Monday, May 22, 2017

The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (2015)

The economy has collapsed and Stan and Charmaine live together in their car, driving from place to place to avoid being attacked. But they learn about a way out: they can move into a nice community and live in a lovely house and have good jobs. The price? Spending every other month in prison, while their house is inhabited by a couple who are in prison on the opposite months. They sign on, and for a while it works out pretty well. The prison is fairly nice and they have jobs there too, and they get into the routine of being separated every other month and then coming back together in their house. But when one of them gets a little too interested in one of the people who lives in the house while they are away at prison, things begin a slow downward spiral.

In order for the experimental town of Consilience (Cons + Resilience!) to work, everyone must abide by very strict rules. For one thing, once you sign on, you're there for life. For another, your lives must be totally separate from your Alternates, the people you share your house with. You don't have have many possessions: the lawnmower at your house belongs to the town and is shared with your Alternates and if they don't take care of it, you just have to suck it up. Jobs are assigned, in prison as well as outside. Charmaine was proud to have a job that not many people could do, but she needed to not think very much about what she was actually doing. If anything falls out of whack - like having an affair with one of your Alternates - it puts you in grave danger.

The Heart Goes Last is a dystopia, but a more subtle dystopia than is typical since it's the most like real life in many ways. The town of Consilience is a corporate solution to some serious societal problems, and it's a solution that does not hold human life at a very high value. People are not able to exercise very much free will, nor do they have many rights. I don't know how far in the future it is supposed to be. The economy has tanked, leaving many people without jobs, but there's not much other information about what's happening on a national, or global, scale. Technology has clearly advanced, though. There are sexbots that are quite realistic and available in a disturbing age range, and they're developing a surgery that alters a person's brain so that whoever they first see when they wake up is permanently imprinted as the object of their desire. It's all quite disturbing, as was intended.

Despite these elements, it's not an especially dark or depressing book, and that includes the ending. This isn't an environmental apocalypse or anything irreversible like that, it's more about corporate greed which is something that is not impossible to overcome. I had heard mixed reviews of this book when it came out and the Goodreads average rating isn't great, but I actually quite liked it. It's not my favorite of Margaret Atwood's book, but it's really hard to beat The Handmaid's Tale or Alias Grace.

This is the 5th completed book on my list of 12 for my personal reading challenge. Since we're in month 5 out of 12 it appears that I'm right on target, but in fact it makes me a bit behind. For one thing, I'm also supposed to be reading nonfiction in 8 categories and have only completed 3. Additionally, I usually try to get ahead early because over the summer I'll be reading nominations for our Community Read. This year I'll also be reading for the IPNE book awards. So I need to actually make more of an effort. But I guess that's why it's called a book challenge.

Have you read The Heart Goes Last? What other Margaret Atwood books do you love?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (2007), narrated by Jim Dale

The end has come. I've just completed the final Harry Potter book on audio and now, after the final showdown with Voldemort and the death of so many characters, both major and minor, I'm a bit exhausted. I feel like I've been through a lot!

There's no going back to Hogwarts this year - Harry, Ron, and Hermione are on the run, hoping to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes and defeat Voldemort once and for all. Their journey takes them to places important to Voldemort, such as Godric's Hollow, where he was defeated when he killed Harry's parents. Godric's Hollow was also home to the Dumbledore family and to Bathilda Bagshot, author of A History of Magic. Harry learns uncomfortable truths of Dumbledore's youth and feels very conflicted, but remains determined on his quest. He also learns more about himself and his role in relation to Voldemort, which is not good news to him. It is pretty dark.

Meanwhile, Voldemort and the Death Eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. The Ministry instituted a registry for muggle-borns, Hogwarts attendance became compulsory, and you had to prove your blood status to attend. The class Defense Against the Dark Arts was transformed into Dark Arts. There was a point at which I was listening to this audiobook, reading American War, watching The Handmaid's Tale, and reading the U.S. news, and I was seriously getting confused about which thing was happening in which dystopia. (Ok, the U.S. isn't a dystopia yet, but the are some very concerning things being casually bandied about.)

Serious battles broke out, and many died, including some pretty major characters. Kids are not coddled in this world, and when the shit really hit the fan, it was all hands on deck for the fighting and that means anyone aged 17 and up were expected to help out. This, of course, means that everyone was at risk for death and there were just so many sad moments.

But there's also hope. Many of the secrets revealed were dark ones, but many were enlightening in different ways and we finally got the truth that revealed one character in particular as much more brave and good than we thought - if only we had known before he died. But this is a book for young people so despite all the dark and ruin and death, good prevails over evil and that is what is important. My first time round with this book (and movie) I wasn't super keen on the epilogue that skipped 20 years into the future, but I really appreciated it this time. Maybe I just liked the extra assurance that things continued to go well for everyone.

I was thinking about classics and how much they permeate culture, and it's been so much fun to re-experience this one. I was already an adult when these books were released, and it's so strange now to think about how there was a time when Harry Potter didn't exist. Like, for my entire childhood and adolescence. I was trying to imagine what it would have been like to grow up with these books. There just wasn't anything comparable when I was growing up. I'm so glad I've been able to experience them even as an adult. There's just so much here about friendship and bravery and making hard choices, and the stories themselves with all the humor and fun characters are just delightful. I'm so grateful for this series.

When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out last year I had no intention of ever reading it, especially because it's a play, not a novel. But now that I've read A Raisin in the Sun and realized how much you really can get out of reading a play, I'm reconsidering reading it. Have you read it? What did you think?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Anything For You

Anything For You (Blue Heron #5) by Kristan Higgins (2015)

Finally I got to read the story about Jessica Dunn! She's been an intriguing minor character throughout this series and I'm so glad she got her own book. Jessica was nicknamed Jessica Does in high school because she slept around a lot. Mostly she did it to win over guys so they'd help protect her special needs younger brother from bullying. That is Jessica's life work, really - taking care of Davey. Their parents were drunks and as soon as Jessica was old enough she took Davey and moved out. She works her tail off trying to give them a good life, and that life doesn't have room for romance, especially with Connor O'Rourke.

The story open with Connor proposing to Jessica after an on-again off-again romance that has spanned decades, and she turns him down. Then we go back to their childhood, when Jessica's dog gets loose and attacks Connor, resulting in the dog being euthanized. (This was a pretty upsetting scene, so warning to those sensitive to animal deaths.) When animal control arrives, Davey is heartbroken and he never forgives Connor, who he sees as responsible for the death of his beloved Chico. Over the years Connor and Jessica hook up and break up, Jessica breaking his heart over and over again.

In most contemporary romances, what keeps the characters apart is just their own neuroses. Let's face it- there's much these days that prevents people who want to be together from being together. But this was a really good, believable setup. A woman who is completely devoted to the responsibility of caring for her brother who is unable to live on his own? And who despises her love interest? I can definitely buy that. Another of my romance pet peeves is that so many of the heroines are sexually inexperienced and need to be initiated by the hero, so Jessica was a refreshing change. (To be fair I haven't read a ton of contemporaries, but from my limited experience there are more virgins than one would think.)

