Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (2016)

The novel opens with a conversation about a murder. Several wealthy women sit at a trendy restaurant in 1975 and accuse one another of letting Truman Capote into their social circle, which they say led to a death. You don't yet know who died or how it happened, but as the story proceeds it moves back and forth in time, filling in the details. At the heart of the novel is the intense friendship between Truman and a woman named Babe Paley. Much of what occurs in the novel is based on real-life events, but as Benjamin explains in the Author's Note at the end, she had incredibly leeway in writing this book simply because so many of the people involved were chronic liars, so anything is possible.

Babe fascinated me. She was known for her beauty, she was always impeccably dressed and completely gracious. But her marriage was pretty much a sham. Her husband no longer desired her and had many affairs. She was incredibly lonely. Truman was exactly what she needed in a friend, and he was the only person with whom she was completely honest. Injured in an accident when she was very young, Babe had false teeth and facial scars, but nobody except Truman ever saw her without her teeth and full makeup, even her husband. Her existence seemed exhausting, the constantly facade she had to maintain, and for what?

Truman was very hard to pin down. He was genuinely devoted to Babe, and even to some of their other friends, but he lacked good judgement. He eventually published a story full of their secrets, told to him in confidence, and somehow thought they wouldn't be angry at him. Throughout the novel he turned from a young, fun, promising writer to a troubled, unhealthy, heavy drinker who was crushed by the pressure to write something that could live up to the mastery of In Cold Blood. It left me wanting to read more about his real life.

This book was just full of flawed characters who did awful things to each other, but with whom I couldn't help but sympathize. I loved all the glamour and drama and secrets. I read this on my vacation, and it was just perfect for a sunny day lazing about drinking cocktails on a cruise ship. But I imagine I would have enjoyed it just as much had I been at home.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen (2017)

Each chapter of Buzzfeed writer Petersen's book focuses on a different female celebrity who is unruly in some way, and examines her particular way of being too something. Subjects include Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Jennifer Weiner, and Lena Dunham. Some I'm familiar with, some I dislike, and some I had never heard of, but all are controversial in some way and don't quite fit society's mold of how women should be.

I really liked the idea of this book, and the format. Devoting a chapter to each woman gives the reader a chance to get to know that particular person thoroughly. It's still thematic though, as each woman is "too" something different. For instance, Hillary Clinton's chapter is entitled "Too Shrill," and Jennifer Weiner's "Too Loud."

The most interesting to me, I think, was "Too Pregnant," the chapter on Kim Kardashian. The Kardashians are barely on my radar, as I don't pay much attention to celebrities, especially the ones who are famous for no real reason. My impression of this family is that they are shallow, attention-seeking, and of no interest to me. However, I am familiar with the standards to which celebrity women are held, and when one is pregnant there are certain expectations. For instance, a celebrity should remain skinny and toned, but appear like she has a basketball under her shirt. She should be happy and glowing. Kim Kardashian apparently gained weight all over (as women typically do when pregnant) and suffered through a pretty horrible pregnancy. She was uncomfortable and that made her unhappy; she definitely didn't glow.

On the other hand, and in the same extended family, Caitlyn Jenner's chapter ("Too Queer") didn't especially seem to fit in. She's definitely outside of the box in some ways, but Petersen spent a lot of time talking about how much she does fit in with what makes an "acceptable" trans women. She did note that Jenner has brought to the fore many other trans women who don't fit that mold as well.

I've never paid much attention to Lena Dunham ("Too Naked") and find her sort of annoying, but now I have a new appreciation for her. Her character on Girls is awkward and wears unfashionable clothes that don't fit. She is in a lot of romantic and sexual situations and the driving narrative of the show is that the audience sees her as imperfect, but she's confident and sees herself as sexy and desirable.

We are all familiar with Hillary Clinton, obviously, and this chapter mostly just made me sad. Well, angry and sad. It's summed up in this paragraph:

"While other unruly women in this book have learned to tread a narrow lane of acceptability, Clinton's lane has been attenuated to a tightrope. She should be assertive but not bossy, feminine but not prissy, experienced but not condescending, fashionable but not superficial, forceful but not shrill. Put simply: she should be masculine, but not too masculine; feminine, but not too feminine. She should be everything, which means she should be nothing."

The other woman in this book with whom I was most familiar is the author Jennifer Weiner ("Too Loud"), who is well known for speaking out about the gender imbalance of authors reviewed by highbrow publications, especially The New York Times Book Review. I remember when this all happened, and reading this made me angry all over again. Basically, books by women are simply not taken as seriously as those by men and although there are just as many women as men writing books (or maybe more, actually) it's rather suspicious that such a high percentage of reviews are about books written by men. Many books by women are relegated to the chick lit category, which is considered total fluff, even though books by men which also focus on things like relationships are pretty much considered literature. Weiner was very critical about this and of course there was a backlash.  As an aside, I question Petersen's definition of chick lit as "masscult" books that feature "romance, shopping, and other activities women do." Is romance an activity? Anyhow, chick lit is less about the activities and more about the writing style, if you ask me.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and its in-depth look at women who push boundaries, even if they aren't all viewed as being feminist icons. It goes to show there are many different ways to be a feminist and it actually made me feel hopeful.

