Sunday, December 31, 2017

December Wrap-Up and Plans for January



Reading


I finished Middlemarch, and a little ahead of schedule.

My favorite new mug.
Reading Challenge List: Nothing. I didn't quite finish this list. Of my 10 titles, I read most of them except A Little Life, which is now on my TBR Pile Challenge for 2018. I also started and put down White Teeth by Zadie Smith because I just couldn't get into it. If I hadn't had something else compelling to read at the time, perhaps I would have kept with it but it's so long and wasn't really grabbing me. I read in most of the subject areas I wanted to cover, except for travel/adventure and class/income inequality (I read Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado, but since it was a re-read I didn't count it because the point was to read something new to me.)

CBAM: This month's selection was Wuthering Heights which I had hoped to get to, but I didn't. Otherwise, I read all of the CBAM titles that I intended to this year.

Romance: Nothing this month

Nonfiction: Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman, and In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

I really wanted to read Sense and Sensibility before going to see the stage adaptation, but I only got about 2/3 of the way through it before giving up. I don't know how much of my problem was because I was on a deadline, and how much was because I was also reading Middlemarch. (At any rate, I enjoyed the show Sense and Sensibility show, which was fun and inventive.)

I only finished 4 books this month, but one was Middlemarch, and I started two books that I didn't finish. Plus, I'm going into the new year in the midst of a book and an audiobook. I really hate doing that, but the only other options are to cram and try to finish and post about them, which I've been in no position to do recently, or just to not start something new close to the end of the year and that's just ridiculous.

On January 1st I'll be posting my list of everything I read this year, which is a slightly smaller list than it has been. Stay tuned!

Listening


Our little tabletop tree.
I've mostly been listening to podcasts. A couple of times I was going to start an audiobook, but somehow wasn't interested enough to do so. Not because of the books, but because I just haven't been feeling like it during my commute recently. But then I suddenly got inspired to listen to a teen book and downloaded The Jewel by Amy Ewing. It's like a combination of The Selection and The Handmaid's Tale, which is pretty much what I'm in the mood for right now.

Watching


The Great British Baking Show. We finished season 1 and then I decided to take a break before launching into season 2 because otherwise I wouldn't get any reading done. I also really wanted to watch Alias Grace, which I did. It was good, but I didn't love it the way some people do.

At the end of the month I went out with friends to see Pitch Perfect 3. It was super fun! They could continue to make PP movies until the end of time and I will continue to watch them.

Knitting


One thing about The Great British Baking Show is that I don't want to do anything else while watching it. (Except possibly eat baked goods.) And I haven't had an audio book so I've done very little knitting. I did some while finishing The Good Place, and I think one other day I sat down and knit a little while listening to a podcast, but otherwise I just haven't been in the mood that much. Near the end of the month I ramped up again while watching Alias Grace.

All this to say that I finished the body of my sweater and then got through the better part of the hood. I've got two sleeves to look forward to in the new year, and by "look forward" I mean that I'm wondering if it could work as a sweater vest. (I'm pretty sure the answer to that is no.) I'll need to find a good knitting-while-watching show for January.

I've got two pairs of black socks I knit for myself a while back and they're both getting very worn in the heels. I should just darn them, and perhaps I will, but I've also ordered some sock yarn from KnitPicks and if I can ever manage to finish my sweater I'll be knitting more socks this winter.

Eating


Spiral pies took forever, but were delicious!
A lot of unhealthy stuff, and then I suddenly got inspired to cook. I checked out the new cookbook Smitten Kitchen Every Day and made three recipes from it. I really liked the marsala meatballs with egg noodles and the spinach and feta spiral pies. I also made baked oatmeal with carmelized pears and vanilla cream, which was very good but spending that amount of time on breakfast is a little ridiculous. I also maintain that it's more dessert than breakfast. Everything took forever to make, but I'll be trying the meatballs and spinach pies again and I'm hoping it will go quicker now that I'm more familiar with the recipes.

Doing


The first weekend of December was my family Thanksgiving in Maine. We celebrate Thanksgiving based on when people don't have to work, since so many people in my family work in hospitals/nursing homes and they obviously don't close for holidays. We had a good time! The only photo I got was of my niece's son, below, but that's ok because he's much cuter than the rest of us.

I sent Christmas cards this year, which felt like a win. We only decorated a little, with some tiny lights and a little tabletop tree. We're having a New Year's Eve party for the first time in a few years, so I wanted to be sure to have some decorations.

