Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)

You might remember a news story out of Maine a few years ago, when a man was arrested for theft and it was discovered that he had been living alone in the woods for 27 years. When he was only 20, Christopher Knight left the world behind without a word to his family and set up camp in a well-hidden area in the woods. He survived by stealing food and other supplies from local camps surrounding some nearby lakes, including a camp for disabled children and adults where he was eventually caught. The author corresponded with Knight and visited him in jail for interviews. This short book is the result of his research.

I think what most people most want to know about Christopher Knight is why he went into the woods. Knight can't really explain it himself, but it's clear that he is not a social person at all, and I can understand why someone might want to just check out from the modern world and go live alone in the woods. He seemed to recoil from a lot of the trappings of life in our society, and it's not hard to blame him when he talks about how unhappy people seem to be at their jobs, and the amount of useless crap they buy. When he left the world Knight was really alone, not Thoreau alone. When mention of the famous author comes up, Knight shows only disdain for the poseur. (What he says is true too - Thoreau talked the talk, but he didn't really walk the walk. He often dined at friends' houses, for instance, rather than staying home alone and cooking food he grew himself. I'm not a fan of Thoreau either.)

I was more interested in the how of Knight's life. Apparently some who heard his story thought he was lying; they didn't think it was possible. For instance, he didn't require any medical help for 27 years. He claims it's because he wasn't around people to get their germs and that may be true. Or maybe he was just lucky. He didn't do a lot of activity that put him in danger aside from the stealing he depended on to survive, and the only times he left his camp were when he needed to stock up on supplies.

As much as I was sympathetic to his desire to get away from it all, I did have a hard time with the theft. You've got to take care of yourself if you're able to, and maybe he should have done a bit more living off the land. He didn't even try to grow vegetables. I think this may have been because he was so ready to just pack up and leave if he was discovered, and maybe he didn't want to start a project that seemed even semi-permanent. Or maybe he just wasn't a good planner. Considering that he seemed to take to the woods impulsively, that could certainly be the case. It's hard to know.

Public perception of the "Maine hermit," as he was called, varied. The local deli Big G's (which you should absolutely visit if you're ever in Waterville, ME, because it's delicious) named a sandwich The Hermit after him. A Dutch artist made a whole series of paintings inspired by him. Of course all the locals talked about him, and I was surprised to hear how many of them weren't upset that he stole their stuff and wished he had been left alone. Others talked of their resentment at having to install security systems on their camps, and how the regular break-ins left them in fear for years. I was curious about his family's response to this whole thing, but for the most part they didn't want to talk to Finkel. Like Christopher Knight, they were all a bit stand-offish. They did admit they thought he was dead that whole time, so of course it was a shock to learn the truth.

Finkel didn't really get enough out of Knight for an entire book (Knight didn't actually do a lot to talk about), but he added some bits about hermits and solitude and whatnot that was actually quite interesting. Did you know that people who live in cities have chronically elevated levels of stress hormones? I didn't, but as someone who lives in a city, I'm not surprised. On the other hand, spending time in quiet, rural settings makes people calmer, less depressed, and improves their cognition and memory. Indeed, Knight reported spending a good deal of time just sitting in quiet meditation and daydreaming, and says he was never bored. However, solitude in the extreme leads to all sorts of bad effects, as we've learned from studies about solitary confinement.

I've been interested in Christopher Knight's story since it first broke, especially since I used to live in that area. But I'm also fascinated by stories of people who just give everything up and break with their life and do something completely different. This was a very quick read, but I found a lot here to think about. It would be a great choice for a book discussion group.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Top Ten Series I've Been Meaning to Start

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is series we haven't yet read but want to.

1. The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin

The first book, The Fifth Season, sounded so great when I first heard about it but I wanted to wait for the whole series to be out before starting it. Otherwise I run into that problem where a new book is released but I can't remember what happened in the last book. But I can't wait to finally read this apocalyptic story. N.K. Jemisin is one of very few black women who write science fiction and I hear she's really really good at it.

2. Cormoran Strike by Robert Galbraith

I love J.K. Rowling and I've heard great reviews of her mystery series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Her style is so friendly and humorous I'll read anything she writes. I've had Cuckoo's Calling on my radar since it came out, but somehow it just never seems quite the right time to start it.

3. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I'll be honest: part of the reason I've been wanting to read this series is because of the covers. The series of 4 books is both science fiction and fantasy with fairy tale elements - basically, it's everything. I've been trying to decide if I want to tackle it on audio. I hear it's great, but the books are pretty long and I do prefer shorter audiobooks. It's a conundrum.

