Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Knitting

Hi, wow, it's been a long time since I posted about knitting! For quite a while I was doing very little of it, but recently I've been powering through a pair of socks.

These are the Arrow Socks from Sensational Knitted Socks, and the yarn is Kettle Dyed Socks in the colorway Buggy Top, which I bought at Lancaster Yarns a couple of years ago when I was visiting Amish country in Pennsylvania.

Mostly I've been knitting on the bus, while listening to the Anne Perry mystery Death of a Stranger. I always want to listen to one of her books in the dead of winter, and they always make me want to knit. I've also been working on these while watching American Horror Story: Freakshow, but I don't spend as much time watching tv. Together, the audio book and the tv show are propelling me quickly through this project so I'm thinking about what's next.

I've got more sock yarn on deck, also gray, which I think I might just work up in a basic 2x2 rib. Boring as far as knitting goes, but good for wearing. I'm also still looking at the East Neuk Hoodie which I began ages ago in an unfortunate shade of goldenrod. I wanted mustard yellow but had to order online so of course it wasn't actually mustard (as I should have guessed from the name of the colorway, but you never know.) A month or so ago I stopped by one of the very few yarn shops that still exist in these parts and found a shade that was much better. They didn't have enough of it but ordered it for me and now it's been sitting in a back upstairs for weeks. I may actually cast on soon.

When I ordered the goldenrod yarn I also ordered, in case the goldenrod wasn't right, some bright orange because surely that would be a great color. I expected it to be tangerine, but it's a little more...neon. Not exactly, but very bright. I'd be willing to wear a sweater made of it if it's the right sweater, so I've been thinking about that as well. I'm picturing something very simple, stockinette or reverse stockinette, maybe a bit oversized with straight hems and cuffs (as opposed to ribbed, is what I mean.) I'm not sure yet.

Meanwhile, what to do with those many skeins of goldenrod yarn? Hmm.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Beyond the Dark Veil

Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive, edited by Sue Henger (2014)

I think it was Smoke Gets In Your Eyes where I first learned about Victorian post-mortem photography, but I thought about it again while reading How To Be a Victorian. Then recently, The Bloggess recommended this book which I immediately requested through interlibrary loan because it's not available in my network (but soon will be, because my library is sure as hell buying it now.) Beyond the Veil is, as the subtitle suggests, a collection of post-mortem and mourning photography, primarily from the Victorian era as that's when this sort of thing was all the rage.

The book is primarily made up of photos with captions, but there is also some text about the photography and the context. The font was small and the content was rather scholarly in tone and I read it, but my experience is much more about the photos that made up the bulk of the book. The first section is "Pre-mortem - Deathbed" photos, primarily of young women who evoke the very essence of dramatic Victorian novels. One of them looks disturbingly like a librarian I know. Next, the largest section, is "Children and Family" which is mostly photos of dead babies and young children. This is followed by "Adults," "Crime - Murder - Tragedy," "Ephemera and Mourning," and "Pets." I have to say that pictures of dead dogs and cats are rather a letdown after babies and murder victims.

In some of the photos, the deceased are arranged in coffins; in others they are arranged in bed in a restful pose, or even upright in chairs. Sometimes their eyes are open, and sometimes they are closed. In a couple of especially creepy photos, the eyes are partially open. Occasionally it is necessary to arrange the body to hide the site of an injury, though in at least one photo the child's face is visible and obviously had received great trauma.

One of the most interesting photos is of a small family, a husband and wife and their child. The woman, suspecting her husband of an affair, shot him before killing their child and herself. They are all arranged nestled together in a casket where they arere destined to spent eternity together after this horrible betrayal. Another is of eight caskets laid out side by side, the result of a mass murder of a family and their chore boy. The caskets are surrounded by many friends and neighbors. At the time of the photo the killer had not been caught. It turns out that he was in the photo. These arere both so haunting and creepy that I want someone to write novels about them.

Noticeably absent is any explanation of the Thanatos Archive. The first time I tried to look them up, their website wasn't really working, but now I see that you can pay for an online membership to get access to their entire archive of photos. Or you can just follow them on social media, which is what I'll do. I still don't know anything about who they are or why they started collecting these photos, but I'm glad they did.

