Thursday, July 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Little Gray Mouse Goes Sailing

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

My dirty, well-loved copy of the book.
This is a bit of a different TBT because I still own my copy of Little Gray Mouse Goes Sailing, an easy reader published in 1965 that I read many times during my early childhood in the 70s. I even took a few minutes to reread it before writing this post. This story never gets old for me.

Little Gray Mouse lives in a house with a family. One day he is lured outside by the tempting aroma of hot dogs on a grill, feeling very confused about why the family is eating outside. He meets Brownie, an outside mouse who explains the concept of barbecuing in the summer. In my favorite scene, they eat a giant (compared to them) hot dog and drink a giant (compared to them) bottle of soda. Little Gray Mouse is all "I like being outside!" Then, in an ominous scene of foreshadowing, Brownie warns Gray Mouse not to ever go near the swimming pool. They continue to play and frolic all summer, until one day Brownie accidentally falls into the pool and Gray Mouse hops aboard a toy boat to save him. This was the most traumatic part of the story and the part that I never, ever forgot. Gray Mouse saves Brownie, who decides to move to a yard down the street where there are hot dogs but no swimming pool. Gray Mouse, though, he now yearns to return to the sea. So late at night when the family is in bed, he dons an adorable sailor suit and sails around the pool.

Interestingly, I remember part of this story a little differently. To me, the moral of the story was that if you go near the swimming pool you will drown, so please stay far far away from anything that is remotely dangerous. I had forgotten Gray Mouse's return to the boat and sailing, so I'm glad I re-read the book. In my memory it was more of a stern warning than a happy adventure.

I still have copies of a few more childhood favorites hanging around, so I'll write about some of those on future Throwback Thursdays!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016)

You may have already heard about this new book that investigates landlords and tenants in Milwaukee. It's gotten a lot of press since even before it was released a few months ago. I wasn't planning to read it, but for some reason impulsively put it on hold at the library. I am interested in the current state of income inequality in the US, and this is obviously pretty related.

In this book we meet a number of real people who are struggling unsuccessfully to stave off eviction. Arleen and her two sons, a nurse-turned-drug-addict named Scott, a few generations of the Hinkston family, and others. We also become acquainted with inner-city landlord Sherrena Tarver and trailer-park owner Tobin Charney. Desmond follows all of them for a few years, really delving into their life stories, motivations, and challenges.

It's very easy to point fingers at people for not taking responsibility for their lives, and there were definitely some people in this book who made poor life choices. But the impossibility of coming back from one bad choice is overwhelmingly difficult, and even people who tried to do the right thing but just had bad luck seemed to be punished over and over. The fact is that housing is incredibly expensive in this country, even in the slums. And although the landlords were making money off of the poor people, it didn't seem (at least in Sherrena's case) that she was trying to gouge people.

I learned several rather startling things in this book. For one thing, I didn't realize how few poor people are able to get subsidized housing; most are stuck in the regular rental market, which can be impossibly expensive. I also learned about "nuisance violations," which mean that a landlord is liable if one of her properties has 3 or more 911 calls in a certain period of time. The result is usually evicting the people who made the calls. This puts victims of domestic abuse in a very precarious situation, even resulting in them not calling 911 when they should. I don't have to tell you how dangerous that is. Arleen was evicted one time in part because of a 911 call she made when her youngest son was having a bad asthma attack. I also hadn't ever thought about how much evictions can affect other aspects of a family's life. For instance, Arleen's kids had attended 5 different schools in the course of 2 academic years, which isn't setting them up for success. Having to move suddenly also means unplanned time off work, which can result in losing one's job. Frequent changes in address also meant that one person in this book stopped getting welfare benefits at all and became dependent on a food pantry to eat.

Luckily, Desmond does end on a positive note, providing an idea for a housing voucher program that could prevent most of these situations. I'm under no illusion that this will ever happen in the United States, because for some reason we are pretty uninterested in helping the poor. But I like knowing that it's possible.

For a nonfiction book, this one was pretty accessible. Because it focused so much on real-world stories it was easy to understand. My only difficulty was that because Desmond switched back and forth between the stories I had a hard time keeping track of the different peoples' stories. I don't understand why authors are so allergic to just telling a story from start to finish. It would have worked much better for me to tell one person or family's story at a time. Many readers are probably more astute than me though and will have no problem following the stories in this book.