Earlier this month I spent hours researching and agonizing over which planner to buy for 2018. I've been using a bullet journal, which was great, but I've decided that I need more structure. I ended up getting a Passion Planner which has the structure I want but also lot of blank pages that you can use however you want. With the bullet journal, I just got tired of having to create it as I went along - in theory it was great, but in reality it was tough to make the time to fancy up the new pages at the time that I needed to create them. I also got tired of having to copy things over and over, and I really want to be able to look ahead a couple of months at the monthly calendar, rather than waiting to create it when I get there. With the Passion Planner, there is still room for plenty of creativity if you want to fancy it up, but the structure is there when I need it. It also focuses a lot on goal-setting and doing things every week that feed into those goals. This is a little weird for me as I'm terrible at even figuring out goals, but I like that it has space to note your focus for the week, and questions at the end of each month to evaluate how it all went.

My niece's son at our
Thanksgiving get-together.
I had planned to lament about my lack of goal-achieving in 2017, but I'm kind of over it. My goals were silly and superficial - I wanted to get another tattoo and learn to put my hair up in a way that wasn't a ponytail. Totally worthwhile things, but apparently I couldn't manage to watch a few YouTube videos because my hair is SO not a priority. It's one of those things I want to be better at, but magically, without taking time to devote to it because I don't actually find it interesting or enjoyable. As for the tattoo, I do now have a Pinterest board for tattoo ideas, which mostly means my ideas are even less narrowed-down than before.

My goals for 2018 are more life-impacting and meaningful, if slightly unfocused. Hopefully the new year will find me stepping up my cooking game a bit, and keeping in better touch with people in my life.


Plans for January


We've had a crazy cold snap, so my December has ended in a very unambitious survival mode. I just want to curl up in sweatpants under an afghan and drink hot chocolate and then go to bed at 9pm and sleep as late as possible. It's cold, I'm tired, and I can't even think about leaving the house to exercise. It's not the best way to start 2018, but I'll get through January however I can.

At work I'll be spending the month trying to hire someone to replace my coworker Jenny who just left. These are pretty big shoes to fill and I suspect we won't find someone with the exact magical combination of skills and abilities that makes her so fantastic, so I'm trying to go into the process with an open mind about other unique qualities we may find in our candidates.

I'm doing something I never do, which is end the year in the middle of a book AND in the middle of an audiobook, so they'll both go on my 2018 count. I want to make sure I start strong with my TBR Pile Challenge, but I also have a lot of books I want to read from the "best of" lists from 2017 so I may need to plan my reading carefully.


How was your December, and your 2017?



Friday, December 29, 2017

DNFs worth mentioning

I started a couple of books this month that I ended up putting down, but I still want to talk about them.

The first is Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. My long-term plan has been to read all of Austen's novels, and I've already read three: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. When my season membership to the American Repertory Theater included tickets to see a stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility I knew I wanted to read it before going. The timing wasn't great, as I was in the midst of Middlemarch when I picked it up and reading two books at once with a similar setting is asking for trouble. As it turns out, I think I would have had trouble with this book even if it were the only book I was reading.

Compared to the other Austen novels I've read, I found it very difficult to glean what was going on and keep all the characters straight. There were a lot of characters, and many were related to each other in tenuous ways that were difficult to remember. The writing felt different too. I was about 2/3 of the way through when I gave up after reading the same couple of pages twice and still struggling to understand them. Austen isn't like reading a contemporary novel, but usually her writing isn't difficult. There were sentences I had to re-read, and could figure out who the "she" was referring to, so I'd go back to the previous paragraph and still not be able to figure it out. Had I just powered through those couple of pages and continued on perhaps it would have gotten better - I'd made it that far without too much trouble, after all - but I just didn't have it in me. The show was in a couple of days and I just didn't want to spend that whole time forcing my way through a book I was no longer enjoying. So set the book aside, went to the show, and maybe I'll pick it up again someday. I think it would have been easier to pick up after seeing how the story played out, but by then I had moved on to other books.

Another book I picked up recently and didn't finish was Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi, which I heard about on the By the Book podcast. (Are you listening to By the Book? You should be.) The premise is that in our smartphone-centered society we are constantly feeding information into our brains and don't give ourselves opportunity to just sit with ourselves and think. Zomorodi posits that it is these times of boredom when we let our minds wander that we are best able to solve problems and come up with new ideas. I am completely on board with this idea. We are so convinced that we should never be idle and must fill every moment with either something productive or catching up on social media that we don't let ourselves ever get bored.