Also, I get to check off another category in my Personal Reading Challenge: feminism. I've got four more categories and four more specific titles to go.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Bermuda Vacation

If you happened to notice my lack of posts last week and were wondering what was up, I was away on vacation. My niece and I traveled to Bermuda on a cruise. I was never interested in cruises, but a friend of mine has gone on this one many times and since I was definitely interested in an easy, relaxing vacation I thought it was worth trying. We both had a fantastic time! (And lest you are picturing me traveling with a child, I should explain that my niece and I are only about 7 years apart.)

Here's our ship, in port at the Royal Naval Dockyard. It's big. I'd never been on a boat this big. (It's the Norwegian Dawn, for any of you who care about specifics.)



I didn't take that many photos, and definitely not many aboard the ship, but of course I took one of the library.


I was honestly surprised how often I walked by the library on the way to the outdoor pool/bar/party area and saw lots of people sitting inside, reading and playing board games. It warmed my heart a little.

Bermuda was beautiful, of course. We had one afternoon of horrible rain and thunderstorms so we were unable to visit one of the beaches we had planned, but that was really the only bad thing that happened. And I can't be upset because they needed the water - Bermuda doesn't have a public water system so they rely on the rain, and they hadn't gotten much so far this summer.

We did make it to another beach, Tobacco Bay, which is my kind of beach. I'm really not a beachy person at all, but I do enjoy sitting outside in the sun and admiring the view and this place was gorgeous. The water was warm and full of colorful little fishes too!


There was so much beautiful scenery, and interesting rock formations, that I didn't even get a photo of the sandy part of the beach. Trust me, it was there and it was lovely.

Bermuda has some very neat plants and trees (and birds, but I didn't get any photos of those) and I think most of my photos are of the local flora. The first interesting tree I spotted was this one that looks like a cactus.


This one is also super neat.


Everywhere you turn there are gorgeous flowers, like these.



Chickens are pretty much everywhere, too. I took far too many photos of chickens. Here's a sassy one, strutting across the road like nobody's business.


Of course we spent a great deal of our time eating and drinking. After all, vacation is just about killing time between tasty meals, right? (No? Just me?) When you book a cruise there are various packages you can get and we signed up for the unlimited adult beverage package. I'm not ashamed to say that we got our money's worth out of this. The first cocktail of the day would be as early as 11am, but it was vacation after all. (Now that it's over I feel like I need to detox for a while though.) Once we got to Bermuda, we spent more time exploring and less time drinking, but of course we still tried the national drink of Bermuda, the rum swizzle.


This one is pictured along with my meal at the Frog and Onion. If you ever go to Bermuda, be sure to eat at this place. They had the best rum swizzles and delicious British fare. I'm not sure what my niece was drinking in this photo, but I think it may have been another popular Bermuda drink, the dark and stormy. Also delicious.

The food on the ship was actually quite good, better than I would expect when you can't bring in fresh ingredients every day. One night we went to a restaurant called Teppenyaki, named for a style of Japanese cuisine, where the chefs prepare food in front of you, while juggling and singing and basically being very entertaining. This was my dessert, a green tea cake with green tea ice cream. It was delicious, and I don't even really like green tea.



We also got pampered at the onboard spa, where we were both sternly admonished for not exfoliating. I got a hot stone massage, she got a bamboo massage, and we both got pedicures. This was my first massage ever, and only my second pedicure. So that was a very luxurious experience for me, and one I'd love to repeat (though I wish it wasn't quite so expensive.)

I'd never taken a vacation with my niece before and, in fact, we almost always see each other with other family. We traveled quite well together, since it turns out that we're basically the same person. It was both super fun and relaxing. I suspect we might do this again someday.

Of course I spent some of my relaxation time reading. When you're in the middle of the ocean on a ship there's plenty of time to kick back with a book! I'll post soon about what I read on my trip.

Have you been to Bermuda? Or another cruise? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Scot in the Dark

A Scot in the Dark (Scandal and Scoundrel #2) by Sarah MacLean (2016)

Tragedy has struck the Dukedom of Warnick. In fact, sixteen tragedies, leaving the title to the seventeenth in line, a Scot named Alec Stuart. He hates the English and wants nothing to do with the title, wealth, or anything else that comes with it. He was very clear with his solicitor on this matter. So clear, that Alec only learned five years later that he was left a ward, a young woman named Lilian Hargrove.

