Friday, March 31, 2017

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005), narrated by Jim Dale

Due to a painful and lingering eye infection, I've had to greatly reduce my reading time (and screen time and work) recently, and a side effect of that is that I just listened to a 19-hour audiobook in just a week. This really was the perfect time to take on the 6th book in the Harry Potter series!

Notable in this volume is a whole lot of back story about the young Voldemort, and it's the book in which we first learn about horcruxes. Persisting throughout the book is Harry's obsession with Draco Malfoy who he thinks is now a Death Eater, but nobody else will believe him. So he goes to great lengths to spy on Draco, even at the expense of very important things such as tasks assigned him by Dumbledore. Snape is now teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, and has been replaced in Potions by the new Professor Slughorn. Harry ends up using an old Advanced Potions textbooks that used to belong to someone who called himself the Half-Blood Prince, and it's full of helpful notes that assist Harry in acing the class. Harry is also becoming attracted to Ginny Weasley in this book, and there's lots of tensions between Ron and Hermione that also appear symptomatic of a growing attraction between them.

The romantic bits are kind of fun, as are subplots like their Apparition class, but this part of the story also comes with some pretty heavy serious stuff. A couple of students barely escape death, including one of our main characters, and there's a very significant and sad death late in the book. So it's fairly dark, but story-wise it's clearly building up to the final volume and I'm a little antsy to forge ahead soon because the anticipation is a bit too much, even though I've read all these books before and know how they end.

You know, I always think that I don't like fantasy. I don't know why that is because I really love this series and I love His Dark Materials and I loved The Mists of Avalon, and I can't actually think of a fantasy book I've read that I didn't like. I wonder why I continue to hold this prejudice? More importantly, what fantasy should I read next?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

Shockingly, I have finished a 500-page biography about Shirley Jackson. Biography is a category on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge because in theory I'd like to know more about the lives of famous and important people. I've read a few biographies in the past that I really liked, such as The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll and Personal History by Katherine Graham, and a couple about Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe, and I think that is the sum total of biographies that I've read in my life. I liked all of those but somehow I still find biographies too daunting to read. I heard about this Shirley Jackson biography when it came out in the fall and was intrigued, because I loved both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but didn't actually think I'd read it until I impulsively picked it up one day.

As it turns out, even at 500 pages this wasn't difficult. I found Franklin's style totally accessible and enjoyed reading about Jackson's life and career. The chapters coordinated with time periods, in most cases the period of writing and publication of a book. Sometimes there was brief discussion of something that hadn't happened yet chronologically, and that was confusing because I had a hard time keeping the timeline straight. But that's my only criticism. Some Goodreads readers didn't like the amount of information they saw as peripheral to her life, such as family history covered at the beginning as it related to architecture in California, but I actually found that all pretty interesting and it did come up later so it made sense to me. Perhaps there was a bit too much discussion of Jackson's husband's work for my taste, but that might be because I didn't really understand it. Had his research been on a topic that I was more interested in, I definitely would have liked reading about it. But most of this peripheral information provided a context that I enjoyed because I had a better understanding of this particular era.

Jackson's relationship with her husband, Stanley Hyman, was fascinating but sad. They seemed perfect for each other in many ways, but Hyman was a chronic womanizer who remained more interested in his classes (and his young female students) than his family. They had four children together and Jackson identified both as a housewife and a writer. Her emotional struggles were partly, though I imagine not entirely, due to her husband's infidelity and although she considered leaving him, she never did. Franklin was able to gather a lot about Jackson's thoughts and feelings as she was a regular letter-writer throughout her life which are a trove of information.

Because of the time period (roughly 1930s-1960s) I was very interested in some of the social issues of the time. For instance, Stanley Hyman was Jewish and the couple faced a great deal of opposition to their marriage. They were pretty socially progressive for their time, closely befriend the African-American writer Ralph Ellison, and they also counted a couple of gay men among their friends. There's speculation that the character Theodora from The Haunting of Hill House is a lesbian, and that is pretty much confirmed here, Franklin revealing that Theodora was written as a lesbian in an early draft of the novel. Interestingly, Jackson wrote several lesbian characters but also found the idea of lesbianism a bit horrifying. Franklin points out that this was typical of people in her era and class, but I found it an interesting and confusing dichotomy.

