Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Moral Disorder

Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood (2006)

This collection of short stories follows one character from her childhood through adulthood. Born in the 1930s, Nell grew into a young women in the 50s and became involved with a married man who she later moved in with, settling down to have a family on a farm. The eleven stories are from different parts of Nell's life, and some are told in third person while others are in first person from Nell's point of view.

I started reading these stories occasionally between other books when I wanted a palate cleanser, and dipping in and out with long stretches of time in between meant that I realized embarrassingly late that the stories were all about one woman. (In my defense, her name isn't revealed in every story.) I had been feeling lukewarm about this collection, but once I realized it was all part of one big story, it really clicked for me. Suddenly, for instance, one story that had seemed boring was now recast in my mind as a lovely little vignette in the life of this person who I actually did know other things about.

The trajectory of Nell's life is sort of fascinating. She befriends a couple, Oona and Tig, and it becomes clear that their marriage is not great. It's a pretty open marriage and this point, and Oona is clearly pushing Nells towards Tig. So they begin a relationship and Tig moves to a farm, Nell eventually following. As their relationship gets more settled, Oona begins falling apart and Nell ultimately ends up sort of taking care of her.

My favorite was the title story, "Moral Disorder," in which Nell and Tig leave the farm they've been renting and buy their own. There is plenty of space for Tig's kids, and Nell begins gardening and they acquire lots of animals they didn't intend to get. This is new to all of them, and farm animals mean difficult and messy and violent things happen that you just need to accept. Meanwhile, their relationship is a bit strained because of Nell's desire to have a baby. I really liked everything about the details of this new life, which was a change for both of them. Farming was new, but their relationship also took on a permanence that it didn't have before. Of course Oona was still around since she is the kids' mother, but her role was changing. This story felt like the turning point in the book in a couple of ways - Nell and Tig's relationship really coming together, and my realization that the stories were all connected. I really liked it a lot from here on out!

But even some of the earlier stories were memorable. In "The Art of Cooking and Serving," eleven-year-old Nell is trying to help out at home while her mother is pregnant. She is diligently knitting a layette, and studying a book of homemaking advice. Once the baby is born, she is stuck caring for her younger sister, her mother lost in a seemingly-endless postpartum depression. In "The Headless Horseman," Nell works really hard on a Halloween costume that didn't quite work out (this was my life before I finally gave up on Halloween altogether.) I loved the description of her teachers in "My Last Duchess," all dressed in matching skirt suits with brooches on the left-hand lapels. The most fashionable was Miss Bessie, also the most sharp-witted with the highest expectations.

Although this wasn't my favorite Margaret Atwood book, the ultimate effect was to make me want to read more of Atwood's writing. I've fallen behind, not yet having read The Heart Goes Last, which came out last year. This October will see publication of The Hag-Seed, a retelling of The Tempest. I should definitely check it out, since I'll be reading, and watching a performance of, The Tempest later this year as part of my Bardathon Challenge.

Have you read this collection? Have you read The Heart Goes Last? What is your favorite work of Margaret Atwood?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Top 10 Books on my Fall TBR List

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is books on my fall TBR list. This is super fun for me because of course I don't keep an ongoing TBR list anymore for my own sanity, but I do love making lists, especially lists of books to read!

My top book I wanted to read this fall was A Gentleman in Moscow, which I've already read. Let's see what else is (or might be?) in store for me soon!

I have these first 6 books on hold at the library:

1. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
I am super excited about this forthcoming novel from the author of Where'd You Go Bernadette! But I am also afraid it won't live up to my expectations.

2. The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics
Another horror novel from the author of my favorite book from last year, Daughters Unto Devils. I should have my hands on a copy any day now!

3. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
Humorous essays about feminism? Yes please. A couple of coworkers have recommended this one.

4. White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
This piqued my interest because I haven't seen a book about class in America since Class by Paul Fussell. I'm very interested in economic equality, which I think is at the root of most of our problems.

5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Also on vaguely the same topic, but from a more personal angle. This is one of the top requested books in my library system right now.

6. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
From the author of Everything, Everything which I really liked, the main character's family is about to be deported from the US back to Jamaica.

Other books I'm definitely reading:

7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This will be a re-read, but it's a contender for our community read so I need to refresh my memory. At least that's my excuse for reading it again. final book I need to read for the community read committee. I do like being on this committee, but it's also nice to be done with the reading.

8. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
I'll be attending a performance of this play in December, as part of my year of Shakespeare and I want to read it first.

9. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
This is the November book for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group. I suggested it because I'm always interested in Russian history, and Anderson is a great author.

So that's nine. There are several other books on my radar (and on my ereader) but I think my priority this fall might be....

10. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
I bought this impulsively a few years ago and although I keep hearing how good it is, I somehow keep managing to not read it. Sometimes I think of it and want to save it for fall, as though that is the only time to read horror, but perhaps this fall will actually be the time I pick it up!

I have so much good reading to look forward to this fall! What about you? What are you planning to read in the next couple of months?

Monday, September 26, 2016


Night by Elie Wiesel (1958)

I read this for the first time in high school, and after that I read a ton of Holocaust literature for years until I felt like I had overdosed on it. Since then I have sort of avoided World War II books, with a few noted exceptions. But after Wiesel's death a few months ago, this book was recommended for the Community Read committee and made it to the shortlist.

In case you haven't read it, Wiesel tells the story of his family's capture by the Germans in Hungary and their subsequent journey by train and marching to a couple of different concentration camps. He and his father were moved from place to place, not fed or even given water sometimes, and saw many people killed at the hands of the Nazis. His story is filled with human cruelty, but also some kindness and hope.

It's a very short book, but it's relentlessly brutal. It's made worse because the story ends pretty much the moment Wiesel is liberated. In the beginning he alludes to his mother and sisters being split off to go with the women as the last time he sees her or his littlest sister. But what of his other sisters? He doesn't mention them at all. I know the story is just supposed to be this one experience, but it felt incomplete without this information. I wanted something about the aftermath of this experience, even just a few pages.

His writing style is simple, but with the sort of profound moments that come when one is faced with death at every turn. Only fifteen when he was captured, Wiesel lost his faith in God and humanity pretty quickly. He records a pivotal moment when he remained silent as someone struck his father, recognizing that even the day before he would have fought the attacker. He also noted at one point how he was no longer affected by all the people he saw die every day.

But I also saw hope and strength in some passages: "We had transcended everything--death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth."

The way that some of them just kept going when other succumbed to the cold or hunger or brutality made me wonder which group I'd be in if I were in that situation. Hopefully I will never find out.

Reading this now - as hate and prejudice seem poised to take over here in the US - seems somehow appropriate, and a good reminder of how easily hatred can take over. Comparing Trump to Hitler used to seem rather heavy-handed but the more I hear from our current day hatemonger the more I wonder how different he really is. Especially chilling in Night were the passages at the beginning about how unconcerned many people were, and how they refused to listen to someone who had actually seen what was going on. Even Wiesel's own father downplayed the seriousness of the situation when the Jews were told they had to wear yellow stars. "So what? It's not lethal..." Neither is deporting all Muslims from the US. But that's how it starts, doesn't it?

So it is timely, though I think it is always timely to talk about bigotry. But is it the best choice for a Community Read? It's certainly not the worst choice, and obviously has important themes and could generate valuable conversations. However, I think most people read it in high school and in the town where I work it's definitely on the summer reading lists. I know high school is quite a while ago for many of us, but I do like to pick something that everyone hasn't already read.

Still, I'm glad I took the opportunity to revisit this short volume, which I read entirely in one sitting. I do recommend it if you haven't read it before as it's an important work about a time in history that I hope we never repeat.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Forever

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

Reading Tiger Eyes recently naturally made me think about other books by Judy Blume. I was particularly thinking about the ones geared towards teenagers, since those are the books we read for my book club. The teen book by Judy Blume that I probably read the most in high school was Forever.