Jessica's family situation was a pretty big part of the book. She is so great with Davey and I really liked reading about them. Although she feels a huge responsibility towards him, she isn't resentful at all. Quite the opposite: Jessica loves her brother more than anyone. It's a complicated situation though, and when their father arrives back on the scene swearing that he's been sober for three years, Jessica is thrown for a loop. She wants to believe it, but doesn't want to be disappointed yet again. I loved this part of the story. There was a great scene in which their father comes with them to a drum circle that Jessica takes Davey to regularly. It's not Jessica's sort of thing at all, and the scene was fairly silly, but it was fun and Davey loves it.

The romance, as I mentioned earlier, had a pretty good premise. It was really a difficult situation that felt totally realistic. I think Jessica could have been a little less bone-headed about things, but I also can understand where she's coming from. She grew up poor in a trailer park with horrible parents and for various reasons feels like she doesn't really deserve happiness. When anything good happens to her, she can't believe her good fortune and is immediately preparing herself for the disappointment of losing it. It's the same with Connor. She's convinced he'll grow bored with her, that he can do better, than there's no way they'll be able to live together because of Davey's meltdowns every time he sees Connor. Connor concocts a secret plan to win Davey over, which goes really well for a while until it completely backfires. Of course it all works out in the end, but getting there was quite a struggle.

I really have no criticisms of this story. I mean, Colleen (the heroine from Waiting On You) and Connor's twin sister, went into labor and had her baby in about 10 minutes but that really didn't affect my enjoyment of the story at all. I also find it slightly annoying that every single romance heroine changes her name when she gets married (it's 2017!) but that responsibility doesn't lie entirely with Kristan Higgins so I can't fault her for it.

I love the little town she has created and the people she has populated it with. One of the things I like most about her storytelling is her sense of humor, and the way she integrates it into stories that involve serious issues. She often does this through scenes with secondary characters. For instance, Pru and Carl, a couple who have been married since before the series started always lend a bit of humor to every situation. They're an older couple who enjoy being super open about their adventurous sex life. These stories also all have dogs in them, in this case Chico Three. Pets always add a bit of levity. (This is the second book which contained a dog toy that my dog also has. The first was Squeaky Chicken; this time it was Squeaky Purple Dinosaur. I guess we shop at the same place?)

All in all, I've really enjoyed this series and I'm a little sad that it's over. It's funny because I hated the first book by Higgins that I picked up, so I'm really glad I gave her another try by impulsively downloading a galley of the first book in this series a few years ago. I suspect that her writing has just gotten better over time so I probably won't go back and read any of her older books, but I'll be happy to try her newer ones!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Most Memorable Mothers in Books

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is a mother-themed freebie. I was going to do a split list of best/worst mothers in books, but as I began making the list there were a couple I couldn't categorize in those terms but really wanted to include. So instead I'm listing the most memorable mom characters I can think of.

1. Margaret White from Carrie by Stephen King
Most terrifying mother ever.

2. Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
She's one reason I couldn't do a best/worst list. I mean, she's totally ridiculous but I really enjoy laughing at her!

3.  Bridget's mom from Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
Like Mrs. Bennet, this lady is just too much. I loved how she was portrayed by Barbara Rosenblatt in the audio version.

4. Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series
She had like a million kids, knit them all handmade sweaters, and still found time to fight evil.

5. Rosa from The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
One of the worst mothers I've ever encountered in a book. But like some of the others I really enjoyed reading about her.

6. Caroline Ingalls from the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This lady put up with a lot, but always found time to do fun things with her daughters. And anyone who can move into - literally - a hole in the ground and make it feel homey deserves some sort of award.

7. Diana from I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Moms in teen books tend to either be horrible or absent, but this mom really had a life, and secrets, of her own. She felt so real!

8. Min's mom from Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
Definitely a bad mom. Min's sister was getting married and their mom deliberately ordered Min's dress too small and then spent months harping on her about eating sweets or carbs or, you know, anything good. She wasn't convinced her daughter was pretty enough to get a decent guy, so it was incredibly satisfying when the lady finally got her comeuppance from Min's fantastic boyfriend.

9. Mrs. Frisby from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
She may have been a tiny field mouse, but this mom was super determined and knew how to get stuff done.

10. Patricia Noah from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Last - but definitely not least - is the one nonfiction mom on my list. (I don't count Ma Ingalls because she was so fictionalized.) Not because there aren't a ton of awesome real moms out there (obviously!) but because I don't read enough nonfiction. Trevor Noah's mom is totally amazing and in some ways his memoir is more about her than about himself.

And an extra shoutout to Marge Simpson! She's obviously from tv, not books, but is one of my very favorite fictional mothers out there. (Oh gosh, I could make a whole list of the best tv moms, too.)

Who are your favorite mothers in books, or those you love to hate?

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

The family at the heart of this classic play live on the South Side of Chicago after WWII. They share a small apartment: the matriarch, her two grown children, her son's wife and their son. They have only a two-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom they share with another unit. They all want more: Beneatha is a smart and ambitious young woman who hopes to be a doctor but isn't sure how she'll pay for medical school. Her brother, Walter, wants to start a business but doesn't have the capital. Mama just wants a bigger, nicer house for the family in a better neighborhood. When the play begins she is expecting a large check, and there is lots of anticipation of the check's arrival and speculation about Mama's plans for it. The people in this family want the same things we all do, but a black family in 1950s America have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving their dreams.

In this edition, a few scenes have been restored from the original version. When the show was first produced they had been removed from a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the practical concern of running time for the show. But they seem important and it's tough to imagine the play without them. For instance, when the family puts a down payment on a new house and prepares to move, their neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, comes by to visit. She keeps talking about what a "proud-acting bunch of colored folks" they are, as though their desires for a better life somehow means they feel superior to others who have more modest aspirations. Mrs. Johnson also tells them about other black families who have moved into white neighborhoods and were bombed. This is important because the family also receives pressure from their future neighborhood not to move there, and the fact that they are also getting the same pressure from their own community is significant.

Another cut scene was when Beneatha changes her hair to a short afro. Her disinterest in conforming is already clear to us from her desire to be a doctor, but this change is an important outward display of her individuality. It is spurred, I think, by her relationship with a Nigerian man and her new interest in Africa. One of the things I loved most about Beneath is the way she follows her interests and tries new things. Not one to be held back by racial constructs, finances, or anything else, she has tried out a number of different hobbies, many of which required buying expensive items, like photography equipment and a guitar. When her mother and sister-in-law question why she flits from one thing to another, Beneatha says "I don't flit! I experiment with different forms of expression."

