Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Walled City

The Walled City by Ryan Graudin (2014)

There used to be a huge walled city in Hong Kong - an enormous mass of interconnected high rises where drugs and crime were rampant. (A photographer named Greg Girard has some great photos of it here if you want to see what it looked like.) Ryan Graudin used the real city as inspiration for the setting in her young adult novel, The Walled City.

The city of Hak Nam is rough and gritty and dangerous. The only rule of law is maintained by an organization called the Brotherhood of the Dragon, which is presided over by a man called Longwai. Longwai is also a drug trafficker and runs a brothel and it is through these avenues that he is connected to the main characters of the novel.

The story centers on three desperate teenagers who have all been trapped in the city for a couple of years. Jin Ling lives on the streets disguised as a boy so she won't be sold into prostitution like the sister she came to the city to search for. Mei Yee is confined to a brothel with seemingly no escape. She is well fed and cared for, but at a very high price. Finally, Dai is haunted by a mysterious past and has an opportunity to get out of the city, but time is running short and he needs help. All three have become streetwise and untrusting and have taught themselves how to survive in this unfriendly place.

This book just came out in November and I heard very little about it, but ever since my vacation to Hong Kong it's hard to resist any book set there. I found the story and characters compelling from the very beginning, the story fast-paced and exciting. Also it made me want to go to Chinatown and eat all the things. Even though the characters were often starving, when they had food I could almost smell it and it made me very hungry! The food was just part of the local atmosphere, which I thought was very well evoked, and the setting was definitely a huge part of the story. I kept rooting for Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai from the time I met them until the final, satisfying conclusion. If you're looking for a change from YA books featuring white kids in boarding school (as much as I love those stories!) I highly recommend this unusual, refreshing novel.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Crochet Tuesday

No, this isn't going to be another regular feature, it's just a Sunday Knitting post that's neither on Sunday nor about knitting.

I mentioned last time that I was going to crochet some more dishcloths, and now I have. (Please, try to contain your excitement.)

They are imperfect, to be sure, but I think they'll work. I used a free pattern called Nubbie Scrubbies, which is a very easy pattern of alternated triple and single crochet that makes cute little bobbles. I did manage to accidentally make one of them a little smaller by not chaining enough stitches to begin with. Again, I'm pretty sure it will still work.

Working on these hurt my hands, especially my thumb. I don't know if that's because I'm new to crochet and using different muscles, or if it's because of the kitchen cotton. I know that sometimes knitting with this yarn also makes my hands hurt.

This was a fun project to take on the bus to give me something to do with my hands while listening to podcasts. These dishcloths and Serial will probably be forever intertwined in my head.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Family Romanov

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (2014)

Despite my well-documented fascination with Russia, I knew only a little about the Romanov family and the era in which they lived before reading Candace Fleming's new book. I knew that they were an unusual family, that the heir to the throne was a hemophiliac, that they hung out with some weirdypants named Rasputin, and that they were all killed. But I was pretty vague on the details.

The Family Romanov takes us inside palace walls to meet the people whose family ruled Russia for three hundred years, and also describes the civil unrest that ultimately resulted in overthrowing the tsar and murdering the entire royal family. Fleming brings the story to life so vividly that you can easily imagine you are there, which is actually pretty uncomfortable at times. We spend most of the book getting to know this family and then they are all brutally murdered.

Of course it's also the story of the common people, far removed from the royal family. Although the book primarily focuses on the Romanovs, Fleming has included snippets from the lives of peasants and workers, describing their hardscrabble lives. The contrast with the aristocrats is almost startling. The thing is, the Romanovs were so freaking isolated they had no idea what life was like for the majority of people in Russia. The very idea that they had so much control and so little knowledge is pretty horrifying.

In fact, many things about the Romanov family were sort of alarming when you consider how powerful they were. First of all, they were incredibly isolated. Nicholas and Alexandra really liked to spend as much time as possible far away from everyone else. Even when revolution was happening, they just didn't quite...get it. Nicholas was completely ignorant of the conditions endured by workers and when they organized and took to the streets, he ordered soldiers to fire on them, killing hundreds and wounding many more on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. He didn't realize this action was part of a larger, growing movement and ignored warnings from his advisors and even from the great writer Lev Tolstoy. Later on, he continued to treat uprisings as misbehavior that needed to be corrected. It didn't help his cause at all.

The Romanovs kept their children isolated too. The girls primarily relied on each other for companionship. Alexei is another whole kettle of fish entirely. The long-awaited heir to the throne was a hemophiliac, which meant that the slightest injury could be fatal. This kid wasn't allowed to run, ride a bike, or play in any active way. Can you imagine what that would do to the kid's psyche? No wonder he was so abominably behaved. Mind you, I don't think he deserved to be murdered (especially at the age of 14) but this is not someone who should ever be in charge of anything. Plus, he was barely educated. He and his sisters had some tutors, but their education was pretty half-assed, focusing primarily on learning languages. (Which is useful, don't get me wrong, but it's not nearly enough.)

And then there's the whole codependent friendship with Rasputin. Oh my god, that guy! He was basically a crazy religious fanatic who left his wife and kids to became a wandering, non-bathing mystic. Alexandra was convinced he helped heal Alexei of some serious injuries and she came to rely heavily on him and believed everything he said. He basically manipulated the Romanovs by convincing them he had a direct line to God, and they did whatever he advised. He played a pretty big role in the family's increasing unpopularity and eventual downfall. He had quite a following, too. He also had enemies, and was eventually murdered. Pretty much everyone in this book was eventually murdered.

This book is fascinating and almost unbelievable and is written in a really cool font. (Seriously, I love the font used for the all the chapter headings.) There are a lot of pictures too, which always make things feel more real. I read most of it in one sitting. I just could not put it down.

I really want this author to write a sequel. Near the end she talks about Lenin's rule and his concern that one autocracy had been traded for another, and his fear that Joseph Stalin might come to power. Which of course is what happened, and I would very much like to hear that story as this author would present it. She also wrote Amelia Lost, a fascinating account of the life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart, which I wrote about here. I will definitely be seeking out more books by Candace Fleming in the future, though this one may be the most perfect intersection of her talent and my interests possible. Until she writes that book about Stalin, of course.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

A.J. Fikry is a widowed bookstore owner on the fictional Alice Island in Massachusetts. He's still fairly young when the story opens, but already a curmudgeon. He has little joy in his solitary life, his only real comfort his favorite books, including a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane. One morning after drinking himself into a stupor alone the night before, he wakes to find that not only has someone apparently broken in and cleaned his apartment, they've also made off with his valuable beloved book. The book that was supposed to pay for his retirement. Soon after, however, something is unexpectedly left for him and at this very low time in his life it may be just the thing to finally turn him around and give new meaning to his life.

I picked this up on sort of a whim after hearing of it over and over all year long. It was the top Library Reads pick for April and it also appeared on some "best of 2014" lists recently. My need for hoarding books for the holiday weeks coincided perfectly with the availability of the paperback at my library.

