Monday, December 30, 2013

The Valley of Horses

The Valley of Horses (Earth's Children #2) by Jean Auel (1982)

Ayla is on her own now, leaving behind the only people she's ever known. She sets out to find more people like herself, but in the first few months still hasn't encountered another person. Soon she realizes she must settle down and prepare for the long winter ahead, and she finds a valley with everything she needs. Before she knows it, she has a young foal as a pet, and a cave lion, and the valley becomes her lonely home for a few years.

Meanwhile, a man named Jondalar is traveling with his brother Thonolan. They have been journeying for a couple of years, meeting new people and learning their languages and their ways. Jondalar is becoming restless for home, but Thonolan wants to keep going. Tragedy strikes, bringing Jondalar into Ayla's path, the first person like herself she has ever seen.

I knew before beginning this book that it was supposed to be a romance between Ayla and Jondalar, but Auel took her sweet time bringing them together. I think it was about 300 pages into the book when they finally met. This is probably so we had time to get to know Jondalar first, and I agree this background is important, as is Ayla's adjustment to living and surviving on her own. Still, as much as I liked hearing about her taming of wild animals and Jondalar's adventures, I became quite impatient for the story to move forward. Much like the glacier frequently referenced by the characters, it moved very slowly.

Once the romance part of the story began, I became a little frustrated by some of the things that typically annoy me in romances. Ayla and Jondalar constantly misunderstood each other - even after Ayla learned his language - each continuing to think that the other was not interested. Obviously they came from different cultures, which caused some of their problems, but also Jondalar had a hard time accepting that the Clan who raised Ayla were human. People who were not Neanderthals referred to them as "flatheads" and considered them animals. So, ok, that is a hurdle, and the fact that Ayla had a child with one of them (though even Jondalar refuses to acknowledge the cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy.) But I felt the romantic tension went beyond what was necessary, or even entertaining.

Despite my complaints I still liked the book. I like the unfamiliar time period in which the story takes place, and I like the characters and their story. I just felt like the book could probably have been half the length it was, and would have consequently been better for it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Raven Girl

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger (2013)

In Audrey Niffenegger's latest illustrated novel, a postman falls in love with a raven and the product of their union is a girl who is outwardly human but suffers from a sort of body dysmorphia that makes her feel like she should be physically more raven. As Niffenegger explains in the afterward, she wrote this for a collaboration with a ballet company requesting a new fairy tale as the basis for their dance.

Indeed, it has the fantastical and strange elements you would expect from a fairy tale and though they aren't my favorite type of reading material I still enjoyed this book. Obviously one needs to suspend one's disbelief and just go with it, and if you can do that, it's a pretty satisfying story.

Niffenegger illustrates her own graphic novels, which I think makes the artistic vision more cohesive than a collaboration, and I always enjoy the result. I find her style simple but quite striking and enjoyed the illustrations a great deal. Niffenegger's illustrated novels aren't for everyone, but if you've liked the others, I do recommend this one. I didn't love it like The Night Bookmobile, but still thought it was rather lovely.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (2013)

This book of essays is not, as you would expect, primarily about marriage. It's about everything from Patchett's Catholic school experiences to a road trip in a Winnebago to trying to pass the LAPD policy academy entry exam. Most essays are pretty short, and all reveal something Patchett's life and how she views the world.

It's tough to summarize any sort of collection, so I'll just share some of my favorite parts. In "Love Sustained" she recounts the period when she took care of her ailing grandmother. She candidly admits this is not something she had planned for, saying "I had planned to live far away from my family and miss them terribly. I had every intention of feeling simply awful that I wasn't with my grandmother in her years of decline..." The essay "This Dog's Life" is the story of how she came to have her dog, Rose, and the insistence of people around her that clearly, what she really wanted was a baby. She muses "I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren't other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog."

Other essays I enjoyed include the one alluded to earlier in which Patchett trained for the police academy exam as part of a book she ended up not writing. The title "The Wall" refers to one of the most difficult parts of the physical exam in which participants must scale a 6-ft wall. Mostly I enjoyed her perspective on the preparation for a career that was so completely different from her own. "My Life in Sales" is a behind-the-scenes look book touring, including the observation that people who attend book readings always want to ask about the previous book. I've often wondered how authors feel about that, and now I know. Three different pieces discuss the book Truth & Beauty from slightly different perspectives. It was chosen as a required read for an entering freshmen class at Clemson University, which set off a firestorm of controversy. It would never have occurred to me that Truth & Beauty would be considered objectionable, but I suppose every book if offensive to someone out there, and if not, it's probably not worth reading.

I devoured this collection with a vigor I didn't anticipate, even though I knew how much I enjoyed reading Ann Patchett. Though I've read both Bel Canto and State of Wonder, it is her nonfiction I love the most, counting Truth & Beauty as one of the few memoirs I truly love. The essays in this collection were already published elsewhere and though I had read "The Getaway Car" already, I didn't skip it here. It's just as good the second time. Before starting - and what spurred me to read this immediately and not wait a moment longer - I listened to an interview with Ann Patchett on NPR's show "On Point". Even if you don't plan to read this book, I recommend taking 45 minutes to listen to the show. She is just as eloquent and enjoyable with that medium as she is with the written word.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Star Cursed

Star Cursed (The Cahill Witch Chronicles #2) by Jessica Spotswood (2013)

Young witch Cate Cahill is now a member of the Sisterhood, learning more about magic in an environment where her powers don't need to be kept secret, yet still heartbroken over the choice to break her engagement with Finn. The Brotherhood have increased their persecution of witches and the Sisterhood are becoming desperate to put a stop to it, but they are divided into two camps. A struggle for leadership of the Sisterhood is brewing as well, because the current leader is ill and Cate has still not come into the powers predicted by the Prophecy.

Even though this book came out in June, I was determined to wait for the audio version to appear because I so enjoyed the audio of Born Wicked. I waited SO LONG. Finally, in desperation, I messaged the lovely and friendly Jessica Spotswood on Goodreads only to learn that there will be no audio. So ultimately I read the print version, while imagining Nicole Sudhaus reading it to me.

Audio or no, I am continuing to enjoy this series a great deal. I already wrote in my review of Born Wicked how much I like the alternate history Spotswood has created, but I didn't mention the strength and bravery of the women and girls in the books. Their situation in this society is complicated, and there aren't any simple solutions. Frequently in YA there is a clear right and wrong and, therefore, good and bad characters. Not so here - it is realistically nuanced as it would be in real life. It is easy see why Sister Inez and her followers feel like action needs to be taken soon, and why they are willing to make sacrifices. Although Cate disagrees, she frequently doubts herself because just as in real life, there is no clear right and wrong. But she makes her decision and sticks to it. Although there are men who are on their side, ultimately it is the women who must take responsibility and take action, and they do it with courage.

Somehow I omitted discussing Cate's romance with Finn in my review of the first book, though I enjoyed it a great deal. It came to what seemed a heartbreaking end but I was happy that Star Cursed brought new hope to that relationship. In this alternate world of 1800s New England same-sex relationships were sometimes a surprise, but not shocking or especially disapproved of. I very much like Spotswoods treatment of the romance between girls and women in her books. It is similar to present-day Massachusetts, where it is generally accepted but not the norm.