If you're wondering why any of this even exists, just think back to conditions in the Victorian era. First of all, people were more in touch with death than we are today because it visited their families so frequently and mercilessly and there wasn't yet a funeral industry like we have today. At the time, bodies weren't just whisked away immediately to be hidden from view, and only presented when they were carefully reconstructed and preserved. Everyone knew what a dead person actually looked like. But more importantly, photography was rather new and sometimes people died before there was ever a photograph taken of them - this was the family's only chance to capture their image before they were gone forever. It makes a kind of sense.

Obviously this is right up my alley. Apparently I'm not the only one, because when it came in for me I had to promise to let other people in my department at work see it before it was sent back. Part of the appeal is definitely the macabre aspect, I suppose, but it's also a fascinating part of history. I should also mention that the cover and binding are of high quality, and the pages are gilt-edged. It's really an altogether beautiful book.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A few shorter works

Recently I read a few shorter books so rather than trying to get a whole post out of each of them, I'm combining the mini-reviews in one post here.

Walter: the Story of a Rat by Barbara Wersba, illustrated by Donna Diamond (2005)

I spotted this on a coworker's Staff Picks shelf at my library and grabbed it immediately. Walter is a rat who, for unknown reasons, was born knowing how to read. He's lived in a number of places during his life, but now lives with a writer of children's books named Miss Pomeroy. He loves it there because it is peaceful, he gets plenty of food, and all the books he could ever want. Walter knows how people generally feel about rats, but decides to take a risk and writes a note to Miss Pomeroy that says, "My name is Walter. I live here too." The next day he receives a note back from her: "I know."

This story was just as adorable as I had hoped, and I love that the illustrations are so realistically rendered. That is what a rat actually looks like, and he is extremely cute. I will likely read this again before returning it to the library.

Devotion: a Rat Story by Maile Meloy (2013)

It really is a coincidence that I happened to read two rat books in a row. This one was mentioned on a blog and I had it sitting around for a while before I impulsively read Walter first. Devotion is a short story, but published as an adorable, tiny standalone volume. When I say "adorable" I really am just talking about the physical book, not the content. The story is about a young woman who buys her first house where she plans to live with her 4-year-old daughter. But she starts noticing a lot of rats around, and comes to find out that her neighbors, two elderly sisters, are feeding and harboring a whole houseful of rats. It's pretty weird and upsetting. Meloy's writing style is deceptively upbeat, not what I'd expect of such a dark story, but it works quite effectively. I really liked this little story. I could almost hear the rats scurrying about with their thousands of little claws scraping at the floors and walls....

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (2015)

There are no rats in Bitch Planet, unless you count the Fathers, the patriarchal evil men in charge who send "non-compliant" women away to their own prison planet. The women are strong, diverse, and have potentially interesting back stories, though I don't feel like I really got to know any of them much. The rather vague plot involved some sort of sports event, in which the women are being encouraged to enter their own team for reasons that didn't seem super clear, but maybe were related to entertainment value. The women decide to do so because they think they can actually manage to prove something (and possibly kill some important people in the process?) I'm not super clear on it all actually.

The art isn't really my style and, as I said, the plot seemed a bit weak. But I like the overall premise and the women in the story. My favorite parts were the satirical ads, and especially the discussion guide in the back. I love discussion questions when they are good, and these were probably the best ones I've seen. Granted, the ones I have seen generally suck, but these are actually really good. So if you're looking for something a little different for your book group, you might want to try Bitch Planet.

Monday, January 25, 2016

People of the Book

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

This is one of the most lauded novels by Geraldine Brooks, and the one I kept putting off reading. The subject is the Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient illuminated manuscript. Somehow the premise was not super interesting to me, but I've read all of this author's other books and really enjoy her writing so I didn't want to leave this one out. I put it on my TBR challenge for this year and convinced my book group to choose it for this month.

The novel begins in 1996 when Hanna Heath is hired to examine the Sarajevo Haggadah and perform some conservation work on it. Hidden in its pages, she finds wine stains, an insect wing, a white hair, and salt crystals. Each of these gets its own story, taking us back in time to discover the source and add to the complete history of the book and the people who have owned, saved, and altered it over its vast history.

This structure is pretty cool, conceptually. At the same time, it kept feeling like I had a new story to try and get into which sort of meant that I was never fully in the novel the way I wanted to be. Each back story presented me with a new time and place, and a slew of new characters. By the time I got settled into the story, I was back in 1996 with Hanna.