Fikry is just the sort of character that I like. He's anti-social and a bit cranky and likes books more than people. When a sales rep he's known for years and considers a friend dies, he reflects, "They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?" I cannot agree more with this sentiment. Although he runs a bookstore, he's not a particularly shrewd businessman, insisting on keeping things the way he thinks they should be, rather than making adjustments in ways that might actually be profitable. The rest of Alice Island is just as quirky as he is, and I liked getting to know the other characters as well, such as Officer Lambiase, a cop who develops a love for crime novels, and Fikry's sister-in-law Ismay, whose personal life could easily merit its own novel. Equally as entertaining was Amelia, the visiting sales rep from Knightly Publishing, who could be counted on to journey to the inconvenient island regularly to promote her wares to the stand-offish but strangely appealing bookseller.

What makes this book irresistible for a book lover like me are all the literary references peppered throughout it. Each chapter begins with the title and author of a short story and a note from Fikry about it. (The purpose of all this becomes clear late in the novel.) Of course Tamerlane is an important plot element, but Fikry also talks books with everyone so we hear his thoughts on everything from Holocaust fiction to the crime novels of Jo Nesbo. He calls Infinite Jest "an endurance contest. You manage to get through it and you have no choice but to say you like it." (Validating my disinterest in ever reading that novel.) At one point he lists several titles in a row that were read by a book group and I was ridiculously pleased that I have read all of them. Yes, this is a book for book nerds!

The story does tend a bit toward the sentimental, though it never quite crosses that line. A lot of things start happening later on that kind of seem a bit much for such a short novel, but I found it all actually quite fun to read, even though it got a bit dark and sad. But the point of the novel is how A.J. Fikry is pulled out of his widowhood depression and begins to live again, a trajectory best summed up by what I think may be my favorite quote in this book full of good quotes:

"Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It's completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to give a shit about everything."

Only a little over 250 pages, the novel reads like young adult and I easily raced through it in two evenings. It's maybe not the sort of story that will stick with me for long (though only time will really tell) but I found it charming and funny. I'd recommend it to book lovers, as well as anyone who likes to read stories set in quirky little towns.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover

Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean (2014)

This is the 4th and final book in the Rule of Scoundrels series, so if you're concerned about spoilers, beware. I didn't read the first three books, but heard many positive reviews of this one and decided to read it anyhow. Because of the nature of the genre, each book in a series focuses on a romance between different characters. (I mean, you can't very well have a happily-ever-after and then break up the couple so one of them can have another romance, can you?) Therefore, I considered it fairly safe to start at the end.

When Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover opens, we meet Georgiana, also known as Anna, also known as Chase. Ruined at the age of sixteen, she used her outcast status to become an extremely powerful woman. The major spoiler from earlier books in the series is that she is the secret identity of a mysterious businessman named Chase. Along with three other men, he owns a gentleman's club called The Fallen Angel. When Georgiana isn't pretending to be Chase, she is playing the part of Anna, a gussied-up worldly madam who hangs out at The Fallen Angel. But her carefully-crafted set of personas is now threatened as she attempts to enter back into aristocratic society (as Georgiana) to finally marry and lend some respectability to her 9-year-old daughter, Caroline. Most of the threat comes from her newfound flirtation with Duncan West, a newspaperman who initially embarrasses her with a scandalous cartoon about her return, but soon promises to help her win over the hearts of London society. But not before she wins over his heart as well.

I never have high hopes for romance; they are just for a bit of fun. The story lines are often weak and contrived. But I was pleasantly surprised and rather impressed with this plot. MacLean put together a story that was both well-crafted and compelling, and then filled it with characters I found quite appealing.

Georgiana is, quite simply, a badass. What made me so interested in this book in the first place was the idea that she had this secret identity as a man and another as a prostitute, and was so incredibly successful. She's smart and resourceful and fearless, and isn't easily swayed by the handsome Duncan West either. She's learned a few things in her years and knows not to fall for any guy who sweet talks her (she won't forget that early mistake.)

In romance novels, a great deal tends to hinge on the characters' neuroses, and they make things far more difficult for themselves than necessary. There is always a point at which one character is holding back information that would explain so much, and they stubbornly refuse to reveal it for reasons which are rather paltry. Here, Georgiana definitely held back information from Duncan West, but it was easy to understand her motivations. He also had good reasons for holding back. I bought it all.

I should mention the romance itself, since that's the heart of it all. Duncan was easy to like and could be quite charming. When he finally asks Georgiana about her past, he inquires "What happened? To bring you Caroline?" Georgiana fairly swooned at the lovely way he asked her about the story of her ruin. Because of his own secrets, Duncan was not one to judge others and he held a distaste for aristocracy very similar to Georgiana's. They both struggled with the need to be accepted by the people they most loathed. They were evenly matched in many ways, both having crawled upward to success from bad situations, and of course they both had secrets. He was a little possessive, but after all he thought she was a prostitute, so that can be forgiven. The tension between the two was pretty delicious, and was only heightened by their mutual mistrust. And there were some sexytimes, which were rather creative - Duncan has a swimming pool, unusual for the time period, but very useful for the purposes of the novel. Thankfully the sex was a bit more realistic than in so many novels. For instance, Georgiana takes note of her "oddly shaped, strangely stretched bits" (she has had a baby after all) but it's still sexy, without being ridiculously over-the-top.

The only thing I kept wondering about was if people ever actually saw Chase. Georgiana wears trousers during this novel, but never disguises herself as a man so I didn't know if she had ever done so. After finishing, I listened to this episode of the DBSA podcast, from which I learned that Chase appeared in earlier novels in the series, but MacLean carefully constructed those scenes to avoid pronouns. From this I gather that nobody outside of the close-knit group of owners has actually seen Chase. Also, now I really want to read the earlier books. I do own a copy of the third book (No Good Duke Goes Unpunished) thanks to the library book sale, so I may just read this all in reverse chronological order.

I've only read a handful or so of romance novels, but this is definitely one of the best and the next time I want this sort of escape I'll definitely look to Sarah MacLean again. On the podcast I referenced earlier, she noted that her next Regency series will be based on modern celebrity scandals, complete with TMZ-style headlines as chapter headings. This I gotta see.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Murder as a Fine Art

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (2013)

In 1811, England was shocked by the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. Nothing like it was seen before. On two dates just 12 days apart, 7 people were brutally killed, including a 3-month-old baby. The suspect committed suicide in prison. Forty-three years later, an eerily similar murder occurs. The suspect this time is Thomas De Quincey, notorious author of a memoir entitled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but even more pertinent and incriminating, an essay called "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." De Quincey didn't even live in London, but just happened to be there at the time of the murders. He is determined to prove himself innocent, but is in pretty rough shape from his laudanum habit. Nevertheless, his daughter Emily and some Scotland Yard detectives set on the case, hoping to prevent another set of murders.

What I liked most about this book is that it's filled with fascinating historical details. The Ratcliffe Highway Murders actually happened, but the author also included a great deal about day-to-day life. For instance, the new ability to travel so quickly by train meant that having fixed schedules became important, and schedules meant that it actually mattered that everyone's clocks agreed with each other. Thus, Railroad Time was established. Similarly, opium was a strong theme in the novel, but at the time drug addiction didn't really exist as a concept. Laudanum (which was made with opium) was ubiquitous in society, used extensively for everything from easing menstrual cramps to quieting babies. The novel was filled with such information, proving the author's extensive understanding of that time and place.