There is just so much I liked about this book, basically everything except the title (and I don't have a better idea, so there you go.) It was a very strong second in the series, which will be continued with the more appealingly-titled Sisters' Fate in August. August! After the shocking ending - which was even more upsetting than that of Born Wicked - I do not know how I'll wait until then. I also don't know how the author will resolve the horrible situation she created at the end, but I have faith that she will bring it to a satisfying conclusion. She hasn't disappointed me yet.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Dark Places

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009), narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean

Everybody remembers the 1985 Prairie Massacre of Kinnakee, Kansas. A teenager named Ben Day killed his mother and two younger sisters as part of a ritual Satanic sacrifice. Only 7-year-old Libby survived. Libby is now 31 and barely functional. She isn't able to work - many days, she can't even get herself out of bed - and she's running out of money. The profits she made from her book Brand New Day have run out, and she needs to find another source of income. Then she meets a guy named Lyle who offers her a hefty fee to come speak at a meeting of a group called the Kill Club and Libby seizes the opportunity, not realizing it will bring up questions and make her finally confront her past.

Libby has never questioned the events of that night, or her own damning testimony which put her brother behind bars. But faced with the members of Lyle's club, many of whom are convinced of Ben's innocence, Libby begins to have doubts of her own. She begins to seek out people from her past to find out what they know about the events of that night, including her deadbeat father, her aunt who took her in after the murders, and her brother's friends. Her present-day story alternates with her brother's and mother's account of the last day leading up to the murders (and yes, there are four narrators, but I'm not going to spoil anything by revealing what that's all about.)

Many of us were first introduced to Gillian Flynn through her 2012 hit Gone Girl, and indeed that is what drew me to this earlier novel. Though Dark Places doesn't present the same kind of game-changing twists, it is still very well-crafted and among the top crime novels I've read. I liked the focus on Libby as the lone survivor of a long-ago crime from which she will never really recover, and that despite the sympathy her situation demands she's not someone you'd really want to be friends with. Since she was so young at the time of the murders, there was a great deal she didn't know about what was happening in her family, and Flynn quite deftly revealed those stories to us in the flashbacks just as Libby was discovering them for herself through her investigation. When the truth was finally revealed it wasn't what I would have guessed and I found it quite satisfying.

The audio was very well done - again, I could listen to anything read by Rebecca Lowman, who completely outshone her fellow narrators. They were all perfectly good, and I was happy to listen to all of them, but Lowman is my favorite and few others can compare to her as far as I'm concerned. I'm always a bit worried about listening to crime rather than reading it - I'm always afraid I'll get distracted and miss something important - but this was a great choice. I'll consider audio again for the next book by Gillian Flynn, an author I'll definitely continue to read.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

I have been waiting more than a decade for Donna Tartt to publish another book, and by the time The Goldfinch was finally released I was rather afraid to read it. The initial description was uninspiring: Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother, lives with various friends as he tries to avoid becoming a ward of the state, something about the art underworld. But this book is almost 800 pages so of course there's more to it, and the vague pre-pub reviews didn't include any of the really good stuff. The "accident" that kills Theo's mother was actually the bombing of a museum, and before he escapes, Theo steals an extremely valuable piece of art. He met a couple of mysterious strangers in the museum just before the attack who led him to seek out an antique furniture dealer named Hobie, who takes Theo under his wing. During his teenage years he ends up living for a while in Las Vegas where he meets Boris, a shiftless Ukrainian kid who becomes Theo's best friend.

I need to stop here, just to say that I could read an entire book about Boris. This kid has lived everywhere and speaks several languages (though primarily Russian), and despite his troubled life is good-natured, laid back, and extremely loyal. He disappears for years at a time, but always shows up eventually. His friendship with Theo (or "Potter" as he calls Theo, who bears a resemblance to J.K. Rowling's wizard) is one of the best fictional friendships I've read. They are both motherless, their fathers alcoholics, and these shared experiences are enough to draw together two people with otherwise very different life experiences.

Theo is pretty great too, well-intentioned and easy to sympathize with, though he makes many poor decisions. Constantly mourning his mother, while also being weighed down by his secret stolen art, these problems adversely and repeatedly affect his life choices and relationships. He and Boris do a lot of drugs during the time they are in Vegas together, and Theo carries his habits back to New York with him where he continues to dig himself deeper into a hole while outwardly appearing to have his act together and successfully helping run Hobie's business. But eventually his past catches up with him and totally blows up in his face, setting off a whole chain of events that make for a tense and action-packed climax.

There is so much more to this book than I can really express. Theo is very close to the Barbour family, through his school friend Andy, and this family could be an entire novel in themselves. One of the people Theo met just before the attack was a girl his age named Pippa, who he was immediately drawn to and could never quite get over, just one more thing haunting him for years. His relationship with Hobie, too, was both heartwarming and complicated and the plot line exploring the world of stolen art was fascinating.

Donna Tartt's writing is just as beautiful as ever, the story just as immersive. By the time I finished reading, I felt less like I had read a novel and more like I had an experience. It's too early to tell how much it will stick with me over time, but even now I can count it among one of the best books I've read this year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I still haven't finished my first Eunice sock, but I've started another pair of socks anyhow.

These are for Eric actually, and I've had the yarn since our trip to Philadelphia in June. I bought it out in Amish country, and the colorway has the appealing name of Amish Broom Corn. (The yarn I picked out for myself is called Buggy Top.) 

Frustratingly, this is a little thick for sock yarn. I began by casting on my usual number of stitches on needles of a usual size, but soon realized the sock could easily stand up by itself. So I ripped out and started again with fewer stitches on a larger needle. I sort of just had to guess, but it seems to fit so far. It's just a simple ribbed pattern.

I'm actually pretty close to the toe, although you can't see that here. The only way to get a decent picture this time of year with the current light levels and weather conditions is to go out on the front step and hold the sock up; I didn't have the luxury of artfully arranging it on a conveniently dry surface. But I'll be sure to get some modeled photos when the pair is done. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Little Brother

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008)

It is the not-too-distant future, and San Francisco is hit by a terrorist attack. In the confusion, Marcus and his friends are rounded up and sent to a bizarre prison camp where they are tortured before most of them are let go. Newly angered by his experience with the Department of Homeland Security and the new police state in which he is now living, Marcus goes online and undercover as "M1k3y," the leader of a new revolution.

The storyline was pretty good, and I liked the theme of safety versus privacy. Most of us can remember what it was like after 9/11 when the government rushed to pass the PATRIOT Act which effectively chipped away at our civil liberties - most notably our right to privacy - in the name of security. The fear instilled in us by the attack was used liberally to convince us this was for our own good. In Little Brother, this second attack paves the way for the passage of the PATRIOT Act II, which puts people under almost constant surveillance. Many of the conversations we had after 9/11 are echoed here between Marcus and his parents, classmates, and teachers. The best aspect of the book was the issues raised: the balance between security and privacy, whether or not the surveillance is effective, and if this constant surveillance means the terrorists have won.