Still, it was done well, the richness of the descriptions and attention to historic detail rivaling that of any other book by Geraldine Brooks. Objectively it's a good book even if I appreciated it more than I actually enjoyed reading it. I'm glad I finally got to it and am now caught up on this author, who appeared on my list Unread Books by Favorite Authors. This is also my first completed title for my 2016 TBR Pile Challenge.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer (2011)

My Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work picked this nonfiction book about the Salem witch trials. You probably all know the story so I won't summarize, except to remind you that it was about a bunch of people (primarily women) who were falsely accused of witchcraft and executed in Puritan New England. The accusers were young girls who never should have been taken seriously, and the whole thing was pretty tragic. The story has been told many times, but there were a couple of things that made this book unique.

It began with a discussion about superstitious beliefs, specifically the Puritan belief of an Invisible World parallel to our own Natural World, one that housed malevolent spirits. God and the Devil had a complicated relationship in their mind, the Devil used by God to hand out punishment. Also important to take into account are the many frightening events that the Puritan could only explain as signs from God: earthquakes, drought, comets, disease, and war. Other accounts that I've read (and I admit, I haven't read many) started right off with what happened and then attempted to explain it. I liked that Schanzer began with the context.

The other unique aspect of this book, and the most apparent, is the art. The small volume is illustrated with eye-catching designs primarily in black and white, with just a touch of red. They are dark - not just in color, but in tone. Stern men with red eyes point at one another, a judge looks down from a high bench while a demon whispers in his ear, a terrified man flees an orchard while a huge devil flies overhead. Perhaps less accurate than the typical line drawings of realistically-rendered Puritans, these nonetheless add to the overall feelings of terror and confusion so appropriate to the story.

As I tried to come up with discussion questions, I decided to do a little bit of research in an attempt to add value to the discussion. (I've decided that this year I need to up my game in regards to running this book group.) I had a couple of questions so I started by investigating those. First, one of the accused witches, Martha Corey, had an out-of-wedlock mixed-race baby. I would think this would be incredibly scandalous, but what was so interesting is that she was later married to Giley Corey (who was also accused as a witch and died while being tortured). As I thought, sex outside of marriage was not acceptable in this society, but I didn't learn much about the circumstances of her marriage. Was she just so appealing a partner that Giles Corey decided to overlook her youthful indiscretion? As it turns out she was married during her pregnancy, though her husband was clearly not the father. I have been unable to learn much about the circumstances of that earlier marriage, but continue to be intrigued.

My other question was one of context. We talk about these trials like they are unbelievable and ridiculous, but I wondered if they were unique in that society at that time. What other sorts of things could a person be executed for? According to the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life, there were either 16 or 17 crimes punishable by death (the discrepancy may be that one of the 17 was nonappearance in a capital trial.) Other capital crimes included adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, bestiality, murder, and cursing a parent. And if you think our current court system is unjust, consider the Puritan system in which "spectral evidence" (evidence related to supernatural beings that only the afflicted accusers could see) was acceptable, and many judges and lawyers were without formal education.  So I think it's safe to say that the Puritans may have overreacted to a lot of situations, not just the one involving a rash of alleged witchcraft.

I don't know how this book compares to other teen books on this topic, but it was an easy-to-read overview with some fantastic illustrations, and spurred me to do a bit of extra research that was quite interesting.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (2015), narrated by Michael Crouch

Simon has been secretly emailing a boy he knows only by the name "Blue" for months now. They met through their high school's Tumblr page and have gone from flirtatious to super-romantic. When irritating classmate Martin stumbles across an email between the two, he uses it to blackmail Simon into fixing him up with his friend Abby. Although Simon is concerned about being outed before he's ready, he's even more worried about potentially compromising Blue's identity and any chance at a real-world romance.

Everyone who told me that this book is great was right. As with many really good books, it's hard to articulate why it's so good. It's much easier to rip apart a bad book.

I think a lot of what I liked is how recognizable it all was. High school is so dramatic, and this is captured very well. Simon is kind of a terrible friend in a pretty typical way, in that he is so wrapped up in his own life and problems that he doesn't even think to ask people around him about what's going on with them. There are some pretty basic things he doesn't know about his close friends. The blackmail situation is, of course, quite distracting and Simon becomes involved in a lot of complicated situations of friendship, romance, and betrayal.