Told primarily in third person, the story also included excerpts from Emily's diary. These vexed me a bit as I was reading, because they seemed so unnecessary. Rather than providing additional insight, they served only as another narrative viewpoint. The same could have been achieved by telling her parts of the story in third person just like the rest of the book. In the afterword, Morrell explains that he included the journal excerpts because that was a popular device in sensation novels of the time. Ok, fair enough. But the entries didn't come across as authentically journal-like. For instance, in one entry she clarifies her name, which seems odd.

"Ann," he murmured.
My mother's name was Margaret. Mine is Emily.

Why would you need to explain to your own journal what your name is? The journal excerpts were also not written in as conversational a tone as I would expect, but were rather formal. However this is all fairly minor in the scope of the whole novel.

The solution to the central mystery didn't surprise me a whole lot - there were a few clues early on - but the motive was a whole story unto itself, and one that I didn't come close to guessing. I really liked the whole idea of the story and how it played out. Morrell did a ton of research and it shows in the rich historical details that brought the setting to life, and it was this that I enjoyed the most. This novel isn't perfect, but I found it quite satisfying nonetheless.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Wise Heart

The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield (2008)

While visiting my aunt in the fall, we were talking about books, as we do, and she highly recommended this book about Buddhist psychology. I was skeptical - I am probably the least spiritual person on earth - but I do trust my aunt, who tends to like books that I like, and I'm always open to hearing good advice. I needn't have worried about the more spiritual aspects; the author won me over early with his explanation that Buddhism isn't really a religion because Buddha was actually a person (not a deity) and it's more about a way to look at the world. Furthermore, his intention is to present Buddhism in a way that makes sense in our lives, since we don't all live in forest monasteries and spend all day meditating.

I've taken this book very slowly, spending almost three months reading it. It isn't the sort of thing you ingest in one sitting. It's not a story, though it contains a lot of them. There are a lot of ideas to think about and suggestions for practice; things to do to integrate Buddhist teachings into your life.

The basic principles are pretty easy to understand, like mindfulness and compassion for all things. Recognizing that our moods are impermanent is another idea that we would all do well to remember. Letting go of the ideas of who we are makes sense when explained in context. Someone who strongly identifies, for instance, as a manager is going to be in trouble when they go home at night still clinging to the manager role. Family members will probably not appreciate that. Similarly, someone who identifies only as a parent will have a tough time if they bring that identity to work. We are less restrained if we don't cling to these identities so strongly. Much of what I read, especially early on, reminded me of some of the more work-related self-help things I've read, such as Emotional Intelligence.

Kornfield lost me a bit later on though, with the Buddhist personality types, which I just found way too simplified (there are only 3 types.) Even later, he gets downright mystical and describes the expanded consciousness that can be achieved with the help or peyote or LSD (which he characterized as misunderstood.) There is nothing here I want to apply to my life, though I did find it entertaining. It all reminded me a little of The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada, which I read in high school. (For a class, yes. Crazy.) But this was all in one or two chapters. Most of The Wise Heart was more useful for gaining a healthy perspective on our lives and problems.

I must admit that I kept having visions of Lisa Simpson while reading this because, previously, most of my knowledge of Buddhism came from the Simpsons. I think of Lisa as sort of a kindred spirit and I kept hearing her voice in my head reading the principles of Buddhism. It was very familiar and comforting.

I bought this copy and it is thoroughly dog-eared and marked up because I found lots of good advice in it, most of which is pretty sensible. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a fresh outlook, or a more healthy perspective. It's not for everyone, but probably a surprising number of people would find it helpful if they gave it a chance.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (2014)

Twin siblings Noah and Jude are very close when they are 13. Jude is outgoing and popular and rather a daredevil, while Noah is more on the edge of the social scene, quietly falling for the boy next door. Both are talented artists and their mother is encouraging them to apply to an arts high school. Three years later they are barely speaking, Jude having retreated into herself, ruled by superstition, while Noah is now the "normal"one who plays sports and has lots of friends. And something has happened between each part of the story that changed both of their lives irrevocably. Each twin tells their half of the story until the full arc is revealed and they can find their way back to each other.

Everything about this book is wonderful and magical and you should immediately procure a copy and read it all in one sitting. The end.

Ok, if you want, here are a few more details. The story is about family and secrets and art and romance. There are actually a few romances in here and they are all great stories. You should know that this book contains the most amazing kissing scene ever.

The way it was structured is actually quite brilliant. Noah tells his side of the part of the story that took place a few years ago, and Jude tells her side of the current story. So, they each have half of the story, (and we too only have part of the story, though different parts) and to get it all, they basically need to get back together. I'm not explaining that well at all, but trust me when I say it works.

This is going to sound a little weird coming from me, who is incredibly rational, but I liked all the superstitions that Jude was obsessed with from her grandmother's book of wisdom. Jude lived by these rules. Like "To avoid serious illness, keep an onion in your pocket." And "If a boy gives a girl an orange, her love for him will multiply." There's also a lot of destiny and fate and other things I don't believe in, and yet it all worked really, really well for me in this novel. I can't explain it. (Though, as I said before, this book is magical.)

There's also a talking parrot who only knows how to say "Where the hell is Ralph?" and a reclusive artist who makes giant stone sculptures of people, and death-defying leaps from ocean cliffs, and an adorable British alcoholic.

Have I mentioned the tragedy? There is a very huge, heartbreaking tragedy at the center of this novel and its incredible sadness somehow makes the happy parts all the happier. You will feel all of the feelings.

I literally can't think of anything negative about this book, which makes it hard to review but easy to recommend. (I've already got one library patron excited to read it!) Those who like authors such as John Green and Rainbow Rowell will probably also love I'll Give You the Sun. I think the best review of this book was also the first one I saw, when another librarian said that the cover was an accurate representation of how she felt the whole time she was reading it. I couldn't agree more.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2014), narrated by the author

I'm always drawn to strong, successful women and even more so if they are funny. Although I'm not a big tv watcher, I really enjoyed Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live and in the movie Baby Mama. Given how much I enjoyed Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was really looking forward to her good friend Amy's book. Spanning her life so far from childhood through the formation of the Upright Citizens Brigade and her time on SNL and Parks and Recreation, Poehler also included stories from her personal life, including marriage, divorce, and motherhood.

It was not off to a promising start. The first two short chapters of reflection about writing the book and how hard it was and how she came up with the title felt long and rambling. Not long after was an entire chapter about how she once made a joke on SNL at the expense of a little girl with cerebral palsy, received a chastising letter about it, and then proceeded to ignore it for several years until finally she apologized. She includes all the correspondence including a letter from the girl in question. My impression was that she spent a lot of time convincing herself that she should feel guilty, until she finally did, and the whole thing ended up feeling very preachy.

I think what annoyed me the most was that when she describes the incident she explains what it went down the way it did, and then apologizes for making excuses. No, you are aren't making excuses, you're telling us why someone who wouldn't intentionally make fun of a disabled girl did exactly that. How has analyzing something to find out why it happened and how you feel about it turned into "making an excuse"? It all just rubbed me the wrong way, like she was just trying really hard to be politically correct. She spent way too much time talking about it, and now I have, too.