4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

There was a lot of hype when this first came out, but I heard the series was consistently good from beginning to end. I put it off so all the books would be released and then by the time they all were, I had moved on. But every time I see it mentioned I think I should pick it up (someday!)

5. Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

I feel like everyone was reading this series at the same time as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The first book of this fantasy is Shadow and Bone, which I came really close to reading a couple of times but somehow still haven't.

6. Bill Hodges Trilogy by Stephen King

I've honestly never heard it called that - it's always the Mr. Mercedes series when people talk about it. At any rate, I can't keep up with Stephen King so here I am, having missed this entire mystery series.

These next three I've actually started by reading one book a long, long time ago and then not continuing.

7. The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Speaking of not being able to keep up with Stephen King! I read The Gunslinger back in high school and I think maybe it wasn't as much my sort of thing as King's other books so I didn't keep going. I had in my head that this was a long series, though I just looked it up and there are only 8 books. My vague plan for this series has been that someday Stephen King will die and I will feel very sad, and then I'll remember there's a whole long series of his that I haven't yet read.

8. MadAddam by Margaret Atwood

I read the first book, Oryx and Crake, when it first came out and always meant to get to the second. But, as often happens, I couldn't even remember the first one by then so I just stopped. I've actually been planning to read the whole thing in the next year or so.

9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Of course I've read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe multiples times. Who hasn't? But it's ridiculous that I never read any other book in the series.

I guess I only have nine. Or, if you count the two series I've read but really want to read again, eleven:

Jessica Darling by Megan McCafferty

For years I've suffered under the delusion that I only ever read the first book and I kept thinking I should finally get around to reading the rest of it. Then I was looking through the little notebook where I've been listing every book I've read since mid-2000 and saw that I've read the whole series. Anyhow, I went to my local bookstore and bought all three books with plans to reread the series sometime in the definite future.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I loved this series on audiobook! According to my aforementioned book-tracking notebook I read the whole thing a second time, which I didn't remember doing. But kind of. I think I read it in print that time. Anyhow, now that Pullman has announced another series related to that series I want to read it all again in preparation. I think I'll listen to the audio again because it was really wonderful.

Are there any series that you keep meaning to read but haven't? Share in the comments!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Freedom Summer Murders

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell (2014)

In the summer of 1964, three young men who were in Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer effort to register African-Americans to vote. While there, they were killed by the Ku Klux Klan, with the help of local police. This book, written for teens, introduces readers to the three young men, the terrible events of that summer day, and the long journey to try and bring those responsible to justice.

The book begins with an overview of conditions for blacks in the South in the 1960s, Mississippi's resistance of compliance with integration, and the rise of the KKK. Then the facts of the murders are recounted. The next three chapters focus on the lives of each victim: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The rest of the book recounts the efforts to find and punish the people responsible.

This book reads like a typical nonfiction book for young people. It's a horrifying story, and pretty shocking when you think about how recent it actually was, but it wasn't especially thrilling to read. Honestly, I just wanted to be reading a novel. But we picked this for my book group at work and I did actually want to learn about this dark event in our history.

While I was reading this book, the verdict in Philando Castile's murder was announced. Calling the verdict a miscarriage of justice is putting it really, really mildly and I think my rage was compounded by the fact that I was reading a book in which a cop helped murder civil rights workers because he was horribly racist. I mean, seriously, United States, will you ever learn? It's as though nothing has changed. Of course, today's killings of black men by police aren't intentional, they are "misunderstandings," and somehow that makes it totally fine for these killers to remain unaccountable.

All that to say that this book is still really relevant today, sadly. I'd be surprised if something this blatantly racist happened and the perpetrators got away with it (though maybe not in Mississippi, based on what I've heard) but we've still got a long, long way to go before we achieve racial equality. The author does a good job of relaying that as well, and putting this story in a larger context.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)

Beatrice Nash arrives at the small town of Rye in the summer of 1914, where she will be working as a Latin teacher. She is still getting over the recent death of her father, and her new independence - and conviction never to marry - are what has made her so determined to secure full-time employment. Her champion in securing this job is Agatha Kent, and Beatrice quickly befriends Agatha and her nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Over the summer, Beatrice tutors some youngsters, including a very intellectually promising Gypsy boy known as Snout. She also becomes closer with Hugh, though just as friends (obviously!) as he is sort of engaged to the daughter of his mentor. But as the months go on, war looms ever closer and the pleasant summer must come to an end.