Although Simon had a good relationship with his parents, he was also kind of aggravated by them. Specifically, they just made a big deal out of everything. Every time he did something different, they drew way too much attention to it. "I didn't know that you drink coffee now!" like it was something really extraordinary. Teenagers are changing all the time, and the last thing they want is for it to be announced and discussed at length. This really resonated with me because my family was the same way. Even in my 20s, my mother would take note of things and then not ever forget them. Like, when I got a tattoo of a frog she was all "I didn't know you liked FROGS!" and then for years proceeded to buy me frog-themed everything until I told her to stop.

Anyhow, being genuine and realistic wouldn't be enough without the fun and romance. Simon was a theater kid at school and was in the high school's production of Oliver. He hung out with other theater kids, and was convinced (hoped!) that Blue was this cute boy named Cal Price who was also involved with Oliver. Speaking of Blue, their romance was really sweet and adorable, even though it was primarily over email. That of course also made it risky because every time they even imagined meeting, there was a lot of angst, but I loved their conversations and the way they understood each other and talked honestly to one another in a way they didn't with their closest friends. Plus, they were so nerdy together. During a discussion of Simon's use of sentence fragments, Blue admits that he loves them, and then Simon gets mock-jealous about other boys that Blue finds cute and says "You better not love THEIR sentence fragments." What is more adorable than grammar-based romance?

I really enjoyed Simon's voice and his observations and pretty much everything about him. He loves Oreos and has a dog named Bieber and has complicated feelings about cross-dressing, but feels compelled to always dress up for Spirit Week at school. He's been friends with Nick and Leah since they were little kids, but since Abby has joined their group and Nick obviously has a crush on her (as does every other straight guy at school) things have gotten a little tense. Simon knows that Leah really likes Nick and is jealous of Abby, but he doesn't know what to do about it. I really just wanted to help this kid out.

Making Simon's voice even better is narrator Michael Crouch. He was the perfect voice for Simon Spier and really made the story come alive even more. This was a great audio choice!

I'm so glad I finally got around to listening to this book. Anyone who likes young adult books should definitely check it out!

It also fulfills a square for Winter Bingo since it was a 2015 release that I missed.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Lace

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

Since I've read a couple of sex-heavy books recently, I'm going to stick with that theme here. I'm reaching waaaay back to a book that my friends all passed around in middle school until someone's mom got wind of it and snatched it away: Lace by Shirley Conran. I don't remember who first got hold of this book, but I am forever indebted to that person for an image that has been seared into my brain ever since then.

Now I don't recall a thing about the plot, and I don't recall if I even read the whole book or just the juicy parts. According to Goodreads, the novel is about four women in their forties who are called together by a young actress who wants to know which of them is her mother. The women have been sharing their secrets for decades and refuse to answer, so the young woman travels around the world trying to learn the truth herself. Also, everybody in this book is rich and glamorous, which I'm pretty sure was a requirement for books published in the 1980s.

Here is all that I remember about this book: there is a scene in which a man and a woman are getting it on, and he reaches into a goldfish bowl next to the bed, pulls out a fish, shoves it in her hooha, and then lays on top of her so she cannot move (she is understandably trying to struggle), after which she then enjoys the feeling of the fish fluttering around inside her. It was horrifying, and still is. Imagine reading such a thing when you are around 12 years old and are still formulating your ideas about what happens during sex.

Needless to say, it was unforgettable. By the way, Lace has a 3.78 star rating on Goodreads, which isn't too shabby, and there's also a sequel creatively called Lace 2. Both books, surprisingly, are available in my library system so I'm wondering if they are actually good since they've been kept in some libraries' collections for more than 30 years after publication. I'm unlikely to read them, but certainly let me know if you do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Did You Ever Have a Family

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (2015)

The night before her daughter's wedding, June Reid's house burned down, killing her boyfriend, ex-husband, daughter and her daughter's fiancé. June alone survived. Soon after, she up and left town without telling anyone where she was going. The story is told from many points of view of people connected in some way to June and her unfortunate family members.

This book has gotten a lot of praise, from reviewers as well as a couple of my coworkers, but I was underwhelmed. It's fine, but doesn't pack the emotional punch I expected.

This is partly due to the constant shifting of narrators. Way too many characters narrating a 300-page book means that each only gets a bit of real estate so I didn't feel like I got to know any of them very well. It was also hard to keep track of them; I spent the first few pages of a chapter trying to figure out who the person was and how they related to the story, and then when they popped up again 50 pages later I had to remind myself who they even were. It's not so much that I don't like that method of storytelling - it's really not that different than, say, Kitchens of the Great Midwest.  It's that the main story is one that should be incredibly heartbreaking, yet telling the story this way keeps it emotionally distant.

