'm almost finished I've ordered two more.

Eating


Briefly got on track with some healthy meal-planning and then it all went to hell again, culminating with me getting sick the last weekend of the month. Not eating well, plus an exhausting conference, do not work together to make me healthy.

Doing


As I mentioned, I attended a conference this month. The New England Library Association was in Burlington, VT this fall and it was jam-packed with great, informative sessions. Some of the highlights were sessions about critical media literacy (i.e. how to spot fake/biased news), free speech vs. hate speech, and neutrality. Chris Bohjalian was the featured speaker, and authors Garth Stein and Ann Hood also spoke. I was hoping to type up my notes, but feel really behind right now so I'm not sure I'll get to it.

October always feels so busy at work, and it's even more so this year. In addition to being away for the conference, I was out for a couple of days because I had vacation time to use up, and I also had to train two new substitutes. We're also in the planning stages of a renovation which means extra meetings.

#riotgrams day 29: recent acquisitions
This month I participated in #riotgrams, which was on Instagram and sponsored by Book Riot. Each day there was a theme or topic and you just post a book-related photo on that topic and tag it #riotgrams. It was fun! I've been using Instagram a lot recently, but even so it was a bit of work to make sure I had something relevant to post every day.

I finally ordered some clothes from eShakti and can't believe I didn't do this years ago! Their clothing can all be customized to size as well as preference for length, neckline, and sleeve styles. Plus everything is machine washable and has POCKETS. Dresses with pockets, you guys! I bought a dress and a jumpsuit (!) and then as soon as I got them I ordered another dress. I should also mention that their clothing is pretty inexpensive. The dress I just got was customized to size and style and was a total of $66 including shipping.

Plans for November


I'm hoping to read Sense and Sensibility very soon as I'll be seeing a production of it in December. It sounds like we're getting our front steps rebuilt in a couple of weeks, and also getting a new retaining wall so our neighbor's house doesn't slide down into our yard. We'll probably do something for Thanksgiving, though I don't know what yet. But I'm sure it will involve pie. I'm traveling to Maine the first weekend of December for family Thanksgiving (we celebrate it whenever people have time off from work, which isn't always actual Thanksgiving weekend.) Otherwise, I'm just hoping to get caught up on stuff at work that I got behind on in October.

How was your October?