The circumstances upon which he learned of her existence were scandalous. Lily had posed nude for a portrait that she thought was to be kept private by the artist, with whom she thought herself in love. The artist, Derek Hawkins, had no such illusions about their relationship and now planned on a public showing of the painting, which he considered a masterpiece. Lily would be ruined. Not only would she not be married to Hawkins, but the shame of the nude portrait of her would end her chances of making another marriage. Alec has come to London to try and rectify the situation by finding someone for her to marry. He is generous with his vast fortune, which should help secure a husband. But they have only something like nine days before the painting will be publicly revealed so a husband must be found before then.

The problem now is that Lily and Alec are very attracted to each other, but each of them thinks they don't deserve the other. Lily, because of the nude portrait; Alec, because of a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness for anything other than cheap sex, which is more fully explained late in the novel. Obviously the two should be together, and we know they ultimately will, but the getting there is a bit more torturous than necessary.

Alec is stupid and kind of a jerk. He kept denying Lily her happiness because he thought he wasn't good enough, which, honestly....come on, romance novels. I've never encountered so many people who denied others' happiness out of a twisted ostensibly-selfless feeling that the other person would be better off without them, even though they are both absolutely dying to be together. To make matters worse, Alec and Lily have had some sexytimes, which in those days pretty much meant you needed to marry. And she's already had something similar happen, so when Alec kept insisting they couldn't be together and taking off, I was finally like, if you're going to be this way then no, you don't deserve her, you lout!

Despite Alec's stupidity, the story was ultimately quite satisfying, but that's because Lily was awesome. She was smart and strong, and managed to overcome her feelings of shame at what she had done. Honestly, Alec didn't do a damn thing. She acted to try and fix the situation for herself, and then she changed her mind and decided to fix it a different way and she did it all herself. Well, she had some help from her amazing and wonderful new female friends. I loved this aspect of the story: Lily had never really had friends, and now that she is about to be the subject of public humiliation, a group of scandalous sisters take her right into their fold and help her out however they can. It was both touching and empowering.

This is the second in the Scandal and Scoundrels series (after The Rogue Not Taken), which is based on TMZ-like headlines, but Regency style. This book extended that theme even farther with the nude portrait plot, so similar to current situations involving released sex videos or photos. The chapter titles are all gossipy scandal sheet titles, which I find rather delightful. I was spurred to read this by the release of the third in the series, Day of the Duchess, which has gotten great reviews and which I'm quite looking forward to reading!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (2014)

I have been reading this forever! Well, a month and a half. I almost put it down several times. It's unwieldy, a large, square, thick hardcover volume that is impossible to carry around so I could only read it at home. And it's dense - not the autobiography itself, but the annotations, which are tiny and numerous and make up the majority of the text. Many contain the information I was after, explanations of various events in the Ingalls family, but some were less interesting. For instance, when Laura mentions jackrabbits in her story, there is a lengthy note all about the type of jackrabbits that lived in that area at that time. Ultimately, I started skipping over (or just skimming) the annotations that I wasn't interested in, which made the experience much more pleasant.

What I wanted to read this for was the real story behind the Little House books that I've read so many times. I reread them a few years ago, and they held up, but of course being an adult gave me a different perspective and I wanted more information. The thing is, as much as they were based on Laura's life, they were still fiction. I was eager to get the real story, but kept putting it off because of the size of the book, hence the reason this was on the list for my Personal Reading Challenge this year.

In terms of getting the real story, I came out of this pretty satisfied. I had read a little bit here and there about the Ingalls family, so even when I reread the series I knew that all the blathering about being so independent was not entirely true. Here, we learn much more about how Laura's story was so carefully crafted to support the family's narrative of independence and the constant move westward. For one thing, the family didn't steadily move west. They would go west, move back a bit temporarily, go west again, etc. Often they stayed with friends and relatives, or others stayed with them. It was clear that people in that part of the country at that time relied on one another quite a bit to survive. But that wasn't the story Laura wanted to tell in her fiction. At times, the narrative she developed was just more straightforward and worked better, especially for a kid's book. At other times, it was clear she wanted to tell a specific version of the story.

Their time in Iowa was completely left out of the novels. It wasn't rural like the other places they lived. This part of the autobiography was comparatively gritty, with stories of spousal abuse and death. Ultimately the Ingalls family left town under cover of darkness because they hadn't paid their debts. If they had, they wouldn't have been able to afford to leave town.

Many of the editor's notes regarded confusion in the timeline and inaccurate dates. Laura was writing her autobiography years later and she didn't have access to the sources we can easily view now in order to factcheck her memories. Obviously she couldn't remember every little detail and she did the best she could to put it together; it's ironic that she'd be able to actually access all of that now if she were still alive.