The novel begins with the house fire so you know right off the bat what happened and who was killed. We know that the fire was caused by an old stove, and there's more to the story than that but it's honestly not that interesting. This all means that there was not much of a plot and no real tension.

The whole time it just felt like the author was just dancing around the edge of the story without actually delving into it. He robs us of good character development by skipping around between too many characters we only get a taste of, surprise because we learn all the important stuff up front, forward momentum because nothing much happens. I can't figure out what the point of this book even is. I know other people have found this story incredibly sad but I just can't because I felt like I was being held at arm's length the whole time and not allowed to actually get into it.

I almost put the book down a few times, but was determined to see it through because I wanted to know why it's held in such high regard. Not that it was difficult to read - don't get me wrong. It wasn't a book I had to force myself through - it wasn't unpleasant to read - but I picked it up each time not because I was dying to read it, but because I felt like reading and that's what I was reading at the time and it wasn't bad.

I've felt like this before about books that are critically-acclaimed and literary and I feel like maybe they're so focused on being literary and writing in a particular style that there's no room for the good stuff like emotion and plot.

On the bright side, one of my Winter Bingo squares is Multi POV and this was definitely told from multiple points of view.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Top Ten 2015 Releases I Meant To Get To But Didn't

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week is a list of books publishedin 2015 that I really want to read but haven't managed to get to yet.

1. The Fold by Peter Clines
I loved 14 so much, and I'm kind of afraid this one won't be as good. How can it?

2. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Because a new Margaret Atwood novel! Gah!

3. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I feel a deep sense of shame every time a coworker asks me if I've read this yet.

4. Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
It's sad that he can write his books faster than I can read them.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Because it's over 700 pages long. But some of my favorite podcasters love this book a ton so I really really want to read it.

6. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff 
I'm actually rather undecided on this one because I didn't like Arcadia all that much, but I want to at least try it. I've gone so far as to check out a copy from the library but ended up not getting to it before the due date.

7. Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner
Because I read all of the Jennifer Weiner books and I especially liked her last one, All Fall Down.

8. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I actually read the first few pages and realized that it's basically a very long essay. But it's a pretty important book right now so I really want to give it another shot. Perhaps the audio version would be better for me in this case.

9. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Not my usual fare, but I keep hearing how good it is. Plus, I love the cover.

10. Clockwork Samurai by Jeannie Lin
I know that I gave Gunpowder Alchemy a lukewarm review at the time, but I've been really wanting to revisit this ancient Chinese steampunk world. Sometime in the fall I preordered this sequel and then forgot about it until it magically appeared on my nook. Surprise!

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Are there books from 2015 that you wanted to read but haven't gotten to yet?

Monday, January 11, 2016


Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach (2008)

I had grabbed copies of two of Mary Roach's books over the holidays because I wasn't sure which one I wanted to read. After finishing Stiff, I figured I might as well read Bonk too, while I had it out.

Bonk is all about sex research, past and present. The work of Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and lesser-known sex researchers are explored. Roach covers the areas studied - arousal, impotence, the female orgasm, among others - as well as the difficulties encountered in conducting such studies. Sometimes those difficulties are logistical, leading to the development of such devices as the penis-camera (actually a dildo with a camera on the tip); at other times, the difficulties are more in the PR camp, and must be worked around with careful wording if the researchers are to gain funding for their work.

Because of the sensitive nature of sex studies, Roach wasn't always able to observe them, so in a couple of cases she took part herself. Brave woman, that Mary Roach. In one case she and her husband had sex while a researcher stood over them, passing an ultrasound wand over Roach's belly to capture what was going on inside. It all sounds terribly awkward and embarrassing (not to mention unsexy), so it just goes to show you how dedicated a writer she is.

As with Roach's other books I learned a lot, but I think my favorite part of this book was an illustration of a rat in pants with the caption "The underpant worn by the rat." It was included as part of a study in which a Dr. Ahmed Shafik found that rats wearing polyester pants had less sex than rats wearing pants made out of other fabrics. You may be asking yourself how rats have sex at all if they're wearing pants, but luckily the internet has answers. It seems that the pants had holes in strategic areas to allow for sexytimes. Anyhow, I just really liked the illustration.

