Friday, July 31, 2015


Stand-Off (Winger #2) by Andrew Smith (2015)

Last year I read Winger, and had no idea it was first in a series until after I finished it. It was a relief to find out there would be a sequel, because I really needed to work through what happened at the end and so did Ryan Dean. In Stand-Off he's back at Pine Mountain and is stuck in a tiny room with a freshman roommate who is twelve years old. What kind of crap deal is this for a senior year? His roommate is Sam Abernathy who, like Ryan Dean, started high school early and is younger than anyone else there. Ryan Dean has no time for this pipsqueak though, because he's busy with rugby and his girlfriend, Annie. He's also haunted by a new cartoon character he keeps drawing, who he calls Nate (Next Accidental Terrible Experience,) and he's been having night terrors.

My very favorite part of this book is Ryan Dean's relationship with Sam Abernathy, who he mainly refers to as The Abernathy and describes as being "cute as a laundry hamper filled with beagle puppies and cotton balls." Ryan Deal finds him completely exasperating. Sam is terribly claustrophobic, which means that he has to have either their door or the window open at all times, resulting in many cold winter nights. He also can't close the door in the bathroom, so Ryan Dean has to leave every time Sam has to use the bathroom or shower. At the same time, this kid is like somebody's mother: he picks up Ryan Dean's dirty clothes from the floor, and even does his laundry. His favorite pastime is eating microwave popcorn while watching the cooking channel. He desperately wants to be Ryan Dean's friend and is completely undaunted by the constant rebuffs.

Although that is a big part of the book, it's more about Ryan Dean coming to terms with his friend Joey's death the previous year. Coming back to school is hard when Joey's not on the rugby team or in the dorms or anywhere, and Ryan Dean feels like he doesn't have friends anymore. He does, of course, but he still isolates himself, even to some extent from Annie. This kid is not doing well. He can't sleep, he's not really eating, and he's being sort of a jerk to everyone. But I know he'll pull through because he has before, and at heart he's a good guy and I think a strong and smart person.

Even though the main theme is pretty serious, it was full of lots of fun everyday stuff in addition to his aforementioned roommate. For instance, his health teacher used a cartoon to teach the boys how to do testicular self-exams (or TSEs) and then assigned them homework to do a TSE and then write a paragraph about it. This same health teacher taught them a framework for sexual consent which Ryan Dean learned very thoroughly and regularly brings up in a joking way, but which at one point causes him to have an epiphany: "Consent applies in every direction, not just between straight guys and the girls they pursue." (Very good, Ryan Dean. You get a cookie!)

I loved visiting Ryan Dean again, and didn't even realize how much I had missed all his quirks, like the way he curses but then admits that he didn't actually say that because he doesn't curse. Or how he'd rate things, like: "That confession was definitely five out of five rogue asteroids on the Ryan Dean West Things I Never Saw Coming Scale." There's nothing more satisfying than a sequel that's just as good as the first book. I don't know if Andrew Smith plans to write more books in the Winger series, but if he does I'll be first in line to read them.

Stand-Off will be published on September 8, 2015. 

I received my copy courtesy of the publisher via Edelweiss. I was not compensated for this review.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins (2011), narrated by Shannon McManus

Seventeen-year-old Lola lives in San Francisco with her two dads, is really into costume design, and has an older boyfriend named Max who is in a band. One day she returns home to find a moving truck next door and to her great distress learns that the family moving in is one she knows. They are the Bells and not only have they lived there before, but one of them broke Lola's heart just before they moved away.

Now Lola's life is upended. She wants to hate Cricket Bell for how he treated her, but she is still so attracted to him, no matter how much she tries to deny it. Of course, she's madly in love with her boyfriend Max and tries to just be friends with Cricket. As you can imagine, that goes really well. To complicate matters further, Lola's biological mother also shows up and wreaks havoc with her comfortable life.