But the book gets better as Poehler talks more about her childhood in Burlington, MA, her waitressing jobs, and her comedy career. She's only a couple of years older than I am, so I fondly remembered along with her the time when everyone seemed obsessed with scoliosis and we didn't have answering machines. Yes, those were the days. I even liked hearing about Parks and Recreation even though I've never watched it. She really does have some good stories.

When sharing the early years of her career, she says something that I've already quoted her on in conversation, which is this:

"I think we should stop asking people in their 20s what they want to do and start asking them what they don't want to do. Instead of asking students to declare their major we should ask students to list what they will do anything to avoid. It just makes a lot more sense."

Right? It makes total sense. But what we do is say, hey, the whole world is open to you! Which is the one thing out of the thousands of possibilities that you want to do? How is anyone supposed to answer that question?

On the other hand, she also says something I found surprising coming from her. Curiously, she says "I firmly believe that every boy needs his mom to love him and every girl needs her dad to pay attention to her." All I could think was, I guess love is too much for a girl to hope for from her opposite-gendered parent. She didn't explain this comment either, so I was left perplexed and a bit miffed.

All in all, I'd say it was a mixed bag, though despite how complainy this all sounds, it was more good than bad. It's just that the things I disliked are pretty specific and memorable. More generally, it wasn't as funny as I expected, but I mostly enjoyed listening to it. The print version contains some pretty amusing photos, which are worth looking at, but even so I think I'd recommend the audio. For one thing, she reads the book herself and unsurprisingly does a good job at it. But she also has some guest narrators, like Seth Meyers, Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart and her parents. There's a little bit of banter that I imagine isn't in the print book, and it was quite entertaining.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Knitting

Back in early 2009 I received a very pretty set of crocheted dish cloths from my friend, which I posted about here. Here they are again, in case you don't want to click through:

It's just about 6 years later and these guys have seen a lot of dishes. They're all starting to get holes in them so I know it's just a matter of time before I need to replace them.

I happen to have a decent amount of cotton yarn hanging about so I decided to knit a simple dishcloth, which I did a couple of months ago. Then I totally stalled before managing to do the crochet border. So a week or so ago I thought, you know what? It's about time I learned to actually crochet. None of this half-assed business of barely managing to do a shitty-looking border on a knitted thing, I'm going to learn to crochet an actual thing.

I finished the border and then made a single-crochet swatch for practice that happens to be the right size for a dish cloth. Here they are together:

Ok, so I inadvertently decreased a few rows into the yellow crocheted one, but I'm pretty sure it will still wash dishes adequately. My plan was to whip up a few so I'd have a whole bunch to show you. But strangely, just as knitted things won't knit themselves, it seems that crocheted things won't crochet themselves either. One of these days I'm hoping to find some simple-but-varied patterns and make some more.

Then I plan to get really good at it, maybe as good as my coworker who whips up all kinds of fun and fantastical things in no time at all and who, one of these days, I fully expect will crochet a working TARDIS on her lunch break. I suppose it's unlikely I will ever approach her talent, but I hope to at least be able to make an afghan or some amigurumi animals.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (2014)

Caitlin Doughty was long fascinated by death, so it was no surprise when she took a job at a crematory in her 20s. Armed with a degree in medieval history, she found that the job market wasn't exactly flooded with opportunity. Given her lifelong interest in all aspects of mortality she was soon drawn to the funeral industry. While working for Westwind Cremation and Burial she not only learned a great deal about the industry, but she also further solidified her views on how our society and the funeral industry treat death. Since that time she has founded The Order of the Good Death and hosted a web series called "Ask the Mortician."

Let me just say at the outset that if you feel uncomfortable with frank, graphic descriptions of corpses of all ages and the things we put them through, this book is not for you. Several people in my family work in geriatric care, hospitals, or the funeral industry, so I'm used to hearing about all manner of disgusting things over Thanksgiving dinner. And I've always been a bit morbid, from my early obsessions with Sylvia Plath and Stephen King to my recent and long-awaited visit to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Your mileage may vary.

For those of us who are interested in the macabre, this book is completely fascinating. It's not often you get insight into an industry as tightly-shrouded as this one, and I was very interested in hearing about all the daily aspects of Doughty's job. She doesn't just discuss her crematory work, however, but also delves into all aspects of the death industry and even brings in practices from history and other cultures to lend perspective to our own way of handling the dead and the dying. She raises issues ranging from the spiritual to the environmental, and her consideration of these topics made me think a lot about my own views on death.

Our separation from the harsh realities of death do us few favors when faced with destruction like Hurricane Katrina. The many bodies clearly visible in the aftermath seemed all the more horrific because we have no idea what death actually looks like. A lot goes into making a dead person look presentable, and in making sure we don't see them until they are ready to be viewed. Since most people die in hospitals these days we see few of the gory parts involved in death, as they are left to the responsibility of nurses and other hospital staff. Doughty describes how swiftly bodies are removed from the sight of onlookers after death, a far cry from the days in plague-era Europe when then were just piled everywhere. Not that I'm nostalgic for the smell and decomposition so commonly experienced in our past, but it is pretty strange that we seem to want transparency in every other arena but are happy keeping the details of death behind closed doors.

In fact, Doughty mentions some instances in which grieving families felt better knowing more details about what happened to the remains of their loved ones. In one case, a woman she met outside of work had lost her husband, and when Doughty explains what happens when a person is cremated, the woman said she felt a lot better knowing the details. If people feel better knowing more, then why is the funeral industry all about smoke and mirrors? I'm sure that are people who are happy to have it that way, but clearly that's not everybody.

Not since watching Six Feet Under have I had such an immersive education about death, but of course Smoke Gets In Your Eyes has the advantage of being non-fiction. I found it all completely fascinating and well-written, and further I appreciate that Doughty is unapologetic about her interests, which I'm sure some people find morbid and horrifying. But she embraces death in a way that is really healthy and even admirable. It's a little surprising how much she fit into just 241 pages because I feel like I learned a great deal, and I'm inspired to read more on the subject. Not only does Smoke Gets In Your Eyes feel like a much bigger book, it's also feels like an important book. If you're interested in facing mortality, you can't go wrong by picking up a copy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010)

I last read this novel in 2011, and it was the first book I read by either of these authors. I have since read all of John Green's books and although I've only read one other by David Levithan I do plan to read more. You can see my previous post for a summary and my initial thoughts.

Reading it this time, I remembered very little about the book, like the fact that even though there are two Will Graysons, the whole thing is much more about Tiny Cooper. I did remember how much I love Tiny Cooper. He feels all of the feelings, which kind of makes up for some of the other characters who have trouble expressing themselves or choose not to. He's also more sure of himself than anyone else, and is there for the newly-met Will Grayson when he most needs someone, and does a great job of making him feel better. (I will heretofore refer to that Will as lowercase Will and the other as capital Will.)