I never read plays. The handful of Shakespeare I read last year were the first plays I've read since The Cherry Orchard in college. Of course Shakespeare is all about the language - those plays are thin on plot and the characters aren't really developed. So I had it in my head that that's just the nature of plays - you really need to see them performed for them to really come alive. But this all felt as real to me as a novel. There's a decent amount of description of the setting and people's appearances, which helps. But the characters seemed so real and there was so much feeling that came through in their dialogue and the bits of direction that accompanied it. Now I'd really like to see it performed!

A Raisin in the Sun was the May choice for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I've read three in a row and liked them all. The next two are The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville which doesn't really interest me and Paradise Lost by John Milton which, ugh, no. I may rejoin in August with some Jane Austen. They're reading Northanger Abbey, which I just read last year but I might just pick another Austen that I haven't read yet for that month.

Friday, May 12, 2017

American War

American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)

The Second Civil War begins in 2074. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina seceded, calling themselves collectively "The Free Southern State" in response to legislation prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in the United States. A secessionist suicide bomber killed the president in late 2073 and the Southern states declared themselves independent just under a year later. The war lasted for around 20 years and on the day of reunification a plague was deliberately let loose at the capital in Colombia, MO the effects of which lasted another decade. The terrorist responsible remains unknown, which of course means the main character of the novel must be that person. (I don't think that's a spoiler, as it seemed perfectly obvious to me from the beginning.)

Our protagonist is Sara T. Chestnut, called Sarat. As the novel opens she is 6 years old, living in a shipping container with her parents, twin sister Dana, and older brother Simon in Louisiana, which is outside of the Free Southern State (FSS) but more-or-less aligned with it. As Sara grows up her situation worsens, beginning with the death of her father and the family's escape to Camp Patience, a refugee settlement in the FSS where the family lives in a tent for 6 years. Sarat only leaves after a horrible massacre by the Blues (the Northerners) rips her remaining family apart. With the compensation received, the remainder of her family is able to finally settle in a house in another part of the FSS.

Throughout all of this, Sarat remains a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. Although the war began over the use of fossil fuels, she never once expressed an opinion on the issue. She used fossil fuels and when she was running her household she insisted on using this old technology, but I think it was more out of her allegiance with the South than any personal opinion on the issue. Her views on the war seemed to be that she was from the South and had been hurt by the North and therefore hated them. There was little nuance or real understanding of the issues outside of her own personal experiences. Confusingly, despite her allegiance to the South late in the novel there's a part where she says, "Fuck the South and everything it stands for." This was literally the only time she expressed anything negative towards the South and I have no clue how it fits in with her worldview, since the author doesn't let us inside her head.

Throughout the book Sarat is stubborn and rather bone-headed, convinced she knows more and is smarter than everyone else. She didn't want the war to be over and I don't know why except that she seemed like she wanted to be miserable and to suffer. It's true that she went through a lot, but so did everybody else. I never could figure out why she was supposed to be so special. The lack of insight into her character was frustrating and, unfortunately, a bit typical of literary fiction.

The whole story is from the point of the South, yet I couldn't help but see them as in the wrong. Is that intentional, or am I just bringing in my own biases based on being a liberal New Englander? It's hard to tell, but it was interesting to think about as I read. I'll admit there have been times I wished the South would secede as that part of country seems to have a completely different culture and worldview than the part where I live. (I suppose there are advantages to being all one country, but I do wonder how different it would be if we were instead a number of very small individual countries, like Europe.) I found the idea of the Second Civil War compelling, and the way it played out was as good as any dystopia, though I do wish we got more about how people fared outside of the South. From the viewpoint of the FSS, living in the North was much easier but I don't know the details. Was it just safer or were they living in comparative luxury?

I gave this book 3.5 stars because I was unable to get to know or understand the main character around whom the novel centered. Otherwise, it was pretty strong. El Akkad's writing style and world-building were quite good and I can see why this book garnered such high praise in the reviews. The author is originally from Cairo, but has also lived in Qatar and Canada before moving to the United States, which gives him a pretty unique perspective and I'd really love to know how his experiences in these different political climates has shaped his views and contributed to this novel.

Have you read American War? What other brand new books have you read recently and want to recommend?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2016)

As the title suggests, this very short book (81 pages without the index) contains seven lessons on physics. We learn about general relatively, quantum mechanics, particles, gravity, black holes, the architecture of the universe, and the role of humans in all of this. Each chapter is like a simple but beautiful essay on the topic at hand, though later chapters do build on the information that came before.

I am not a science person. Although I was generally a good student in high school, I barely passed my science classes and never felt like I really understood them. In college I took two sciences, one of which I found really interesting (Marine Biology) yet was shocked every time I sat down to take an exam because it seemed like it was for a different class than the one I was experiencing. As for physics, I lasted one quarter in high school - not even a semester - before dropping it to take music. (Despite how upset my guidance counselor was about this decision, it is one I have never regretted. My senior year music teacher was awesome. More than 25 years later we're even friends on Facebook.)

My point is that science is something that interests me in a documentary-about-owls kind of way not an understanding-astrophysics kind of way. This book wasn't at all what I had in mind when I picked science as a category on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge. But a coworker mentioned hearing positive reviews of this book and considering how short it is I decided it was worth a try. Because the truth is that I want to understand these concepts. I want to understand the universe I live in. I even tried watching Cosmos at one point and managed to get through a handful of episodes before losing interest. Understanding difficult abstract concepts is not something I put a lot of time or effort into.

But Rovelli approaches these topics in a way that geared towards the layperson, and what makes this book truly stand out is just how beautifully he writes. You can't help but by infected by his sense of wonder at the universe as you read these essays, even if you don't grasp every single thing. And I definitely didn't.

I am still thinking about a sentence very early in the book illustrating how time passes more quickly higher up: "If a person who has lived at sea level meets up with his twin who has lived in the mountains, he will find that his sibling is slightly older than he." I understand time passing differently for someone who is in space, but surely these two brothers are not separated by more than a few time zones? But I moved on through the book, getting what I could out of it and not letting myself get stuck on the bits that were, for me, impossible to grasp.

It was easy to get through a book which such lovely passages as this one:

"A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars."

The whole book is like that. It's like a love poem to science.

Now I'm under no illusion that I have actually learned everything in this book. Already I'm forgetting what I've read. But I do feel more confident about reading other books or articles on scientific topics because I know now that it's possible to for me to understand it. I just need to find sources of this information from those who express themselves as simply and beautifully as Carlo Rovelli.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ten Things On My Reading Wishlist

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is all about the things we want to see more of in books. How fun!

1. Horror
This is a weird complaint considering how behind I am on both Stephen King and Joe Hill, but I wish there was as much to choose from as in other genres.

2. Teen books set in rural areas
There just aren't many teen books out there that depict rural life the way I know it from growing up in Maine.

3. Female characters who eat, especially stress eat
It's 2017 and I'm tired of every single female character being unable to eat every time she is the least bit upset. I don't think I've ever been unable to eat in my life. I eat when I feel sick to my stomach for crying out loud.