Stephanie Perkins really has some chutzpah naming her male romantic lead Cricket, doesn't she? To be fair, his twin sister's name is Calliope, though she is a figure skater and that somehow seems appropriate. Anyhow, Cricket is adorable and kind and has been in love with Lola forever, and you know they are going to end up together (see: title of book) but the fun is in getting there.

I loved Lola so much! Sure, she made mistakes and didn't handle difficult situations well, stringing Cricket along while hanging on to her boyfriend. But her relationship with Max was her first real romance so it was complicated for her. Also, Max was older and nobody was as excited about their relationship as she was, and I think it made her even more determined to keep him. I loved her confidence though, and her sense of fashion that would embarrass many people but was one of the most wonderful things about her. Her goal was to never wear the same outfit twice, and she dressed in rather outlandish ways that were super creative and probably took a lot of energy. Through most of the book she was preparing for an upcoming school dance; she planned to dress up as Marie Antoinette and was making her outfit herself. It was kind of wild.

This book is the second in a series, after Anna and the French Kiss. Anna and Etienne from that book are friends with Lola and although they're only secondary characters, it was great to see them again. Or to hear them, I guess, since I listened to the audiobook. The narrator was different from the first one, but sounded pretty similar I think. I really enjoyed listening to it and I will soon be downloading the third book in the series. This is a great teen romance for the summer!

Monday, July 27, 2015


Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005)

I read Uglies for the first time in 2008, so check that post for the basic premise of the novel. I went on to read the entire series and loved it the whole way through (I wasn't posting about every single book I read back then so I don't have posts about those - sorry!) I just read it again for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work and now I'm tempted to revisit the rest of the series.

The society Westerfeld has created was intended to correct the faults of the "Rusties" (that's us) who were all miserable and wreaked havoc on the environment, bringing on a final catastrophe that ended our way of life. One of the changes they made was to make everyone beautiful so that people wouldn't develop eating disorders, and to prevent people from being treated differently based on how attractive they are. It sounds all well and good in theory, but of course there is a dark side to it all.

Environmentalism is also very important in this society because of the havoc wreaked in the past. I was thinking about how many dystopias are based on us causing vast environmental damage and the later society rebuilding it under very strict governmental guidance. Right now, we can't seem to get it together enough to make any environmental changes, and I really wonder if it's even possible to do without having a complete catastrophe first. Or without some government exerting extreme control over everyone's lives. It's so interesting to think about!

Another thing I thought about was the idea of defying the government, the way some of the people did in this book by leaving the city and living off in the woods. One of the discussion questions I came across was something like "When is it ok to rebel against the government?" My reflex response is that it's ok if the government is wrong or oppressive, but who is the judge of that? Is it oppressive for the government to force you to vaccinate your children or to prevent you from buying semiautomatic weapons to kill each other with? Some people would say yes and some would say no. It seems very clear cut in a dystopia novel (sometimes) but real life is much more complicated.

Just like the first time I read it, Uglies was gripping and full of food for thought. I love reading about this version of the future and the people who inhabit it. I have already checked out a copy of the next book in the series, Pretties, which I may or may not read. I still love this series but as usual I have a whole stack of books waiting to be read. Stay tuned to find out whether or not I finish the series again.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Knitting

So I was knitting along on my Thyri pullover, paying more attention to the episodes of Orange is the New Black that I was watching, and suddenly I was at the end and the thing was about four miles long.

Seriously, wtf?
Pretty much the entire torso was a series of decreases and increases, so there was no continuous measuring to see if I had reached the correct length or not. And based on my row gauge, I even slipped in a few extra rows between some of the increases/decreases to make up for it. Not enough to account for this crazy length though. I don't know what happened.

Thank goodness it was knit top down. Tunic is not a good look on me. So I will be ripping back several inches and then re-knitting the hem. 

Here I'm pointing at the spot where I'd like the sweater to stop.