If you're interested in the problems of America's poor I think you'll learn a lot from this book. I really think that income inequality is the biggest problem we have in the US, and that most of our other problems are directly caused by it. I'm also really interested in Nancy Isenberg's White Trash, and Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, which is arguably related to poverty. Have you read anything recently addressing similar topics that you could recommend?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Top 10 Things Books Have Made Me Want To Do Or Learn

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Things Books Have Made Me Want To Do Or Learn After Reading Them. This is a great topic, but also hard because sometimes it's difficult to remember the exact books that made me want to do things. Like, I love books in which a woman moves to a new town and buys a house all of her own and fixes it up while developing a romance with a local, but although I know I've read more than one book like that, I can only think of one specifically. It's also important to note that I haven't actually done most of these things. It's more like I was inspired for a moment and then realized that it would take effort, and of course in other cases it's impossible. Still, it was fun coming up with the list!

1. Make maple syrup snow candy
Inspired by: the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (This is the easiest thing on the list and I've still not done it!)

2. Move to a new place and live in a cute little house
Inspired by: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley is the one that comes to mind, but I know there are a ton more!

3. Relive my teenage years but do a better job of it
Inspired by: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and every other book starring a confident, self-aware teenager.

4. Go on an amazing and life-changing adventure
Inspired by: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

5. Learn some survival skills
Inspired by: The Hunger Games, The Martian, every post-apocalyptic novel ever, and the Little House books.

6. Change my life for the better
Inspired by: Reinventing You, Stand Out, The Power of Habit, The Wise Heart, Becoming a Life Change Artist...anything I've read about self-improvement or career development

7. Move back to my hometown
Inspired by: The Best Man by Kristin Higgins
I would never actually move back to my hometown, but I'd like to be that character moving back to her hometown.

8. Eat better
Inspired by: The Omnivore's Dilemma and other books by Michael Pollan, The Art of Eating In by Cathy Erway, various books by Mark Bittman
For a while I read a ton of books about food and although my eating has changed a lot over the years, I've gotten to a point where I've read so much about what you should and should not eat that I no longer know what is healthy. So I just eat whatever I want usually, but I do try to reduce my intake of processed foods.

9. Live in the English countryside
Inspired by: Jane Austen, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, many others. This plan keeps looking better and better to me.

10. Be an upper-class lady in Regency England
Inspired by: Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean, Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn, A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant, The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan (which I think is not Regency, but I'm not picky.) I realize that I wouldn't actually want to be a woman at that time, but I kind of like the idea of dressing up all the time and not having a job.

Maybe someday I'll actually do these things. (Time travel can happen, can't it?) In the meantime, I'll just enjoy everything vicariously through the books I read!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bet Me

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (2004), narrated by Deanna Hurst

When we meet Min Dobbs, she is in a bar being dumped by her jerk of a boyfriend. She's upset, not because she loves him, but because now she doesn't have a date to her sister's wedding, which is only three weeks away. Later that evening, Min accepts an offer to go to dinner with a man named Cal Morrisey, even though she knows he only asked her out to win a bet. By the end of the evening, they know they can't stand each other and will never see one another again. But fate intervenes, and soon Min and Cal realize they are very much attracted to each other. However, Min doesn't want to take a chance on a guy she knows to be a heartbreaker, and the bet he made - or didn't make? - still stands between them and it lasts for a month, until just after her sister's wedding.

Min's first date with Cal was at a restaurant called Emilio's and this was part of the reason they kept running into each other. Emilio made amazing bread and chicken marsala and Min kept going back there, or ordering takeout that Cal ended up delivering. Another reason they kept running into each other is that on the evening of their first date Min's friend Bonnie and Cal's friend Roger fell madly, instantly in love. So they were bound to end up in the same places.

Min's two best friends had very different beliefs about love. Bonnie was a firm believer in fairy tales; Liza subscribed to chaos theory. Min was pretty cynical about relationships, as was Cal, but there was sort of a running joke that every time one of them insisted they weren't falling for the other one, they'd stub a toe, cut their hand, or somehow otherwise hurt themselves. It was pretty hilarious. In the meantime, Min's sister Diana was about to get married and Min knew there was something wrong. Because of her angst about having a date and fitting into her dress, this whole story centered around the wedding, and when it finally happened it was a pretty spectacular scene.