There's so much more I'd love to talk about, but this is getting long and I've had to greatly reduce my screen time this week because of an eye issue. So I'll just wrap up by saying how glad I am that I took the plunge into this somewhat lengthy but fascinating book about an author I just haven't read enough of. I want to read more of her short stories and her novel The Sundial. If you're interested in Shirley Jackson, or just enjoy a good biography, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Breathless

Breathless by Beverly Jenkins (2017), narrated by Kim Staunton

At the end of the Beverly Jenkins novel Forbidden, Eddy's little nieces came to live with her and Rhine. Now the girls are grown up and the older one, Portia, is the heroine of this new installment of the Old West series.

The family now lives in Arizona Territory and Portia manages the hotel they own. Although some local men try to romance her, Portia's experience as the daughter of a whore makes her shy away from involvement with men. As much as her little sister Regan hopes for a fairytale romance, Portia is completely uninterested. But then an old family friend returns after a stint in a Mexican prison, and signs on to manage a local ranch, and the two can't deny their attraction.

As far as romances go, there was little keeping these two apart. Portia was resistant at first, of course, but she is happy to befriend Kent, who she hasn't seen since she was quite young. He's obviously trustworthy and kind and cares about her, so it doesn't take much to kindle the sparks between them. This is unusual for a romance, but honestly I'm happy to do without the self-generated angst that the characters need to overcome. Theirs was just a nice story about two people who really deserve each other getting together.

So what is there to keep interest in this story, if not the tension between potential romantic partners? A lot, as it turns out. This is the old west, and there are threats from every direction. When the elderly neighbor died, Rhine bought his ranch and put Kent in charge of it. One of the guys who had been working there was very unhappy about this and did some very bad things. Everyone wanted to form a posse to go after him, but these plans were complicated because Geronimo was on the loose and all the local law enforcement was being used in his search. Meanwhile, some city folk came to stay and witnessed the very bad things that happened, and there was a bit of a brouhaha about that (plus these people were just extremely difficult.) And, Kent's dad decided to try and fix him up with someone who is not Portia. So there's a whole lot going on here that kept me going!

What I like most about these books, I think, are just experiencing this particular time and place. I don't read westerns, but stick in some strong women having romances and I'm more than happy to read about this unfamiliar setting. (See also: Texas Destiny) I'm also learning a lot about the lives of African-Americans in American history, which we just don't get nearly enough of. We learn about slavery, but not what it's like for former slaves and their families just trying to live afterward. In fact, the next story we usually get in black history is the civil rights movement in the 60s. It's nice to get some insight into the lives of black people outside of these two specific eras.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was read by Kim Staunton, also the narrator of Forbidden. Again she did a nice job. During this book, she unfortunately did a couple of non-American accents and that did not go well, but those were short passages that only happened a couple of times. I like her narration enough to listen to her read the next one in the series as well.

Just after finishing this I listened to an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books in which Jenkins was interviewed about her next book. Portia's little sister Regan will start and I am so excited because she is going to Wyoming as a mail-order bride and that is exactly the sort of setup that I love. Can't wait!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

Lily Bart is accustomed to a lavish lifestyle among the highest of New York society. Maintaining it will require a good marriage though, and she is already in her late 20s and getting desperate. It's clear that she is depending very much on others to maintain her place in society and her attempts to secure that place permanently are what contribute to her downfall.

Lily is clearly attracted to Lawrence Selden, and he to her, but he is not rich enough to keep her in the lifestyle which she insists is necessary. So she looks elsewhere for marriage prospects, pursuing Percy Gryce and then Simon Rosedale, neither of whom she actually likes and both of whom she fails to secure. In an attempt to invest what money she has, she seeks help from Gus Trenor, which turns out to be a huge mistake.

Gerty Farish was Lily's most stalwart friend, though ironically everything Lily did was to ensure that she didn't end up like Gerty, who was unmarried and lived alone in a small, modest flat and was excluded from fashionable social circles. I actually really liked Gerty who was probably the most genuine person in the book - being excluded from society means not being beholden to its requirements.

If Lily has a nemesis, it is surely Bertha Dorset, who contributes mightily to Lily's downfall. Bertha is notoriously unfaithful to her husband but deflects attention by spreading rumors and gossip about other people. She uses those around her for personal gain, manipulating them to serve her purposes. Lily comes into some evidence of one of Bertha's affairs and could have used it against her to help secure her place back in society, but in doing so would have also implicated Selden. As much as Lily could have been seen as being shallow and self-serving, she was definitely true to Selden.