4. LGBTQ characters in adult books
Again, it's 2017. There are a ton of teen books with queer characters in them, which, hooray! But what about adults? We can't just leave it all to Sarah Waters (although she is amazing.) I was actually surprised when my former coworker who started the Queer Book Group at my library complained about having a hard time finding books to read, but it's true. What the heck?

5. Dialogue attribution
I know it's unfashionable and unliterary but please tell me who the hell is talking. You cannot launch into 20 lines of dialogue and only attribute the first line, because then I need to make up voices for the characters in my head and alternate them so I can keep track of who is saying what and that is just too much work. I don't know who decided it was a bad idea to include a dialogue tag once in a while, but this is a terrible idea and I'm sorry it has caught on.

6. Historical romances set in Russia
I love Regency England as much as the next person, but I also think that pre-Revolution Russia would be a fantastic setting and also these books don't all need to be about the Romanovs and their friends, please and thank you.

7. Historical romances set in the US
Ok, I read one by Lorraine Heath which I really liked and have been meaning to read the rest of the trilogy, and then I discovered Beverly Jenkins, and now Alyssa Cole wrote that great Civil War interracial romance, so there's not nothing. But there could be more! What about colonial New England or Gilded Age New York or a little romance between two pioneers during the westward expansion or involving a bootlegger during Prohibition? There's lots of fodder out there, people!

8. Chick lit
This whole genre seems to have died out and it makes me sad. Please come back. You were so much fun.

9. Strong female friendships
It doesn't have to be the center of the novel, but I'd love if a romance or historical or dystopia or whatever features a strong female friendship in its story. So often the heroine is a loner or has a group of casual acquaintances but I really love a great best friend in my fiction.

10. Short novels
I don't mean novellas, I just mean novels that are under 300 pages. There are many novels that could easily be under 300 pages, but they aren't. I have a bit of a commitment problem.

Oh, I thought of an 11th!

11. Historical romance couples who are equally matched in sexual experience
Almost always, the heroine is totally virginal and ridiculously naive, and the hero has a lot of experience but is totally swept away by the heroine's magical vagina when they finally do it. I mean, seriously. Can we have a lady who has had a sexual thought in her head? This is one of the (many) reasons why I so enjoyed Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean. This heroine has a past and she is a grown-up in every way.

What would you like to see more of in books? I bet there are things I'd love that I'm forgetting!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Angel Catbird

Angel Catbird, Vol. 1 by Margaret Atwood (2016)

A genetic engineer has an accident that results in becoming part owl and part cat, with an ability to transform between his human self and catbird self. He then meets other half-cats and a villain who is (of course) half rat because rats are always evil. Everyone is very scantily clad.

I honestly have very little to say about this book. It was ok. There wasn't a lot to the story, the art was fine but not really my style, I found the dialogue a bit forced and awkward, and I didn't recognize Margaret Atwood in any of it. Atwood says in the introduction that she grew up on comic books and that this doesn't feel like the surprising departure to her that others may view it as. To me, it feels like maybe she's trying to write the kind of comic she enjoyed in her youth rather than writing something in her own style but in graphic form, if that makes sense. It's honestly not terribly creative, though it's also just the first volume in a series so perhaps there will be more to the story later on. I won't be following it though.

I didn't actively dislike it, it just didn't do anything for me. As far as Atwood is concerned, I'm going to stick with her novels.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (2016)

I've come a bit late to the hygge party, but now I might never leave. For the uninitiated, hygge is a Danish lifestyle/philosophy that celebrates coziness and togetherness and warmth. And according to Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute and the author of this book - it's the reason why Danes are consistently found to be the happiest people in the world.

How does one achieve hygge? According to the book, some of the top things Danes associate with hygge are hot drinks, candles, fireplaces, Christmas, board games, sweets and cakes, cooking, and books. To make your home more hyggelig, Wiking suggests the following:
1. A hyggekrog (a cozy nook to sit in)
2. A fireplace
3. Candles
4. Things made out of wood
5. Nature (leaves, nuts, animal skins, etc.)
6. Books
7. Ceramic
8. Think tactile (have a variety of inviting textures)
9. Vintage
10. Blankets and cushions

If you want to see what this all looks like in practice, I recommend searching for hygge on Pinterest. I now have a hygge board where I'm saving all kinds of ideas to implement at home. The great thing about this is that unlike other design styles, hygge is cheap. (Well, the lamps recommended in this book to achieve the right levels of light are super expensive, but also not strictly necessary.) Anyone can buy candles and a snuggly blanket and make some tea and have friends over to cook together. Cooking simple comfort foods with friends is far more hyggelit than going out to a restaurant. Doing these cozy activities with others is one of the most important parts of hygge, the ideal group size apparently being 3-4 people. Small and casual is the name of the game.

This way of living is great to get you through the cold months, but it's not just for winter. Picnics, camping, and just lazing about on a warm summer day are also hygge. As is gardening, because it feeds into the idea of making things, another important element. Harvesting vegetables to cook or picking berries you'll later make into jam - with your friends, of course - are totally hyggelit. As is other crafting, like knitting. Warm sweaters and socks are essential elements and making them yourself is the height of hygge.

I'm not one for embracing trends, but now and then I find something that just works for me (like bullet journals!) and in this case, I've just found the name and specifics for something that I already wanted and didn't know how to get. For instance, I've walked into rooms and known that they felt like what I wanted to achieve at my house, but couldn't isolate the elements that made them feel that way. Now it all kind of clicks for me and I know exactly what to bring in to achieve the casual coziness I want. (Seriously, I am currently trying to buy an antique church pew.)

Needless to say this was a totally fun little book that I really enjoyed! The cover above is a slightly different edition. The cover and subtitle varies from my copy, but the cover art is so much better. On mine, there's just a teapot with candles on either side and that's it. There are many books about hygge that have been published recently and I've already grabbed another from the library and got on the wait list for a third. If you like Scandinavia or coziness, I do recommend checking this out!

Have you read this or other books on the topic? How do you hygge?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top Ten Favorite Covers of Books I Haven't Read

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is a freebie about book covers. I thought it would be fun to list my favorite book covers that appear on books I haven't read. The ones that make me happy every time I see them even though I may have no interest whatsoever in actually reading them.

1. Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
I have no idea what this is even about and I have no intention of ever reading it but it's one of my favorite covers ever. So tactile, so three-dimensional, so satisfying. Peter Mendelsund is the designer of his covers. (see also The Flame Alphabet.)

2. She Rises by Kate Worsley
I've actually heard that this book is good and would kind of like to read it someday. But for now I just enjoy the art.

3. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
I've heard from a trusted source that it's not very good so I'm just going to remain content enjoying the cover.

4. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Reading this book is not out of the question, though I have no definite plans to do so. Her book Monstrous Affections also has a great cover.

5. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I didn't like Arcadia so I probably won't read anything else by this author, but I do love this cover.

6. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
I read about a page of this book and it just wasn't my style, which is too bad because I love the beautiful cover and poetic title.