Although I enjoyed Bonk, I didn't like it as much as Stiff, and I think it's because it was so research-focused. It was interesting to learn about sex research - the things we've learned and how we learned them - but I found Stiff more fun because it wasn't restricted to research. Still, if you want to learn more about sex research this is probably a great place to start. Roach's conversational, humorous style makes easy reading for those of us who sometimes struggle with nonfiction.

Bonk fulfills the "white cover" square of Winter Bingo. I now have two rows with two checked off in each, and one maddeningly close to finishing if only I would read something that is a friend's favorite.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Bardathon Challenge

I spent a couple of months talking myself into participating in a Shakespeare challenge hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, but then he decided not to host it after all. At first I was relieved, but then I was disappointed so I found another Shakespeare challenge. This one is hosted by Samantha Lin and has several different ways in which you can participate. You can read all the comedies, all the tragedies, watch performances, perform in plays yourself, and various other options listed here. I'm going to do the Mix-and-match option. I plan to read two comedies, two tragedies, and watch a performance. I will, of course, post here about my progress throughout the year.

The reason I want to participate is because I really don't like Shakespeare, but my feelings are based entirely on Romeo & Juliet and Antony & Cleopatra. By the end of 2016 I plan to either have a newfound appreciation for Shakespeare, or actual justification for disliking his work.

For tragedies, I plan to read Hamlet and Macbeth. I haven't yet decided on comedies but I'm open to suggestions.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play? Are you participating in any challenges for 2016?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Throwback Thursday: She's Not There

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

I've mentioned Jennifer Finney Boylan's memoir before, on my list Memoirs I Didn't Hate and more recently on Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity. But given how frequently I recommend it, I thought that She's Not There finally deserves its own post.

James Boylan was a professor of English at my alma mater, Colby College (I never had a class with him as I, shockingly, was not an English major.) The memoir is about his gender transition and how it affected relationships with friends and family. Boylan is notably BFFs with author Richard Russo, which was an interesting part of the story, but it was her relationships with her wife and kids that were the most affected. Of course, none of it was easy, especially back before the media's transgender enlightenment. And in Maine.

I've always felt pretty lukewarm about memoirs. It seems like the people who write them either have a good story or writing talent, but not usually both. She's Not There is one of the first memoirs I read that had both.

Significantly, it was also the first thing I read that described the transgender experience in a way that made sense to me. I probably won't ever understand it completely, the same way I won't completely understand being black or disabled or a fundamentalist Christian. We simply can't always put ourselves in someone else's shoes. But before reading this I had frustrating questions because transgender people were always the ones who played with the wrong toys as a kid or wore the wrong clothes, and that's not what gender is. Those things are social constructs, and I couldn't understand why you'd change your body so you could wear a dress. Boylan described it more like body dysmorphia which made SO MUCH more sense to me. Honestly, it was kind of a relief to read this book.

Boylan has also more recently written a memoir called Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. It includes not only her own story, but interviews with many other people including Richard Russo, Augusten Burroughs, and Anna Quindlen and from what I hear is a pretty insightful examination about parenting and family. She also wrote a memoir called I'm Looking Through You, which is about growing up in a haunted house.

Have you read any of her books? What did you think?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Asking For It

Asking For It by Lilah Pace (2015)

I first heard about this book when someone from the publishing house was on the DBSA Podcast, and I was both intrigued and repelled. Hold on to your hats, folks.

The star of Asking For It is a twenty-something artist named Vivienne, who is plagued by dark sexual fantasies in which she is forced into sex. (She says "rape" but that's not really the right word.) She is ashamed by these fantasies, but it's apparently the only thing that will really float her boat, so to speak. Her last relationship ended because the guy was unable to be what she wanted him to be. It's all very unfortunate. Even more unfortunate is when this guy gets too drunk at a party and loudly alludes to the source of their relationship problems. Within earshot is Jonah Marks, who approaches Vivienne later and basically says that he may have just what she's looking for (as in, compatible desires.) And the race is on. They set up times and scenarios and have limits and a safe word. It's explosively powerful for both of them, and their relationship is strictly sex-only, until it isn't. This is a romance novel, after all.