I have no idea if high-falutin' New York society was actually anything like this during the Gilded Age, but if so I'm extremely glad I was not a part of it. Navigating one's life required the most intricate military precision, and I don't care how shallow and ridiculous you think these women were, they had to be smart and strategic in a way that I would completely fail at. I would have been eaten alive. At one point Lily laments: "All Jack has to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet and let that girl marry him; whereas I have to calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if I were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw me hopelessly out of time." The language throughout the book reflected this strategic approach; for instance, when Lily doubts that Bertha Dorset's behavior towards a man will be sufficient to "effect his capture."

I've read three other books by Wharton and I don't recall the writing being so dense, but this took me a full week to read, which is unusual for me. I really enjoyed it until late in the story, and I'm trying not to let the ending color my impression of the whole thing. It did at first, but thinking back on it all to write this post has actually made me feel a bit better about the book as a whole. (It's a totally legit way to end, but just wasn't what I wanted to happen.) The social commentary was excellent and it was absolutely worth reading it just for that.

The House of Mirth was the March selection for the Classic Book a Month Club, and the first that I read for the year. I'll also be participating next month by reading Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which has been on my To Read list since I first had one, and which I managed to not read during my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. This will finally be the year, folks!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the top 10 books I'm hoping to read this spring.

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This teen book inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement has been getting a ton of buzz. It just came out and I'm on hold for it at the library and hopefully will get it soon. I've heard so many great things about it!

2. The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
I don't even remember where I heard about this, but I immediately put it on hold at the library. It's about three astronauts preparing for a journey to Mars, and one review calls it Station Eleven meets The Martian. Sign me up!

3. American War by Omar El Akkad
In 2074 there is a Second American Civil War and a plague and that is all I need to know. Get in my eyeballs now!

4. The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking
I'm a bit late to the hygge craze but I do enjoy coziness, so better late than never.

5. Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
In this memoir, the author wins a writing fellowship that will allow her to spend three months anywhere in the world she wants to go to research and write a book. Desperate to be free of distractions, she chose a remote island in the Falklands. There's a penguin on the cover. Sold.

6. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I'm suddenly realizing that I'm on hold at the library for all of these books and if I don't get them all at once it will be a miracle. Noah (of The Daily Show) was born in South Africa to a white father and black mother which, at the time, was a crime punishable by prison. This means he had to kept inside and hidden as much as possible until the laws changed. I didn't use to be much of a fan of memoirs, but I'm very intrigued by lives different from my own.

7. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I will finally read this book in April for the Classic Book a Month Club if it's the last thing I do. Seriously, have been wanting to read this book forever and have failed at making it happen.

8. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I have this on my Personal Reading Challenge for this year. Indeed, I've had a copy out of the library for long enough that I've already renewed it.

9. Alive by Piers Paul Read
One of the categories on my reading challenge is travel/adventure and when looking for likely contenders I was reminded about this story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes back in the 70s. I've barely read anything set in South America, never mind actual nonfiction.

10. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury
The May selection for the Classic Book a Month Club is a play about working-class African-Americans in Chicago, published in 1959. I think the only other non-Shakespeare play I've ever read was The Cherry Orchard, so this should be an interesting change from my usual reading.

What are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Smell of Other People's Houses

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (2016)

This teen book is told from the perspective of four different kids in Alaska in 1970 as their lives intersect in unexpected ways. First we meet Ruth, who lives with her Gran and her little sister Lily. She has a boyfriend, with whom she makes a very stupid mistake. Dora is Inupiat (Eskimo, not to be confused with Indian, like her Athabascan friend Dumpling) and stays with Dumpling's family because it's not safe at home. Alyce wants to be a ballerina, but her summer fishing trip with her dad may get in the way of a very important audition and she's afraid to ask permission to go. The final narrator is Hank, who stows away on a ferry with his two brothers in an attempt to escape their mother's horrible boyfriend. But their escape doesn't go as planned, which sends their story in a slightly different trajectory.

Ruth's story is most prominent, beginning and ending the novel. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, and the repercussions lead to her learning much more about her family, especially her stern Catholic grandmother. She becomes friendly with Dumpling, not a narrator but still important, and Dora is jealous of their friendship because she considers Dumpling her best friend. I like that the characters are enough in the same circles that we get bits of their stories from each other's narration, because it adds a slightly different perspective and gives them each more depth.