Min's mother was horrible. She was obsessed with weight loss and constantly admonished Min for not losing weight, reminding her to avoid butter, bread, and basically anything that is actual food. She also ordered Min's bridesmaid dress a couple of sizes too small intentionally and then got angry when it didn't fit.

Cal, on the other hand, found Min irresistibly sexy, not in spite of her curves, but because of them. At one point when she is trying to make "heart healthy" chicken marsala and it comes out terribly, and she reveals that a former boyfriend dumped her because of her weight, he says "Some things are supposed to be made with butter. You're one of them." I love Cal. He was this incredibly good-looking guy and Min didn't fit the image of the sort of woman he would be with, and I thought that was addressed so well. Don't get me wrong, though - he's not perfect. He's known for dumping women after just a few months, which is one of the tensions in their relationship. But he's such a great example of an imperfect yet appealing romance hero.

I also loved Min a lot. I like that she's this totally practical-minded person - I mean, she works as an actuary! - but she also has a weakness for cute, unusual shoes and she has a snow globe collection. I love the way her character develops throughout this novel, and how she realizes which of her relationships are healthy and which aren't. Her friends were great, too and I loved the roles her friends played in this story. She also wasn't afraid to speak her mind, which was incredibly well illustrated in the scene where she had dinner with Cal's stuffy, cold, pretentious parents. It was so satisfying.

Literally my only criticism of this book is that the characters ate so much chicken marsala that I got sick of it, and I've never even had chicken marsala. (At the same time, it made me want to try it.) Min and Cal also got rather ecstatic over Krispy Kreme donuts, which I find pretty similar to Dunkin' Donuts in that they're nothing special. Given that my only complaints about this book are related to the food, I highly recommend it.

I sort of can't believe I hadn't read this, or anything by Crusie, before. I definitely heard of her back in the late 90s or early 00s when I first was reading a ton of chick lit, and this is such great old-school chick lit! It's like old Jennifer Weiner or Jane Green or Marian Keyes. On the one hand, I can't believe it missed it! On the other hand, I'm glad I did so that I could enjoy it now. I kept hearing of this book specifically, and recently there was an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books in which people discussed the book that got them reading romance and more than one person mentioned this one.

Have you read Jennifer Crusie? Are her other books as good as this one? This is the perfect sort of book for me to listen to on audio, so if you have any suggestions for similar books, please let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

A little girl named Rose is out riding her new bike near her home in South Dakota, when she suddenly falls into a hole. When she is found, she's laying in the palm of a giant hand. Years later that little girl is a physicist and she once again crosses paths with the giant hand. The mystery of its origin and purpose are still unresolved, but it is Rose who finally helps unlock its secrets.

I don't want to give away much more about the plot, because all the fun of this book is uncovering the story bit by bit as you go along. Dr. Rose Franklin is part of a team that also includes Kara, an Army helicopter pilot, her co-pilot Ryan, and Vincent, a graduate student in linguistics. The story is told mostly through interviews with these and other characters, as well as some journals and logs and news reports. The conversations are all with an unnamed interviewer who clearly has a ton of power, and presumably a lot of information that he's not sharing with his interviewees. This means that the reader is also kept quite in the dark about what is going on. We're not privy to the action exactly, but often are getting a debriefing afterward. It's an interesting narrative choice, but I think it works pretty well here.

The story is big, and tied into some larger mythology, and global repercussions. But it's also about people working together in very intense circumstances and how that affects them. It's very difficult to talk about without giving away things that you'll want to discover for yourself if you read it! The chapters are all very short which, combined with the interview format, makes it pretty quick to read.

I've been waiting for this book for about a year. I first heard about it on the now-defunct Books on the Nightstand podcast, and the host's response to reading an early manuscript was so enthusiastic that I remembered it until it was finally published just recently. It turns out that it's the first in a series (#2 is expected in 2017), but it didn't leave me hanging. I still have questions and feel like there's a lot more to discover, but I do feel like the story was complete enough to be satisfying.