Before you start thinking this is all a little 50 Shades, let me assure you it's far more complicated. The reason Vivienne feels so much shame and guilt about her sexual desires is because she was raped as a teenager. To be raped and then have what you insist thinking about as rape fantasies is enough to screw up anyone's head. Thankfully, Vivienne is in therapy. This is a pretty significant part of the book actually, Vivienne working through her issues with her therapist, Doreen. Vivienne also has a lot of trouble with her family because the rapist is sort of related in a way that becomes clear as you get deeper into the story.

The book isn't like a therapy session though, nor is it an educational seminar about the effects of rape. Those things were all handled well, but in a way that felt like a natural part of the story. I was surprised and impressed. Plus the characters were believable (both those I liked and those I didn't). The romance story was well-done and felt pretty real, though it was dark. I haven't even mentioned much about Jonah, but he is a private, tortured guy who is extremely respectful of Vivienne's boundaries (and has some of his own.)

I love taboo (see also: Forbidden, Tampa, Perv) but had this been poorly executed in any way I wouldn't have bothered with it. What made me read it was that I heard it was sensitively written, and it addressed something that we like to pretend doesn't exist, but definitely does. It's kind of ballsy of the author to go there at all, but she does it really really well.

The only bad thing about this novel is the title. It makes me cringe so hard. Less now that I've actually read it but, man, it is kind of painful. Though also appropriate. (Clearly I'm conflicted.)

I should mention, in case you are considering reading this, that it's definitely in the erotic romance category. As in, there is a lot of graphic sex. Perhaps it should be obvious that most of it might be upsetting to people who don't like any violence in their sex, but I feel it should be pointed out explicitly. I'd hate for someone to innocently wander into a book like this without realizing what they're getting into.

It turns out this is the first in a series, so it fulfills the "start a new series" square on my Winter Bingo card. Which is nowhere near any of the other squares I've completed. Luckily, I'm currently reading something with a white cover.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)

I thought I'd start the new year by reading about dead bodies. Actually, I did something that is really strange (for me) which is that I started a book a couple of days before the end of the year, knowing that I wouldn't finish it before January 1. I really like a clean break, book-wise, from one year to another (and I know I'm not alone in this) although I know the dates on the calendar are arbitrary. But I didn't want to wait to pick up my next book, especially since I finally decided to start one I've been wanting to read for years.

A few years ago I read Packing for Mars and have looking forward to reading more by Mary Roach since then. I hoarded a big pile of books from the library to last me over several days off, and I grabbed two of hers (the other is Bonk.) In Stiff, Roach examines all the ways in which we use human cadavers: primarily in research, but she also describes the information dead bodies provide after plane crashes, looks at the different ways we dispose of bodies after death, and even touches on cannibalism. She is nothing if not thorough.

The first chapter describes a face-lift refresher course in which surgeons practice their techniques on human heads arranged in roasting pans. From there, we get a brief history of the use cadavers in medical research and education which, back in the day, meant hiring sketchy types to produce bodies, many of which were stolen from their graves. But eventually, society became more approving of the use of loved ones' remains, thankfully. Roach includes an entire chapter on the stages of decay and how it is affected by factors including temperature, clothing, what the body is buried in, and a variety of other details. It was while visiting a facility dedicated to studying human decay that Roach decided to refer to maggots as "haciendas" because the word "maggot" is so distasteful. (Have I mentioned her sense of humor? This book is rife with it.) Another chapter is devoted to the definition of death - at what point a person is considered dead. It seems like it would be obvious but, as she so clearly shows, it isn't.

I was surprised at the things researchers couldn't do - or were hesitant to do - with cadavers. In testing bombs, for instance, the preference is to use live anesthetized animals instead. This seems primarily to be a PR decision which, in my view, makes it all the more disgusting. In some cases it makes more sense, scientifically, to use a live creature instead of a dead one because a cadaver's lungs are deflated and don't behave the same way. (Though I still don't condone animals research, just for the record.) But in many cases it seems like a case of people just being irrational. I've never understood why we are so hung up on what happens to our bodies after we die. It's true that I might not want to know exactly how a loved one's body was being used in research because I imagine it would conjure up a vision that would be hard to get out of one's head. But the fact is that a cadaver can't feel anything and is of no other use, so why not use it to learn something?

Many scientists have had no issue whatsoever trying experiments that are the stuff of horror novels, as I learned in what I found to be the most distasteful chapter of the book. Of course there is always someone willing to try any idea that pops into their head and seems remotely possible, so it's inevitable that people have tried to reanimate heads of the decapitated. And why not sew a dog's head to another dog's body? The less said about that chapter the better.