This time around, one aspect of the story that really stood out to me was lowercase Will's depression. When Tiny first comes over for a visit, he sees Will's prescription meds. When Will explains that they are for depression, Tiny mentions that he too sometimes feels depressed. Will is inwardly very annoyed because, of course, feeling depressed sometimes is not the same as clinical depression. He also dislikes when people say they have to take a "mental health day" when they have no idea what it's actually like to have a mental illness. How awesome if it could be alleviated just by taking one day off. While lowercase Will's depression isn't the focus of the book, it was a pretty large part of his character and I guess I just noticed it more this time around. I've read other books recently in which mental illness plays a role and I've sort of begun looking for it in YA books. I actually liked that his part of the story wasn't focused on dealing with his depression; that was something already established that was just going on in the background like it actually does in so many real lives.

Similarly, although two of the main characters are gay, this isn't a coming out story either. For lowercase Will, it's true that he comes out to a lot of people around him, but he already knew he was gay and was fine with it, it's just that for quite a while he didn't think it was anyone else's business. Tiny has been out and proud for a long time and although it's a big part of who he is as a person, the story isn't really about that.

Primarily, it's a story about friendship, and about the many ways that people are terrible friends to each other. Remember high school? The lies and betrayals and drama? They are all here. Everybody is the star of his or her own life in the most exaggerated way possible because everything is such a big deal and they are all rather self-centered. Tiny gets so wrapped up in his romances and his musical that he'll ignore capital Will's calls. And capital Will is so intent on shutting up and not caring that he is also not a great friend to Tiny. The worst is the toxic friendship between lowercase Will and Maura, but although she is terrible to him it's really out of a desperate need for his friendship. It's all wonderfully complex and entertaining.

I've wanted my Not-So-Young Adult book group to pick this book for ages and finally, finally they did. Thankfully, they all liked it too. It's maybe not the very best book for discussion, as it doesn't have the heavy-hitting and complicated issues that some of our book choices do and which can spur debate and extensive conversation, but I think sometimes it's ok to just pick a fun book. Anyhow, we did find a decent amount of things to talk about, and I loved it just as much as I did the first time, so it was a success all around.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's list is easy because I read a number of authors for the first time who I really liked a lot. Links go to my posts about their books.

1. Andrew Smith is easily number on my list. I read three of his books this year and really liked them all.
2. Holly Black. I loved The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and I should really probably read something else of hers. Any suggestions?
3. Hugh Howey. I really don't know if I'll read more in the Silo series, because can they possibly be nearly as good as Wool?
4. Cammie McGovern. I love finding new great YA authors!
5. Jessie Burton. The Miniaturist was her debut, and I will be keeping an eye out for more from her.
6. Kate Manning. My Notorious Life featured one of my very favorite protagonists of the year.
7. Caitlin Moran is funny and clever and brilliant.
8. Karen Joy Fowler managed to pack a pretty big story into a rather little book, which is something I always appreciate.
9. Dan Chaon wrote some really great short stories and I've heard positive reviews of his other books also.
10. Nick Lake wrote one of the most amazing and unusual YA books I read this year.

What about you? Did you discover any great new authors this year?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King (2014)

When Glory was only 4 years old, her mother committed suicide by putting her head in an oven. Now Glory and her father microwave all their meals. Across the street is a commune run by a woman named Jasmine Blue Heffner, a friend of Glory's mother, and her daughter Ellie is Glory's best friend. She's actually Glory's only friend and Glory is honestly getting tired of her. Ellie is very self-centered and primarily uses Glory as transportation and as a purchaser of lice medication. Soon after the story opens Glory and Ellie drink a petrified bat, and it gives them the power to see everyone's past and future. Glory begins documenting the future she sees, hoping that it won't actually come true.

That is kind of a weird premise, right? A.S. King generally interjects some sort of weirdness into her books (kind of like Andrew Smith) and it always works (also like Andrew Smith). Many of King's books read light and funny even if they're about serious subjects, but this isn't one of them. This one is fairly dark and reminds me more of Everybody Sees the Ants than any of her others. But although it's not humorous, it's still clever.

What I love most about Glory is that she's so matter-of-fact and she doesn't kid herself, but she is also a very considerate person. She knows she doesn't want to be friends with Ellie anymore, but she will do things like give her a hug because she needs a hug. Her strong sense of self comes through especially well in her conversations with Ellie. At one point when Ellie doesn't want to appear emotional because boys don't like emotional girls, Glory asks "Anyway, who cares what guys like? They don't do stuff because of what we like, right?" That is exactly the attitude that I love, and Glory displays it throughout the novel.

Aside from Glory herself, there are some very cool elements to this story. First, though much of it is centered around her mother's suicide, it isn't an issue novel. Glory's feelings about her mother's death and fear for her own future feel genuine in their complexity. Like her mother, Glory is really into photography, and I really liked how she used photographic principles to relate to other areas in her life.

The future story told through Glory's visions is probably the coolest/scariest part of all. Without giving away too much, it is dystopic in a way that is similar to certain elements of The Handmaid's Tale, and has the same sort of scary believability. I actually kind of want it to be a real book. (Note to A.S. King: please write this.)

As I was reading, I thought this book was pretty dark, but ultimately it left me feeling hopeful for Glory and her future. A.S. King manages to make all her books very different from each other, but equally sophisticated and surprising and awesome. Another winner from one of my favorite young adult authors!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Revival by Stephen King (2014)

When Jamie Morton was just a kid in the 1960s, he was playing with toy soldiers in the driveway one day when a shadow fell over him. He looked up and saw the man he came to know as Pastor Charlie Jacobs, a man whose shadow would remain over Jamie even decades later.

Jamie grew up to become a musician and a drug addict, and he went through rough times and lost people close to him. Charlie also experienced loss and difficult times, but he always retained a fascination with electricity, and every time Jamie saw him he was using his strange electrical power in different ways. Whether he was using it for cheap tricks or to heal members of his new congregation he was obviously working towards something bigger, and the more Jamie learned the more fearful he became.

The way Stephen King describes his characters and their lives always brings me back to my childhood and, in fact, I read this while in Maine at my sister's house over Thanksgiving. (My family is just as rural and redneck as King's characters. We went skeet shooting after Thanksgiving dinner. No lie.) If you aren't from Maine, or somewhere similarly rural, you might not appreciate just how true to life his writing is. But he really gets it. I know Stephen King has lived his entire life in Maine, but he's more educated and far more wealthy than the people he's writing about, yet I don't think he's let his fame change him.

Science and religion are woven together through Charlie's evolving worldview. Early on, he explains religion as an extension of science because "science is finite." Later, after he has lost his faith, he uses religion as a cover because people will buy into it more than his weird science. It's sadly true, actually - people aren't willing to accept science they don't understand, yet they are willing to accept religious ideas that are much more far-fetched because of their faith. It's really kind of bizarre when you think about it.

I also liked the the concept of a "fifth business," someone who just keeps popping up at random times over the years, which is what Charlie Jacobs was to Jamie Morton. The very idea is somehow ominous, and here it was more so because Jamie knew that Charlie was up to something strange. I could kind of see where the story was going before it got there, but much about it was quite different than I expected. Through a lot of the book I kept thinking that it wasn't exactly a horror novel, but it is. It definitely is. Things happened near the end that made my blood run cold.