I want to compare this novel to The Martian, not because it actually has anything in common with it, but because I think it's similarly accessible to non-science fiction readers. It's not nearly as dense as a lot of science fiction and although it definitely contains science, it's not difficult for regular people to understand. But it definitely involves some important scifi elements, and it's just a fun book to read. Recommended!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ten Books Set Outside of the US

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books Set Outside the US. Like many people, most of the books I read take place in the US but I do read a decent number of books that take place elsewhere. I get tired of reading about people just like me who live in places that are familiar - I want to experience something new! So when I hear about a book that takes place somewhere that I haven't already read a thousand books about, that piques my interest. Here's a list of ten great books that take place outside of the United States. Just for fun, I also excluded the UK (because SO MANY BOOKS) and made sure each country I did include wasn't on the list more than once. Links go to my reviews so you can read more about why I loved these books.

1. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee (Hong Kong)

2. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Haiti)

3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Australia)

4. City of Thieves by David Benioff (Russia)

5. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (The Netherlands)

6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)

7. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (North Korea)

8. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (Syria)

9. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (France)

10. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (Pakistan)

It was so hard to choose which books to include. I guess that means I've read a lot of really good books that take place in other countries.

What's your favorite book that takes place outside of the US? Have you read any books that are on my list?

Monday, July 18, 2016

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015)

Violet's sister was killed in a car accident a year ago. Finch struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. One day they are both up on the school's bell tower contemplating the very long step down when they meet for the first time. It's hard to say who saved who, but as their friendship progresses along with the school project they're working on together, questions arise about whether or not it's even possible to save another person.

As soon as I finished this book I just immediately wanted to talk to someone about it, so I'm very glad I read it for a book group. Most of what I want to talk about I can't mention here because of spoilers, which makes it difficult to write about. It's like I have to just ignore everything that came late in the book and focus on the setup, even though what came later is much more important.

From the beginning I found Finch to be sort of an annoying person and I didn't like how he came on so strong to Violet. He would even sort of follow her around, and that would have gotten really old really fast if I were Violet. But I'm not Violet. She was incredibly intrigued by this boy who continued to remain mysterious even as they grew very close. He was a fun guy, and he got her out of her shell. He wasn't afraid to push her out of her comfort zone, which is just what she needed. For so long Violet had gotten out a lot because of the "extenuating circumstances" of her grief, and Finch saw the truth, which is that she really needed to move on with her life. The adults in the book varied from caring to absentee to verging-on-meddling and I found them to be a realistic array.

I love a story centered around a school project! Violet and Finch paired together on a series of field trips to interesting places in Indiana, as part of an assignment to learn more about their state. I loved their trips and the quirky locations they visited, and the fact that they only needed to visit a couple of sites but kept going anyhow. Their project journal sort of turned into a real journal and the assignment became less about school and more about their lives.

This book has been compared to The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park, but that might be going a bit far. Well, it might be. It definitely has the same appeal, with its smart, self-aware teen characters and the pretty heavy subject matter.

It was only when I began reading and happened to glance at the author info on the back jacket that I realized Jennifer Niven also wrote Ada Blackjack! Totally different book, but also really good - it's the true story about an ill-fated Arctic expedition. I recommend it a lot, as I'm sure I will also recommend All the Bright Places.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: The Harrad Experiment

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

I thought I had already written about this 1960s classic, but through a gross oversight it seems that I haven't. I read it in high school, and my choice was obviously based entirely on the cover. I'm pretty sure I owned my copy, which I must have picked up at a yard sale somewhere because there were no bookstores in my town and my copy was clearly a used one.

The way I remember it, Harrad College was an experimental school where everybody was naked all the time. Based on the cover, the men were all 40 and the women were all 12.

According to Goodreads, though, the college is more about "premarital" living arrangements and free-thinking. Students live with roommates of the opposite sex, with predictable results.

The description of the updated edition promises a "controversial" biography about the author, which enticed me to look up Robert Rimmer. I learned that The Harrad Experiment was made into a movie in 1973, and it is even available to borrow through my library consortium. (One of the actors in this movie is none other than Miami Vice star Don Johnson!) I also learned that Rimmer died in nearby Quincy, MA in 2001 and that he was an alum of Bates College, a nearby rival of my own alma mater. My brief research yielded nothing controversial about him. He wrote a number of books, mostly about unconventional sexual relationships and believed that someday monogamy wouldn't be the only legally sanctioned form of marriage. His wife of 60 years was apparently not a fan of these ideas.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (1595)

This is the fourth and final play I've read for the Bardathon Challenge. I read the tragedies Macbeth and Hamlet, and the two comedies I chose to read are Much Ado About Nothing and now A Midsummer Night's Dream.