I didn't find the actual story that fantastic. Many of the characters were fairly two-dimensional and the arguments oversimplified. Everyone either thought the governments actions were justified or not, but nobody struggled internally with this dilemma. The actual attack and the large number of deaths were pretty glossed over too, as though everyone recovered from the loss immediately and went on to concern themselves only with the new normal of surveillance. I realize that Marcus was locked away for several days after the attack, but the news coverage would have still been happening and he would have been bombarded with images of destruction and the victims. He never felt stunned at the sight of the wreckage, the memorial flowers that would have undoubtedly appeared there, nor did he ever once think about who had done it, whether they'd be caught, whether they would strike again. The event instilled no fear whatsoever in him. This simply did not ring true to me, as I thought about the aftermaths of both 9/11 and last year's Boston Marathon bombing.

Because of the highly technical nature of what Marcus is doing, there are a number of info dumps to slog through. If you're interested in that kind of thing - hacking Xboxes, encryption, etc - it's probably interesting. For me, I had a very tenuous and fleeting understanding of these concepts, but it turns out it's not that important to grasp the technical specifics in order to understand the story.

For the right teen, this would be a good introduction to some of these issues, especially as people that young don't remember the time before 9/11 and have grown up used to the idea of the government and corporations (like Facebook and Google) knowing everything about them. I'm glad Doctorow wrote this since there are so few other YA books about these issues. It's pretty dense for YA though, so it wouldn't top my list of enjoyable books for teens.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Black Aperture

Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen (2013)

Rasmussen's debut poetry collection centers on his brother's suicide and its aftermath. Meditations on the act itself, the pain of his brother's voice still on the answering machine, and the way the author now views the world through the lens of the tragedy make up this slim but powerful volume which was a finalist for the National Book Award this year.

I'm not really qualified to remark on poetry, since I've spent little time reading it in the last 15 years or so. Back when I did read poetry, I concentrated pretty heavily on Sylvia Plath with a little Anne Sexton and a couple others thrown in. But I wanted to try again. A year or so ago I tried reading Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer for Poetry in 2012, and though I could appreciate it on some level, it was mostly impenetrable and I abandoned it. I felt like she started with some ideas and thoughts she wanted to convey, then slathered them with a whole lot of words, requiring the reader to peel each poem like an onion to get at its core. Is that what poetry is supposed to be? Why not just say what you want to say in a way that is poetic, without completely obscuring it?

That, fortunately, is what Matt Rasmussen does as far as I can tell. I'm sure there's a lot I'm missing that could be grasped by someone more proficient than I am at reading poetry, but the point is that I don't feel like I'm missing anything. Reading these poems, I felt like I could understand enough to make it worthwhile and even pleasurable, though I hesitate to use such a word about poems on such a traumatic subject.

All were written as a series of non-rhyming couplets - I don't know if this is significant, or if it is usual to write a collection all in one style. But because of this style, with its frequent spacing, the poems felt less dense while still heavy with meaning. Rasmussen's language was clear, vivid, and darkly beautiful.

Here are some passages I especially liked.

From "O":

"At the base
of each bare tree

someone has spilled
a bucket of shadow."

From "Phone":

"But together we decide
which way the dream goes

like spilled water on a table
we carry across the room."

"The Orange Leaves" begins

"rocked back and forth
through the air
as if someone was

scraping the rust
off the sunset."

But of course you need to read the poems in their entirety to really appreciate them, especially the short ones like "Monet as a Verb," which is also a really fantastic title. Other poems had really great titles too, like "In Whoever's Hotel Room this Is" and "We're Not the Stars, We're What's Between Them."

Two poems were about his brothers hands, which I found quite intriguing though I'm unsure of the significance. They were both in the second section of the book, "Elegy in X Parts." The narrator talks about the hands being delivered with the mail, and putting them away somewhere only to have them appears in various places unexpectedly. It was a little creepy, in the best possible way.

This was a lucky pick I think, because it just happens to be the kind of poetry I like. Dark, vivid, and just accessible enough for someone like me to read. They definitely benefit from rereading and the more I do, the more I like them. Good poems beg to read over and over again, to wring any last bits of insight from them and consequently, I'm reluctant to return this book to the library.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Let it Snow

Let it Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle (2008)

Amidst a Christmas snowstorm, one small town hosts three interconnected romances, each written by a different author. First, a girl named Jubilee sets out on a train to her grandmother's house on Christmas Eve, but the train is stopped by the snow. Jubilee hops out and wanders to the nearby Waffle House, meeting up with a boy named Stuart who is trying to get over his breakup. When a group of cheerleaders from the same train end up taking over the Waffle House, Jubilee and Stuart make their exit. In the second story, a boy named Tobin is hanging out with a couple of friends when he gets a call from a friend who works at the Waffle House, begging them to come over because of the cheerleaders. And bring Twister! Tobin, JP and a female friend known as the Duke start making their way over, but the snowstorm proves to be a larger obstacle than they thought. In the third and final story, Addie arrives at an early shift at Starbucks and an eventful day follows which ties up all three stories.

Maureen Johnson's "The Jubilee Express" began the collection quite promisingly. Jubilee was named after Floby Santa Village building #4, Jubilee Hall, which should tell you something about her parents. So it will come as no surprise that on Christmas Eve they were arrested in a riot related to purchasing the newest piece for their Floby Santa Village. Thus, Jubilee is put on a train to go to her grandmother's house for Christmas. She had been looking forward to spending the evening with her boyfriend Noah, and once those plans were dashed every new obstacle put her in a worse mood. But it also gave her time to reflect a bit and, of course, develop a new friendship with Stuart. Jubilee was an appealing character, and her story was funny and charming.

In the second story, "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" by John Green, a group of friends goes on an across-town adventure on the promise of spending time with a group of cheerleaders at the Waffle House. One of the three friends, however, is a girl called the Duke who is less excited to meet up with the very sorts of girls she dislikes the most, but goes along with it in the interest of her friends, Tobin and JP. One of those friends appreciates her in a whole new way as the night progresses. Though not John Green's finest work, his style is still recognizable here in the wit and believability of his teenagers, and this was a solid second part of the collection.

The third story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs," fell a bit flat for me. Hearkening back to the first story for just a moment, Jubilee crosses paths with a guy on her train named Jeb who is trying to get to his girlfriend. He has been desperately trying to get through to her but can't get a signal on his phone. They are apparently going through a tough time in their relationship. Lauren Myracle's story is told from the point of view of Jeb's girlfriend Addie, who cheated on Jeb at a party not long before and is filled with regret and desperately wants him back. I am convinced he is too good for her. She's a fairly thin character who is self-absorbed (we know this because we are told over and over) and is trying to get through a hectic work day, but needs to sneak away on a break to pick up a teacup pig named Gabriel for her friend. I didn't really care about Addie, her friends, or the pig. (And I like pigs.) It somehow all felt a bit preachy, and when the hippie artsy lady showed up and they started talking about angels watching over us, I pretty much forgot any appeal the story held. It wasn't horrible, it really wasn't, there just wasn't a lot to it.

This is sort of a tough assignment. Three authors writing three stories, all of which shared a setting and contained characters from the other stories. Plus they are all romances, and it's Christmas-themed. I got a little tired of it all by the third story anyhow, but I still think it was the weakest. Even so, it was an amusing story and I felt a certain sense of satisfaction when all three stories tied up neatly at the end. The whole collection was pretty fluffy, but charming and fun and not a bad bet if you're looking for a holiday themed young adult selection.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Things a Brother Knows

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt (2010)

When Levi's older brother Bo returns after serving in the Marines, he is not the same person he was before. Bo spends all day in his room, only coming out briefly for meals, and doesn't talk about his experiences in the war. Levi knows that Bo is planning something and is determined to find out what, even if that means following him when it is clear he wants to be left alone.