If you've never read this coming-of-age classic, or it was too long ago to remember, let me refresh you. Forever is about first love, and the first time sexual experiences, of Katherine, Michael, and Ralph. Ralph being Michael's penis.

Ralph is what we all remember about this book, amirite? I also remember something about red hair and freckles, but was that Michael or Ralph specifically? I probably won't re-read to find out. No, this is one best left to the past, because god knows it took me long enough to get over the trauma of Ralph. No teenage girl of my generation could see a penis without thinking "Ralph," I'm pretty sure, and that is just not what you want to think when you see a penis.

Anyhow, I think there's more to the story but I'll be damned if I can remember what it was. I think Katherine and Michael break up, and it's no wonder. You can't stay with a guy who treats his penis like a whole separate being and gives it not only a name, but a stupid one. (Stupid for a penis, that is. No offense to anyone named Ralph. I mean, we also had Ralph Macchio during this period, so.)

And lest you get the wrong idea from this post, I loved this book back in the day. JUDY BLUME 4EVA.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for being an unrepentant aristocrat. He's moved from the large luxurious suite where he's been living to a small attic space. While Russia experiences the most tumultuous changes it has known, his world is confined to the inside of this one building. Still, his life - and this novel - are full of vibrant characters and a rich, deep inner life.

A Gentleman in Moscow was my most anticipated novel this fall, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. It wasn't a quick read; in fact, it took me an entire week to read, but not because it was difficult in any way. On the contrary, it was delicious, and I didn't pick it up if I was tired or distracted because I didn't want to miss one morsel of beautiful language or one profound insight.

Towles uses exquisitely crafted language that befits the character of Rostov and his story. He is an educated man who appreciates the finer things in life, but who doesn't lose sight of what is important. His high standards extend to character and personality. Though he is a formal gentleman, Rostov is also quite fanciful. When his new young friend Nina approaches him to ask what happened to the mustaches which decorated his face just the day before, he replied "Like swallows, they traveled elsewhere for the summer." He is an educated, philosophical man who is open to new ideas and always learning, especially during his confinement when his inner life must make up for what he lacks from the outside world. He had very good friends inside the hotel, and a young girl he meets early in his confinement changes his life forever. Despite being imprisoned, his experiences opened a world to him that he likely never would have experienced had he been free.

Rostov never expressed a real desire to leave the hotel, or chagrin at his imprisonment. I got the impression that he didn't actually want to be a part of this new Russia, preferring instead to stay inside the grand hotel from another time. (Which is somewhat understandable because I've stayed at the Metropol, and I could totally live there.) Which is not to say that the outside world didn't affect him or the hotel. There were shortages of ingredients for food at the restaurants, rooms were taken over for government work, and on one memorable occasion all the labels were removed from the wines in the vast cellar to make them all indistinguishable in a misguided attempt at communizing even the beverages.

But back to the language. It's difficult to pick out passages to share because the greatest attention was given to crafting every sentence in the book, and many of the best bits need to be in their contexts to really shine. But it would be a shame not to give you a taste, so here's a paragraph describing Rostov's insomnia and late-night worries:

"Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count's would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore."

Isn't that beautiful? His insights also extend to the larger world, as illustrated in this observation about Soviet Russia's iconic lines:

"To a foreigner, it must have seemed that Russia had become the land of ten thousand lines. For there were lines at the tram stops, lines before the grocer, lines at the agencies of labor, education, and housing. But in point of fact, there were not ten thousand lines, or even ten. There was one all-encompassing line, which wound around the country and back through time. This had been Lenin's greatest innovation: a line that, like the Proletariat itself, was universal and infinite."

It's been a long time since I took such pleasure in the language of a book, and this was the perfect marriage of language and story. A Gentleman in Moscow is surely my favorite book of 2016. I only wish I had read it as part of a book group so I can discuss it with other people. There is so much to talk about, and I'm already enjoying re-reading my favorite passages. I loved everything about this book, all of it, every word.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Top Twelve Favorite Audiobooks

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is an All About Audio freebie. I love audiobooks so much that I couldn't quite narrow it to ten, so here are my twelve favorites! In March, I did a list of my favorite teen audiobooks, so there's some overlap but definitely check out that list for more suggestions.