This play is about the entanglement of four lovers: Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena. Lysander and Demetrius both want to marry Hermia, and her father wants her to marry Demetrius, but she loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius, but he doesn't care about her. The king and queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania are having their own domestic dispute and when Oberon employs Robin Goodfellow to cast a spell on Titania, he also asks him to cast a spell on Demetrius to make him fall in love with the first woman he sees, which should be Helena. Robin mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and all of a sudden everyone is in love with Helena and an unfortunate weaver/actor named Bottom now has the head of an ass. Hilarity ensues.

As with the other Shakespeare plays I've read this year, A Midsummer Night's Dream is light on plot and character development. It's a silly story and I kept getting the characters mixed up, but it was rather funny. I recognized a famous quote, which is always satisfying: "The course of true love never did run smooth." Also satisfying were the insults:

"Hang off, thou cat, though burr! Vile thing, let loose, 
Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!"

This is a play I would really like to see performed because the magical elements, the woods and the fairies, really lend itself to nice stage designs and costumes. Indeed I've heard that it's quite good to see, and managed to miss a local performance in the spring because I didn't know about it until the last minute.

All I have left for this challenge is to see a play performed, which will hopefully happen this summer. But I'm done with the reading portion of the challenge. As it turns out, I'm pretty much doing this one on my own, just like my TBR Pile Challenge, because the person who was supposed to be sponsoring the Bardathon seems to have stopped participating. But I wasn't doing it for the glory or the prizes anyhow, it was just a way to make myself finally read some Shakespeare. Mission accomplished!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ten Facts About Me

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Ten Facts About Me and they can be either bookish or not. I can't think of many bookish things about me you wouldn't already know, and since I don't talk about myself much I'm going to go with random facts about my life. And maybe a couple of book-related things to round it out.

1. Although I live in the Boston area now, I grew up in a tiny little town on the coast of Maine.

2. My father was a lobster fisherman when I was a kid, so although we didn't have a lot of money we ate lobster frequently. It took me many years to realize this wasn't the norm.

3. Like the rest of my family, I continue put jelly on top of my grilled cheese. Because it is delicious.

4. I'm afraid of German Shepherds, but more afraid of bees.

5. I've never had a manicure in my life. I've also never had a professional massage. I'm sure either would be lovely, but I just can't be bothered to make an appointment and drag myself to it.

6. A few years ago I took a helicopter flying lesson, which was pretty amazing. If you had told me ten years ago that I would do it, I would not have believed you because I hate flying. But apparently I just hate flying in planes.

7. I was vegetarian for a long time - probably 15 years or so. I've never thought that it was wrong to eat animals, but that the way we produce meat in our society is very wrong. My feelings on this topic have not changed. I also have strong feelings about animal welfare and the use of animals in research.

8. When I was in college I spent a semester in Glasgow, Scotland. I'm glad I went, but I would have gotten so much more out of it had I gone when I was older. It's only recently that I've really come to appreciate international travel. (Also, I can never donate blood again because I spent more than 3 months in the UK. Crazy.)

9. Although I'm a librarian and a voracious reader, I wasn't an English major. WHAT. I KNOW! I majored in Government (which is what my college called political science) and minored in Russian language and literature. So, that's my literature, I guess.

10. I have a written list of everything I've read since mid-2000. I don't update it every time I finish a book anymore, but I go through periodically and make sure they're all on there. After the zombie apocalypse I won't have access to my Goodreads account, so.

So there you have it! A random collection of semi-interesting factoids about me. Did anything surprise you?

Monday, July 11, 2016


Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (2016)

Curtis Sittenfeld's newest novel is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice. When Mr. Bennet suffers a health scare, Liz and Jane rush home to Cincinnati where their three younger sisters still live at home. Jane, almost forty, is a yoga instructor and Liz writes for a magazine. Mary is a perpetual student and a recluse, while the youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia, are obsessed with CrossFit and their paleo diets. Liz learns soon after arriving that the family's financial troubles have come to a head with Mr. Bennet's hospitalization because they don't have health insurance, and the house is falling into disrepair, and she quickly takes it upon herself to find a solution. Meanwhile, mutual friends introduce the family to Chip Bingley, a new doctor at the hospital where Mr. Bennet just stayed, who is well-known for a stint on a reality show called Eligible. He is instantly smitten with Jane, and through him Liz meets the impossible Mr. Darcy. And they're off!