I'm always happy to see more young adult books focused on guys, and this one has the added bonus of tackling a topic you don't see a lot in fiction at all, but especially YA fiction. Clearly, Levi's brother is suffering from PTSD and his family doesn't know how to help. Do they give Bo space? Do they try to talk with him though he clearly doesn't want to? Do they just leave him to figure things out for himself? Levi already felt abandoned and betrayed when his brother joined up, and now he feels like the brother he once admired might be gone forever.

Other characters in the cast include Levi's best friends, Pearl and Zim, who not only support their good friend, but provide a little comic relief. Levi and Bo's family wasn't quite as fleshed out, but there was enough detail to keep them interesting. They are Jewish, and their father also served in the military, so there's a little extra detail and complexity. By the way, nothing about this novel is pro- or anti-war, it's more about how the experiences of war affect an entire family. As an added bonus, there is a road trip.

I heard of this book a while ago and only finally picked it up because it was a contender for my library's upcoming Community Read (it didn't win - we're doing The Book Thief.) It was a very quick read and I really liked it while I was reading it, but I don't think it will stick with me. I'm already forgetting a lot of details. Still, I think it was a pretty well-crafted book and I will likely recommend it to teens in the library looking for realistic fiction.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I promised an update on my Geodesic Cardigan ages ago, and then set it aside and haven't touched it since. But I realized you haven't seen it since it was far too many balls of tangled yarn. It looks much nicer now.

I got to a point where I had to knit until it was a certain length, so the last time I touched it I took it off the needles to measure it. I have no idea what I determined, so the next time I pick it up I have to take it back off the needles and measure it again before I can move on. Thus, I have ignored it completely.

So far my biggest concern is the way the bottom turns up. Did I cast on too tight? Will it block out? Will it matter anyhow, if I run out of yarn before I'm done, as I fear I might? So many questions.

I've recently been distracted by other projects, such as another pair of socks, and an odd little cross stitch I started working on after coming across the kit stashed in my sewing table. I'll show you one of those next time I do a Sunday post.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear (Earth's Children #1) by Jean Auel (1980)

An earthquake rips a 5-year-old girl from her family and she wanders alone until she is rescued by a kind-hearted medicine woman named Iza. But Iza is Clan and it is apparent that the child, Ayla, is not Clan. She is clearly human, but of a different kind, distinguishable by her high forehead, blonde hair, and straight limbs. Nevertheless, the Clan accepts her and raises her, but will she ever really be one of them? The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first in Jean Auel's well-known Ice Age saga that recently came to a close with 2011's The Land of Painted Caves.

The Clan of the title is a group of Neanderthals, and Auel has taken what is known about them (at the time of writing, anyhow) and created a whole society. I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of this was made up and there is much we don't know about this extinct species of human, but she makes it very vivid and believable.

Auel's Neanderthals have active spiritual lives, constantly trying to please the spirits they believe play large roles in their lives. Each person has a totem, the spirit of an animal they are associated with and which protects them. Male totems should be stronger than female totems, and which totem is yours is determined by the Mog-ur, or spiritual leader of the group. It is determined that Ayla's totem is the cave bear, a decidedly male totem, which causes much consternation among the Clan. Their memories also play an important role. In addition to one's own memories, each person has access also to the memories of their ancestors, and even a larger racial memory. They can all access these memories together, joining their minds telepathically. Ayla does not have this ability, yet another feature that sets her apart.

Although the novel contains dialogue, it is explained at the beginning that the clan's language is primarily a sign language. They aren't capable of the range of sounds that Ayla makes. Her laughter and tears are strange and alarming to them until they get used to it. They are unable to lie, or to count very high, and are surprised by Ayla's cognitive leaps which are out of their grasp. Ayla is a new breed, and therefore a threat to some in the clan. Though she lacks the deep memories they have, she is capable of a different kind of understanding, and isn't held back from changing and learning new things the way they have been.

Even in this first book of the series we know that these people have remained unchanged for a long time and will be dying out, and I'm curious about how that theme progresses later in the series. The rules forbidding women from hunting, it is explained, may have been helping the clan towards its own demise. Because only women with no desire to hunt were allowed to survive, the adaptability of the race was curtailed. It is a huge shock when it's discovered that Ayla is drawn to hunting.

Perhaps because of her innate differences, Ayla was constantly getting into trouble for acting in ways that were unacceptable for women. Women were forbidden from even touching tools used for hunting, but Ayla defies these rules and learns to use a sling to hunt. Every time Ayla broke a Clan rule, I thought "When will she learn?" But I think it was her innate qualities which drove her to behave in ways unacceptable to the group, to know more things, to make discoveries they couldn't, and she found it extremely difficult to live by their rules.

I was quite interested in the day-to-day life of the clan, their hierarchies, and the treatment of women and those considered deformed. A lot of mundane tasks were fairly captivating to me, like gathering herbs, cooking, hunting, the specifics of cave living - really, a lot of the same things I love about the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. (Right down to the cave living - remember when the Ingalls family lived in a dugout?) Equally fascinating were some of the less common, but still important, practices and rituals. The punishment for serious crimes is the death curse, in which the Clan decides a person is dead and refuses to see or interact with them, either temporarily or permanently.

I grew to really like the characters, especially Iza and her brother Creb, the Mog-ur, who acted as Ayla's parents. The interpersonal relationships in the novel were probably the best part for me, which is no surprise since I prefer character-driven novels. I liked watching Ayla win over person after person, each distrusting the new stranger until they got to know her, or learned something about her that they were able to fit into their limited worldview. One Clan member, however, would not accept her - Broud, the hot-headed young man destined to become leader one day. The relationship between Broud and Ayla provided much of the tension in the story and was painful to see, but also believable given the combination of Clan traditions and his personality.

I've been wanting to get around to reading this forever and now that I have I want to just move on to the second book. Right now I have other books that need to take priority (so many book groups!), and I fear I will then get distracted and never come back to this series. But I hope I do, because I can't help but root for Ayla as she makes her way through the harsh, ancient world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011), narrated by the author

I first read Bossypants back in 2011 soon after it was published. When I heard how good the audio was, I rather wished I had listened instead. My interest was renewed while reading Lean In, in which Fey was quoted a number of times, so last weekend on a long drive to and from Maine I finally listened.

I wasn't quite as impressed with the audio version as I had hoped. Fey still sounds more like she's reading than talking, which I suppose is just because of the style of her writing. There were bits I couldn't hear because she drops her voice, and my car is rather loud. If your car is more of a luxury vehicle than my Toyota Yaris, this may not be a problem for you. But just be aware, the volume of her voice varies quite a bit. Still, it was enjoyable and just the right mix of smart and funny for a car trip. (Also, note that the book has a number of photos. They're included on one of the CDs, but obviously impossible to look at while driving.)