I'm not sure that "boredom" is even exactly the right word, but the way she frames it, it kind of makes sense. When you're not actively engaged in something happening around you, your mind starts occupying itself by wandering and daydreaming and that's the sort of thinking that will lead to great ideas and problem-solving. So I read a few chapters of the book, and it's a pretty short book, but I felt like I was already on board enough that I didn't need to finish. She goes into a lot of science and whatnot, but I really don't need convincing. This is one of those books that that would have been enough for me as just an article.

From listening to the podcast I know that Zomorodi proposes some exercises to put her ideas into practice. Like, putting an app on your phone that will tell you how much time you spend on your phone, then deleting the apps you use most. She also proposes not using your phone while in transit, forcing yourself to watch a pot of water boil to be bored enough to test out her ideas, and taking an afternoon mini-vacation and putting on your out-of-office responder and just staying away from your computer and phone. I've spent a few of my bus commutes recently just sitting and thinking rather than listening to a podcast or audiobook. Although I won't do this long-term (this is my time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks and I'm not going to give them up) it was nice to test it out. I already use my dog-walking time in this way - Petri was initially rather difficult to walk so I never got in the habit of doing anything else while walking her, and I've kept it up just because I think it's nice to pay attention to the dog you're walking, and I've found it to be a nice meditative transition from my work day to my evening. At work I often need to do some thinking but definitely don't want to appear like I'm not doing anything. I have occasional opportunities that are great for this - recently I was working on signage for a display, which involved cutting out hand-drawn letters and glueing them to a foam board (ironically, the display is on self-help books) and I spent a great deal of that time thinking about the upcoming hiring process for a new librarian in my department and coming up with good interview questions.

So although I didn't finish reading this book, I have been making a point to make sure that I have some "thinking time" every day, and I'll try not to worry about appearing that I'm slacking off or being idle. It's a great idea that I think more of us would benefit from putting into practice!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

In the Country We Love

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero (2016)

You may know her as Maritza from Orange is the New Black or Lina from Jane the Virgin, but she was also the child of undocumented immigrants. When she was 14 years old, Guerrero came home from school one day to find that her parents had been taken. They were sent back to Colombia and Diane, who was born in the US and therefore a citizen, was left to fend for herself. She lived with her friends' families, struggled her way through school, and went through some very dark periods before finally following her calling as an actor.

Although I have watched several seasons of OINTB, what drew me to this book was the story about her family. As I've mentioned before, I'm on the Community Read committee at work and we've talked a bit about finding books about immigration. I think it's particularly important to talk about the kind of immigration that people like to call "illegal" because I don't think most people know what they're talking about when they use that phrase. I'd love to learn more about it myself. Guerrero's parents did what is common, which is to get a visa to come to the United States, and then overstay that visa. The process you must go through to try and become a citizen once you're here on a visa takes years, literally years, and I gather that's why people's visas tend to expire. Once that happens, trying to reopen your case can bring unwanted attention and sometimes, as in her family's case, result in deportation. I'm honestly a little bit fuzzy on the details of exactly what happened and what her family could have done differently - if anything - to prevent this from happening, but perhaps Guerrero doesn't know either. She was very young and it's a confusing system.

Her relationship with her parents suffered so much because of their separation. They talked on the phone, and she eventually went to Colombia to visit, but not having them involved in her daily life meant that she kind of slacked off about keeping in touch. She had a lot going on that she had to contend with. She grew up in Boston and got into Boston Arts Academy, a new performing arts public high school. Although she loved performing, she didn't think it was practical so instead of applying to a conservatory she went to Regis College, hoping that she'd eventually go into law. After a lot of academic and personal struggle she eventually admitted law wasn't going to do it for her, and that's when she finally started taking acting classes and found her true calling.