I cannot even express what a perfect job Sittenfeld has done in modernizing this novel. She has kept the essence of all the characters and plot points exactly the same, but outfitted them in the trappings of current times. Lydia and Kitty are ridiculous, frivolous people, so it makes perfect sense that they don't have jobs and spend all their time working out and painting their nails. Mrs. Bennet is hysterical and anxious and kind of a bigot. ("Jews are very fond of dried fruit," she inexplicably says at one point. Yet that's exactly the sort of thing Austen's Mrs. Bennet would say.) Updating the romance aspect of the story, they're all sleeping with each other - well, Jane with Chip and Liz with Darcy - because distant flirting won't do in 2013. To achieve the emotional stakes needed, sex is required. And the elopement! I won't spoil it by saying why it's scandalous, but again she picked the perfect situation to cause Mrs. Bennet the kind of consternation required for her necessary histrionics.

At the same time, some parts were able to be kept very much the same, down to the dialogue. What does it say about our society that the main premise of the story still holds up? Sure, Jane and Liz are pushing forty, but the fact that their mother is obsessed with marrying them off is, sadly, still believable. As is the fact that three of their daughters are still living at home even though they're adults. Just as people are getting married later these days, so are they living with their parents well beyond what used to be considered the norm. Thirty is the new twenty! And of course the neuroses, self-doubt, and poor communication that has been thwarting relationships for millennia still holds strong.

Although Eligible is entirely based on another book, one of the brilliant things about it is that it holds up on its own. Sittenfeld has updated the story so well, and makes it work so perfectly on its own, that nobody unfamiliar with the source material is going to scratch their heads and wonder about why something happened the way it did. Nothing happens here just because it had to in order to fit the original novel. So if you haven't read or watched Pride and Prejudice, you can still very much enjoy this book as the hilarious chick lit that it is. Understanding the original story, though, adds a dimension that for me was priceless.

Eligible is quite different from Curtis Sittenfeld's other books, which just goes to show how versatile she is as a writer. I loved both Prep and American Wife, both of which are a bit more serious than this. I'm sure some will bristle at my calling Eligible chick lit, but that's what it is - a light-hearted, funny book about modern womanhood - and there's nothing wrong with that.

Eligible is part of the Austen Project, a series of updated versions of Jane Austen's novels. From what I've heard it's the best one so far. The others are Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. Have you read any of them? Will you read Eligible?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Act Like It

Act Like It by Lucy Parker (2015), narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown

Lainie Graham is the lead in a London play where every night she must kiss her most recent ex-boyfriend on stage. The villain, Richard Troy, is a bad-tempered unlikeable guy but a very talented and well-known actor. The show isn't doing terribly well at the box office though, so the PR people concoct a plan: Lainie and Richard will pretend to be having a relationship, which will help boost ticket sales. This is a romance novel, so you can clearly see where this plan of a faux romance will lead.

This was a great setup: a play in London's West End, actors who don't really like each other but must act as though they do, press coverage of their personal lives causing lots of complications, and a cranky hero who you just know has goodness hidden deep inside him. Richard is not only famous for his acting, but his father was an MP who had died unexpectedly early, and despite his privileged upbringing, Richard's life wasn't easy. Lainie was great too - she was not nearly as well-off as Richard, and was far more likeable as a person. She was pretty witty and, despite being able to make a living as an actress, wasn't rail-thin or glamorous. She was red-headed and top-heavy, which sometimes made dressing difficult. She seems like a regular person, and one you'd want to be friends with.

Social media and gossip played a large part in this novel, which makes sense and added fun complications to the story. Obviously the fake romance between Lainie and Richard was covered in the press, as was the intention, but there were also some unforeseen news items that affected their burgeoning relationship. We see this a lot from afar in the real world, but I liked this close-up examination of how it actually can affect people.

Humor was also an important and appealing part of the book, mostly on Lainie's part. She was cat-sitting for her landlady and I loved the scene in which Richard was driving her and she made him stop so she could feed Cat Richard. The cat's name was Richard, but Lainie always referred to him as Cat Richard, I guess to differentiate from Human Richard. When Richard saw the cat he immediately asked "What the fuck is wrong with its face?" It's a smush-face grumpy-cat type of feline, and Lainie immediately held the cat up near Richard and proclaimed "Twinsies!" Human Richard was not amused. But what can you expect from a guy who doesn't like cake? (Seriously, he doesn't like cake!) In another scene at a dinner party, after dinner the group split up and went to separate areas, divided by gender "...because apparently this was Downton Abbey." Lainie was positively full of wry observations, and totally the sort of person I want to hang out with.