The first effects of the war on the town of Rye are felt with the arrival of refugees from Belgium. Everyone is behind the war effort and wants to look patriotic, and many offer to take in refugees. But they want children, and many are disappointed that refugees often are entire families, which goes to show just how much of this generosity is genuine. This is symptomatic of the small-minded people in this town, who are constantly insinuating, manipulating others, and trying to keep in company of those who have secure, respectful positions in society.

Beatrice is far too practical for all of this, and we get to see over and over the way she bucks society's views of what is appropriate. She takes in a refugee, and then defends her when she is suddenly looked upon less favorably. She also supports young Snout for a scholarship, although he is viewed as an inappropriate candidate - despite his intelligence and interest in academia - simply because of his Romani background. Beatrice is also continually frustrated at the way men make decisions for women, and are completely allowed to do so. For a single woman like herself, this is especially difficult and even dangerous. I really loved Beatrice, for her intelligence, sense of justice, practical mind, and boundless compassion.

After last fall's U.S. presidential election I put up a display in the library about kindness and compassion, which had seemed in short supply for the entire interminable campaign season. This book was recommended to me as a candidate for that display, and now I can see why. Beatrice was welcomed to Rye so kindly by Agatha and her family, and then several of them took in refugees out of a genuine sense of compassion for those fleeing war. Agatha maintained a friendly relationship with Snout's Gypsy grandmother, despite the fact that she was ostracized by a large portion of the town. Many of the characters put their personal interests aside to take care of each other when needed, and became distraught when they were unable to successfully champion another's interest. A man leaving to go to war asked Beatrice to write to him, clearly insinuating feelings she didn't reciprocate, but although she was taken aback at his assumption, she softened when thinking about the dangers he faced and relented to write him some friendly words from home. It was all wonderfully heartwarming without being over sentimental or trite.

The story progressed at a rather slow pace - and it was long so it took me over a week to read - but I didn't mind at all because I so enjoyed spending time with these characters. I honestly don't know why it took me so long to get to this book, because I loved Simonson's last book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. But I can thank my Personal Reading Challenge for finally pushing me to read it.

Monday, June 12, 2017

If I Was Your Girl

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (2016), narrated by Samia Mounts

Amanda Hardy has just moved in with her dad in Lambertville, Tennesse. She is hoping to start over after being badly beaten by some kids at her whole school. Just a few years ago Amanda was known as Andrew, but now that she is finally living as her true self she needs to be free of her past and away from people who know what she's been through and don't understand her. In her new school, Amanda quickly makes friends and catches the eye of a boy named Grant who she soon starts dating. But no matter how many times her trans mentor, Virginia, tells her that she doesn't owe anyone the truth of her past, Amanda can't help feeling like she can't keep her secret forever.

I listened to most of this book while driving back from Maine last weekend, so I wasn't able to take notes to remind myself about details. But I got so wrapped up in this story, and really felt for Amanda. Aside from the narrow-minded people who made her life miserable because she was trans, the characters were very realistic and flawed and less simple than they may seem on the surface. One of Amanda's friends was a fundamentalist Christian (or at least her family was), but she wasn't especially bigoted. Another friend was bisexual (or maybe pansexual?) and an obvious ally, but maybe not as much of an ally as Amanda thinks. Amanda's parents, too, were pretty sympathetic figures. Her father had especially struggled to understand what it means to be Amanda, but despite this he still loved her and defended her. One of my favorite passages in the book was when Amanda catches her mother crying over photos of her as a child - back when she was known as Andrew - and her mother talks to her about how kids are always changing into someone new. She cried over infant photos when Amanda was a toddler, and toddler photos when she was older. This was a surprise to Amanda who assumed her mother was crying because she wasn't Andrew anymore, and in a way it was, but not the way that Amanda expected.

Her relationship with Grant had me worried throughout much of the book. Her secret was totally hanging over her the whole time, which is completely understandable, and she didn't know if she could trust him. In many ways he was a typical small-town guy, but there was something she knew about him that made her think maybe she could count on him to try and be understanding. When everything finally came out (because of course it did, and in a painful way) the reaction from people around her was both upsetting and heartening. In short, it was complicated. But ultimately I felt quite satisfied with the resolution and with (most of) Amanda's friends. She definitely had some true friends in Lambertville, even though she hadn't been living there very long.