7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I tried to read it, I tried to listen to it, I failed. I wanted to love it as so many people seem to, but couldn't get very far at all because somehow it just seemed overly fond of itself. But I still love the cover.

The last three I reserved for cookbooks. I love looking through beautiful cookbooks and have picked many of them up based on the beautiful, delicious-looking cover photos. I don't actually enjoy cooking though, so my fantasy is for someone to cook all of those things for me. At any rate, I don't recall the titles of the ones I've loved the most but here are three that I did identify as having seen before and really liked.

8. My Bread by Jim Lahey
I love rustic, earthy bread and that round loaf on the cover is even in a cast-iron pan. Someone recommended this book of no-knead breads to me and I went so far as to check a copy out of the library before remembering that kneading is actually the part that I like.

9. Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott
Who doesn't love pie? The title font and edge of a hand towel just make it that much more homey.

10. Baking by Dorie Greenspan
I think this is the one I recently saw on a return cart at the library and stood there looking through it while completely forgetting what I was there to do. So many delectable baked things, beautiful photographed. What I would not do for that cake on the cover.

I almost included the Smitten Kitchen cookbook because the cover is wonderful, but I may actually have made things from that one before. I definitely made some Smitten Kitchen recipes, though I don't recall if they were from the book or the website. Either way, there is no shortage of gorgeous cookbook covers to choose from!

What are your favorite book covers?

Monday, May 1, 2017

An Extraordinary Union

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole (2017)

In the midst of the Civil War, a young black woman with a remarkable memory goes undercover as a slave to spy for the Union. Elle works in the household of a senator with an extremely spoiled daughter, both very loyal to the Confederacy. Southern belle Susie is self-centered and determined to get what she wants - and she sights her sights on Rebel soldier Malcolm McCall. But Malcolm is also a spy and he only has eyes for Elle. Can Elle and Malcolm work together to help the Union without being caught? And can a white man and black woman forge a romantic relationship in a society that views her as less than human?

Hot off the press! I've read so much about this book and, of course, totally love the cover (even though my library put a barcode on top of Elle's face - WHY??) You can't tell from this image, but it's a trade paperback and the cover is textured. So fancy!

It's hard to buy a happily ever after for an interracial couple during the Civil War but I know there were mixed-race couples even at that time. It just couldn't have been easy. But if anyone deserves happiness, it's Elle Burns. She is incredibly smart, and not just because she can remember everything she's ever seen and done in perfect detail. She's intuitive, resourceful, and has excellent judgement. Malcolm is ok too. He abhors slavery and finds it difficult to act otherwise, which he needs to as an undercover Rebel soldier. He obviously cares about Elle and appreciates all her best qualities, but she's definitely superior in most ways. I found them both believable though. They were good people, but not too perfect to believe.

The inherent inequality of their relationship is addressed a bit, and Malcolm is completely aware of what it looks like to outsiders, or even to Elle. Knowing how many white men enjoy taking advantage of slaves, Malcolm was sure to be clear with Elle that he wasn't just looking for a good time. He wanted a relationship and respected her as much as any white women (and way more than some of them.) Elle, too, had very mixed feelings about having sex with a white man. I also loved that Elle is not a virgin. I'm so sick of romances in which the heroine is completely unexperienced (and usually totally clueless) and the hero is very experienced and must teach her all the things. (But of course the sexytimes are better with her than any other woman because magic.) Having a past relationship gave Elle more nuance than most romance characters, and I think was integral to the maturity and strength of her character.

Being an undercover slave was fraught with danger, and there were some narrow escapes. As the attraction grew between Malcolm and Elle, Susie became more of a threat. She was part of a Vigilance Committee that rooted out traitors to the South, and her pettiness and disregard for people rose to the fore every time Malcolm resisted her advances. Interestingly, we were given a little bit of insight into why she was so horrible. It wasn't developed quite as much as I liked, but I appreciate that she wasn't wholly two-dimensional.

Overall I really enjoyed this story, which is the first of a series. I'm so glad to have found another author writing historical romances set in the U.S. I've also read Texas Destiny by Lorraine Heath, and both Forbidden and Breathless by Beverly Jenkins, but wasn't aware of other authors writing American historicals. I love a good Regency, but there's so much to explore here as well and it's nice to see another author doing just that.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

Dick Diver is a psychiatrist married to a former patient, Nicole, whose wealth affords them an elaborate lifestyle and assures her the best care possible. Young actress Rosemary Hoyt becomes obsessed with Dick when they meet on the French Riviera, complicating a marriage that already strains as Nicole becomes more healthy and strong than perhaps her husband counted on.

Both professionally and personally, Dick is widely admired. When we are introduced to him in this novel he is always the center of the party and everyone wants to be acquainted with him. As time goes on he is floundering, professionally and personally, drinking heavily, and he's become much less appealing to be around. Colleagues no longer hold him in such high esteem (and for someone who is supposed to be so respected, he hardly works at all throughout the course of the novel) and he barely tries to be charming anymore. At one point when his friend Mary admonishes him for not listening to her he says "But you've gotten so damned dull, Mary. I listened as long as I could." Which went over terribly well, as you can imagine.

Dick and Nicole's marriage was fascinating, but dark, her mental illness casting a shadow over everything. Their relationship was unequal because of their age difference and relationship as doctor and patient. Dick acts rather paternal towards her, his admonishments going far behind what is required for her mental health. I can't tell if that's supposed to be a negative characteristic or is just symptomatic of Fitzgerald's own views on women. Early on he says of Rosemary: "Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel..." And he describes Nicole's older sister as "...a tall, fine-looking woman, deeply engaged in being almost thirty" and goes on to describe her spinsterish ways.

The spare but evocative style is familiar to anyone who's read The Great Gatsby, and a few passages stood out to me such as Rosemary and Dick's taxi ride together:

"But there was little time to cry, and lovers now they fell ravenously on the quick seconds while outside the taxi windows the green and cream twilight faded, and the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs began to shine smokily through the tranquil rain. It was nearly six, the streets were in movement, the bistros gleamed, the Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty as the cab turned north."

I found the timeline of this novel incredibly confusing. In the first part, Rosemary meets and becomes quite fond of the Divers, falling in love with Dick. There's a lot of drunken debauchery with their friends that culminates in something very serious happening at the end of part one. When part two begins, it goes back to Dick first meeting Nicole and covers how their relationship began, and I expected that it would stop before the events of the part one, and then part three would continue the current story. But Rosemary appears in part two which means we've already rejoined the story in progress and I'm just not certain where that happens. Part three seems to pick up much later, though I could never tell how much time was passing at any point during the book. Furthermore, the events at the end of part one are never referred to again, which makes it even harder to place which parts of part two happened before or after that.

It took me a very long time to warm up to this book, and the whole time I kept thinking that i'd like it more the second time. I still think that though I did begin to really like it about 2/3 of the way through and more I think about it the more I like it. There's a lot to unpack and think about. I know that it's based on Fitzgerald's own relationship with his wife Zelda, and now I'm intrigued to read more about them. If anyone has a suggestion of a good book that covers their relationship, please let me know!