As you can see, Roach has left no stone unturned in her research and reporting and that's the way I like it. She mentioned a number of things off-hand that I immediately went online to read about (such as necrophiliac Karen Greenlee). So much interesting stuff was packed into this book! If you like nonfiction that is fun and entertaining as well as educational, you may want to check this out.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

TBR Pile Challenge 2016

The official TBR Pile Challenge that I've participated in the last couple of years isn't happening this year, but by the time I learned that I had already made my list so I'm going to do it anyway.

Because this challenge is unofficial, I don't have to abide by anyone's rules except my own. Nevertheless, these are all books I've been wanting to read for over a year. Instead of a list of 12 and two alternates, I have a list of 10 books with couple of alternates built in. I was going to put together a list of 12 books but I couldn't come up with that many that I'm sure I want to read. So ten it is. However, I'm not sure which Tana French book I want to read next, but I know it will be one of those two, and the same goes for Sarah MacLean; hence, the built-in alternates. Here's the list:

1. The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (finished 1/21/16)

2. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (finished 4/30/16)

3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (finished 6/22/16)

4. In the Woods OR Faithful Place (finished 4/7/16) by Tana French

5. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (finished 4/14/16)

6. The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (finished 3/1/16)

7. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (finished 6/29/16)

8. Visible City by  Tova Mirvis (finished 5/13/16)

9. Hild by Nicola Griffith (finished 2/5/16)

10. A Rogue By Any Other Name (finished 2/14/16) OR No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah MacLean (finished 11/21/16)

I'll update this post with completion dates and links to my reviews as I go along.

Anyone else want to do an unofficial TBR Pile Challenge along with me?

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Year of Reading: 2015

1. Hostage Three by Nick Lake
2. Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin
3. The Selection by Kiera Cass
4. Dead Wake by Erik Larsen
5. The Elite by Kiera Cass
6. The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
7. The One by Kiera Cass
8. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
9. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
10. The Likeness by Tana French
11. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
12. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
13. The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin
14. 172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad
15. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
16. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
17. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
18. The Martian by Andy Weir
19. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
20. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
21. It Will End With Us by Sam Savage
22. Funeral in Blue by Anne Perry
23. All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry
24. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
25. March by Geraldine Brooks
26. The Bees by Laline Paull
27. The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
28. Nothing by Janne Teller
29. The Sum of All Kisses by Julia Quinn
30. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
31. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
32. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
33. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
34. Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler
35. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
36. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
37. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
38. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev
39. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
40. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
41. The Heir by Kiera Cass
42. All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
43. None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio
44. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
45. Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
46. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
47. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
48. Gerald's Game by Stephen King
49. Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins
50. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
51. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
52. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradel
53. I Crawl Through It by A.S. King
54. Stand Out by Dorie Clark
55. Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
56. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
57. Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
58. Stand-Off by Andrew Smith
59. El Deafo by Cece Bell
60. Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
61. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
62. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
63. Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
64. Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway
65. The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood
66. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
67. Armada by Ernest Cline
68. Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
69. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
70. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
71. The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens
72. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
73. The World Without Us by Alan Weissman
74. American Housewife by Helen Ellis
75. Kindred by Octavia Butler
76. Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
77. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
78. Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson
79. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
80. Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
81. The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
82. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
83. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
84. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
85. Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics
86. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase
87. Saga, Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughan
88. Rat Queens, Volume 1 by Kurtis J. Wiebe
89. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
90. The Status of All Things by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke
91. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
92. Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
93. The Library At Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
94. The Perfect Match by Kristan Higgins
95. The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel
96. Radioactive by Lauren Redniss
97. How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
98. Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
99. Waiting On You by Kristan Higgins
100. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
101. How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete
102. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
103. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I actually read two of those books twice each during the year. My Not-So-Young Adult book group at work picked both All the Truth That's In Me and None of the Above on my recommendation. They weren't fresh enough in my mind to discuss without re-reading, but I had nothing new to say that would merit a second blog post on either of them.

I also didn't count picture books, which I read a number of this year. They included, most notably, Z is for Moose and Merry Christmas Squirrels.

For 2016, I'd like to do some sort of a challenge, either an official one or just on my own, but I'm still trying to figure that out. Of course, I'm still working on the Winter Bingo but that only goes through February and I'd like to do a year-long reading project of some sort.

How do you feel about your 2015 reading? Do you have reading goals for 2016?