This was the second teen book in a row that I listened to which took place in a rural area, and that made me quite happy. Being trans in the rural South is probably not easy, but the thing about small towns is that there aren't a ton of people there so when you become someone's friend it's really worth it to remain their friend, even when they turn out to be different than you thought. You're going to just keep seeing the same people all the time and it's really in your interest to get along with them as much as possible. In a city, it's easy to discard friends and not care about strangers but in a rural area there aren't any strangers.

I was very happy to earn that the author is trans herself. At the end of the book, she includes some notes about why the wrote the story the way she did, pointing out that it was very different from her own life. She admits that many aspects of the book were perhaps unrealistic for many trans people, but she wanted to make the story as relatable as possible to as many people as possible. Some of the reviewers on Goodreads take issue with this, and with the fact they don't think she confronts enough issues in the book.  I respect their opinions but also think there is real value in creating a character and story that can be sort of a gateway book for people who aren't as open to the trans experience. Not to mention, a book about a trans character that contains more positive experiences than negative ones is a great (and necessary!) way to show that being trans is normal, and we really really need that, especially for teens. I really enjoyed the story a lot and would be totally happy if Meredith Russo wrote a follow-up about Amanda's experiences in college. (Hint hint.)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ramona Blue

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy (2017), narrated by Therese Plummer

In the small town of Eulogy, Mississippi Ramona stood out in many ways: a lesbian with blue hair who stood at more than six feet tall, she ....confident that she needed to take care of her pregnant sister, Hattie, and that she was outgoing the crowded trailer where the girls lived with their father and, now, Hattie's boyfriend. Yet this was her life and always would be. College is out of the picture with the coming responsibility of her new niece or nephew. When her childhood friend Freddie returns, they're both happy to leap back into their friendship. But soon it turns into something more, and Ramona begins questioning a lot that she has always taken for granted.

First of all, I'm so glad to see a new teen book set in a small town in the South. Teen books set in rural areas was on my recent reading wishlist. Thank you, Julie Murphy, for making my reading wishes come true! (And stay tuned for my next audiobook review, which is ALSO a teen book set in a rural area!) Murphy really captured the feeling of living in a small town where you know everyone and kind of feel like you're outgrowing everything, and for Ramona this was especially complicated because of her sister's pregnancy. Hattie's relationships tended to be brief so Ramona had no illusions the father would remain in the picture. And the family had almost nothing - they lost everything in hurricane Katrina when Ramona was five and it took them a long time to get back in a stable place. Ramona has a couple of jobs so she can contribute to the family income, and with a baby on the way, finances are even more strained. It's not hard to see why she thinks college is out of the question.

When the story opens, Ramona is trying to navigate a long-distance relationship with Grace, who came to Eulogy for the summer and is now back at home. Also back at home? Her boyfriend, who she has not broken up with as promised. Ramona is angry at Grace's unwillingness to come out, but Grace clarifies to Ramona, during one of my favorite conversations between the two, that she's still trying to figure things out, saying "that doesn't mean I'm hiding, it means I'm learning." Freddie was having his own trouble with a long-distance relationship he was struggling to keep alive, though it hardly seemed worth fighting for. After admitting defeat, he says to Ramona, "It's sad that sometimes we let ourselves believe that if it's not bad, it must be good."

Ramona and her friends were so much fun to hang out with, and were such great people. Her friends Ruth and Saul were brother and sister, both gay, and they all stood by each other. Hattie was super nice and she and Ramona were pretty devoted to each other despite their many differences. Oh, and they played MASH! There was a good amount of MASH in this book, which I also played a ton of growing up and had totally forgotten about. I also really appreciated that Ramona is one of the few female characters who is allowed to be interested in sex (which I think I've complained about a lot, but, man, it really annoys me!) Ramona says, "I think about sex. Girls think about sex. Sometimes a lot. I hate this idea that boys are thinking about sex nonstop and girls are thinking about, what? Stationary and garden gnomes? No."

Which is not to say, of course, that Ramona is as incredibly clear about everything as she would like to be. When she and Freddie start getting romantic, she is surprised but likes him so much she isn't about to steer clear because she has worn the lesbian label for so long. But she doesn't want to her mother to know. Her mother has for years been telling Ramona that liking girls is just a phase, and as much as Ramona doesn't want to care about what her mother thinks, neither does she want her mother to have the satisfaction of thinking she was right all this time.

The narration was great! I'm honestly not a good judge of whether Therese Plummer's southern accent was real, or sounded genuine, but I do know that I really enjoyed hearing her read this book to me.