Otherwise, it's an ok sweater. The yarn is lovely, and I like the long sleeves and thumbholes. I wish the sleeves weren't so tight (are other knitters plagued by this problem or are my arms just enormous?) and there's an awkward seam in the yoke that I think is from swapping between one skein of yarn and another (hand-dyed is lovely in theory, but not so much in practice.) This will likely be a cozy lounge-around-the-house sweater rather than a work or socializing type sweater.

I will post again when it is actually finished to my satisfaction.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (2015)

When the story opens, Grace is in Paris working at a job restoring antiques. It is clear that she has run away from something. As her story slowly unfolds we learn that two guys from her hometown with whom she was close are being released from prison. Her involvement in the crime (and with the two men) is revealed over the course of the novel which moves back and forth in time between Paris and Grace's hometown of Garland, Tennessee.

This book is difficult to describe in a way that does it justice. It's not a crime novel, though there is a crime at the center of the story. Much of it is about lies and thievery, but it's also about the way that Grace built her early life and found a family that was better than her real one, and then how she destroyed those relationships that she built. It was kind of a slow burn, but didn't drag. I really enjoyed reading all of it and kept trying to find spare moments to pick it up again.

I loved the details of Grace's job in the antique shop. She helped her coworker Hanna (who was a pretty interesting character herself) restore an ornate centerpiece with tiny sheep and acorns and peaches and other little bits that needed to be restored and, in some cases, remade. It is incredibly meticulous work, and the project reminds me a little of the way Grace has manipulated the people and events around her and remade her life into something different.

The title and cover are pretty underwhelming and I never would have picked this book up if it wasn't chosen for my book group. In fact, I actually received a galley of it from Penguin and gave it away without reading it. But I'm so glad my friend picked it for book group! It really got under my skin in a way that reminded me a bit of The Woman Upstairsa book that stuck with me more than I originally predicted. (But if you didn't like that book, don't let it turn you off from this one - it really is different.) Unbecoming was vividly atmospheric and vaguely ominous. It's a book I won't soon forget.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

Today I give you ten books that celebrate diversity or diverse characters. This was actually a bit difficult for me. I read a ton of books with LGBT characters so I had to really narrow it down, and then think a bit to pull in some other types of diversity. In a few cases, I looked pretty far back at my reading list in order to pick something that I think deserves to be in (or back in) the spotlight.

I should also note that the idea of a character who is "diverse" doesn't actually make sense, since diversity basically means "variety" and one thing alone cannot make up a variety. My angle here is to highlight characters who are part of a minority group or have defining characteristics which are underrepresented in books.

Here goes!

1. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon: this book celebrates diversity more than anything I've read and also I think everyone should read it because then the world would be a better place. The end.

2. She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan: one of my favorite memoirs, this was the first thing I read that made me sort of get what the transgender experience is all about. I posted about it in 2007 as part of my list of Memoirs I Didn't Hate, which is still a list worth checking out. I didn't describe it very well ("became a woman" isn't quite accurate) but that's my fault, not the book's.

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: this may seem like an odd choice at first, since it's about a group of beauty pageant contestants. But the characters are all trying very hard to conform when, in fact, they are a rather diverse group in many ways. It's satirical and hilarious.

4. Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern: one of the main characters has cerebral palsy and the other has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and their friendship is beautiful to behold. I like that the book is about much more than the ways in which they are different from other teenagers.

5. A World Away by Nancy Grossman: I don't read a lot of books that focus on the main character's religion, but I couldn't pass up this one about a teenage Amish girl. It was refreshingly different and I loved it.

6. Annabel by Kathleen Winter: this haunting novel has an intersex character who is from Labrador, Canada. Both the character and setting were unusual, and it was beautifully written.

7. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed: young adult novel centering around a Pakistani-American family and arranged marriage.

8. Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher: still one of my favorite young adult novels, it's about a high school boy in Missouri who falls for a trans girl.

9. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters: Victorian-era lesbians star in one of my very favorite novels.

10. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: a Nigerian woman is the star of this brilliant novel about race in America. One of the best books I've read in the past few years.