Looking back at my previous review, I can see that I focused more on her personal stories than her career. Because I just finished Lean In, this time I was especially interested in her work experiences. Comedy has its own set of unique problems, it appears, such as a strangely common idea that women aren't funny. Which just led me to spend 20 minutes watching clips of Saturday Night Live on YouTube. Now, where was I? Oh yes. Tina Fey doesn't fucking care if you like it. I'm pretty sure that's exactly what she says in the book: "We don't fucking care if you like it." When men dismiss ideas like Kotex Classic, it's because they are men and don't understand, not because it isn't funny. Another stumbling block Fey ran into was the idea that nobody would be interested in a sketch that featured only women, proved very wrong by sketches like this one about a joint message from Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, which is not only one of the most memorable moments on SNL but contains a very real message about women and the media.

Like Sandberg, Fey also addresses the problems of working mothers, as well as general observations about the expectations that come with being female. She acknowledges the pressures to look a certain way, but dismisses them, and that is the real crux of her brand of feminism I think - she chooses not to care what others think and what they expect from her and instead trusts in herself. This message goes hand in hand with Sheryl Sandberg's and these two books compliment each other nicely. If you still haven't read Bossypants, give it a shot. You too will be inspired to head over to YouTube and rewatch all of your favorite Tina Fey moments.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (2013), narrated by Noah Galvin

On the morning of Leonard Peacock's 18th birthday, he packs a gun in his backpack along with four gifts. The gifts are for the four people who are most important to him: his elderly neighbor Walt with whom he watches Humphrey Bogart movies; a young woman he developed a crush on when she handed him a religious pamphlet at the subway; a guy from his school who lets Leonard listen to him practice his violin; and his favorite teacher, Herr Silverman. Once he distributes these gifts, Leonard plans to take his gun and murder his former best friend before killing himself. It's going to be a hell of a day.

As Leonard visits each of these friends in turn, he reveals his story about each one and why they are important. It's clear early on that Leonard is fairly lonely, which is reinforced by the distance between him and the people to whom he's bringing gifts. His mother is a self-absorbed fashion designer who lives in New York most of the time, leaving Leonard alone in their home in Philadelphia, and his father is out of the picture. Still, the major reasons for his plan are shrouded until late in the story.

I was skeptical about the premise of this book at first - I'm so sick of hearing about teenagers taking guns to school to blow up their classmates and/or teachers. Do I need to read about it in fiction too? But I wanted to give Matthew Quick another chance after Sorta Like a Rock Star, which I thought held promise even though I didn't love it. I'm so glad I did.

Leonard is in obvious pain, but is so smart and funny I couldn't help but like him. I knew he must have a good reason for what he was planning and through the entire book I just knew the tragedy would be averted, because how could you kill this character, Matthew Quick? Of course I won't tell you what happens but I'll say that I loved this book the whole way through.

I loved the stories about his friendships with the four characters he has gifts for. They are all very different people, but Leonard appreciates them all for who they are and how they have touched him. I especially liked his relationship with his neighbor Walt. All they did together was watch Bogart movies, and their conversations were built entirely of quotes from those movies, and somehow it was just very sweet.

Interspersed with the stories are letters from the future, from Leonard's life after a nuclear holocaust, where he lives in a lighthouse with a wife and daughter. Though I had no idea through a lot of the book whether they were supposed to be actual letters from the future or fiction, they were still some of my favorite parts.

What ultimately sold me on trying this book was listening to a sample of the audio, which proved a great choice. I'm pretty sure that Noah Galvin is actually a teenager, and he perfectly captures Leonard's character. I could probably listen to this guy read anything. And in fact, it turns out he also narrated one of my favorite books, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If I decide to tackle Perks a fifth time, I'll be sure to try the audio. As for Leonard Peacock, you probably can't go wrong with either format. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Raven Stole the Moon

Raven Stole the Moon by Garth Stein (1998)

It's been two years since Jenna and Robert's son drowned on their trip to Alaska. Jenna has been unable to get past it, and on the night of the second anniversary of the event she leaves Robert at a party near their home in Seattle and goes back to where it happened. Jenna's Native American grandmother lived in nearby Wrangell, and it is here that Jenna begins. She learns about an old Tlingit legend about creatures called the kushtaka and becomes convinced it is they who have her son.

I really liked the premise of this book, but ultimately it required buying into Native American mysticism. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that the kushtaka are supposed to be real, and Jenna begins pursuing spiritual help in the form of a shaman. It's a very unusual story, and quite different from what I expected based on the cover blurb and Goodreads descriptions, neither of which hint of the magical realism in the story.

I almost put the book down a few times, but stuck with it because I liked the idea of this bereaved mother running off to Alaska, visiting her grandmother's abandoned house, and getting to know some of the locals. I so badly wanted her to just start a new life for herself, which of course was impossible given the loose ends of her husband and the rest of her life back in Seattle. As it progressed, the aspects of the story I liked gave way to more about the kushtaka but by then I had read the majority of a 400+page book so I wasn't going to stop there.

None of the characters were fleshed out quite enough, but I really thought I would have liked Jenna and her new Wrangell friend Eddie more if I was able to get to really know them. The shaman David Livingstone was also a complicated character who I never quite understood as well as I should have. Perhaps the idea for this story was just a bit too ambitious.

This is all not to say that it's a bad book. I think a different person, someone who is more interested in Native American religion or who is more open to unusual spiritual themes would appreciate it. It just wasn't for me.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (2013)

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg examines why women are still not holding leadership positions at even close to the same rate as men. She tells stories from her career, rounding them out with facts, statistics, and information gleaned from studies. In addition to all the external societal factors, she says much of what holds us back is internal. Sandberg also includes concrete advice to help break through these barriers to achievement.

I had many "YES!" moments while reading. Early on, Sandberg talks about a common experience among women when being praised that we feel undeserving and guilty and will be found out. This "impostor syndrome" is part of a larger problem of women consistently underrating themselves and, therefore, not reaching as high. She cites a report from Hewlett-Packard which discovered that women only apply for jobs if they meet 100 percent of the criteria, whereas men apply if they meet 60 percent. I've heard this before - it was one of my major takeaways from Library Leadership Massachusetts and changed the way I was conducting my job search.

External factors also hold us back as well, but women are just as guilty of gender discrimination as men are. In one memorable study, people of both sexes were given resumes to review and evaluate. The resumes were identical except for the first name of the candidate - one was a male name and one a female name - and yet the evaluators consistently rated the male resume higher. This includes the female evaluators. Sandberg also recounted an experience where she was called out after a talk for continuing to take questions from men in the room after saying she was done with questions. The women had all put their hands down, but the men didn't so she kept taking their questions.

Some have criticized that Sandberg takes a narrow view of women, only writing about wealthy, heterosexual women. Although she occasionally throws in some facts and statistics outside of this limited scope (such as when she notes that same-sex couples share household responsibilities more equitably) that is largely true. But so much of this book comes from her experiences that it would be presumptuous to try and speak for women in vastly different situations from herself. I'd love to read a book about similar issues as applied to more working-class women, but I just think that would be a different book written by a different author. I'd love to compare the experiences though.

Two or three chapters are devoted to the problems of balancing motherhood with career, a well-worn topic that is not relevant to me or the growing numbers of women who are deciding not to have children. Obviously it is a necessary topic in a book about women and their careers, but I could have stood a bit less of it. (Women with children may feel differently.) It was still fairly interesting though. Sandberg notes that the media and many individuals continue to remark on how she balances her career with motherhood, yet never ask the same questions of her husband or other fathers with high-powered careers.