I read this for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. As I mentioned in my original post about that, I'm only planning to read along for 4 or 5 of the books. This is my second, after House of Mirth, and I'm looking forward to reading Raisin in the Sun next month. I've only ever read a few plays - there was all the Shakespeare I read last year and the only other one I can think of is The Cherry Orchard, which I read in college - so it should be an interesting change from my usual fare.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly NOT Want To Read a Book

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the opposite of last week's. The interesting thing about this topic is that even though certain things are instant turn-off's to me, it doesn't mean that I won't actually read the book if I hear enough good things about it. They're just things that make me immediately say NO or, more likely, roll my eyes and say "Gah."

1. World War II
Haven't we exhausted this topic? Apparently not. But I am exhausted of it. I know All the Light We Cannot See is supposed to be amazing and I've been told that I'd like it, but I just can't get interested. Maybe someday.

2. An overly precious title
I'm looking at you, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. In fact, for a while there were a number of books with similarly-constructed titles and I just find it annoying. (The Adjective Feeling of Adjective Noun. It's a thing.) I don't care how good the book is supposed to be.

3. Anything that a review calls a "tour de force."
I realize this is a problem with reviewing and not the book itself, but it still turns me off. The phrase is incredibly overused and I take it out on the books, which really are just victims in all of this. The same goes for anything with a plot point described as "unthinkable." Nothing is unthinkable. In fact, this author already thought of it a couple years ago when they started this book, and it's probably not even so original that there's not another book about it out there somewhere. Many people have thought about this thing.

4. Neurotic middle-aged men trying to find themselves
I just don't have the patience for that crap. Come to think of it, anything about privileged white people trying to find themselves strikes me the same way. They really need to find some hobbies.

5. Over 500 pages
It's not that I don't read long books, I do. But it's a large time investment that I'm hesitant to take on and why is everything so incredibly long?

6. Short stories
I've been very excited about authors I like having new books come out and then I learn they are short story collections and I immediately feel disappointed. I have a strange relationship with short stories in that I think I don't like them so I try to avoid them, but when I give in and start reading them I remember that I do actually like them. It's very confusing.

7. When a book is compared to an amazing wonderful book that I'm sure it is nothing like
It might be a great book, but don't try to tell me that it's the next Gone Girl or the next Eleanor & Park because it's not. It might be wonderful, but just tell me why it's wonderful without making unfair and untrue comparisons because I don't believe them.

8. Sports
If the plot has anything to do with any sort of competitive sportsball thingy, I am instantly uninterested. The closest I've come recently is The Boys in the Boat, and that's because I was forced to read it.

9. Spies
In theory spy stories are super interesting and exciting, but the reality for me is just a lot of confusion. I read about half of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and stopped because I had no idea what was going on. Then I watched the entire movie, and I still don't know what was going on. I did like Code Name Verity though, so it's not impossible for me to enjoy a spy story.

10. Cover art that I don't like
I mean, A Little Life, right? Or as I think of it, Michael J. Fox Having An Orgasm. (Is it just me?) I still plan to read it - it's on my personal challenge for the year - but I wish there was more than one cover option. Why is this seemingly the only book with the same art on the hardcover and paperback? To make me uncomfortable, that's why.

So there you have it - everything I could think of that makes me instantly not want to read a book. What factors turn you off from a book immediately? Share in the comments!

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Nation by Terry Pratchett (2008)

A while back my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work read The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, and now we've read another Pratchett book, Nation. It begins with a wave, so huge that it wipes out everyone on Mau's island leaving him the only survivor. The same wave washed up a ship called the Sweet Judy, with only a young girl left alive. Mau and Daphne don't speak the same language and come from very different backgrounds, but together they help other refugees from the storm and make some remarkable discoveries.

I can see why so many people love this book. Young people rebuilding a society after catastrophe, people from very different cultures trying to understand each other, rejection of colonialism, a colorful cast of characters, and Terry Pratchett's particular brand of humor. The role of religion is a big theme, and lots of other interesting ideas are also touched upon. My book group members had a lot to talk about.

The coming together of religion and science made for some clever little bits and, without spoiling too much, I'll share just one small part. Mau's village had a tradition of making beer from roots, but when it's first made it's referred to as "mother-of-beer" and it's poisonous. Only after spitting into it and singing a song does it transform into something safe (and delicious) to drink. Daphne figures out that the song itself isn't significant, but the time it takes to sing the song. The islanders used the song to measure the time they had to wait between spitting and drinking, and over time began to believe it was the song that made it safe to drink. They had a lot of knowledge that was masqueraded as myth or ritual, and I found this quite inventive.

When the story began, Mau was in the midst of a rite-of-passage that was interrupted and throughout the book he kept saying that he still wasn't a man, and referring to not having a soul. At the same time, he was proving quite the opposite about both of those things. He had major epiphanies and I liked watching his character grow. Similarly, Daphne really came into her own during this situation. Growing up in England (I presume, though it wasn't explicitly stated) she was taught very proper manners and subject to all sorts of expectations and it all went flying over the window as soon as her ship crashed on this island. She clearly didn't fit the mold that girls were supposed to at that time, and it was so great that she had the opportunity to grow and learn as she did in this very different environment.

All that said, I found the book a bit of a slog to get through. It seemed slow, taking me an entire week to read, and while I liked the characters and the plot and some of the themes, somehow I just couldn't really get into it.  It was actually rather well-crafted and I don't feel like I have any legitimate criticisms, but somehow it just wasn't for me.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Top Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read a Book

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. I thought of a few things right away that make me immediately want to read a book, but to refresh my memory further I did a search on my blog for the phrase "I'm a sucker for." My conclusion is that I really need to stop using that phrase because I got a lot of results! Interestingly, some of them aren't true anymore (Scandinavia, boarding schools, etc.) probably because I just read so many books with those elements for a while. But here are some (fewer than ten) things that still make me want to instantly read a book:

1. Cold climates
Alaska? Antarctica? Count me in! I don't actually like being cold, but for some mysterious reason love reading stories set in cold, harsh climates. I jump right on books like Bleaker House, To the Bright Edge of the World, The Smell of Other People's Houses, Above All Things, The Snow Child, Ada Blackjack, and too many others to list here.

2. Russia
My love for Russia is well-documented and I've read a ton of books that place there including
A Gentleman in Moscow, The Family Romanov, City of Thieves, War and Peace, Child 44, and many others.

3. The Victorian Era
I've been slowly reading a series of mysteries by Anne Perry although it's been more than a year since I finished Death of a Stranger, but anything that takes place in the Victorian Era catches my eyes. Obviously, How To Be A Victorian and Unmentionable, but also novels such as The Victorian Chaise-Longue, My Notorious Life, Tipping the Velvet, and The Tea Rose.