What are your favorite books that celebrate diversity or contain characters of an underrepresented group?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Stand Out

Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by Dorie Clark (2015)

In her last book, Dorie Clark addressed career transition: how to evaluate your strengths, and develop and promote your image in order to succeed in your new role. In her new book, she tackles an even more ambitious goal: finding an idea that will set you apart in your field, and then selling it.

It may seem impossible to come up with an idea that is revolutionary, or even lucrative, but Clark shows very clearly that it's not. It's easy to forget that trailblazers are often regular people like us, who just happened to think of a particular question or problem in a different way, and the first several chapters of the book are devoted to different ways of approaching this. Each section ends with questions to ask yourself, and one of my favorites in this first part was "What questions do newbies in your field often ask that get shot down or dismissed?" What a great way to identify areas for innovation! Many of the "Ask Yourself" questions were equally as creative and thought-provoking.

Once you have your idea you need to get it out there, and this is what the latter part of the book addresses. Specifically, you need to build a network, leveraging one-on-one relationships while also building an audience. Clark presents so many ideas about how to approach this that anyone should be able to find something that works for them. Some of my favorites are getting involved with charities, recording a podcast interview and then blogging and tweeting about it, and taking on interns to help with a project (she has a great story about Seth Godin's internship program.)

This is the kind of book in which everything the author suggests, I think "Yes! I want to do that immediately!" I am not, of course, going to do all of the things, much less immediately. I've known Dorie Clark for a long time, and my energy level has never come close to matching hers. But I could do some of the things. Point being, it's all broken down into manageable tasks that you can pick and choose from based on what's right for you.

Stand Out contains lots of food for thought, and it's not the sort of book I wanted to plow through. I deliberately paced myself so I could think about the many, many ideas as I went along. Thankfully it is appropriate to many fields, and not just those in the for-profit sector. One of Clark's strengths is her varied background, which includes a stint running a non-profit as well as volunteer work on charity boards, so when she writes she doesn't focus totally on for-profit business. I've been thinking a bit about career development and needing a good idea for a project, so I read this at just the right time. I found it inspiring and hopefully now I will be motivated to take some action. Recommended for anyone with a career.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Unread books by favorite authors

When I decided to do away with my To Read list, I thought one of the results might be that I'd go back and read more by authors who I already know I like. Why I couldn't just put those on my list I cannot explain, but perhaps it's because I wasn't afraid of forgetting about them the way I was with more unfamiliar authors or books that didn't get a lot of attention. My list was supposed to be a way of remembering books that sounded appealing, not for keeping track of books I already knew about. But having that huge list weigh on me meant that I was constantly trying to read stuff from the list and disregarding anything that wasn't on it. I needed to cross something off!

Weirdly, there are some authors who I consider favorites and whose books I usually read as soon as they come out, but who still have one book I haven't gone back and read.

I hear it's really good.
Sarah Waters - The Night Watch
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - That Thing Around Your Neck
Chris Bohjalian - Water Witches
Geraldine Brooks - People of the Book

And probably more that I'm not thinking of. Some of these I've even gone so far as to check out of the library, but still to no avail. Why can't I manage to read these books? It's as though I don't want to read all their books so I'm left with nothing, but that's not like me at all. I like a sense of completion.

On the other hand are those authors who I discovered and didn't keep going with. I've only read about two books by Richard Russo even though I really liked them a lot, and with Tana French I seem to have stopped after only one, which I totally loved.

Strangely, dumping my To Read list hasn't helped any of this. It's early days yet, but so far I'm just floundering about not knowing what I should read, then picking up a galley of something forthcoming rather than something that I've been wanting to read for a decade. Perhaps I just need to get my sea legs in this new unstructured landscape I've made for myself. I'll post more thoughts as my experiment progresses.