Written in a very casual style (with help from Michelle Burford) it's definitely not a literary masterpiece - there's lots of slang and hashtags and whatnot - but that's fine. It's it's a co-written celebrity memoir about someone who happens to have a pretty interesting background. Because of the sub-par writing and the fact that it doesn't go into immigration issues in a more general way I likely won't recommend it to the Community Reads committee. But I'm glad I picked it up - it was a fun and interesting story.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

I had no intention of reading this giant classic anytime soon (or possibly ever?) until a good friend invited me and another friend to read along with her this fall. I'll never turn down a read-along so of course I was on board! We began in October and gave ourselves until the end of December. Although Middlemarch is just over 800 pages - long but not monstrous - it's 800 pages of dense, tiny print, and Eliot's writing is the sort you really need to think about while you're reading. If I try to read something written in this style just before I go to bed, I end up reading the same sentences over and over without ever understanding them. So, I knew it would take a while and I knew I'd be reading other books at the same time. The danger is the very real possibility that by the time I finished, I'd forget everything that happened at the beginning. But I think I have a pretty good grasp of what I've read.

The story takes place in a small town in England in the 19th century and follows a few different threads, most of which relate to romance/marriage and everyone's difficult financial situations, and the relation between the two. At the center is Dorothea Brooke, a young woman who, despite appealing alternatives, decides to marry a cranky old man who is devoting his life to writing a bloated academic treatise. Dorothea, being a rather intelligent person who wants to be useful and productive, looks forward to helping him with his work, and spending hours discussing important issues and learning from him. But their marriage is not at all what she had envisioned, and she quickly becomes despondent. She befriends a young relation of her husband named Will Ladislaw, and the two strike up an intense friendship.

A young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, is a newcomer in town who has lots of newfangled ideas about medicine. He soon marries the widely-admired Rosamond Vincy, but when his practice is clearly struggling and he tries to suggest they cut back on expenses, Rosamond becomes extremely upset and accuses him of trying to make her life difficult. She just wants to borrow money from other people, and ignores Lydgate when he tries to explain that's not a sustainable way of living. Honest to God, I hated Rosamond so much. She was completely immature and self-centered and Lydgate didn't deserve being married to such a horrid person.

The other central relationship is between Rosamond's brother Fred and Mary Garth. Fred is sort of a good-for-nothing young men, well-meaning but unambitious. Mary - the most sensible woman in the book - refuses to commit to him until he can prove his worth. He just needs to grow up and figure his shit out. This story line was a little less present than the others, and I wish there was a bit more to it. I liked both Fred and Mary, and I was totally rooting for Fred to get his act together so they could marry. I wish Mary had more of a story because, as I said, she was the most sensible person in the book. But I guess when you're not making terrible decisions, there's not as much of a story.

Lest you think this novel is only about marriage, there are other plots, such as one about a man named Bulstrode who is hiding secrets from his past. He was not always from Middlemarch and it took a very long time to be thought of as anything other than a newcomer. But eventually he was accepted as a member of the community. But during the course of our story, a sketchy man named Raffles arrives and threatens to reveal unsavory secrets from Bulstrode's past. He blackmails Bulstrode, threatening to reveal everything if Bulstrode doesn't keep giving him money.

There are also some sub-plots about political/religious situations that I didn't entirely understand, so I can't really tell you about those.

In this society everyone just relies on others for money through inheritance, marriage, or borrowing. It's so weird seeing this as a 21st-century American, because all I could think throughout the book was, why don't you get a job? Or, maybe you need to spend less money than you take in, not more. It's just so weird to me for people to expect money to just be given to them. I know there were people a that time who did work their butts off for everything they had, and it wasn't much, but this particular book centers on those who seem to feel quite entitled and at times I wanted to smack them (I'm looking at you, Rosamond!)

There are a few things about the book I didn't like. About 3/4 of the way through, I made a note to myself that all the women in this book act like children. Eliot is not kind to her sex. When the women are upset, she describes their fat tears and trembling chins and pouting, none of which conjure images of adults. Rosamond was the very worst, but even Dorothea, the most intelligent and complex woman in the book, acted like a petulant toddler at times. Mary Garth was the most consistently positive character, with her strong ethics and good judgment, but even her goodness often came across as wide-eyed and childlike.

Every single chapter begins with an epigraph of some sort. Some are attributed, some are not, and some are in non-English languages and untranslated, as though even George Eliot knew we don't pay attention to them anyway. I don't know, maybe you do, but to me they feel so disjointed. They're not actually part of the text and I assume they allude to it in some way, but I'm just not going to go back to each one after reading the chapter so I can say, "Ah yes, now I see why she chose this." Honestly, I don't really see the point of using these, especially at the start of every single chapter.