4. Post-catastrophe
I always think of post-apocalypse, but I was recently reminded that I enjoy the aftermath of other catastrophes as well, such as the nuclear meltdown in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Some of my favorite post-apocalypse novels include Station Eleven, Riddley Walker, Wool, and The Dog Stars.

5. Colonial New England
But with magic usually. The Cahill Witch ChroniclesThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The Witch, which I realize is a movie and not a book (and also I keep wanting to call it The Goat.)

6. Feminist and/or gay themes in historical fiction
Because I love historical fiction and I need it to contain people that we don't think of as existing at that time because they weren't accepted by mainstream society and therefore are underrepresented. The Suffragette Scandal, The Miniaturist, My Notorious Life, Tipping the Velvet (both of which I already mentioned but they bear repeating), and I cannot wait to get my hands on the forthcoming novel The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue.

I feel like there's something important that I'm forgetting, but I'm pretty sure these are the primary ones. What topics or themes make you instantly want to read a book?

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Wanderers

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (2017)

Prime Space will be sending humans to Mars in four years, so they are conducting an extensive training simulation. They've chosen three astronauts to participate in the 17-month simulation and hopefully eventually travel to Mars. Chapters are narrated by the three astronauts as well as their immediate family members: Helen and her daughter Mireille, Yoshi and his wife Makoda, and Sergei and his son Dmitri; and one Prime employee named Luke. This is an extremely realistic and challenging simulation and as it progresses, the participants begin questioning their understanding of what they're experiencing.

Very much character-driven, this is exactly my kind of science fiction. We get to know the characters through their own narration, as well the perspectives of the other characters. Their relationships were all complicated, but due to the nature of being an astronaut, everyone tried hard to be even-keeled and unemotional (but not too unemotional.) Sergei is in the process of a divorce, which I think was as amicable as he says. Helen's relationship with her daughter is a bit strained and her daughter obviously rather troubled, but they tried to project a healthy image of their relationship. I never really got a handle on Yoshi's wife, but she was fascinating, constantly trying on different personas as a sort of performance art, hiding her real self from everyone including Yoshi. And then there was the Prime employee Luke, whose role in this whole story I was quite unsure of for a while. His perspective was important, but in a way I don't want to reveal too much about.

The writing is a tiny bit uneven. For instance, there's a sentence near the beginning that doesn't make sense: "Boone holds up his hands, more callused than you might expect from a person who made his first billion in networking routers, and is wearing a cardigan." Yet there's a brilliant scene in which Madoko is blindfolded in her apartment, and the scene begins with a description of a photo in front of her that she cannot see. And there were other clever little descriptions, such as a poodle who was "absurdly dignified, like an old man who has been forced to wear a poodle costume but refuses to let it diminish him." Another passage that struck me was during an emotionally wrought conversation between Luke and Mireille, in which he observes: "After seven months of watching astronauts, it is literally stunning to watch someone fall to disorganized pieces, and then deliberately present rage and resentment, hand it to him on a silver platter, fully cooked, like it's a gift."

It's really hard to explain why I loved this book so much, especially without giving too much away. It made me think a lot about reality and our perceptions, and whether or not it matters if something is actually real as long as it feels real. I hate to compare it to The Martian because they're nothing alike, but they are both examples of character-driven science fiction written in an accessible style, which is worth mentioning since that's not especially common. I'd definitely consider the two read-alikes and recommend The Wanderers to anyone who enjoyed The Martian.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Top 10 Most Unique Books I've Read

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is all about unique books. Fun! Here's a list of the most unusual books I could think of that I've read:

1. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Tops pretty much every list of weird, bizarre, unusual books. I didn't love it, but it was definitely a unique experience that I won't forget anytime soon.

2. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
So bizarre and dark, dark, dark. I loved it.

3. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
A favorite post-apocalyptic novel, it's written in a pidgin English that takes a bit to get into but is absolutely worth it.

4. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
As letters fall from a statue they are banned from use by the council of the island of Nollop, and also disappear from this book. I thought it would be gimmicky, but it's actually pretty clever.

5. The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin
A book that feels more like a documentary and a piece of art.

6. I2 by James Bannon
So weird. Hardly anyone has heard of this I think, probably because it was self-published. It's totally worth reading though.

7. 14 by Peter Clines
One of the best horror novels I've read. I can't believe I still haven't read his other book (though it's on my Personal Reading Challenge for this year.)

8. Beyond the Dark Veil edited by Sue Henger
Unlike everything else on this list, this one isn't a novel. It's a collection of post-mortem and mourning photography from the Victorian era. Such a fascinating glimpse of life and death at that time.

9. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Weird, bizarre, and really really good.

10. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
The apocalypse is brought to us by giant praying mantises in this crazy teen novel that is really hard to describe in a way that doesn't elicit raised eyebrows of doubt. But trust me - it's really good.

When you read as much as I do, sometimes books start feeling a bit samey. This can be good - we all love a good comfort read now and then. But I do love have a reading experience that's different from any I've had before. What have you read that stands out to you as unique? I'd love more suggestions!

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017), narrated by Bahni Turpin

You've probably already heard about this hot new teen book that was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, in which a teenaged girl witnesses her friend - a young unarmed black man - get shot and killed by a police officer. Honestly, I was a bit hesitant about it at first because of the whole "inspired by" bit. I worried that it would be gimmicky or just capitalizing on a hot-button issue, but I can assure you that is not the case and this is an incredibly thoughtful, well-written book that will give you not just a lot of feelings, but a lot to think about.

Starr Carter grew up in Garden Heights, a rough neighborhood that her mother has been wanting to get out of for quite a while. But her dad is resistant. A former gang member and ex-con, he feels like the neighborhood is more real than the "nice" neighborhoods, and he'd rather stay there and try to make it better than flee to the suburbs. When she was 10, Starr witnessed her best friend Natasha get killed in a drive-by shooting, and now at 16 she is in the car with her friend Khalil when he is pulled over for a broken taillight in a situation that quickly escalates until he's shot multiple times and killed. Of course there is an outcry for justice in the neighborhood, but will the cop actually be convicted of what is so clearly murder? As the media reports that Khalil may have been a drug dealer and gang member, Starr wonders how well she really knew him. At the same time, she has to come to terms with how little she has allowed some of her friends to know her.

There are SO many interesting aspects to this story. Starr is very close to her uncle Carlos, a cop who works with the guy who shot Kahlil. Starr also attends a shmancy school that is very white - there's only one other black kid in her class and people seem to think they should be a couple. Jokingly, they call each other "black boyfriend" and "black girlfriend." Her actual boyfriend is white and therefore a secret from her father, who would not approve. Her two best friends at this school are white and Chinese-American and Starr knows that she shows a different part of herself to them than she does to her neighborhood best friend Kenya. This is already a lot of pressure, but after the shooting she tries to keep quiet about the fact that she is "the witness" the media keeps referring to, not telling anyone outside her immediate family. But she begins to wonder if it's possible for justice to be served if she doesn't speak out.