Although all the right elements were there, I never quite got the swoonies during this story and with romance I need me some swoonies. I have no criticisms about the story at all - the plot, characters, and setting should have all added up to a great romance. I think maybe this is one I should have read in print. The audio version was great though - the narrator read it with well-accented and deftly-delivered humor. I think maybe I just wasn't able to focus enough for some reason and didn't get into it as I should have been able to. I liked it well enough, and I think if you're interested in contemporary romance this short-ish novel would be a great pick. It's pretty flawless as far as I can tell and I think my experience wasn't any fault of the author or narrator.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Pride and Prejudice

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

This is hardly a throwback really, because I feel like Pride and Prejudice is always with me. I watch the BBC adaptation regularly and, occasionally when I don't have 5 hours to devote to it, the more recent version with Keira Knightley. I've read Bridget Jones's Diary multiple times and, more recently, a retelling by Curtis Sittenfeld called Eligible (post coming soon!)

But it's been longer than I realized since I read the source material, because it's not even listed on my Goodreads, which I started using in 2008. Clearly it's time for a re-read. I might listen to the audio this time, because a coworker just did so and really liked it. I read it in print the first time, and only after watching the BBC movie a few times already. If you're not familiar with the story, it's about a family with five unmarried daughters whose estate is entailed away from their line so they are not in great financial shape. The mother, Mrs. Bennet, is obsessed with finding rich husbands for her daughters and is beside herself with excitement with a rich man named Mr. Bingley moves into the neighborhood. He brings his friend Mr. Darcy who is even richer, but also very proud and unfriendly. Lots of romance, drama, and hilarity ensues. (I basically want to live in this story, except that things really weren't great for women. But still.)

I am judging you. Sexily.
Because my first experience of Pride and Prejudice was the BBC adaption, I will always and forever picture Mr. Darcy as Colin Firth. It is not to be helped, nor do I wish it to. I will also admit right here for all the world to see that I liked the movie better than the book. There, I said it. Don't get me wrong - it's a good book. But it was really brought to life for me by the actors, who I think improved upon the humor and the Lizzie/Darcy chemistry. That is not to say that the Keira Knightley version isn't worth watching. I'll admit that I was skeptical, but honestly it's also a pretty good adaption. If you don't have time to watch the other version (though I highly recommend you make the time), it is still satisfying.

Have you read Pride and Prejudice? Seen an adaption? Read retelling or other sort of spin-off that you can recommend? Please share below in the comments!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (2011)

Margo Crane's mother left her several years ago, and now Margo lives with her father on a river in Michigan. Their life is a simple one with few comforts, but Margo loves this life and is content hunting and fishing and target shooting. It's also a rough life and a series of events leads to her father's untimely death, after which Margo sets out alone in her boat with her gun and a biography of Annie Oakley, hoping to find her mother.

Everything I read about this book described it as an outdoor adventure, a journey on a river, and I suppose it is that but that's also a bit misleading. Margo isn't traveling this entire time and, in fact, never goes very far from her home. Nor does she have much of an internal journey from my perspective. Many people who liked this book enjoyed Margo's character a great deal, but I didn't.

The thing is, I don't really even feel like I know her well. We have a close-up on her, but her thoughts aren't really shared which mostly gave me the impression that she didn't do much thinking. She certainly didn't talk much, and her human interactions were fairly limited. Later in the book, she opened up a bit more with people around her, but it didn't help much. She simply didn't have a personality. I couldn't picture her, or imagine having a conversation with her. Her interests and experiences were incredibly narrow and that didn't seem to bother her at all.

It wasn't a bad book, but I can't actually say that I liked it. At first, it was refreshing to read about such a strong young woman with amazing outdoorsy skills, talented with a gun just like her hero, Annie Oakley. But it got old after a while, and I don't feel like Margo grew or changed much during the book. Tough as she was, she wasn't really an active participant in her own life, but just drifted along allowing things to happen to her. I'm not really judging her - she's a teenager after all, and this story is just a couple of years of her life - but it's not especially interesting to read about. I also grew frustrated at how someone who was so self-sufficient in some ways continued to depend on, and even steal from, others to get by. Maybe get a job, Margo? But this never occurred to her.