1. His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, narrated by Philip Pullman and a full cast
This was pre-blog, and one of my first audiobook experiences. I've also read the whole series in print, but I keep thinking of re-listening. Ever since my coworker named her daughter after the main character, it has become even more prominently on my mind. Perhaps after I finish the Harry Potter series...

2. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, narrated by Tanya Eby Sirois
The review I linked the title to is my second reading, which was in print. My first review is here, and though I don't even mention the audiobook narrator, her voice has really stuck with me and I always hear her in my head when I think of this book.

3. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you are probably familiar with the name Rebecca Lowman as she is my most favorite audiobook narrator. I'd listen to her read an instruction manual, a shopping list, or a James Patterson novel (ok, maybe not that last one.) Rainbow Rowell writes books that are almost magically wonderful, so the combination of the two is pretty much perfect.

4. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
Again, a perfect marriage of author and narrator. Lee has only written two novels so far (her other is the more recent The Expatriates) but she has completely won me over and I'll read everything she ever writes for the rest of my life. Orlagh Cassidy is another favorite narrator, and if you want to hear more of her, I highly recommend Before I Go To Sleep or The Bees. (If you don't want to listen to more of her, you are wrong.)

5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, narrated by Noah Galvin
I loved this book so much. I have a soft spot for stories about angry, misunderstood teen boys. (See also: Reality Boy.) The beauty of Galvin's narration is that not only does he sound like an actual teenager, he also sounds more like he's telling the story than reading it. I hope to listen to more from him.

6. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean
To be honest, I had completely forgotten the other three narrators until I looked back at my blog post about this book. I just remember Rebecca Lowman as Libby Day. I should probably mention that for some reason I've always pictured Rebecca Lowman as a dark-haired Charlize Theron (despite the fact that I know what she actually looks like) so the fact that Theron was cast in the movie version of Dark Places felt inevitable to me. Also, isn't Gillian Flynn due for another novel?

7. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, narrated by the author
This satirical, feminist novel is pretty brilliant, but the narration really took it to another level. I think Bray was channeling Sarah Palin (or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin) in parts.

8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, narrated by Kate Rudd
I've listened to this book, read the print version, and watched the movie but it is Rudd's voice that I always hear in my head.

9. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
This is a beautiful story anyhow, but Ballerini's lilting Italian accent makes it truly transportive.

10. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, narrated by Barbara Rosenblat
One of my earliest audiobooks, I've listened to this (and the follow-up Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) numerous times. It's hilarious every time and always cheers me up.

11. The Good House by Ann Leary, narrated by Mary Beth Hurt
For some reason when I began this book I expected the main character to be younger (around the age of Leary herself, I guess) so I was caught off guard by the narrator who sounded to be in her sixties. But I got over it quickly when I realized how perfect she was to read this story about a sixty-something woman with a drinking problem.

12. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, narrated by Rebecca Lowman
Again with Rebecca Lowman, but there is good reason why she appears on this list three times. I highly recommend this atmospheric novel set in the 1930s, and when you're done go grab his new one, A Gentleman In Moscow.

There are so many great audiobooks out there it's hard to pick favorites, but these are the standout titles I thought of right away. And I keep thinking of more great audiobooks as I compose this but I'll refrain from throwing more on the list.

What are your favorite audiobooks? Do you have a favorite narrator?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999), narrated by Jim Dale

Just before his third year at Hogwarts begins, Harry learns that a dangerous killer has escaped Azkaban Prison. This changes a lot at school where security is increased in the form of creepy soul-sucking Dementors guarding the school and frightening the students. But it starts to seem like even they aren't enough to keep danger at bay.

This year's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is Remus Lupin, who Harry and his friends first meet about the Hogwarts Express. Looking completely disheveled, he doesn't impress them at first but soon proves to be their most competent and likable Dark Arts teacher to date. Also in this book we meet Professor Trelawney, a loopy lady who teaches Divination and almost immediately makes a dark prediction for Harry. Most importantly, this is the book in which Sirius Black, Harry's godfather, appears.