In the meantime, I'm curious: when you find an author that you like, do you make a point to read all of their books? Do you ever stop at one even if you really like that one? Are you ever truly caught up with authors that you like?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015)

Eva Thorvald's father was a chef who fed her gourmet pureed meals when she was just a baby. She grew up to be a chef herself, able to charge $5000 a plate for a dinner with a years-long reservation list. What happened in between is told in a series of interconnected stories, each of which is focused on a different character. Every chapter is named after a food, from "Lutefisk" through "Bars," ending with the more general "The Dinner," which is the name of Eva's pop-up restaurant. In some chapters Eva is only peripheral, but she is always present.

As a child, Eva was raised by her aunt and uncle (definitely not foodies) and her life was not easy, nor was her trajectory clear, but she was always very good at food. She could tolerate the hottest of peppers, winning many bets when she was very young. Later she went on to pursue more refined culinary goals, such as sourcing only the best, most local heirloom ingredients from the farmer's market.

Filled with delectable descriptions of food, the novel also pokes fun at the more ridiculous parts of foodie culture. In one of my favorite scenes a woman named Pat Prager brings her traditional peanut butter bars to a really snooty baking contest and is scolded by a woman who is so horrified that the bars contain actual butter that she consults with her husband as to whether she should go vomit it up out of concern for her unborn baby. This whole conversation is priceless. I'll admit that I'm a regular customer of Whole Foods and try to reduce my intake of overly processed foods, but even I realize how ridiculous this is. I love good food - and sometimes it's exactly the sort of thing the hipster foodies in this book are making - but I also really enjoy making fun of the culture around that food.

Another of my favorite parts was at the beginning when Eva was just a baby. Her mother, Cynthia, did not get a sommelier job she really wanted. She was so angry that she paired a Stag's Leap merlot with a bowl of boxed macaroni and cheese. As someone who has traveled to California and purchased merlot from Stag's Leap, which I then felt compelled to save for the most special of occasions, I appreciated this more than I can say. This book was filled with such moments.

By the end, I don't even know if I actually even like Eva, but I do feel that I've gotten to know a number of new and interesting people who are all interconnected and I really liked meeting them. The structure reminds me a bit of Olive Kitteridge but otherwise it's a very different book. Focusing on different characters in each chapter provides insight into people in Eva's life, a perspective that you wouldn't get if the book centered completely on her, and I think it works really well.

I get very distracted by food, but ultimately, this book is about Eva and her family. Her mother runs away with the sommelier who got the job she wanted, her father dies unexpectedly young, and Eva is sort of afloat and untethered. Her cousin Braque seems to be a constant, but mostly it seems to be food that really keeps her moored (and despite her high-falutin' fancy dinners, she really loved Pat Prager's peanut butter bars.) I should mention that the book contains recipes (including the afore-mentioned peanut butter bars) so this is definitely a novel geared towards food lovers. What I love most is how Stradal has embraced both gourmet and traditional food culture, and the end product is something that many of us will love. Highly recommended to anyone who likes stories about food or family.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest will be published later this month. I received my copy of courtesy of Penguin through their First Flights program. I was not compensated for this review.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Top Ten Hyped Books I've Never Read

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

Here are ten hyped books that I haven't read. Some I'll likely never read (I'm looking at you, Infinite Jest) but some I just haven't gotten around to picking up.

1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I really liked his much lesser known novel, Black Swan Green, but can't manage to drum up enough interest to read anything else of his.

2. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. This book has appeared on so many lists of the best life-changingly wonderful books ever, yet it is over 1000 pages and the description includes the phrase "screwball comedy" so I am unlikely to ever pick it up.

3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I have friends on Goodreads who have given it 5 stars and others who have given it one star. Nothing about the description grabs me and I dislike every version of the cover art that I have seen.

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. On the other hand, I love this cover art. I once picked the book up and read about a page before deciding I wasn't interested, at least not at the moment. Is this book not for me, or was I just not in the mood? I may never know the answer to this question. Or maybe I will.

5. Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. These are pretty thick books and I'm hesitant to start any new series. I've watched a couple seasons of the show and it's pretty good. Now I don't have to read the books, right?

6. All the Light We Cannot See. This is probably the hottest book in my library system right now and yet I am completely uninterested. I'm really over World War II.

7. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Fourteen of my friends on Goodreads have read it, and 12 of them gave it 5 stars (the other two gave it 4 stars.) Even my husband has read this one and loved it, and that's saying something.

8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It doesn't sound interesting but everyone seems to love it and it's on the high school summer reading list at my library every year. Maybe I should read it?

9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Despite never having read anything by Jonathan Franzen, I'm convinced that I don't like him.

10. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read the short Ayn Rand novel, Anthem, and that was more than enough Rand for me. The end.

Am I missing out on something fantastic? If you think I *should* read any of them, please tell me why in the comments!

Monday, July 6, 2015

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (2013)

You may have heard of astronaut Chris Hadfield from his YouTube videos, such as his popular performance of Space Oddity which he recorded aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and the life lessons he has learned along the way.

As a child in Canada, he watched Neil Armstrong take those first historic steps on the moon and knew that he too wanted to be an astronaut one day. Canada didn't even have a space program and at the time it was impossible for a Canadian to go into space. But, Hadfield reasoned, only recently it had also been impossible to walk on the moon. So there we have lesson number one: just because something is impossible doesn't mean it will always be impossible.

Hadfield didn't know if his dreams would ever come true, but he did everything he could to prepare himself nonetheless. Throughout his career he has shown the same incredible patience and perseverance, and I was in awe as I read about it. He is very sensible and logical and determined, but also displays a healthy sense of humor (which I am convinced is key to being successful as a human being.) I was also envious of his ability to concentrate and maintain focus. Once he was flying a jet in formation, and discovered a bee in his helmet. He had no choice but to ignore it, which is completely reasonable, but had I been in this situation I would surely have panicked and gotten myself (and possibly others) killed.

His anecdote about ignoring the bee was meant to illustrate a piece of wisdom he came back to a couple of times. Basically, don't worry about what you can't control. Focus on what you can do and ignore the rest. Ignore the bees, and don't take jerks personally. Complaining about things you can't control doesn't help either. He cautions against getting carried away with group griping. It does help bonding, but if you let it go on it only makes the problem you're complaining about seem even bigger than it is and certainly doesn't solve it.

I learned a lot about space travel; there's just so much that had never occurred to me. As you would expect, a lot of preparation goes into preparing for launch but I didn't realize the extent of it. Because of everything that goes into preparing for launch far away from home, NASA provides family escorts: astronauts who aren't currently training for a mission who sort of act as a surrogate spouse/concierge for the family. That escort runs out for sandwiches, deals with hotel issues, and carts the family around, but also has to be there if someone in the family dies while the family's astronaut is away or, worst-case scenario, if the astronaut dies during the mission. In that the case, the escort will help with the funeral and long afterward, advocating for the family and assisting with things like setting up an education fund for the kids. Hadfield has done this for other families as well, and it helped him to see what a launch was like for the families and also helped him to understand that his family's struggles were just like those of other astronauts' families.

Over and over Hadfield would ask himself "What is the next thing that could kill me?" and then prepare for that. An astronaut needs to be the very best that he or she can possibly be so it's no surprise that this is kind of a self-improvement manual. It's a great complement to Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, which is the first book I read about life in space. Hadfield's book touches a bit on some of the same practicalities, but is really more focused on becoming an astronaut, what it's like in a larger sense, and of course the lessons he's learned that can apply to all of our lives.

I listened to the audio version, which was read by Hadfield himself, complete with charming Canadian accent. But when I grabbed a copy of the paper version to peruse in preparation for writing this post, I saw that it includes photos. They're not integral to the experience of the book, but if you're going to listen to the audio - which I definitely think is worthwhile - you might just want to be aware that photos are available. There aren't a ton either; you could easily peruse them in just a few minutes in a bookstore if needed.