And I will leave you with that. It's Stephen King, and it's good Stephen King.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top Ten Books for 2015

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at the Broke and the Bookish. This week's list is Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2015. I'm a bit behind because I'm still working on the books that came out in 2014. (You can see the list of top books I've been looking forward to in this post. I've read some of those already, but still have several to go.) But I do have 5 books that come out in 2015 that I'm already looking forward to.

1. West of Sunset by Stuart O'Nan (January)
2. Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (Now I'm getting conflicting reports on whether this comes out in 2015 or late 2014. Huh.)
3. The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith (March)
4. Love May Fail by Matthew Quick (June)
5. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (March) Again, I don't read a ton of nonfiction, but I loved The Devil in the White City. I haven't read anything else by Larson since then, but this one looks really good!

The rest of my list is made up of 2014 books I still haven't gotten to:

6. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
7. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
8. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlyn Doughty
9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
10. It Will End With Us by Sam Savage - I only just realized this existed. Why am I not alerted when Sam Savage publishes a new book?

(I am also suddenly weirdly interested in the romance novel Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean. I think this may be a side effect of reading War and Peace.)

Do you know what's crazy? I started to list Milbourn Falls by Jessica Spotswood, and then I was reminded that it's not out until 2016! I can't believe I already have a 2016 book on my list!

It actually stresses me out to look ahead to books being published even in 2015, considering there are books published long before I was born that I still haven't read. My TBR list is getting more and more out of control, and I really wish authors would just stop publishing for a while so I can catch up because that's the only way it's going to happen.

I can't believe I'm having such anxiety over this. I'm going to pretend we never had this conversation.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

One day I was killing time in a bookstore when I came across - and could not resist opening - a book entitled Men Explain Things to Me. The title essay describes, in hilarious detail, the author's encounter at a party with a smug man who doesn't want to believe she has written a well-respected book on a serious topic. He asks, "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?" As if there were two books on the very same niche topic published at almost the same time.

And so begins Solnit's short book of essays about women, gender, power, and communication. I later got a library copy to read in its entirety. Solnit writes about domestic abuse, sexual assault - and specifically about the IMF head who raped a hotel maid - marriage equality, the disappearance of women in (and from) history, Virginia Woolf, and the trajectory of the women's movement. A lot is covered, so I'm just going to relate a few bits that stood out to me.

In "The Longest War" she writes about rape and abuse, and includes some pretty eye-opening statistics. One in five women will be raped in her lifetime, which I knew already, but I didn't know that for Native Americans that number is one in three. Another point she makes about rape is that the emphasis is always on how women can protect themselves. Obviously this is important and the only part of it that we, as individuals can control, but what about focusing some attention on teaching men not to rape? She urges us to consider these not as separate crimes existing in a vacuum, but part of an overall huge problem. When she lays out all of these statistics, it really does seem like an epidemic that should be earning far more of our attention. Another infuriating fact? In 31 states, rapists who impregnate their victims have parental rights. Let that sink in for a minute.

When analyzing violent crimes in general, we talk a lot about things like race and guns and mental illness, but ignore gender. The fact is that almost all violent crime is committed by men. Of the 62 mass shootings in the last thirty years, only one was by a woman. One statistic that stood out to me was this: "Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined."

Another excellent essay is called "In Praise of the Threat" and gracefully articulates what I've been trying to say for years. Opponents of same-sex marriage frequently decry it as a threat to traditional marriage, and Solnit asks why that's a bad thing. Traditionally, marriage has meant the subjugation of women and loss of their rights, so why would we want to preserve that? She feels that "marriage equality" is an apt phrase as it describes not just same-sex marriage, but equality in all marriages, something she says has been increasingly brought about by the legitimization of marriages between people of the same genders.

Although I got a bit bogged down in the Virginia Woolf essay, in general I found this collection eye-opening and it really got my blood boiling in the very best way. (I do enjoy a good feminist rant! Just ask my coworker Jenny.) The only complaint I had while reading is that Solnit presented quite a few statistics and facts without citations. It turns out that in the acknowledgement she says the citations are available in the online versions of the essays. She didn't include them here because it tends to interrupt the flow of writing, which is understandable. But I would have appreciated that note at the beginning of the book, not the end.

I probably will check some of the citations online, not because I don't believe her but because I want to read more about these issues. For instance, she mentions a huge backlog of untested rape kits and I'm very curious, and somewhat horrified, about why that has happened.

There aren't enough books about women in society that are written in such an accessible, and even humorous, way. I'd love to get my hands on more books like this. I'm considering trying Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, another recent one. Other books I've read in this vein in the last few years include Bossypants, Lean In, and How To Be a Woman. Do you have any recommendations for non-scholarly writings on feminist topics? Post them in the comments!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

100 Sideways Miles

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith (2014)

Among the characteristics that make Finn Easton special are his heterochromatic eyes, his epilepsy, and his penchant for expressing time in miles rather than minutes. Eternally frustrating is the feeling that he is not himself, but a character from his father's cult book The Lazarus Door. But along with his crazy best friend Cade Hernandez and his first girlfriend, Julia Bishop, Finn begins to really find out who he is for real.

As with Andrew Smith's other books, the summary can't do it justice because what makes his books special are the way he tells the stories. On the weirdness scale, this one is between Winger and Grasshopper Jungle. There's nothing otherworldly or science fiction-y, but it's full of quirk. I mean, the most defining event from Finn's childhood is when a dead horse fell on him.

Finn is just as sympathetic a protagonist as I would expect from Smith, and while his constant mile-counting got maybe a tad tiresome, I found it authentically adolescent. Finn's friend Cade was kind of a jerk but having a friend like that added both realism and entertainment value. I didn't get to know Julie as much as I would have liked to, but I thought she was really cool. I mean, the first time she really met Finn, he was in his underwear having a seizure and pissed himself. Not only did she help him clean up, but she started dating him. And I loved her birthday present for him so much!

I loved the whole plot about Finn's dad's book The Lazarus Door. I kind of love books about fictional books, like Amazing Amy from Gone Girl or An Imperial Affliction from The Fault in Our Stars. It's especially great when, like here, they achieve pop culture fame. In The Lazarus Door, visitors from outer space arrive on Earth through the simultaneous opening of microscopic doors all over the place, and these visitors have wings like angels and heterochromatic eyes. Finn is always running into people who are intimately familiar with the book, and who suspiciously eye the scars on his back and his two different colored eyes, putting two and two together to conclude that he is not of this world. Until he self-consciously explains that his father wrote that book. (By the way, I wish this book existed. It sounds creepy and weird and Andrew Smith could totally pull it off.)

As an extra bonus, there's a road trip. I always love a good road trip. You just know something significant will happen and they won't make it to their destination and it won't even matter.

I thought Finn was a bit too level-headed at times, especially in his relationship with Julia. Teenagers are extremely passionate and dramatic and they feel all the feelings intensely, and though at first I thought "Way to be mature, Finn!" I wondered later how realistic it was. It really didn't detract from the experience, it's just something I thought about. It's entirely possible that some teenagers are just more sensible than I was.