I should also note that Lean In is less than 200 pages and reads easily because of Sandberg's conversational tone. If you're still trying to decide whether or not to try it, I recommend watching her TED Talk which is quite inspiring. Even though I have no desire to lead a company I found a lot of valuable insight in Sandberg's book. I really enjoyed it, and I think there is something for everyone to learn from it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2012)

Fifteen-year-old Ari doesn't fit in with the kids at school. He doesn't quite fit in with his family either. His siblings are all 11-12 years older than he is, and his older brother - who none of them talk about - is in prison. Ari likes his parents ok, but his father served in Vietnam and doesn't talk his experience, though clearly he is still carrying it with him. But one summer, Ari meets a kid named Dante, who also doesn't quite fit in, and they develop a friendship that is not only meaningful to them, but which also brings them closer to their families.

There is so much going on this book. One of the major events was a serious accident that was a catalyst in bringing Ari and Dante closer together, and the repercussions played out throughout the novel. Both characters are Mexican-American and they live in El Paso, which is pretty unusual and underrepresented in literature. Ari's parents were emotionally inaccessible in some ways, and didn't understand how much it hurt Ari that they refused to tell him anything about his brother, yet they were decent people who obviously cared and wanted to be supportive of him. (And I loved that both characters had good parents who have prominent roles in the story.) I don't think it's a spoiler to say that sexuality is one of the main issues in this book. Partway through it becomes clear that Dante is gay, and I thought this theme was handled in a way that was both subtle and realistic.

It's hard to do it justice, and I'm really failing, so you may just need to take my word for it that this is a great book. The writing is sophisticated yet still very accessible. I began reading it early one evening and finished the next morning. I never read that quickly, but I just flew through this book. I didn't want to put it down.

I started looking to see if the author has written anything else and it turns out that ALL of his YA books have won awards or been listed among top books for teens. He is obviously very talented and I hope to read more of his work. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who likes young adult fiction, or really anyone who just likes good books.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Allegiant by Veronica Roth (2013)

This is the third and final of Roth's trilogy that began with Divergent and continued with Insurgent, so beware that there are spoilers here for those books.

At the end of Insurgent, we learned that the factions were a result of the world becoming unmanageable and violent. The city was created with these factions to restore order and cultivate particular values in its people. When enough people began showing strengths in more than one area - people who were called Divergent, like Tris - it was time to leave the city and help save the outsiders who were presumably still killing each other.

When Allegiant begins, Tris and some others do leave the city, but when they arrive at a place called the Bureau of Genetic Welfare they learn truths that are even more shocking than what they had learned previously. Reeling from this new information, Tris and Tobias must make extremely difficult choices.

The first two books in this series were narrated in first person by Tris, but in this final volume the story alternates between Tris and Tobias. This is a pretty typical mechanism, but unfortunately their voices were almost identical. That's not terribly unusual either but it does make things a bit confusing now and then.

Mostly I liked how the story progressed and thought it was a good ending to the series, even if certain aspects of the resolution seemed a bit too easy. There were some surprises at the end, and I have to admit that I like the choices Roth made. As with the other books in the trilogy, the interpersonal relationships were complicated and nuanced. It wasn't exactly smooth sailing for Tris and Tobias, but Tris's relationship with her brother was even more interesting and some very tough choices had to be made near the end. There was an epilogue that took place a couple of years in the future but, thank goodness, didn't go the Harry Potter or Mockingjay route. It gave you enough about how things turned out, without leaving you feeling strange and unfulfilled. All in all, I found a lot to like in this series and was satisfied with its conclusion.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Good House

The Good House by Ann Leary (2013), narrated by Mary Beth Hurt

Hildy Good is a sixty-something real estate agent in the small fictional town of Wendover, MA. A year or so ago, her family staged an intervention for her alleged alcoholism and she is still resentful. Now she drinks only in secret - and of course in moderation. Hildy is trying to sell a house owned by a rather challenging couple who want to move so their son can go to a school that will be better for his disabilities. She has also lately befriended a newcomer to town, the much-younger Rebecca who, though married, is having an affair with her therapist. Meanwhile, Hildy is rekindling a decades-old romance of her own.

I'm so glad I heard Ann Leary speak at the Boston Book Festival. Although The Good House was on my to read list, it wasn't a very high priority. But I was so taken in with Leary's humor and stories of her own alcoholism that I downloaded the book from Audible soon after. At first, I thought the story was just ok, and it took me a bit to get into it. But then I became more and more invested and interested and really loved it by the end.

Hildy was such a fantastic character, whose foibles and humor were quite endearing. She knew everything that was going on in this town where she had spent her life, and I really enjoyed seeing it through her eyes. I really loved the small town aspects of this book, how everyone knew everyone else and had so much history they couldn't escape. (I love that in books, just not so much in real life, hence the reason I live in a city far from where I grew up.) She was known for being a bit psychic, but readily admitted it was no super power, just a good ability to read people.

As the novel progressed, so did Hildy's drinking and I became rather worried for her. She was completely disillusioned about her own ability to moderate herself. There were times she was able to go weeks without drinking, which she did to prove to herself that she could stop. But it was so easy to see why she thought the way she did, and why she was so bitter towards her children for getting involved in her life. If a grown adult wants to sit at home and drink an entire bottle of wine before bed, what business is it of anyone else?

This book and this narrator were made for each other. I probably would have liked the book anyhow, but the way that Mary Beth Hurt read Hildy's narration made her character really come alive for me, and I think some of her choices in tone and style added a great deal of feeling to the story. I highly recommend listening to the audio version.

What a great story about a small town and all its secrets! There was an interview with the author at the end of the audiobook, and she revealed that originally Hildy wasn't going to be the main character. It was going to be primarily about the affair between Rebecca and Peter, but Hildy's voice kept coming through so strongly that she ended up becoming the protagonist. This was clearly an excellent choice, as Hildy told the story of the town and some of its inhabitants so very well, even through (and maybe because of) her alcoholic haze.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I started a new sock project almost immediately after finishing my last pair. Like those, this is a pattern from Cookie A.'s Sock Innovation. This pattern is called Eunice.

That is the completed leg. It's fairly short, but adding another pattern repeat might use too much yarn so I'll follow the instructions. The heel flap has it's own chart, and thank goodness I checked for errata because the chart is very different from what's printed in the book.

I'm using Cascade Heritage sock yarn, which is my go-to yarn recently. I bought a bunch just before Windsor Button closed down. The needles are from Signature Needle Arts and they are a dream to knit with. I opted for the stiletto version - a very pointy tip - and love it. They are a true size 1, which you can't get from my standard Addi Turbos. I usually knit socks on size 0, but sometimes you want a 1 and I'm very glad to have some now.

Since this pattern is pretty chart-heavy I can't take this project on the bus. My bus knitting recently has been the Geodesic Cardigan, which I'm happy to report is going much more smoothly since the Great Yarn-Winding Debacle of a few weeks ago. I'll show you progress on that project next time!

Happy trails, Nibbles

Poor little Nibbles died during surgery yesterday. I miss him already.

He didn't really like to sit still for photos, but this is the most recent one I have. I took it in August shortly after his brother Biscuit died.