Anyone who likes teen books should check this one out, and go back and read Murphy's last book, Dumplin', while you're at it!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

10 Books I've Added To My TBR List Recently

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is 10 Books From X Genre That I've Recently Added To My TBR List, but I've only recently started adding books to my TBR again and in a very limited fashion so I don't have 10 in one genre. There's a lot of crossover with last week's list of anticipated books for the second half of the year, but there are a few I wasn't able to fit on that list, and some that I've heard about since then. I've been putting a few things on my Goodreads To Read list, but more often I've just been requesting them from the library and hoping they don't all come at once.

So, here's 10 books I've added to my TBR (and/or library holds list) recently:

1. The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen by Victoria Alexander
Lady travelers? Scoundrels? SIGN ME UP.

2. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
A coworker posted some snippets of poetry from this book and I couldn't resist requesting it through the library right away. This book is a couple of years old but has had a sudden surge in popularity and I'm not sure why.

3. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
A forthcoming book about the ways in which female celebrities are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be acceptable.

4. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby
I can't resist the title or cover.

5. Touch by Courtney Maum
This was the one I tagged on at the end of last week's post because I couldn't believe I had forgotten it. A novel about a trend forecaster who sees a shift away from electronics to in-person contact, this sounds super intriguing to me.

6. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
A few years ago there was a big news story about a hermit being arrested for theft after living alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, and this book is based on correspondence and visits with the subject, Christopher Knight.

These others I talked about more on last week's list:

7. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

8. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

9. Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

10. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

I'm already worried that my TBR is getting out of hand again.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Awakening

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

In this classic novel by Kate Chopin, we are introduced to Edna Pontellier, a young woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage who suddenly realizes her true potential for happiness, though it may be out of her reach. The Pontelliers are vacationing in Grand Isle, Louisiana when Edna meets and befriends Robert, a single man in her social circle. They spend a great deal of time together and she hopes to continue their friendship when they return to town, but he, realizing his feelings for her are far beyond friendship, leaves for Mexico. Deeply upset, Edna tries to carry on and ends up befriending another man. Though the feelings are stronger on his side than hers, she pursues him until Robert returns to town unexpectedly. During this time she also moves out of her house, realizing how much happier she is when she does as she pleases.

I liked the general theme of this novel, which I know is heralded as a feminist classic. The prose was quite beautiful in parts, too. I especially enjoyed this passage, which comes at a pivotal point:

"There were strange, rare odors abroad- a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near. But the night sat lightly upon the sea and land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and softness of sleep."

Isn't that lovely?

However, I was never very drawn to the characters, nor did I feel like I knew them well. Even Edna remained a mystery as I felt I only knew part of what was going on with her. She didn't expound on her feelings about her husband or why she married him. Chopin only really scratches the surface of the inner life of her characters.

Since this is a classic I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that it ends tragically, and I don't know that it was necessary. Why couldn't Edna realize the sort of life she envisioned for herself? She had already begun. She stopped waiting around the house on Tuesdays, her day to be called upon by her friends, and she moved into another place and made it her own. There were few consequences to these actions so I don't quite know what was stopping her from continuing on this way. Had something dramatic happened to pull her back into society, or had her husband forced her back, I would have been more convinced.

I had been quite looking forward to reading what I expected to be a feminist novel, but I'm afraid it fell a bit flat for me. If you have other early feminist classics to recommend, let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May wrap-up and plans for June

I really like when other bloggers do a monthly wrap-up, and now that I use a bullet journal I tend to assess my life on a monthly basis so it seemed like a good time to give this a try! It makes me feel more organized and this also creates an opportunity to share a little about my non-reading life. Not that my life is super interesting but I do really enjoy getting to know other bloggers this way, so why not? Tell me what you think of this idea!


I'm tempted to count up the number of books I read each month, but I'm going to try and resist that because this is not a content. However, there are certain categories I want to be sure I stay on top of, so I've been keeping track in my bullet journal. Those categories are my Personal Reading Challenge list, Classic Book a Month Club, romance, and nonfiction. I hit them all this month.

Reading Challenge list: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, The Awakening by Kate Chopin (post forthcoming)
CBAM: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Romance: Anything For You by Kristan Higgins
Nonfic: Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder (in progress, also on my Reading Challenge list)

I read a good variety of books this month, from the literary American War by Omar El Akkad to the chick lit-ish (and way more enjoyable) Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I also really enjoyed my re-read, on audio, of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


I don't know if this will end up being a monthly category because I tend to listen to the same music and podcasts all the time and don't see a lot of live music, BUT this month I saw Metallica in concert and that was extremely exciting! These guys know how to put on a good show.