My third and final criticism is that I'm just not convinced it was necessary for the book to be this long. I suspect I might be wrong in this. I think I just expected it to be more...epic? My view may be based more on the length it time it to me to read than the actual length of the book.

Otherwise, I did like the story.  I was thankful for the moments of humor that occurred now and then. From describing someone as "superfluously tall" to the scenes in which Dorothea's sister assumes everyone else is as obsessed with her new baby as she is, the lighthearted moments were a nice break from what is primarily a pretty serious novel.

I tend to like stories about domestic life in small English villages, pretty much in any time period. I liked the complexities and frustrations of the various marriage situations, and I appreciate the difficult position of the women in that time period. While I didn't love it, I did like it enough that I might be tempted to read some of Eliot's other works someday.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Top 10 Books I'm Looking Forward To in 2018


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. (But not for long! The site is shutting down in January.) This week is all about 2018 books. I've barely begun looking at what's coming out in 2018, but there are a few I've been anticipating and I just checked out some lists in order to compose this post and now I have a TON more. Here are the top 10 books I'm excited about, by month:

1. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (January)
A feminist dystopia in which women have lost all their reproductive rights. Let's hope it's not a harbinger of what's actually to come in 2018.

2. Tempest by Beverly Jenkins (January)
Third in her Old West series, I'm particularly excited about this one because it's about a character from the last book becoming a mail order bride! And I hear it begins with her shooting her new husband. Excellent!

3. So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (January)
I follow Ijeoma Oluo on Twitter and I'm always interested in what she has to say.

4. A Princess in Theory by Alissa Cole (February)
In this contemporary romance by the author of An Extraordinary Union, a young woman receives an email from a Nigerian prince saying that he is supposed to marry her. Of course, she ignores it because it's just a scam BUT IT'S NOT. (Fun fact: that amazing dress on the cover is by Adorned by Nicole, from where Alyssa Cole purchases lots of her conference dresses.)

5. I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (February)
This memoir about a woman's obsession with unsolved crimes is very intriguing! I'm hoping it will be a little like The Fact of a Body.

6. The Radical Element (A Tyranny of Petticoats #2), edited by Jessica Spotswood (March)
"An anthology of revolution and resistance"? Yes, please! (Spotswood is also co-editor of Toil & Trouble: 16 Tales of Women and Witchcraft, which will be out in August, and which I'm also looking forward to.)

7. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (March)
She wrote great posts at The Toast. Does she also have a talent for short stories? There's only one way to find out.

8. All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson (April)
I have no idea what this is even about, but it doesn't matter. Peter Swanson!!!

9. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave by Zora Neale Hurston (May)
A previously unreleased true story of the last known survivor of the slave trade. Huston interviewed him in Alabama in 1931 and I don't know why we're only getting it now, but it's absolutely going on my To Read list for 2018.

10. The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls by Jessica Spotswood (June)
Her books are all amazing!

After combing through some lists of forthcoming books, it was hard to keep it just to 10. These are the ones I'm most likely to read, I think.

Are there any books coming out in 2018 that you're excited about?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Vincent and Theo

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (2017)

Vincent Van Gogh has always been a dramatic figure - known for his mental illness, the cutting off of his own ear, his suicide. And of course, his art. But lesser known is his brother, Theo, who was his best friend throughout his life, supported his art, and without whom Vincent would probably not ever have become an artist in the first place.

Heiligman's book focuses on this relationship, using the brothers' many letters as her primary source for the story. Although it's written for teens, she doesn't gloss over some of the more sordid details, such as visits to prostitutes, or Theo's syphilis. I appreciated this as an adult, but also as someone who doesn't think we should omit important details because we think young people can't handle them. I did notice her use of some words I certainly wouldn't have recognized as a teenager, like "crepuscular" and "bivouac," but that's what dictionaries (and the internet) are for, I guess.

The relationship between the two brothers was touching, but also genuine in its imperfection. Sometimes they were very close, sometimes estranged. But they always remained important in each other's lives. When Theo married, he explained to his wife Jo that Vincent would be central to their lives, and indeed he was. Although not an artist himself, Theo worked in the art world and devoted part of his income to supporting Vincent so he could be free to create art.