There is SO MUCH to love in this book! There is fun stuff like trips to Hogsmeade, and the Marauder's Map which helps Harry go there since he doesn't have permission. Professor Trelawney's class is rather silly and the first time Hermione has disliked a teacher and a class. She is so wonderfully skeptical, and it makes me love her even more. Hermione has a ton of classes this year, some of which are scheduled at the same time and Harry and Ron spend a decent portion of the story trying to figure out how she's doing it. There are also themes of injustice surrounding Buckbeak the hippogriff who allegedly injured Draco Malfoy (but unfortunately didn't kill him,) and the story of the Sirius Black's imprisonment.

This was very enjoyable all the way through, and I'm excited to keep going in the series. I'm also concerned though, because next up is Goblet of Fire and the audio is TWENTY hours long. That is crazypants. I've never listened to one that long and because I'm borrowing these from the library I'm not sure if I'll be able to finish it. I'll just have to plan carefully!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tiger Eyes

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (1981)

The story opens soon after Davey's father is shot in a holdup at his 7-11. She and her little brother Jason go with their mother to Los Alamos, New Mexico to stay with family while they try to recover. Aunt Bitsy and Uncle Walter are nice enough people, but they're pretty strict. Davey's mother is kind of useless, barely even talking to anyone. Davey decides to explore the local canyons and there she meets a guy named Wolf who is going through something similar, and is only now that Davey begins to understand how to deal with her loss.

I last read this book sometime in the 1980s and at the time it was probably my least favorite of Blume's teen books (meaning I probably only read a few times, rather than many times.) The story didn't really stick with me like the others; I only remembered that it took place in the Southwest. Maybe my taste has changed since I was teenager, because I really liked this story a lot! It's all about how much Davey's family's life changed after her father was killed, and I wonder if I would have liked this more as a teenager had I read it after my father died rather than before.

Davey feels uprooted when they move to Los Alamos away from her friends and boyfriend. She doesn't know how long they'll be there, or what their lives will be like when they return to Atlantic City. She just wants someone in her family to talk to her about her father and what happened, but they won't.

The adults in this book were so incredibly frustrating, as adults can be when you're not one. The family were in New Mexico for at least a few months when Davey finally asked her mother if they'd be home by Christmas. Her mother, who barely talked to Davey AT ALL the entire time they were there, said something like "Oh, I thought you realized - we'll be here for the whole school year." Of course Davey didn't "realize" that. How would she know if her mother didn't talk to her? And Davey's aunt and uncle were also kind of incorrigible. They were nice people, really, but they were SO obsessed with safety that they didn't want to let Davey do anything fun whatsoever, plus they had some negative opinions of Davey's father which did not help Davey's relationship with them. All the while, Davey's mother just kept going along with them as though she could no longer think for herself.

But there were some good things in Los Alamos too. Davey made a new friend Jane (who actually turned out to have some pretty big problems, but was still a good friend to Davey), and Wolf, the guy she met while hiking in the canyon (against the wishes of the overprotective adults.) Davey also got a volunteer job as a candy striper at a local hospital where she befriend a patient named Mr. Ortiz who was dying of cancer. All of these things helped Davey come to grips with the tragedy she had lived through.

I felt so bad for Davey, having to figure everything out for herself because the adults around her (and her little brother) wouldn't even talk about her father. But she was so great, getting out there and meeting friends and doing volunteer work. There's so much more going on in this book than I remembered, and it's so much better than I expected based on my vague childhood memories. I'm so glad I read it again!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Books of a genre of our choosing. There aren't many genres in which I read enough to be able to pick 10 favorites, but I do read a lot of historical fiction. It was hard to narrow down to 10, and I'm afraid that I'm forgetting something important, but here goes:

1. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
This story about a young lesbian in Victorian England is just dripping with historical detail and lush language. I know everybody's favorite Sarah Waters book is supposed to be Fingersmith, and I liked Fingersmith a lot, but I remember really really loving this one. I want to read it again sometime.