In addition to all the thought-provoking issues that come up, it works on the more basic level of being a great story to read. Starr and her friends are regular teenagers who act like teenagers, complete with slang and pop culture references. Her parents are great, too! In many teen books the parents are either absent or two-dimensional or completely screwed up, but Starr's parents are nuanced characters with their own lives and personalities and it's clear they care about her very much.

I'm amazed that this is a debut novel, and will definitely look for more from Angie Thomas. I can't think of one criticism about this book. (Even on Goodreads the poor reviews dwell only on the fact that there's swearing in the book.) Unsurprisingly, the film rights have already been optioned.

Bahni Turpin narrates the audiobook perfectly, bringing the characters alive and, man, she does an excellent scolding parent voice!  She also narrates Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson, another book I'm interested in. I was already considering it on audio, but this definitely seals the deal for me. Seriously, she's one of the best narrators I've heard.

I could go on at length about this book. There's just so much to talk about! But you should just go read it immediately and see for yourself.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories From a South Africa Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)

You may know Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show, a job he took over from Jon Stewart in 2015. I hardly ever watch tv so I've only seen clips here and there. The reason I picked this book up, though, is because it's all about Noah's life growing up in South Africa in the waning days of apartheid. The title refers to the fact that his mother is black and his father is white, and that sort of racial mixing was illegal at the time. His status as "colored" - the South African term for a racially mixed person - had huge consequences for his childhood.

Noah talks a lot about race in this book, as you might expect. As a kid, his mother wouldn't hold his hand in public and if an authority figure was nearby, she'd pretend she didn't know him. Growing up, he had a tough time fitting in with any of the racial groups. He mentions the way apartheid was taught in South Africa and compares it how racism is taught in America, contrasting it with the way the Holocaust is taught in Germany: "Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it." In America, we learn about slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and that's it. I find that so strange and I'm glad he brings it up. I have to wonder what it is about our culture and South African culture that result in a similarly incomplete way of teaching history. He also discusses privilege in the context of making CDs and DJ-ing, which he was able to become successful at only when his white friend gave him a CD writer. You know the saying "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." Noah adds his own caveat to it, which is "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." Another really interesting thing he mentioned is that people in South Africa don't view the Holocaust the same way we do and aren't as familiar with Hitler as villain. Hitler is part of the white world with which they are unfamiliar, but the people of Africa have their own villains in the colonial powers that divided up the continent and exploited its people.

It's not all serious discussion about race. There are also funny stories, like the time as a kid when he burned down some white people's house, and the time he ended up in jail. It's not as funny as listening to him on The Daily Show, but memoirs by comedians are always less funny than their performances because it's not an act, it's real life. I really liked hearing about his everyday life and family. Despite his status as an outsider, and despite his family's poverty, he sounds like he was pretty happy. His life was the only life he knew and it wasn't really worse than anyone around him.

I should also mention that Noah's mom is pretty awesome. This book is as much about her as about him, I think (and in fact it's dedicated to her.) She's a smart, strong woman who never let her son feel like he was less than others because he was of two different races. She played by her own rules too, going wherever she liked and doing what she wanted, even if some of it was understood to be for white people. She prepared her son for the freedom from apartheid that they had no way of knowing would come so soon. She wanted him to know that the circumstances of their lives weren't all there is, that more was out there. Plus she taught him how to be respectful towards women, though she herself was unfortunately in a relationship with someone who did not treat her as she deserved.

At one point I got a little distracted by language, as he mentioned speaking a couple of different African languages, and ended up down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos in the Xhosa language. If you're curious, this one has a bit of Noah speaking Xhosa, which is very cool-sounding.

I knew almost nothing about South Africa before reading this book, and still need to learn more, but I really enjoyed hearing about what it was like to live there during this time, and his perspective on the world was refreshing and different from what I'm used to reading. I'm very glad I picked up this book.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Bleaker House

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens (2017)

When choosing where to go for her writing fellowship, Nell Stevens took the opposite tack as many of her peers. Rather than going to a European or Asian city bustling with activity, she picked a remote island in the Falklands where she would be the only inhabitant for most of the time she was there. Her goal was to focus on her novel with no distractions. Of course, what we got was this memoir about her experience so obviously the result of her time on Bleaker Island wasn't what she was aiming for.

Chapters about her time on the island alternate with experiences from her past and bits of her writing. Snippets of the novel she's working on were to be expected (and I might have been disappointed without a taste of the work around which her whole trip centered) but she also included some short stories, presumably also written while she was there though she doesn't really talk about working on projects other than her novel. I got the feeling these were included because she couldn't publish them elsewhere, or because she needed filler; after all, there wasn't much to write about on this lonely island. Still, I didn't dislike the stories (or novel snippets) and if she does eventually publish a fiction book I may well read it. I like her style.

Her trip was planned carefully and mostly went smoothly, except that she really screwed up with food. She had to carry all her food to the island with her and because of weight restrictions on the tiny plane, she had to measure and weigh everything ahead of time. After arriving in the Falklands she learns she could have arranged for supplies to be delivered to her while she was there, but this would have to have been set up far in advance. I can absolutely understand not having this bit of information ahead of time; if nobody told her, it probably wouldn't occur to her to ask. What I can't understand is why she thought it was adequate to allot herself just over 1000 calories per day. A simple Google search or, I don't know, asking a friend, could have easily disabused her of the idea that it was enough calories for anything but temporary survival. So she was hungry a lot, and as we know from learning about the importance of school lunch programs, it's very difficult to concentrate when you're hungry.

This is not the first trip Stevens has taken in service to her writing. She's a bit apologetic about it, but to me it seems like having a lot of experiences in different places is a good way to learn things about the world you wouldn't otherwise know, and would expand the breadth of writing fodder. At the same time, it's completely obvious from the outset that her novel became a memoir so when she writes about her epiphany - that what she really needs to be writing is not a novel but a memoir about herself - it is both a little too meta (writing a book about writing the book) but also, yeah, we know you ended up writing a memoir. There's no need to point it out as though it's a shocking plot twist. I am also reminded of the passage in her piece of fiction "Character Study" in which a student consider's her teacher's autobiographical book of poetry: "Her marriage was not as interesting as she seemed to think it was. Why did she imagine her life merited so much scrutiny, so much attention? It was an ordinary life." It's as though Stevens knows she doesn't quite have enough for a real memoir (hence all the pieces of fiction woven in) but she needed something to show for her time there, if not the novel she set out to write.

Yet, I enjoyed the book most of the time I was reading it. Sure it fell a bit flat at the end, and there weren't nearly as many penguins as I had hoped for based on the cover art, but I'm glad I read it. Although there wasn't much to talk about regarding her experiences on the island, I still quite enjoyed the parts about her trip and her stay there. I also think someone interested in the writing process might benefit from some of her insights regarding success and failure and the way she integrated her life experiences into fiction.

I'm also - as always - interested in other books in which people travel to cold, remote settings so if you have any suggestions please let me know in the comments!