Her gift for writing prose shone through clearly, however: "The winds which all day had blown strongly, dropped low with the sun and went whispering among the tall grasses, where the earth lay breathing softly under the summer night falling softly over the prairie and tucking them gently in." It was still rough, as this was a draft that never made it to publication, but you get the idea.

Her story ends the day she and Almanzo got married. Interestingly, she was not required to say "obey" in her vows because the progressive clergyman who married them didn't believe in it. I found this quite surprisingly since I remember weddings 100 years later in which brides did promise to obey their husbands. We don't get the story of their marriage, which was disappointing because I wanted to hear more about that than what I read in The First Four Years.

Despite having to slog through some of the notes, I'm very glad I finally read this book to learn more about Wilder's early life. I've also just learned that a biography about her will be released this November, called Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I imagine this will be an easier, more straightforward read, though it's currently listed at 640 pages.

As I mentioned earlier, this is on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge list, and I'm surprised to find that I only have four more titles to go. (The nonfiction categories, though, are another matter entirely.)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

When Dimple Met Rishi

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (2017), narrated by Sneha Mathan and Vikas Adam

It's the summer after senior year and Dimple Shah is attending a program called Insomnia Con before heading off to Stanford in the fall. She has a great idea for an app and is determined to win, but she is foiled almost immediately from the start by being paired with Rishi Patel. Until she arrived, Dimple had no idea that her parents and Rishi's parents were hoping the two would marry. She's furious! She didn't come here to look for a boyfriend - much less a husband - and Rishi is a bit too traditional for her anyway. But he's a nice guy and she's willing to give him a chance as a friend. Just as long as he doesn't stand in her way of winning Insomnia Con.

Dimple is ambitious, practical, determined, and generally a bit angry. She's always scowling. She refuses to wear make-up, and has no patience for the frat-boy types her roommate Celia hangs out with, who she and Rishi call Aberzombies. She's also not interested in having her parents choose a husband for her.

Rishi is at Insomnia Con to meet Dimple. He's planning to go to MIT in the fall to study engineering, so he'll have a secure income on which to raise a family. Growing up he drew comics, working especially hard on one about an Indian superhero. But his art is all-consuming and he has decided to put it aside for a more practical career. Still, when he arrives at the SFSU campus for Insomnia Con, he sees an ad for Little Comic Con and decides to attend, just for fun. Little did he know he'd meet one of his heroes, and eventually begin to second-guess his career plans.

One of my favorite things about this story is that even though Dimple was super angry to find out her parents were hoping she'd marry Rishi, she doesn't respond by writing him off entirely. Rishi is a really, really nice guy and she sees that right away. They get along well and she's happy to be friends with him. Of course, this is a romance so they do start dating. They try to hang out with Celia and her friends, who are total snobs who make fun of Dimple, and they are all competing to win, so there's a lot of angst and drama in the story.

My only complaint at all is that there wasn't enough about the actual competition and the development of their apps. Not that I wanted to read about coding - I really don't ever want to read about coding - but I think they had classes and workshop time to work on their projects and we didn't really see it. I know Dimple and Rishi were working on an app to help people manage their diabetes, but I don't know what was involved or how the project was going or if they struggled at all. We only saw their free time, which they seemed to have a lot of considering how competitive this program is supposed to be.

We did, however, see how much time they spent on preparation for the talent show. Rishi and Dimple performed a Bollywood dance, which I'm very sorry I didn't get to actually see. The Aberzombies were performing some sexist bullshit that involved Celia and Isabelle dancing around in bikinis while the frat boys looked at them and made comments about how hot they looked. Celia wanted nothing to do with this idea, and I found her struggle a very compelling part of the story. Lots of great feminist fodder in this book!

I also really liked the inclusion of Indian-American culture, and even some Hindi conversations. Dimple and Rishi were both Indian-American, but they were different from each other - Rishi traditional and Dimple not so much - and their families were different, and they both struggled with their relationships and expectations of their families. This is also a different sort of arranged marriage than what most Americans think of when we think of arranged marriage. I think most of us picture a young girl being forced to marry someone she doesn't know, who might be much older than she is. Although that's a reality for some cultures, it's not for this one. It's more like parents talking to their friends and deciding their kids might be a good match and they should meet. Like a blind date arranged by your parents. Nobody is forced into anything.

This was a very fun and enjoyable teen book! For a while there, I kept seeing it on all the blogs everywhere and it seemed like everyone loved it, so I couldn't resist downloading it from Audible and I'm glad I did. The narrators were both great and I liked the story quite a bit. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes teen books, but especially if you're looking for a bit of cultural diversity.