However you choose to read it, I think everyone can get something out of this book. Have you read it? Or have you read another book about space travel that you would recommend?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

The Mortmain family live in the crumbling ruins of an English castle in the 1930s, where seventeen-year-old Cassandra chronicles their lives in her journal. When the heir of the Mortmains' landlord settles nearby with his brother, the family hopes he may lift them out of poverty through marriage. But don't think this is a rip-off of Pride and Prejudice - the similarities end there.

Cassandra's father once wrote a critically-acclaimed novel, but since then hasn't written a thing or earned any sort of income to support his wife and three children. He's an absent-minded genius, doddering about the property working on crossword puzzles and having eccentric conversations that his family can't make any sense of. To get by, they make do as best they can, selling off furniture and valuables, but now there is little left to sell. Cassandra's step-mother, Topaz, is a rather Bohemian former artist's model who is barely older than her step-daughters. But the young women all get along really well, which is a nice departure from the wicked-stepmother stereotype. The family is rounded out by two boys, a younger brother and a servant named Stephen who has become part of the family and is in love with Cassandra.

Stephen's is not the only unrequited love in this novel; in fact, many of the relationships are one-sided, or at least lop-sided. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person and it gets pretty messy at times. Interestingly, at my book group discussion about Tibetan Peach Pie someone pointed out the part where Robbins expressed that even if the person you love doesn't love you back, you are still better for having felt that way yourself. This idea also comes up here in this very different book. (I'm honestly not sure I agree with the sentiment, but I think that's my own shortcoming.) This willingness to feel good about love for the sake of love is just one of many things that make this story a feel-good one despite some seemingly-bleak plot points.

Probably the greatest strength of the novel is Cassandra's narrative voice. She's intelligent but dreamy, self-aware but naive, and brimming with clever observations. When discussing her theory of bathing she says, "The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way." (Oh it does, Cassandra, it does.) Another part I enjoyed was a conversation she had with their neighbor Neil comparing English and American table manners. Growing up in America, Neil has been taught that you should cut each mouthful, set your knife down, transfer your fork to the other hand, eat, then start the process again. He dislikes how the English "all hang on to your knives." He also points out that though the English always serve the guests first, the American custom of serving the hostess first makes much more sense, so she can model the correct way to approach unfamiliar foods, which Cassandra agrees is a very good idea. (It's way more amusing the way she tells it, trust me.)

Any book that takes place in a drafty old castle in the English countryside is going to appeal to me, but this one is just so well-executed it's practically perfect. I know that poverty isn't romantic, but there's just something incredibly cozy and almost magical about Cassandra's life. I think it's just the lens through which she sees it and the way she tells us about it.

I first read this book probably 13 or 14 years ago now, and I barely remembered anything about it except that it was about a teenager living in a castle and that I really liked it. This is the problem with getting older - I've forgotten books that I've read even as an adult and now I want to reread them. But there's great pleasure in starting a book that you know you'll love but that can still surprise you. I could see myself reading this again in another decade or so.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tibetan Peach Pie

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins (2015)

When I was in my early- and mid-20s I read all of Tom Robbins's books. They were so unusual and I loved the quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and madcap adventures. Now Robbins has a nonfiction book about his own true-life adventures and my book group picked it to read this month.

Recounting his childhood, marriages, military service,  and his relationship with LSD (among other things) his voice was familiar and his stories came across as much like tall tales as his novels. It sort of felt like listening to an older relative tell stories about his life that were likely embellished to liven up a family gathering. Because it was a loose collection of stories rather than one continuous storyline, I found it a bit difficult to get into. At the same time, I read it while I was feeling generally distracted (while prepping for, and on, my trip to Russia) and that didn't help, but it was probably a good choice since I didn't need to follow any complicated story lines.

Overall, I found it entertaining and funny, but I don't have much to say about it. Although I didn't read it under the best of circumstances, I don't know if I would have loved it even under ideal reading conditions. As much as I loved Tom Robbins when I was in my 20s, I'm not just sure if he's my sort of thing these days. If you're a fan of Tom Robbins, you might appreciate it; if you haven't read Robbins before, I'd suggest that you try his novels first.