2. My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
Also Victorian-era (which is my favorite!) I loved this story of a woman who reinvents herself and becomes a midwife who provides birth control and abortions. Definitively feminist slant and wonderful historical detail.

3. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
I was skeptical about reading a lengthy novel about the building of a cathedral, but it is SO MUCH more than that. I was completely engrossed in the lives of the many characters in this sweeping novel set in the 1100s.

4. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This may be the only historical novel I've read set in the 1960s, but Adichie brought that period in Nigeria vividly to life. Everything she's written is fantastic, but this one was my first and the only one I'd consider historical.

5. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Seventeenth-century Amsterdam is fascinating, and I was SO excited to read this novel about a young woman being married off to an older stranger who gives her a miniature replica of their house to decorate as a hobby. Many intriguing mysteries and secrets are woven among the period details to make this novel difficult to put down.

6. The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
Speaking of books that are hard to put down, this one (and the two sequels) got passed all around my family for a while several years ago. Set in Victorian London, the protagonist is an independent, headstrong woman (my favorite kind!) and I loved everything about the story and characters.

7. Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
This epic begins in the late 1800s when a 7-year-old girl is taken from her family to live in a leper colony. The novel spans her whole life, which is not only fascinating, but longer and happier than you'd think.

8. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
Set in Hong Kong, the story moves between two timelines; one in the 1940s and the other in the 1950s. It focuses on events surrounding the World War II occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese, and the relationships between several British and Chinese people. Lee's writing is just beautiful, and I also highly recommend her recent contemporary novel, The Expatriates.

9. The Luxe by Anna Godbersen
This teen series set in Manhattan beginning in 1899 was a ton of fun! Full of scandal and intrigue, the chapters all begin with snippets from society pages or etiquette manuals, adding lots of period detail. Of course, what reeled me in in the first place were the gorgeous dresses on the covers!

10. City of Thieves by David Benioff
I'm a sucker for anything set in Russia. This life-or-death adventure story about two young men during the Siege of Leningrad captures just the sort of dark humor common in many Russian novels.

What's interesting about this list is that these aren't necessarily my 5-star reads. I usually rate my books on Goodreads soon after reading them, but often the ones I give the highest ratings to don't stick with me, or vice versa. But when I sat down to think about books to put on this list, these are the ones I thought of right away.

What are your favorite historical novels?

Monday, September 12, 2016

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (2014)

Johanna Morrigan lives with her family in council housing in Wolverhampton. She has an older brother (Krissi), a much younger brother (Lupin), and her mother has just given birth to an unexpected set of twins, still unnamed at 3 weeks of age. Johanna is obsessed with losing her virginity, and after accidentally revealing to a neighbor that he family receives benefits is now afraid they'll lose them. When she humiliates herself on national TV, Johanna decides it's time to reinvent herself. She starts dressing in black, renames herself Dolly Wilde, and gets a job writing music reviews for a magazine in London, eventually quitting school so she can devote all her time to her job, drinking, sex, and carousing. But is the persona she has created actually a better version of herself, or is it worse?

Oh my gosh, Caitlin Moran, is anyone funnier than you? I'll be the first to admit that the plot of this novel doesn't really hold up. For one thing, a teenage girl walks into an interview at a music magazine and is offered a job before she even sits down? But that doesn't really matter. The beauty of this novel is how relatable Johanna is and how hilariously she expresses herself. She is always screwing up, in the ways we've all screwed up when we were teenagers, but the recognizes the freedom of being able to decide what kind of person you want to be. Early on in her transformation she says, "As soon as I actually find something to believe in, I'm going to believe in it more than anyone has ever believed in anything, ever."