Overall, I really liked 100 Sideways Miles. When I initially read the description on Goodreads it didn't sound super-compelling, but having read two books by Andrew Smith already I knew that didn't mean anything. For many books, it's not the plot that's important, it's the other stuff - the stuff that's hard to summarize in a nutshell - and this is one of those books. Luckily, we won't have to wait long for another. According to Edelweiss, Andrew Smith has another weird one coming out in March. Hooray!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006), narrated by Ann Marie Lee

When a pre-teen girl is murdered in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, journalist Camille Preaker heads out from Chicago to investigate. A similar murder occurred the previous year, and though the town is reluctant to receive the sort of notoriety serial murders will bring, Camille is determined to get her story. But returning to Wind Gap dredges up ghosts in her own past, particularly that of her sister Marion who died at around the same age as these girls.

That's enough to put anyone on an emotional roller-coaster, but Camille is also battling her own self-destructive impulses. Ever since her sister died so many years ago, she has cut words into her body, now a veritable tapestry of scars. Since her stay in a psychiatric hospital, Camille has stopped cutting but it's a tenuous recovery, and she seems to have replaced that behavior with heavy drinking. It doesn't help that during her investigation she has to stay with her mother, step-father, and 13-year-old younger half-sister Amma, who she barely knows. All of this is a recipe for a story rife with dysfunction and dark, dark secrets.

Gillian Flynn's earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are more gritty than the more well-known Gone Girl. Everything is unpleasant. Characters are not likable, houses are rundown and dirty, the weather is oppressive, the town's main business is an industrial pig farm. Illness is described in nauseating detail, and when Camille is injured her mother pokes at the wound. Everything bad is just aggravated and made worse until everyone feels horrible, both physically and emotionally. Camille, much like Libby from Dark Places, is a troubled young woman with a dark past who is emotionally distant and has few, if any, friends. Camille is more functional than Libby since she actually has a career, but it seems she's barely holding onto it. It's been a while since I read Gone Girl so it's a bit difficult to compare them but although they are all pretty screwed up, I think these older novels have a more pervasive darkness.

Because I so enjoyed the audiobook of Dark Places, I listened to the audio for this one as well. I would have done so much earlier had it also been narrated by Rebecca Lowman, who I sincerely believe should be hired to read all the books. All of them. Ann Marie Lee isn't bad, but I was a bit put off at the very beginning when she mispronounced both "Gillian" and "Pulitzer." Some of her voices were a little overdone, such as younger sister Amma's high-pitched, wheedling tone that set her up as more of a bad character than necessary right at the start. Otherwise it was a good listening experience and I wish Flynn had more material, because something about her books works very well on audio for me.

I have a lot to say about this novel and its characters, but I don't want to recount too much for those of you who haven't read it. Flynn's books really probably aren't for everyone, but I just think they're all brilliant and I somehow enjoy wallowing in the bleakness. Nobody writes quite like she does.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

War and Peace

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy (1869) 

This is my final War and Peace post - you can see my introductory post here, and also my first and second progress reports.

I discussed some of the details of the plot and characters before and I don't want to say too much more about that at the risk of spoiling it for any of you thinking of reading the book. So I'll keep my final discussion a bit more general.

Our instructor insists that this isn't a historical novel, that to Tolstoy it was about family because family is the most important thing ever. It's hard to see sometimes, especially because in all his philosophical musings in the epilogue and appendix, he doesn't really talk about family at all. But our instructor cites Tolstoy's 99 volumes of journals as evidence of his ideas.

There were, of course, some families in the novel and the parts centering around them were my favorite. I'm not super interested in military strategy, and am rather shaky with history (I find it interesting, but have a hard time grasping it), so I preferred everything that revolved around the romantic entanglements and family life. There were some good war parts though, especially those that focused on particular characters like Bolkonsky, Rostov, and Kutuzov.

It was a bit rough getting through all the philosophical musings (especially at the end), though Tolstoy discussed some interesting ideas. For instance, the difficulty of separating historical events from one another. How do you decide where to begin with a story, when clearly everything that happens has roots in earlier events? He also questions what causes movements. Is it personalities of leaders, conditions of the time, the results of particular orders that were given, or a combination of all of these things? Tolstoy seems to accept a certain inevitability when he discusses our lack of free will. We may think we are doing what we want to do, but there are always restrictions and obstacles, and that applies as much to historical events as to actions in our daily lives.

As you can probably tell, this novel is nothing if not ambitious, and the 1200 or so pages were crammed not only with a great story, but many big thoughts and ideas. Even reading along with a class I know I'm still missing some things. This seems like the sort of book you could read 10 times and get more out of it each time. (I am unlikely to read it 10 times though.)

Reading War and Peace feels like a huge accomplishment, and I'm very glad I did it. Now I don't feel quite so daunted by other unread classics, and hopefully I'll be able to take classes on some others as well to make the reading go a little easier. But maybe not soon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nobody Is Ever Missing

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey (2014)

One day Elyria leaves her husband behind and flies to New Zealand with no explanation. She has a vague plan to to stay with a poet she has met once at a party in New York and who invited her to stay on his farm if ever she found herself in the area. It is clear that Elyria is still dealing with her sister's suicide several years before, and as she hitchhikes around this new country, her grasp on reality becomes more and more questionable.

Despite how it sounds, this isn't a very complex story. Many of the threads were not followed or explained. Elyria's sister was adopted from Korea and was Elyria's own age, which could have add a great deal to the story, but didn't. The fact that Elyria married her sister's professor is also noteworthy, but rather unexplored. At the time of her leaving, Elyria had also been participating in a study that involved having blood drawn and being subjected to a battery of questions, but we never find out why. In many of these cases, I wondered why these story lines were even introduced if they were just going to be left hanging there. But even with all these tidbits, there is very little going on at all.

The best part of the story was when Elyria was waylaid in a small town because she was out of money and was forced to take a catering job where she befriend a transgender woman named Jaye. Jaye was easily the most likable, down-to-earth and well-adjusted person in the whole book and I really thought Elyria would have done better to just stick with her.

The real beauty in this novel is the prose. Despite not being much of a story, I found great pleasure in reading Lacey's poetic and frequently surprising narration. Told in the first person, the reader is drawn inside Elyria's disordered mind, and her stream-of-consciousness perspective is sometimes frustrating but also full of unexpected beauty and I marked many passages to re-read. Here are a couple of the shorter ones:

"One framed picture was on the wall: a man on a sailboat looking at the ocean like it belonged to him, like he'd spent his whole life earning enough money to buy the ocean and now he had it and he was pleased with himself."

"...I imagined they slept in a pile the way that puppies or kittens sleep, but I slept in the metal caravan the way a sardine would if sardines came canned individually." 

Unsettling and slippery, my reading experience was best when I read big chunks at a time because I was able to settle into Elyria's story a bit better. The few hours I spent reading this unusual and intriguing novel were pleasurable, though it ultimately left me unsatisfied.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (2013)

For a review free of spoilers, see my original post about this book from last year.

My Not-So-Young Adult book group at work voted to read this and because it has stuck with me so much since I listened to the audio last year, I wasn't going to necessarily read it again. My plan was to skim through a few chapters to remind myself of some of the details. But once I opened the book, I couldn't help but read it in its entirety, even though I'm in the midst of War and Peace and, at that point, had hundreds of pages left.