I loved that the story represented native people and families who fish and hunt. It wasn't made a big deal of either. When Alyce casually mentions to Sam that a particular spot was where she shot her first deer, he doesn't act surprised or shocked because he is part of that culture too. And it's a culture that we don't often (ever?) see in teen fiction. We talk a lot about diversity in literature, but I think sometimes we forget how many different kinds of diversity there are; it's not just about race and religion. There are plenty of teens for whom hunting and fishing are a regular part of their lives, and I really liked reading about Alyce's expertise helping aboard her dad's fishing boat.

Considering all that's going on, this is a surprisingly short book. There's nothing I didn't like about it, but I did want more. I know it's a teen book and I was initially pleasantly surprised that it's only 220-ish pages, but in the end I could have been happy with the level of detail usually found in adult fiction. I wanted more about Ruth's time with the nuns, more details about Alyce's family's fishing trips, more background about Sam, Jack, and Hank's troubles with their father, and just more about the time and place in which they lived. This isn't a complaint though, it's really a compliment!

But the short length doesn't mean that Hitchcock skimped on language. Her imagery is simple, but perfectly vivid. Selma has "enormous brown eyes like a seal," and Dora stays with Dumpling's family, where "the whole house smells like it's smothered in gravy." Alyce contrasts the lush greenery of Southeast Alaska with home: "Up north the skinny black spruce trees like like they're constantly trying to fill their lungs, their roots suffocating in permafrost." I also enjoyed unfamiliar details of Alaskan life, like the frequent snacking on pilot bread, which I hadn't heard of before, but is apparently similar to hardtack.

Reading two books in a row set in Alaska really just strengthens my desire to visit, even though they were both set in earlier times and I imagine things have changed. I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group and I'm really looking forward to our discussion and learning what they all thought of it. If you like teen fiction and want something a little different from the usual fare, I recommend picking this one up!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)

In the 1800s, the Wolverine River in Alaska was still uncharted and impassible. Colonel Allen Forrester is tasked with navigating the Wolverine with a very small group of men, in hopes of making Alaska more accessible for mining. At their small cabin in a military barracks in Washington, he leaves behind his new wife Sophie, a budding naturalist who is pregnant with their first child. The story is told primarily through journal entries, moving back and forth between Allen and Sophie. In another layer to the story, a present-day elderly man named Walt donates some artifacts belonging to Allen and Sophie to a small museum in Alaska, prompting letters between himself and a young man named Josh, who is the museum caretaker.

The basic setup reminds me a lot of Above All Things by Tanis Rideout, the dual story of George Mallory's Everest expedition and the day-to-day life of his wife waiting at home with their children. But the similarities end there. Allen's story is one of exploration and hardship in an extreme climate, but his group has a lot of contact with indigenous people and they witness some extraordinary sights they cannot explain. Meanwhile, Sophie has a story all of her own. While she misses Allen deeply, she is having some adventures of her own. Enthralled with birds, she has been keeping a field journal for quite some time, but she doesn't feel like her drawings do them justice. She sets out to learn photography, and becomes completely engrossed in her new passion. It is, of course, not seemly for a young woman to turn her pantry into a darkroom, leaving all her flour and other supplies out on a table in plain sight, but it is clear that Sophie is unlike other young women.

Indeed, she had been planning to accompany Allen on the first, and less dangerous, leg of his journey. But when she learned she was pregnant, her doctor insisted she stay behind. He was an insufferably paternalistic man who chose to conceal facts of her own health from her because women are too delicate to handle anything the least bit upsetting. Sophie has already endured at least one horrific episode on her life, which we learn later on in the book, so she is much stronger than many would assume. Still, she must endure the gossip of local ladies who disapprove of her new hobby and like to question her, "What would Allen think?" Rightly, she feels Allen would be fully supportive of her interest in photography, because theirs is a love based on really understanding what is unique about each other.

 Their relationship may have been my favorite aspect of this story, and I'm sorry that they were separated throughout most of it. I loved all of Sophie's story though, and the way she navigated her social circle and ignored their disapproval in favor of following her own path. Allen's story of exploration in Alaska was also good, of course, though I'm not enraptured enough by indigenous tales of magical phenomena to be as interested in that part. But that's just my own preference. It was still a good story all around.

Ivey is also the author of The Snow Child, which I absolutely loved. It's hard to compare the two since they're pretty different stories and I read them several years apart, but I think I loved her first book best. Still, To the Bright Edge of the World was captivating and beautifully written and you shouldn't miss it if you enjoyed The Snow Child. I know I'll be looking forward to whatever she writes next.