I loved the dissonance in Dolly Wilde. She's a goth girl who swigs MD 20/20 while talking about jazz and saying things like "We must away to pastures new." I loved how incongruous her language was with the character she had created for herself. She was unapologetically smart and literary (when she makes a literary reference, the citation is included!) even though she had adopted the persona of a drinking, smoking, swearing Lady Sex Adventuress. She also has the not-terribly-uncommon problem of the bookish of pronouncing words incorrectly because she's only ever seen them in print, and it only adds to her charm.

Although she spends lots of time carousing in London, for most of the novel she's still living at home in Wolverhampton with her family. Her father has spent most of his life trying (but not very hard) to make it as a musician and is constantly asking her to help him out now that she knows people in the industry. Her relationship with her brother Krissi is a little antagonistic,  but they're also each other's best friend. She also has a very sweet relationship with her little brother Lupin.

Moran's writing is just as funny in this book as she was in How To Be a Woman, and her language is just as strong. (If you can't tolerate the word "c*nt" you should probably skip it.) I'm not bothered by the language and I love her smart, cutting humor and strong feminist slant. Johanna Morrigan is a character I won't soon forget.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Truly Madly Guilty

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty (2016)

Clementine and Erika have been best friends since childhood, though it's clear the friendship is uneven and complicated. Clementine is a cellist and around the time of the barbecue she was preparing for an important audition; her husband, Sam, had just begun a fantastic new job. Along with them at the barbecue were their two little girls, Holly and Ruby. Erika and her husband Oliver, both of them meticulous and nerdy, are at a turning point in their lives and need Clementine's help. Vid and Tiffany are the hosts of the barbecue, along with their 10-year-old daughter Dakota. It was just an ordinary day. Three couples, three kids, and a dog at an ordinary barbecue. But something went wrong and it changed everyone's lives.

Chapters move back and forth between the day of the barbecue and present day, which is a couple of months later. It's clear that something life-changing happened that day, but not clear what that is. The whole event and its aftermath is revealed over the course of the book, maddeningly slowly at times, but it didn't matter - I was hooked. Thankfully you do learn basically what happens before it gets too late in the book, but there is more to be revealed. I was glad I didn't have to wait until the very end to find out what happened, though I really was very happy to just read about these characters and their other issues in the meantime.

Erika was fascinating, from her troubled childhood to her current life, satisfying but under conditions of immense control and order. Her husband, Oliver, also had a difficult childhood and I loved how devoted they were to each other, how understanding and forgiving of the other's issues. It was like they were the only people in the world who truly understood the other and there was no question that they would be together. Erika's friendship with Clementine was fraught with obligation and guilt, but they knew each other better than anyone. That friendship continues to develop in unexpected ways in this story. Vid and Tiffany are just neighbors, but the interpersonal dynamics between them and the other characters is a catalyst for what happened, and definitely for the guilt a few of the attendees felt afterward.

Much of what I love about Moriarty's writing is in the little details - the humor, the observations, things I've never really said out loud or consciously thought about but immediately recognize. When someone is overheard saying something awful, "She kept talking, talking as if she could somehow conceal what she'd said with layers of new conversation." In another part, Vid is described coming home: "There was a mark on the wall from where Vid threw it open each time he came into the house as if he were making a grand return from an epic journey." Someone in my household also bursts through doors in a dramatic way and she really characterized it well. Many parts like this made me chuckle in recognition.

The reviews were quite mixed and honestly I have no idea what the hell is wrong with book critics. I loved Big Little Lies and this one was at least as good, possibly better. Although the subject matter is more serious, I think those who enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible from earlier this year would also like Truly Madly Guilty.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Rogue Not Taken

The Rogue Not Taken (Scandal and Scoundrel #1) by Sarah MacLean (2016)

Lady Sophie Talbot and her sisters are known among London society as the Dangerous Daughters, or the Soiled S.'s (they all have names beginning with S), but Sophie has done nothing publicly scandalous herself - until now. At a party she happens upon her sister's husband in a compromising position with another woman and confronts him, pushing him into a fish pond. You'd think he would be the one publicly humiliated, but no, it's Sophie trying to sneak away and escape London. She ends up disguising herself as a footman and hopping on a carriage belonging to the  notorious scoundrel Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley. They instantly dislike each other, he assuming she's trying to trick him into marriage and she having just seen him escaping from the bedroom window of a woman engaged to someone else. So naturally, they end up falling hard for each other.