It doesn't sound as though Vincent would really have been able to support himself anyhow, what with his wild mood swings and erratic behavior. He spent some time in asylums, and there were other times he probably should have been in a more controlled environment under a doctor's care. It was quite an anguished life. Interestingly, his father wanted him to go to a psychiatric hospital in Geel, Belgium, "known for the good care and supervised freedom given to its patients." Recently, that village has been getting lots of attention for its tradition of homing mentally ill patients with residents, which it's been doing for centuries. Even when his mental health was fairly stable, he was still eccentric. He sometimes took extremely long walks - miles upon miles - which honestly sounded kind of amazing. I walk a lot, and this kind of extreme walking is kind of fascinating.

The truth about certain events isn't fully known, and Heiligman is up front about this. The incident in which Vincent lost an ear, for instance. He claims he did it himself, but there is doubt and suspicion that he may have been covering for someone. Same as with the gunshot injury that he eventually died of. He says he shot himself, but the location of the wound isn't typical of a suicide and there was speculation he may have been accidentally shot by kids and covered up because he didn't want them to get in trouble.

I should also mention there was lovely art throughout the book, including a section of many of Van Gogh's paintings. One in particular, of a windmill, is not well known but Heiligman realized it was the site of a pivotal point in Vincent and Theo's relationship, and it became the central idea of the book. The painting, called The Laakmolen near the Hague, is a watercolor that happens to be for sale right now. (In case you were looking for an extra special gift for that special someone this year.)

I'm so glad we picked this for my book group. I was never especially interested in Van Gogh's art until I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam several years ago. Considering how short his art career, he was quite prolific and the museum include many of his most famous pieces, as well as pieces by artists he was influenced by, such as Jean-Francois Millet. I gleaned some basic information about Van Gogh's life from the informational plaques at the museum, but it's great to finally read a full accounting of his life. It seemed both thorough and easy to read. I recommend it if you're interested in Van Gogh in particular, or interesting lives in general.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2018 TBR Pile Challenge



I'm so happy that Adam from Roof Beam Reader is hosting this challenge again! I've been doing it on my own the last couple of years and I'm really looking forward to participating with other people again.

As you know, I stopped keeping an official TBR list, though I started up again recently in a very limited fashion. My books are ones that I know were on my Goodreads "To Read" shelf previously, that I've wanted to read since they came out (pre-2017), or that I'm somehow otherwise fairly certain I've wanted to read for more than a year. For instance, I first read about Assata last December when I was prepping for my January display of books by black women. And one of them was on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge and I failed to read it but still want to. I swear I'll read you this time, A Little Life!

Without further ado, here's my list:

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (finished 1/21)
2. Longbourn by Jo Baker (finished 2/25)
3. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (finished 7/14)
4. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (finished 2/16)
5. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
6. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (finished 3/18)
7. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
8. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (finished 5/30)
9. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (finished 7/6)
10. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
11. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (finished 7/28)
12. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (finished 1/27)

My alternates:

1. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (finished 4/21)
2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

There are some long books on here, and also more non-fiction than usual. But that's why they call it a challenge, right? I feel most intimidated by Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie. Even some of the more fun ones are pretty long, like NOS4A2. I'm reassured by the shorter books like Giovanni's Room. I think it's a great mix of titles and I'm hoping to find some new favorites here!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Flight Attendant

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian (2018)

Cassandra Bowden is a heavy drinker, prone to blackouts. Such is the case after she landed in Dubai, and spent the night with a passenger she had met and flirted with on her flight. She woke up in his hotel room in the morning, bits of the evening slowly coming back to her: drinking lots of arak, coming back to the hotel room, a female guest named Miranda who brought a bottle of vodka, breaking the bottle, leaving the hotel room. Yet here she still was. Then Cassie finally turned her head to look at Alex Sokolov, and saw that he was dead. Panicked, she feared that maybe she killed him. Even if she hadn't, just being beside him in the bed would surely implicate her. So she slipped out of the room and caught her next flight.

This isn't a whodunnit. We know who did it by the next chapter, though we don't know why. More important though, is what happens to Cassie, the fallout from her decision to say nothing and leave the hotel room as though she didn't know a murder had taken place there. What could possibly make a person look more guilty? Especially a person known for being a party girl, for hooking up with a lot of guys, and for generally being irresponsible.

Do you ever read a book, see what the protagonist is doing, and want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them it's a really bad idea? I felt a little bit like that with Cassie, but it was also easy to understand why she made the choices she did. She didn't make these choices because the author needed her to in order to advance the plot; her choices were completely believable for her character. Her weaknesses were real, and they determined her behaviors. It wasn't pretty, but it was genuine.