Nibbles had been having some mysterious health issues that we thought was either kidney failure or diabetes, and then he developed some abdominal swelling that was quite alarming. I took him to the vet and, assuming it was a tumor, I left Nibbles there for surgery. I knew there was a possibility that the vet wouldn't be able to remove it, in which case Nibbles would probably just be euthanized. As it turned out, he had some sort of massive abscess on his bladder, and the surgery released some built-up toxins which killed him pretty quickly. Which I suppose is better than having to make the decision to euthanize, and better than having him gradually feel worse and worse.

Here's a less blurry photo of him from last January.

Nibbles was very friendly and social and enjoyed being petted. He also loved people food, from broccoli to potato chips, it was all extremely exciting for him. I really liked having him around. Goodbye, Nibbles!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye (2012)

In the strange little village of Hemmersmoor, a few childhood friends who are now adults and haven't seen each other for a while meet at a funeral. In a narration that switches between four characters, flashbacks to a series of vignettes from their childhood creates a weird and twisted story of murder, incest, and betrayals.

It's hard to know where to start with this one. This was a weird little book. Imagine Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle mating with Grimm's Fairy Tales and this might be the product of their union. It's got that eerie Jackson style, but the killing is quick and brutal and matter-of-fact like a fairy tale. I hardly know what to make of it, but believe me, I clutched onto this thing and read it in just a few sittings.

When a cooking contest results in unease, villagers band together and murder one of the participants. A young boy kills his sister, another group of boys let a friend take a wild risk knowing that he's sure to die, a man smashes his daughter's face into a mirror, scarring her for life. Each time one of these horrible things happened, I was shocked, and when it seemed like another sinister act was about to take place I thought "Surely, not again..." But it did. It always did. And despite the number of murders, the most significant betrayal in the book cost its victim only a scholarship.

Also, is that the creepiest cover EVER? That is most of the reason I wanted to read this in the first place. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is quite unusual and not for everyone, but at 200 pages it's not much of an investment time-wise. I recommend trying it if you like Shirley Jackson or Ray Bradbury, or just want something bizarre and creepy that packs a bit of a punch.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (2013)

This might be the opposite of the last book I read. I read it in about two sittings, laughed the whole way through, and will probably read it again. Maybe even soon. I've been a fan of the Hyperbole and a Half blog for a while now. Brosh doesn't publish frequently but her comics are worth the wait. Each one is a pretty long comic essay about some event in her life. Her drawing style is simple, yet conveys a wide range of emotion, and in her stories she somehow manages to really pinpoint the most ridiculous aspects of the human (and canine) condition.

I admit I was a little skeptical when I first heard that Hyperbole and a Half was going to be a book, because I am suspicious of blogs that become books. My first concern was whether there would be any new content, and I'm happy to report that there is a ton of new content. I enjoyed many stories that were new to me, and I was more than willing to also enjoy the familiar ones again. That's the thing with Allie Brosh's comics - they're just as funny the 12th time you read them.

I don't think I will ever get tired of "Adventures in Depression." My favorite part is when she is berating herself one day while eating.

I mean, not to belittle the very serious problem that is depression, but being able to write about her experiences with such candor and self-deprecating humor is really a gift to the world. If reading this doesn't actually lift your spirits (and how could it not?) at least it will show you that you aren't alone.

Many of the stories are much more light-hearted. In one, a goose gets into her house and terrorizes her boyfriend Duncan. In another, she recounts an incident in which she went to great lengths to ravage her grandfather's birthday cake. Her dog, who she kindly refers to as "simple" is also a frequent subject of her comics. It is amazing how expressive Brosh's simple drawings of her simple dog can be.

There is very little in this world that actually makes me laugh out loud, but Hyperbole and a Half does, over and over again. I'm so glad to have this book in my house because sometimes I really depend on these comics to cheer me up, and it's nice to have some in print in case I ever find myself needing cheering and the internet is out. If you're new to Allie Brosh get yourself over to her blog immediately, and then go get the book. You won't be sorry. But don't blame me if you pull a muscle from laughing too hard.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (2012)

While finishing her education at Cambridge, Serena Frome is recruited for British intelligence agency MI5. Project Sweet Tooth funds writers whose political views are in line with the government. Serena is sent to hook an upcoming writer for the project, pretending she's with a philanthropic organization, very quickly finding herself in a relationship with him. As you might expect, being a spy means that Serena's life and relationships are fraught with secrets and betrayal.

This novel is less spy and more relationship than I expected. The whole reason Serena gets into MI5 is because of her relationship with a professor, and then she gets into a relationship with her very first (and last) recruit for Sweet Tooth. Not to mention the other, less important, relationships she has in between; basically, she gets romantically involved with every guy she ever meets. It was just so unprofessional too, especially the one with Tom Haley, the author. How does she expect anyone to take her seriously? And how does she think that relationship will go since it's based entirely on lies? I got a little irritated with her.

But Serena isn't all bad, and in fact she's interesting in some ways. She loves reading but studied mathematics because she happened to be good at it. Her parents, because of some vaguely feminist notion, persuaded her that she owed it to herself to go into a field where women are underrepresented if she has a talent for that subject. So she did, but she always maintained a love of books, even the most lowbrow. I loved this as well - she kept trying to convince everyone that even the most pulpy novels were just as good as literary award-winners.

Other than discussing Serena's character, I'm having a hard time finding much to say about Sweet Tooth. There was little I disliked and, in fact, I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but even though I finished just a few days ago, I already barely remember it. In this way, it is definitely different from McEwan's other books, which haunted me long after I finished them. But I had heard that it was different from his other novels and in fact it seems like people who like McEwan don't like this book and vice versa. So it's hard to know whether or not to recommend it. I liked it, but not nearly as much as his other books.

Friday, November 1, 2013

R.I.P. VIII Challenge Wrap-up

October is over and with it the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge. I read the following books for this challenge:

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
Slaves of Obsession by Anne Perry
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
14 by Peter Clines

I really liked all of these books a lot. I'm especially happy that I finally read 14, as it's been on my list to read for quite a while now and I think I needed this push to finally prioritize it. It was very unusual and creative and just fantastic. I highly recommend it. Even the Anne Perry book was a particular standout for that series. Her books are comfort reads to me in a way because I always know what to expect, but this one was especially good. The Stephen King book was especially well timed for this challenge, though I would have read it whenever it came out. When Nights Were Cold was also a priority since I had ordered it all the way from the UK. (It's still unavailable in the US, but there are some used copies on Amazon, and I highly recommend it.)

I had hoped to finally read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but although I checked it out of the library and even renewed it at least once, I never quite got to it. I also wanted to read Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye which my library was supposed to have available, but I looked all over the place and couldn't find it. Until yesterday, when I was walking past the display of new large print books and spotted it lying there completely out of place. I've read only a few pages so far, but the style reminds me a bit of Shirley Jackson and that is a good thing.

The R.I.P. VIII review site is here if you'd like to read the reviews of other participants, which I recommend. There are almost 500 reviews there now, from somewhere around 200 different blogs.

I don't frequently participate in reading challenges, but I'm glad I took part in this one. It was fun, seasonally appropriate, and has encouraged me to read a couple of books I had been putting off for quite a while. I look forward to participating again next year!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding (2013), narrated by Samantha Bond

It's been many years since we've seen Bridget Jones, and a hell of a lot has changed. First off - and I'm sure you've seen all the hysterical book review headlines about this - Mark Darcy is dead. Dead! Bridget is a 51-year-old widow with two little kids and she's finally ready to begin dating again. She meets a 30-year-old guy named Roxster on Twitter and embarks on a relationship, while balancing all the responsibilities of a single mother. Hilarity ensues.