I'm sorry, but this meme cracked me up. And also made
me want to cry.
Handmaid's Tale
Are you watching this on hulu? I am kind of obsessed. There was a point this month that I was watching this show, reading American War, and listening to HP and the Deathly Hallows and I was confused about which dystopia I was in at any given time. (Plus, the news. Also rather dystopian.)

Also watching a bit of Miss Fisher's Mysteries and Call the Midwife.

Arrabal at the American Repertory Theater
Eric and I had season tickets this year and this was the final show. It was a tango show set in Argentina. I'm not a huge fan of dancing without singing, but this was the only show of that sort I've seen that wasn't ballet and it was definitely better than any ballet I've seen. The music was great - I could have listened to that band play all day.


I am trying to get back to my knitting, which I've done very little of for the past several months because of my ongoing wrist pain. I came to a point in my East Neuk Hoodie where I realized that I kind of screwed up back on the pocket and I'm going to need to rip back and redo it. There's just no getting around it. I'm also working on a pair of socks that I just realized I haven't posted about at all. I'm on the gusset decrease of the first sock.


Picture from this month: on rare warm day, Petri
decides the fan isn't terrifying after all.
I've been hosting meetings with friends interested in becoming politically active, focusing on making some big changes in the 2018 mid-term elections. It's called Pizza and Politics (though I'm taking suggestions for better names!) and this month we got together and wrote letters to our senators and representatives. We live in Massachusetts so our elected officials tend to be doing what we want them to, but it's nice to write thank you notes so they know their actions and words are appreciated.

Work has been a bit nuts, especially because we just lost our really awesome teen librarian and had to hire another one. She's starting next week and she will be awesome, but it's been tough for the department to be down a person. I also presented at a conference last week, which meant I was prepping while all this (and lots of other stuff) has been going on.

We've had a lot of work done on our house since January (the bathroom and three other rooms) and then just finally finished. This coincides nicely with my burgeoning hygge obsession, so I've been carefully choosing items for the latest finished room to maximize coziness. I don't generally jump on trends, but with this I feel like I finally have a name for something I've always liked but didn't know how to make happen.

I have a membership at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I went to check out a number of exhibits this month including one on Matisse and another of photography from the Lodz ghetto in Poland during World War II.

For the past year or so I've been running a bit off and on, and it's been mostly off recently. I did manage to go a few times this month though.

The major thing I've had going on in the past couple of months is a painful, recurrent eye infection that started in early March. I had a dozen or so visits to the (adorable and super nice) eye doctor, took a whole bunch of sick days from work, tried several medications, and spent a lot of time sitting in dark rooms with my eyes closed listening to audiobooks. I *just* got a clean bill of health a couple of weeks ago and then was almost immediately diagnosed with a weird version of strep throat. This was all complicated by the fact that I'm allergic to most antibiotics. I took a sick day last August that was my first sick day in 2.5 years, so I guess I was just due. Or maybe I'm getting old and falling apart

Wow, this all makes me feel way more busy and productive than I thought, especially considering that I was sick a lot!

Plans for June

I'm heading to Maine this Saturday because my oldest sister is having a numerically significant birthday. Her birthday is two days after mine, and since mine falls on a Saturday this year her party just happens to be on my birthday. It's going to be a fun weekend!

The following Saturday we're having a Geek Con at work, which is sorta a small-scale Comic Con. A couple of years ago we had this amazing Doctor Who Day, and we're just expanding the theme a bit. We'll be showing episodes of various shows, having some video gaming, trivia, and a costume contest.

Work is generally stressful and crazy right now with lots of staff coming and going, and I'm also on the working group for our upcoming renovation project. I really just want things to calm down a bit so I can do some collection development projects and spend quality time with coworkers, making plans in less of a frenzy.

I've just agreed to be on a book award committee, which is rather exciting. I only have to read 3-4 books and they should arrived in mid to late June. Of course that's around the time we'll be reading books for our Community Read committee also, so I'm going to have lots of assigned reading!

That's my life in a nutshell right now! What's going on with you?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Top 10 Most Anticipated Books for the Second Half of 2017

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're talking about upcoming books, which is one of my favorite types of list! I don't pay as much attention to upcoming books as I used to just because I get so overwhelmed at what's out there, but I'm actually doing a library program in August about fall books so I do need to do some research. There are a lot of lists of books coming out this summer, but not much for fall yet (I'm pretty sure there's a Booklist fall issue at work, but I haven't looked at it yet.)