I loved Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock as much the second time as the first. But now I'll tell you more about why. Some important pieces of the story were left out of my original post because they were spoilers, but those aspects of the story were some of the most important parts.

The reason Leonard is angry and wants to kill Asher Beal is because Asher sexually abused him. They were very close friends and it is implied that Asher was abused by a beloved uncle, after which he turned to Leonard. It is further complicated because Leonard sort of went along with it at first, but then he didn't and it clearly became forced. So he feels not only hurt by the abuse, but guilty and confused. What I love about this plot (I mean, it's horrible, but it's also fiction) is that it represents something that exists but is rarely acknowledged. We know all about bullying, and we know about sexual abuse, but the abuser is generally an adult and the victim is generally a girl. It is just as upsetting when a teenaged boy is raped by another teenaged boy and somehow we forget that this can happen. The novel is all the more realistic because it's as complicated and nuanced as real life can be.

In an interesting juxtaposition, Herr Silverman - the adult that Leonard admires most - has come out as gay to Leonard late in the novel. Leonard is totally like "hey, that's ok" and then immediately chastises himself, because Herr Silverman doesn't need Leonard's approval, so, what a ridiculous thing to say. In an awkward attempt to explain his hatred of Asher Beal, Leonard explains by saying "He's not gay like you. He's horrible." Then he goes on to clarify what happened between them. I keep wondering if Quick made Herr Silverman gay just to contrast with Asher so that the only gay character in the book wasn't an abuser. In any case, it works, and Herr Silverman is one of my very favorite adult characters in YA literature. (Don't be tempted to think a gay teacher could get away with inviting a teenage boy to stay overnight at his house in real life. I'd like to think it would be ok for a teacher to act as Herr Silverman did in the interest of saving lives, but the cynical side of me thinks he'd probably lose his job over it.)

I wondered if my experience with this book would be as positive the second time around, and I'm so glad it was. I just love Leonard. He is angry, yes, but even though he is planning to murder someone you know that deep down he is also a good person, or at least he wants to be. When his horrible mother dismisses the danger of his situation by saying that Leonard would never hurt anyone, it's a terrible thing to say but also, I think, true. This is a boy who spends his lunch breaks listening to another student practice his violin - and even pays him for the privilege - and who befriends a devoutly religious girl who hands out pamphlets at the train station even though he's an atheist, because he admires her wish to save everyone, and who spends his free time watching Bogart movies with an elderly chain-smoking neighbor. He is a great kid who is hurting and just needs someone to say "Happy birthday" to him. I was convinced that he continued to find good in the world and would not be able to bear leaving it. Of course, while I was reading it the first time, I really didn't know whether or not he'd go through with the murder/suicide until he actually made the decision, so maybe this is all hindsight talking.

Matthew Quick is pretty high profile (he's the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, which I've still neither watched nor read) yet this one hasn't gotten nearly the attention that it deserves. I thought maybe I was alone in my love for it, but the 5 attendees at my book group agreed that it is awesome. So spread the word!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Top ten characters I wish would get their own books

Here's a fun thing! Top Ten Tuesday is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. I don't know if I'll participate every week, but I'm going to start trying. I love lists.

I frequently wish I knew more about certain characters, so this is a great topic. Most of these are from books I've read in the past year because they're fresh on my mind, but I'm sure I'm forgetting some that are important. Links go to my reviews.

1. Baback from Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I just read this book again (review coming soon!) and am intrigued by this Iranian violin virtuoso who Leonard never really gets to know.

2. Marin from The Miniaturist. A mysterious character from the start, once her secrets were revealed it really made me want to know her whole story.

3. Stephanie from In Darkness. She's an aid worker for the UN who ends up running with the gangs in Haiti and getting romantically involved with Shorty's friend Biggie. I want to know how that happened!

4. Serena Joy from The Handmaid's Tale. As readers we're very focused on the position of the handmaids, but all of the women in this world are oppressed and the privileged wives were in rather an awkward spot themselves. I'd love to hear the story from this perspective.

5. Anna Pavlovna from War and Peace. A single, aristocratic woman who hosts fashionable salons in early 1800s St. Petersburg. I like to imagine a free and glamorous life for her, so different than most of the other women in the book.

6. Patrick from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He's in the book a lot, and I loved him, and I bet he had a great story of his own. (I really need to review this on my blog sometime so I have something to link it to!)

7. Charlie from My Notorious Life. What did you do the whole time you and Axie were apart? Huh, Charlie?

8. Ty from Stolen. What kind of a guy kidnaps a teenage girl to live with him in the Australian outback and thinks it will work out well?

9. Aidan from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. There's room in this world for another great story, and I loved poor, well-intentioned, flawed Aidan.

10. Boris from The Goldfinch. I guess his mystery is part of his charm but, man, his whole life must be an adventure.

What other characters deserve to have their own stories told? And am I forgetting someone obvious?

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Darkness

In Darkness by Nick Lake (2012), narrated by Benjamin L. Darcie

Shorty was in a hospital in Haiti when the earthquake hit, and now he is trapped in darkness where nobody can find him. He thinks about his life - his father, who was murdered, and his twin sister, who was taken the same day. He thinks about how everything changed after that and how he became a gangster and a killer.

In the late 1700s a slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture leads a rebellion against the French which ultimately results in the freedom of the slaves and the founding of the Republic of Haiti. His story is also one of struggle, danger, and tragedy. There is a connection between Shorty and Toussaint which brings both stories together in this deservedly award-winning novel.

There are so many elements that make this story stand out. How many works of fiction are even set in Haiti, much less ones intended for teenagers? I'd venture to guess very few. Beyond the uniqueness of the subject, though, is a strong story that is also driven by believable characters brought to life in all their personal struggles and imperfections. I also fascinated by the descriptions of vodou ceremonies and attempts to create zombis, which were different from the zombies of our popular culture. And I think Shorty is now one of my favorite characters. His voice is sincere, earnest, sometimes angry, but always compelling. He is trapped and alone with his thoughts, so he tries to be completely honest, but his story also has a desperate feel because he's trying to tell the whole thing before he dies.

Toussaint's character was very different - a middle-aged slave being lured into leading a revolt - but not without similarities. Both characters are desperate, both characters are in a dangerous Haiti that is changing, and both are caught up in a life that feels beyond their control, Shorty as a gangster and Toussaint as leader of a revolution. The two characters kind of channel each other, their stories woven together in a way that is difficult to buy as a concept, but works very well and doesn't feel forced.

This is a book that would have probably worked better for me in print than audio, particularly the historic scenes, but I do have a hard copy available that I read bits of in spots where my mind had wandered from the audio. That being said, Darcie's Haitian-accented narration was fantastic. I could listen to that guy read to me all the time. The story contains a lot of unfamiliar French or Creole words, but they are usually explained or just obvious from the context. In the audio, this only added to the feeling of authenticity.

Although this book has been on my list to read for quite a while, I kept passing it by until impulsively downloading the audiobook one day when I was feeling extremely indecisive about what to listen to. It was a great surprise and I'm so glad I got to finally experience this story, and accidentally learn about some Haitian history in the process. In Darkness stands out as one of the most unique books for teens I've come across, and I know I'll be recommending it a lot and I'll be thinking about Shorty and his story for a long time.