Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Girl With All the Gifts

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (2014)

After reading a book about a haunted house (sort of) I moved right on to zombies. I didn't know it was zombies actually, or I probably wouldn't have picked it. But I got sucked in right away and by the time I figured out what it was about, I was too invested in these characters.

At any rate, the story begins with a girl named Melanie. She lives in a cell, and when she is taken out to go to class, it is with a gun pointed at her head while she is strapped into a wheelchair. She remains restrained while in class with other children who are also highly restrained. After class she goes back to her cell. Once a week she's fed a bowl of grubs. She doesn't seem especially upset at her circumstances, as this life is all she's known. She loves one of her teachers a lot, Miss Justineau. The only dark spots are when on occasion another child disappears and is never seen or spoken of again.

But this life is disrupted, and the story changes. I liked the beginning a lot - it reminded me of the early part of A Closed and Common Orbit. Then it became an "on the run" kind of book. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not my kind of thing. I used to watch The Walking Dead and the constant running and state of high alert just made me exhausted. So this book also made me a little exhausted. Still, I had to keep going to find out how it all ended.

I was intrigued by the author's idea of there being different kinds of zombies. Melanie is a special kind: she has the blood thirst and whatnot, but she's also smart and empathetic. She also has a great deal of strength and speed, which come in handy. She's a pretty powerful character all around.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in the story, but I will say that Melanie is on the run with several other characters that include her teacher, Miss Justineau, a research scientists, and a couple of military men. It's an interesting assortment, and one of the strengths of this novel was the way their interests all competed with one another, but that they had to work together as a team to survive.

It was only after I finished that I realized this is the first in a series. My heart sunk a little because, ugh, another series. But the ending was satisfying enough that I don't feel like I need to continue. At the same time, I'm intrigued enough about what happens next that I like knowing I can find out if I want to.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down: Chasing Myself in the Race Against Time by Ida Keeling (2018), narrated by Lisa Renee Pitts

When Ida Keeling was in her early 60s, both of her sons were murdered within a couple of years of each other. She plunged into depression. One day one of her daughters came to her and explained that she was taking Ida to run a 5k. She didn't know what else to do, but she couldn't let her mother continue to just sit at home in despair. Ida became a successful athlete and still runs today at the age of 103.

As it turns out, the book didn't actually talk a ton about the running. I expected her to really focus on that part of her life and how it helped her deal with grief, but that was really just a couple of chapters at the end. Mostly, though, it was just the story of her long and fascinating life. (Which is just as well since running is kind of boring.)

She was born in New York in 1915, and I really liked hearing about what it was like for a black woman growing up at that time. Interestingly, she had her two sons with a man she wasn't married to, which is something we seem to think was a huge scandal back then, but not the way she tells it. It turns out the reason this guy was dragging his feet on getting married is because he already was. Ouch. She talks about all the jobs she had in factories and what it was like to try and get by as a single mom. She lived through the depression, World War II, and civil rights. She went to hear black leaders like Malcolm X speak often, and was even present when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech.

Ida Keeling has lived a long time, experienced many things, and learned a lot from her experiences and observations. In many ways, she's pretty old school: she's a religious woman and thinks you should always listen to your parents, who apparently can't possibly ever be wrong. But she's far from stupid. She talks at one point about how men's heads are filled with "crap" that leads to the "good old boys" way of thinking. She also states the importance of not letting people aggravate you. She says, "Like President Barack Obama, I absolutely refuse to tolerate drama." She loves Obama.

This book isn't going to win any literary awards. Keeling is an athlete, not a writer. It wasn't terribly written, but she often used vague phrases like "or something" and "things like that" and listed the specific addresses of all the places she lived and worked. It was just a bit unpolished. Likewise, the narration wasn't of the quality that I'm used to. Again, not terrible, and none of this was enough to turn me off.

In the end, I came away with a great deal of respect for this lady who has learned and experienced a lot in her 103 years. She's smart and tough, has lived through a lot, and proves you're never too old to change your life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell (2015)

When I finished Catherine the Great, I wanted nothing more than to move on to a quick page-turning piece of fiction, and now that it's October I'm in the mood for horror.  A quick scroll through my To Read shelf on Goodreads reminded me of Slade House, which just happened to be available at the library. It was the perfect choice!

The story begins with a boy and his mum, Nathan and Rita Bishop, making their way to a party hosted by a Lady Grayer. They have a hard time finding Slade Alley, but finally they do and eventually locate a small iron door that lets them into the garden of the grand Slade House. They're greeted by Norah and her son Jonah. Nathan stays outside with Jonah, while his mother goes inside with the adults, but things in the yard start turning strange and, terrified, Jonah runs inside and as he goes upstairs he passes a series of portraits and sees that one of them is of him. In exactly the clothes he's wearing today. Things get stranger and stranger, and....well, the Bishops are never seen again. Nine years later, yet another person is lured in, and the cycle continues.