But back to the plot. I don't want to give too much away, but there's some international spy activity happening here involving Russians. And Cassie, in addition to hoping she won't lose her job because of her involvement in a murder (oh, of course it comes out! She didn't cover her tracks that well) has a strained relationship with her sister who doesn't trust her, and the baggage of their whole family situation.

During this whole time that Cassie is waiting for the authorities to figure out she was in the hotel, and then waiting for the consequences of her involvement, she's trying to go about her regular life. She's reading Tolstoy's novella Happy Ever After, and keeps putting off getting a manicure because of inconveniences like having to meet with her lawyer. She also thinks a lot about her drinking, how much she enjoys the ritual of alcohol, how she's not an alcoholic because she can go days without drinking. But, all it took was one Negroni (her drink of choice) to start her on an all-night binge that resulted in hours of lost time.

I was drawn into this story from the very first page. In the scope of Bohjalian's work, it reminds me most of The Guest Room, perhaps because someone who is essentially a bystander makes one poor decision and gets drawn into an international crime scene. But another way that The Flight Attendant is similar to that book is that I'm likely to keep thinking about the main character for a good long time.

The Flight Attendant will be published in March 2018. I received my copy courtesy of Penguin Random House. I was not compensated for this review.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Top Ten Favorite Books of 2017


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Posting a list of my favorite books of the year before the year is over makes me anxious but I'm powering through it.

I made this list by finding the books I rated 5 stars on Goodreads (minus the 2 re-reads), then sifting through my many, many 4-star books to choose the ones I like most at this very moment. The Because I am fickle. This always makes me second-guess my book ratings. Like, why didn't I give 5 stars to Young Jane Young or Miss Jane or The Power when I keep recommending them to everyone I ever talk to? My ways are a mystery even to me.

Without further ado, I present my top 10 favorite books of the year. The first half are my 5-star reviews, followed by the top 4-star, but within that they're in no particular order. All links go to my reviews.

1. The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

2. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

3. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

4. Touch by Courtney Maum

5. Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

6. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

7. The Power by Naomi Alderman

8. Miss Jane by Brad Watson

9. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

10. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Interesting things about this list: 9 of them are written by women; 7 were published in 2017. It looks like 28 of the 95 books I've read this year were published this year, which I think is more newly-published books than usual.

I'd say it was a pretty good reading year!

What are the best books you read this year?

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Burning Girl

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud (2017)

Claire Messud's newest novel is essentially a character study about a teenage girl named Cassie, told from the viewpoint of her friend Julia. They've known each other almost their whole lives, and were best friends until drifting apart in middle school. Their families are very different; Julia, with a stable family, destined for college, and Cassie with her religious and protective single mother. Cassie's mother begins a relationship with a local doctor named Anders Shute, and when he moves in, the walls start closing in on Cassie. As her freedoms are taken away one by one, she becomes consumed with the idea of her biological father and enters a downward spiral that Julia feels helpless to stop.

The girls first meet Anders Shute after Cassie is bitten by a pit bull at a shelter where they volunteer. (Important note: it was her fault, though I'm annoyed that the pits were treated in a stereotypical "they're so dangerous!" way in this book.) Dr. Shute patches her up, but his slightly odd demeanor casts an ominous pall over the situation that extends to his later relationship with Cassie's mother. There's an implication that he may have inappropriate feelings for Cassie and may have deliberately sought her mother for a relationship to be closer to Cassie.

We never quite get a handle on Anders Shute, nor do we on Cassie herself, and that's one of the themes of this short book: you never really know another person. Julia observes that life is theater, and we all play roles. They may change over time, but we always choose what we let others see. To her, what's happening with Cassie is rather a mystery, just as many situations around us - especially when we're young and adults keep a lot from us - remain partially shrouded and unfathomable.