Let's just talk about this Mark Darcy situation first and get it out of the way. We spent two books trying to get Bridget and Mark together, and it's kind of a shame we didn't get to experience their relationship. But that wouldn't be a very interesting book, would it? One reviewer at least is convinced it wasn't necessary to kill Mark, arguing that a marriage has enough fodder to sustain a narrative arc. While I agree with that, I don't think that sort of story is Helen Fielding's style. It certainly wouldn't be the sort of Bridget we all know and love. She needs to be awkwardly dating and mucking shit up all the time.

Enter Twitter. Some of the funniest scenes in this book are from Bridget's early experiences using Twitter and being obsessed about her lack of followers. Ultimately though, she gains some followers, including the young Roxster. After some online flirting they decide to meet in real life, and begin dating. There's a lot more explicit sex in this book than in the first two Bridget Jones novels, and I wasn't crazy about that, but it wasn't enough to really detract from the story.

I think I read in a review somewhere that Bridget hasn't grown up since the last novel, but I disagree. She is pretty similar in terms of dating - and why not? She's spent all the time since we last saw her married. How would she have gotten better at that? In that time she has also become a mother, and a good one. Her relationship with her kids was really quite touching, and though she had moments of frantic disorganization and the kids sometimes acted up, I think that's pretty realistic. She's certainly learned to cook since the last book. Back then preparing a meal was fraught with unreasonable expectations, disorganization, and clumsiness. These days she has kids to feed and is pretty no-nonsense about getting a meal on the table.

Bridget had two romances during the course of the novel, and unfortunately I found one of them very unconvincing. It felt rushed to me, and I didn't feel like I really knew this guy at all. I'm sure he's a great person, but I didn't get the chance to find that out for myself. To me, he was a usurper who didn't earn the right to take Mark's place. So that left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

I was very disappointed that the narrator wasn't Barbara Rosenblat. I've listened to the first two Bridget Jones books countless times, and it's Rosenblat's narration that really makes the experience for me. I'm sure Samantha Bond does a good job but it's so hard for me to consider her performance objectively because ultimately she fails at being Barbara Rosenblat. This of course is an unfair judgement and is my problem, not Samantha Bond's problem.

All in all, I liked this new (and final?) installment in the Bridget Jones series. Given the premise of the book, it simply can't be as lighthearted as the previous two novels. There are many moments in which Bridget gives in to sadness over Mark, and I couldn't help feeling sad too. Nobody should be widowed like that, at such a (relatively) young age. I thought Fielding did a good job though of balancing the sadness and the humor, and I feel comforted to know that Bridget is still doing ok. Obviously it wasn't as fun as the first two books but I still liked it, and I liked this new more mature and capable Bridget who can withstand tragedy and still manage to enjoy herself.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It's Kind of a Funny Story

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2007)

All Craig Gilner wants is to gain entrance to the Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan, thus ensuring that he'll then get into the right college, then get the right job. He's got it all planned out. But after getting into the school, everything goes a bit crazy until one night Craig finds himself calling a suicide hotline and checking himself into a local hospital. This was not part of the plan. A teenager in the adult psychiatric unit of a local hospital, Craig meets a variety of interesting characters and starts trying to work his way back out of his depression.

In addition to having depression, Craig placed a lot of pressure on himself to excel which led to "cycling" - an internal monologue in which not doing well on a test would lead to failing school, not getting into a good college, not getting a good job, and ultimately being homeless. In the psych ward, he met people who were homeless, who didn't have families to fall back on, and this helped Craig maintain some perspective on his life. If they could pull themselves up and go on and improve their life situations, then surely he could.

There are few young adult books that tackle mental illness head-on and I appreciated the straightforward honesty of this story. Craig wasn't as screwed up as he could have been, his family not as dysfunctional, and the story not as dramatic, and this lent believability to his story. In fact, it's based on the author's own experience in a psychiatric ward and he wrote the book almost immediately afterward. Unlike in many YA books, our protagonist had a great family, a therapist he liked, and supportive parents. I suppose it doesn't add to the narrative tension but I found it a welcome change. This novel sends a clear message that help and support is available and that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. But not in a way that is too messagey, or that interrupts the narrative flow.

One of my favorite parts of the story was an exercise that a counselor walked Craig through when he called the suicide hotline. The counselor, Keith, says it's a five-step exercise for managing anxiety and tells Craig to begin by picking any event that he had experienced. Craig picks "ate pizza last week." Keith says to then record how he felt. Then he goes to prompt Craig to record anything about the event that he regrets or felt that he should have done better, at which Craig realizes he picked the wrong sort of event and furiously erases his work and picks something else. I loved this because I've participated in many exercises where you pick a situation and build off it, and I always feel like I began with the wrong thing. If it's in a conference session or something similar, the presenter always has a carefully crafted example that works, but mine never do. Same thing with working through the activities in What Color Is Your Parachute? in which a bad choice could lead one down the wrong career path. I felt so validated reading this scene.

Another way in which I related a bit to Craig was when he was given a menu to fill out for hospital meals. It was so simple, and Craig wished that everything in life was like this: you're given a set of choices, you check off what you want, and you're taken care of. He concluded from this that he wanted to be in preschool. He's not even an adult, yet he's already feeling the burden of all the choices and tasks one must complete just to get through daily life. I feel your pain, Craig.

True to the title, it was kind of a funny story. Craig's voice was not only honest and straightforward, but fairly light and humorous. He was self-aware and able to step outside of his own head enough to wittily observe his surroundings and his new friends. He was also very compassionate and selfless, helping out his fellow patients as much as he could. I liked Craig a whole lot. Although he will likely struggle with depression his whole life (I say as though Craig Gilner is real), I feel confident that he'll be able to manage it enough to have the fulfilling sort of life that he deserves.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Knitting

After I began the Geodesic Cardigan with the Yarn Spawned From the First Circle of Hell, I realize that all three of my current projects were almost exactly the same color. Clearly one of them needed to be finished so I could rectify this situation.

These are the Sunshine Socks, from Cookie A.'s Sock Innovation.

They're a bit loose in the leg, but not as bad as I thought they'd be. They call for a size 1.5 needle which should have tipped me off, but the number of cast on stitches was fairly low. Then in the first pattern row there are some increases, but by then I had forgotten that I was using a largeish needle. But anyhow, I think they're fine.

You may remember that I realized halfway through one leg that there's an error in the chart, and decided to just keep going as I had started. Well, after turning the heel I decided to heed the errata and knit the rest of that sock and the next one the correct way because it does actually look better.

I'm pretty sure the one on the right is the error-ridden one, but you have to look closely to tell (well, especially with this picture. I wasn't thinking about comparing them when I was taking it.) (Also, the color is more accurate in the first photo - it's pretty teal.)

I expect that these will need to be darned about 25 times in the next couple of years before I finally shove them in the trash in a fit of rage. I've used this yarn before and there's no nylon in it so I should have known better than to use it for socks. My plan was actually to make something else with it but I could never decide on what, so now it's socks.

Immediately upon finishing these I cast on for another pair of socks. So now I have two projects that are in the teal family and one in a different shade of blue. I need to find something green or orange to knit...