My list is a mix of books published in the second half of 2017 and books that are already out but I'm hoping to read in the second half of the year. Let's take a look!

1. The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (June 27)
I think it was last fall that another librarian (and former coworker) read a galley and told me how amazing it is. I'm on hold at the library. Bonus: the author is also a bookseller at my favorite local bookstore

2. The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (October 19)
I don't even know if it's called that - Pullman is writing a trilogy by that title and the first book is due out in October. It's a companion trilogy to His Dark Materials and I cannot wait! I think I might re-listen to His Dark Materials before then in preparation. It's amazing on audio.

3. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (August 1)
A 40-something divorcee gets an anonymous text message saying "U R my MILF!" and she becomes obsessed with it, breaking out of her bland life to explore her new interest in the sexual exploits of women her age. Meanwhile her chauvinistic frat-boy son finds that college isn't what he expected. Honestly I don't even care what this book is about because NEW TOM PERROTTA NOVEL!

4. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (August 22)
Kirkus says "it is the most immaculate takedown of slut-shaming in literature or anywhere else." Sign me up! It sounds like it's inspired by Monica Lewinsky (and have you watched her TED talk? You should!) and Gabrielle Zevin is such a great writer I don't know why I haven't read more of her books.

5. Bonfire by Krysten Ritter (November 7)
I think this is a crime/thriller which I'm not super into these days, but I loved Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones and she's really fun to follow on Instagram (she knits!) so I'm pretty interested in this!

6. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (May, out now)
This is super popular and I've heard lots of great things about it. I just read and enjoyed a book about physics by another author and have been wanting to read something by Tyson for a while.

7. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (May, out now)
Part true-crime, part memoir, in which the author's staunch anti-death penalty views are challenged. Interested because I'm also strongly opposed to the death penalty so I'm very interested to see if my own views waiver. I also haven't read any true crime in a while although I find it fascinating.

8. Made for Love by Alissa Nutting (July 4)
A woman leaves her marriage and moves in with her dad and his sex doll in a trailer park. The life she escaped was one controlled by her husband and the company he founded ("Gogol Industries") and came to a head when he wanted to wirelessly connect them through brain chips in the first "mind meld." I hope this book is just as daring as Tampa.

9. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore (September 19)
A new Kristin Cashore novel is always cause for excitement (though I still haven't read Bitterblue). This one sounds like a departure from the world of Graceling. A young woman is raised by her aunt Magnolia who is then lost on an Antarctic expedition. Jane then embarks on her own adventure, and I imagine she maybe learns about what happens to her aunt? I don't know, but this description had me at "Antarctic expedition."

10. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (August 1)
I don't usually hop on debut novels, but this one is about Lizzie Borden and the events surrounding her notoriety, and has a fantastic cover. Yes, please!

Oh my gosh, once I got going it was difficult to narrow down the list! There are so many more books coming out that I'm interested in, but as of right now these are the ones that intrigue me the most. (Oh shoot - I just found a note reminding me about Touch by Courtney Maum, so I'm just going to squeeze that one in real quick!)

This summer I have to read books for our community read and also for a book award committee I just agreed to be on, but hopefully I'll have time to read some of these too so I don't have to wait until fall.

What are you looking forward to reading in the second half of the year?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany (2016)

Twenty years after the Battle of Hogwarts, in which Voldemort is finally permanently defeated, Harry works at the Ministry of Magic and has three children with his wife, Ginny. Their youngest, Albus, is just heading to Hogwarts and worries that he'll end up in Slytherin. Well, he does, and he befriends housemate Scorpius Malfoy - son of Draco - much to his father's chagrin. But despite what Harry wants to believe, it is Albus who is the bad influence in this pair. When he overhears elderly Amos Diggory lamenting the long-ago death of his son Cedric in the Triwizard Tournament, Albus decides to get hold of a Time-Turner and go back and prevent Cedric's death. As you might expect in any story involving going back in time to change things, nothing goes as planned and everyone is in terrible danger.

Unlike all of the Harry Potter novels, this new installment is actually a play. It's not even written by J.K. Rowling, though it's based on a story she came up with. I don't know if it was originally intended to be released in print - the show opened in London in 2016 and will be finally coming to the US in 2018 - or it was public demand that drove the decision, but either way it was super popular when it was first released. I had no intention of reading it, since I don't like reading plays. But then I read Raisin in the Sun and realized that plays can be just as wonderful as novels so I immediately grabbed a copy from the library.