This is also the second book in a row that contained more than one rape. It doesn't bother me normally, but after reading An Untamed State I was sort of like oh no, not more of this! Even worse, it wasn't really dealt with in this book. Again, I don't know what Margo thought or felt about what happened to her, not really.

I know a lot of people really like this book. It comes up on various lists and whatnot, which is why it stayed on my To Read list for so long. I'm not sorry I read it - I didn't dislike it enough to stop reading it and even liked it pretty well for probably about the first half. Not enough books center on people who are so off-the-grid and are basically happy living a simple life, hunting and fishing to sustain themselves. But I don't feel like the story went anywhere or resolved anything, and Margo didn't grow much as a character despite everything that happened to her. I would have liked to see her take charge a bit more, realize the ways she limits herself, and maybe even grow a sense of humor.

This was my final book for my TBR Pile Challenge, which I have now completed. I'm super impressed that I managed to do so in only half a year, especially since I didn't finish at all last year.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Top Ten Underrated Books

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is the top underrated books that we like. I found these by going to my list of books I've read in Goodreads, adding a column for number of ratings, and ordering it from least to most ratings, and picking out the first ten that I gave at least 4 stars. (I didn't include children's picture books, but shoutout to Merry Christmas Squirrels by Nancy Rose anyway!) These all link to my reviews, and the number in parentheses are the number of Goodreads ratings.

1. Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life by Fred Mandell (45 ratings)
I actually bought a copy of this after I read it, and I've kept it handy though I haven't actually read it again yet. There are a ton of self-help books out there so I'm not surprised this hasn't gotten a ton of attention, especially considering the specific focus on art. It's a pretty unique way of looking at one's life, and I found it quite helpful and still want to go back to it again sometime.

2. In This Light: New and Selected Stories by Melanie Rae Thon (60 ratings)
This collection of emotionally wrenching and expertly written stories got a glowing review in The Boston Globe but I guess it never really took off, which is too bad. If you like short stories, I highly recommend it.

3. It Will End With Us (67), The Way of the Dog (88), and Glass (66) by Sam Savage
I'm grouping these together so that Sam Savage doesn't take over this list. He's one of my favorite authors and I'm always putting his books on my Staff Picks shelf, especially The Cry of the Sloth (538 ratings). Of these three underrated titles, I think my favorite is Glass, which also has the fewest ratings.

4. A Winter Marriage by Kerry Hardie (90)
Gosh, I read this one so long ago I barely remember it. Based on my review, I'd say if you like character-focused novels with lush, poetic language you should try this one.

5. Bleakly Hall by Elaine diRollo (91)
This surprises me because it was a pick on the monthly book group podcast - the name of which I've forgotten - but it was by Simon Savidge of The Readers. I really wanted to read this because I loved her previously novel, A Proper Education for Girls, but had to order this from Amazon UK because it wasn't published in the U.S. Perhaps I can blame this lack of availability for its low popularity.

6. Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey (132)
I suppose any book with a narrow focus will be less-read than more general titles, and this one was just published less than two months ago.

7. Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive edited by Sue Henger (135)
Again, nonfiction with a very specific audience.

8. Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by Dorie Clark (169)
This surprises me because our library copy goes out a LOT. But maybe business/entrepreneur types don't use Goodreads much? The subject matter isn't quite as specific as it seems. It appears quite entrepreneurial, but I think it would be useful for anyone who wants to harness their creativity.

9. When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones (228)
I don't recall where I heard of this one, possibly also from The Readers podcast, but it came in the same shipment with Bleakly Hall. I don't know why neither of these were published in the U.S.

10. Home is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington (243)
I found this memoir of an American family living in China to be fascinating, and I've recommended it a lot on my Staff Picks shelf at the library.

Half are non-fiction, which is not a surprise since they are so specific. Someone might be tempted to read a novel that is different from their usual fare, but less likely to read nonfiction on a specific top they're not especially interested in. This was really interesting to look at it, and I was surprised at how unpopular some of these books are considering how much I liked them! It just goes to show you how easily a book can be lost in the shuffle - there's just so much to choose from out there!