In keeping with the rather dark tone of the book, Julia and Cassie spent a lot of time visiting an abandoned mental asylum at the height of their friendship. (As one does - in my pre-teen years it was an abandoned house with lots of interesting stuff left behind from the previous inhabitants.) One of my favorite passages in the book was Julia speculating about what happened to the asylum's residents:

"In twenty years, they couldn't all have died - but even if they had, the world wasn't getting any less crazy. So the dying generation of crazies was being replaced all the time by new crazies, a rolling population of lunatics as constant as the tides. Unless it wasn't individuals that changed but society itself: they changed the laws, they closed the asylums, and suddenly the crazies weren't crazy anymore. Maybe when society changed it was decided, somehow, that they never had been crazy; it had all been a category mistake....That would mean you couldn't be sure about things. Better to believe that sane people were sane and crazy people were crazy and you could put the types of people on opposites sides of a wall and keep them separate, clean and tidy. Without that, where did the lunatics go? Where had they gone? Were they among us? Were they us?"

The reviews of this novel seem mixed, and the average rating on Goodreads rather low, but I quite liked it. It was dark, sad, and ominous, and Messud's prose was a pleasure to read. Her only other book I've read was The Woman Upstairs, and I like this one better but stylistically they're comparable. If you liked The Woman Upstairs, I would recommend trying The Burning Girl.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017)

When the Osage people were pushed off their land, they were relocatd to an area that turned out to have oil and they become quite wealthy. But in the early 1920s a rash of murders swept through the community, and efforts to investigate and bring those responsible to justice were thwarted. Finally, the organization that came to be known as the FBI, run by J. Edgar Hoover, got involved. Some murderers were caught, but it also turned out that the extent of the crimes went beyond what was previously suspected.

Grann starts his book with the story of the murder of Anna Brown, who was shot in the head. Another sister, along with her husband, was killed in a fiery explosion. Still another sister was slowly being poisoned until she went to the hospital where she was out of the reach of her husband. Many Osage women were married to white men, and it becomes clear that many of these men were playing a long game to get their hands on their wives' wealth. It was a huge conspiracy, with so many players involved it was almost impossible to stop it. Doctors, members of law enforcement, and other community leaders were themselves involved, so there was nobody victims or their families could turn to. When someone got close to solving the crime or implicating someone, they too were killed.

It's a story about a rash of crimes, but also about white supremacy. The government had promised the Osage they could stay on their land in Kansas, but when white settlers came in demanding the land, they were moved. (Among these white settlers? The Ingalls family. Now I'm even more interested to read Prairie Fires, which I think talks about this more.) American Indians weren't allowed to have control over their own finances, but were appointed white guardians. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

Killers of the Flower Moon is a thorough examination of a piece of history I knew nothing about, told in an engaging narrative style. I know pitifully little about America's indigenous people and the ways in which white people have destroyed their culture and communities, and this was a fascinating glimpse into one small piece of that history. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Top Ten Bookish Settings I'd Love To Visit


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today we're thinking about book settings we'd love to visit - how fun!

1. Hogwarts
Obviously.

2. Regency England
But I wouldn't want to live there.

3. West Egg, 1920s
I like a good party, and 20s fashion.

4. 19th century Russia
I've been to Russia, but man it's different now!

5. Lyra's Oxford
I just want a daemon, to be honest.

6. The small English villages where Helen Simonson's books take place.
They're so cozy and filled with people I'd love to spend time with.

7. Manningsport, NY
From the Kristin Higgins Blue Heron series, and I don't just want to visit, I want to live there.

8. The cold places: Alaska, Antarctica, etc
I know that's more than one place, but I can't remember which books take place in which settings, I just like the cold climates. Again, I wouldn't want to actually live there.

9. The far future world of The Power where women are in charge
I know it's still oppressive, but as a woman it would be a refreshing change

10. The fictional version of pioneer America
Look, I know that the real Ingalls family weren't the paragon of virtue that Wilder tried to convince us they were, and that they were among those who pushed indigenous people off their land. So I consider her idealistic world a fictional one, and I would like to visit it.

This was hard, because so many of the settings I read about - especially the ones that play such an important part in a story - tend to be either dystopias or set in wartime, and those are places I definitely don't want to ever go to.

What bookish places would you like to visit?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Knitting

I'm in Maine for my family's late Thanksgiving this weekend, and I finished the body of my sweater.



It looks terribly rumpled and there are loose ends everywhere, but you get the idea.

I'm very happy to be this close to finishing this seemingly endless project! I mean, it's not that close really, I've got two sleeves and a hood to knit now.

I tried it on to make sure the armholes were large enough and they seem fine. The sweater itself is a bit long, but I find that they tend to stretch horizontally which makes them a little shorter, so it should be fine. And if it's not fine, at least it will be finished and I can move on to something else.