It felt new and familiar at the same time. We met the main characters as adults at the end of Deathly Hallows, which I found odd at the time but which ultimately helped to provide a smooth transition into the time period of the play. It was quite fun to see how their lives turned out, and - once Albus started mucking with the Time-Turner - how they could have turned out. There is more to the story, too. There is some connection to Voldemort that causes Harry's scar to hurt for the first time since Voldemort was defeated, and it turns out there's a person who is connected to him on the scene now. This adds lots of tension and danger to the story, and the whole plot was intensely satisfying.

Harry's relationship with Albus is strained. His other kids were sorted into Gryffindor as expected, and are everything he wants in kids. But Albus is different and Harry is a total jerk to him for it. He's not a bad kid! Slytherins don't have to be bad! But Harry is just as stupid as he always was and refuses to see it. Albus can also be somewhat of a bonehead, so the two aren't actually as different as they think. Scorpius, on the other hand, is actually a lot like Hermione. He's smart, curious, and an all-around good kid, but is plagued by dark rumors that he was actually Voldemort's son. Poor kid doesn't deserve it. I really liked him a lot!

I'm very glad that I read this so soon after finishing the series on audio so I remembered a lot of the past events and characters that were referred to. It was a quick read since it was a play and didn't involve all the description of a novel, but although there were fewer words it still felt complete. It was very enjoyable!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Maybe in Another Life

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2015)

Hannah has never really felt settled. Now at 29 she moves back to Los Angeles, the city where she grew up. Her family relocated to London when Hannah was in high school, and Hannah moved in with her best friend Gabby's family. Gabby and her family are still there, so it feels a lot like going home. Also in LA? Hannah's ex-boyfriend Ethan. Shortly after moving back, Hannah and Gabby go out to a party where they run into Ethan. At the end of the evening when Gabby is ready to leave, Ethan offers to give Hannah a ride if she stays. Here, it branches off into two parallel stories. Based on this one decision, Hannah's life goes in very different directions.

Since this happens early on, I don't think it's a spoiler to say that what really makes the stories go in different directions is that in one of them she gets into a bad accident. This affects a number of major life situations. As the stories began going in their different directions I kept speculating on whether one of them would be better than the other. I didn't think Reid would do something like make one of the stories result in a real obvious downward spiral for Hannah or anything like that. I did wonder if she'd end up with a different guy in each story or if they would each bring her to the same end on that front.

Hannah talked a lot about things like fate, destiny, what is meant to be, what is supposed to happen, etc. I sort of remember these themes from other Reid books as well, but it was extremely prevalent here. It got a little irritating, mostly because I think those ideas are hogwash and I sort of wanted to slap Hannah when she got going on this topic. It's like saying that your choices don't matter and that regardless of what you do you'll end up where you're supposed to, which is a pretty good excuse why she didn't really have her life together.

When all was said and done, I was pretty satisfied with how these stories went. It's so interesting to think about the effects of even our most minor decisions. I mean, don't think about it very much, because it will drive you bananas and you will be forevermore too paralyzed to make *any* decisions (Which is, of course, a decision in itself. See? You can't win.) I like the idea that there are many different ways that each of us could live and be happy and satisfied, which makes these potentially-catastrophic minor decisions less so.

Both stories contained some very fun elements. There was a whole thing about how much Hannah loves cinnamon rolls, which has really made me want a cinnamon roll. But even better was Hannah's friendship with Gabby, which remained super strong through both storylines. Gabby is going through her own stuff, so even when Hannah has a lot to deal with (and she does, in both versions of her story), they are both really strongly there for each other. Gabby's parents are great too, sort of standing in as Hannah's surrogate parents as they've done for a lot of her life. Hannah's family situation was so odd too. I mean, her family was fine, but obviously they weren't there for her since they lived so far away. It seemed hard to believe that when they relocated Hannah was able to convince them to let her stay in the US, but then again, some families send their kids pretty far away to boarding school so I guess it's not so different.

All in all, I enjoyed reading it, but it's probably my least favorite of her books so far. The other two I listened to on audio and I wonder if that has anything to do with it. I specifically wanted to read this in print because I knew it went back and forth between two parallel stories and thought it would be too confusing on audio, and I do think it would have been. I also read it in just a couple of days, whereas an audiobook takes me a week or two to complete. Sometimes I wonder if I get more out of a book if I spent more time with it. At any rate, it was still quite good and Reid remains one of my new favorites. I'm looking forward to reading Forever, Interrupted, the only one of her books I haven't yet read.

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.