My favorite thing about this story is Lady Sophie's disdain for the aristocracy and her lifelong dream of opening a bookshop in the little town where she grew up. Her family wasn't rich or titled when she was growing up, but when her father bought a piece of land that turned out to harbor a profitable coal mine, they became rich and he bought his title. Others in London society considered the family to be social climbers and didn't fully accept them. Sophie hated these snobs and hated that she had to live among them. When she fled London after the disastrous party, she could think only of going back to her hometown and marrying the baker she had promised herself to years ago.

King was also leaving London for the country, but for very different reasons. His father who hadn't spoken to in years sent a message that he was dying. King blamed his father for the death of the one woman he ever loved, and was only returning so he could have the pleasure of telling his father that he was the end of the line for their family. King was a bit of an alpha male, which is not my favorite sort of guy, but I found his story intriguing and he obviously cared for Sophie in spite of himself.

Their relationship had a number of stumbling blocks related to each other's reputation and the societal pressures facing the aristocracy at that time. Marrying as a means to secure a higher rank and greater wealth was common, and if you happened to love someone who was in a better position than you, the burden of proving you wanted to marry for love was a difficult one to overcome. Sophie was all too aware of her family's reputation, but no matter how much she protested, it was hard for others - like King - to believe she actually cared nothing for the aristocracy. Making things more complicated for the two, they were both stuck on an old love from the past. It was all fairly complicated, and satisfying to see them work through all their internal issues while contending pressures from their families and society.

Just like MacLean's other books, this one is filled with humor and witty banter and was a lot of fun to read. I first heard about it when the author was interviewed on Smart Podcast, Trashy Books a while back. She promised a new series based on TMZ-like headlines from scandal sheets, which totally piqued my interest at the time so I was watching for this book to come out. Satisfyingly, it not only begins with a brief scandal sheet article ("DUKE AT DEATH'S DOOR?"), but all the chapters have titles similarly sensational and gossipy: "SOILED S. STOLEN! SCOUNDREL SUSPECTED!" and "SPOTTED IN SPROTBROUGH?" and "ROYAL ROGUE AND SOILED SOPHIE - WAR? OR MORE?" It was all rather delightful.

Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover remains my favorite Sarah MacLean book to date, but I still quite enjoyed The Rogue Not Taken. The second in this new series, A Scot in the Dark, has just been released.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Danielle Steel

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

I was thinking about Danielle Steel recently when I was writing Tuesday's post, because I read ALL of her books when I was in high school. I think many of us consider her books to be romance, but they're not considered part of that genre. There are usually romances in them, but the books can be quite tragic and the romance isn't necessarily the central part of the plot. They tend to be family sagas and I loved the stories that spanned decades and followed people from their early lives through their careers and relationships and all of their dramatic ups and downs.

I lived in a small town in a poor rural area, and the lives I read about in Steel's books might as well have been science fiction. Glamorous women worked at jobs in high-rise buildings in cities and drank champagne on yachts with attractive men who jet-setted around the world. They had torrid love affairs and shopped at very expensive boutiques and ate at fancy restaurants - none of which I had experienced and all of which I ate up with a spoon. I couldn't get enough of these books.

They were totally unrealistic in many ways of course, but they taught me that those things existed. I didn't yet realize that the American Dream wasn't real, that you can't just work really hard and expect to become wealthy, but it was a glimpse into a culture that does exist and that I wouldn't have known about otherwise. Plus, they were just wonderful fun to read for hours in a bubble bath. I would bring my boom box into the bathroom and listen to all those 80s hair bands in the background while reading and refilling the tub with hot water to make it last longer.

Danielle Steel is still going strong and I keep thinking I should try her again, but I just don't hear much about her. She has a total of 6 books coming out in 2016, which makes me wonder if she's farming out the work the way James Patterson does. Has anyone read her recently? Are any of her newer books good?