I won't say much else about the story, as that's something you should discover for yourself, except to note that there was a witness to the Bishops' disappearance which led to some speculation about what was going on there. But it takes place in the contemporary world so of course people are skeptical about anything supernatural and I kind of love that about stories like this. It makes it all the more realistic and creepy to me.

The book was so atmospheric - perfect for a gray fall day - and the characters are well developed so that you really feel for them and don't want a terrible fate to befall them. (It will though. Sorry.) This is a very short book, and each chapter focuses on a different character so I was impressed at how well we got to know each of them. What they experienced was creepy and scary, and they would finally realize what was happening only when it was too late to stop it. It was just what I was looking for.

I've read only one other book by David Mitchell - Black Swan Green, which I read way back in 2007 and didn't post about here. I remember liking it a lot, but it was a very different kind of book. I'd definitely read this author again!

Do you have any good creepy fall stories to recommend?

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (2011)

When she was just 14, Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst was summoned to Russia to become the wife of the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. They were married, and Sophia converted to Russian Orthodox Church and her name was changed to Catherine. The marriage was unhappy, but Catherine took advantage of every opportunity to educate herself in hopes of someday becoming Empress.

Peter was the one destined for the throne, of course, and although he was interested in power, he wasn't a skilled leader. Obsessed with toy soldiers into adulthood, he wore a Prussian uniform as he always stayed loyal to his native country rather than to Russia. He was immature, short-sighted, and had a terrible temper. His reign was brief.

Catherine was well suited to being a ruler. Intelligent and even-tempered, she had gained admirers, slowly building support until she needed it to take the throne. She admired Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, with whom she enjoyed a long-distance friendship, and used these ideas to move Russia towards a more European model that embraced the arts and culture. She cultivated relationships in a way her hot-headed husband never would have been able to.

She had many lovers over the years, who helped her produce the heirs she needed. Her marriage to Peter remained unconsummated for nine years, though the book honestly doesn't make it clear if and when it was ever consummated. Whether or not her son Paul was Peter's son has not been determined, but Massie posits that she took her first lover in order to produce a needed heir and that Paul was a result of this liaison.

I found so much to admire in this woman, and was foremost struck by how readily she was accepted as a ruler in the 18th century. Obviously there have been female rulers going far back in history, but I've always gotten the impression they were anomalies. Catherine directly followed Elizabeth, who came not long after Anne, and there was no mention of anyone taking exception to women ruling Russia (though late in the book I learned that after her reign, the rules of succession were changed and the Emperor or Empress could no longer name their own successor; the throne was automatically passed to a male heir.) It just made me think a lot about the way we view female leadership as something new and untried.

Some of Catherine's views would be unpopular today, such as her firm belief in the autocracy and hesitation in abolishing serfdom. As much as she admired certain progressive reforms in Europe, she remained fully committed to a benevolent autocracy. And while she tried some reforms to ameliorate conditions of the many serfs in Russia, she balked at the idea of doing away with the whole system. To some extent she knew what would and would not be possible in the the political climate of the day, but she also remained steadfast in some of her beliefs. She did at one point bring together a large body of representatives from all classes in all parts of Russia in an ambitious attempt to rewrite the entire code of laws, but with limited success. From this experience she learned how much more efficient decision-making is when there's just one person doing it.

During her reign she faced and overcame some major challenges. In one instance, that became known as Pugachev's Rebellion, a man claimed to be Catherine's deceased husband, rightful heir to the throne, and despite the fact that he was obviously not Peter, gained enough support that Catherine had to devote energy and resources to quashing the movement. She also had to contend with a deadly outbreak of smallpox, which she faced with the then-bold solution of vaccinations. And of course there were the various wars she had to oversee and contend with, and these were the parts I most struggled with. I always have a tough time reading about political situations, because it's all names and dates and abstract concepts that are difficult to picture. Luckily most of the descriptions were detailed enough that I could grasp what was happening.

Most of it, though, was surprisingly easy to read and understand. This is a dense book - almost 600 pages of rather small print that took me close to a month to read - but it never felt like a chore. Massie brought Catherine and her contemporaries to life in his prose, and provided enough context to really understand why everyone believed and acted as they did. It's a compelling story, written in a beautiful and engaging style. I honestly can't believe it hasn't been made into a mini-series. I only touched on the story here, but it's chock full of drama and twists and the setting alone would really lend itself to television. I will absolutely check out more of Massie's writing, probably starting with Nicholas and Alexandra, when I'm ready to take on another huge book.

I read this for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, bringing my total to twelve completed. This includes my two alternates, but I still have two unread on my main list. Will I finish them in the last three months of the year? We'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Arrangement

The Arrangement (The Survivor's Club #2) by Mary Balogh (2013)

Sophia Fry is a young woman who lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin and is mostly ignored by them. She thinks of herself as the Mouse, and draws herself that way, in a corner just observing what goes on around her. But one day she takes it upon herself to dress up and go to a ball. Everyone in town is attending but her family doesn't invite her and are surprised when they see her there. Her cousin Henrietta is trying to throw herself in the path of Viscount Darleigh a wealthy man she wants to marry, despite the fact that he is blind. But Sophia sees what is going on and rescues the Viscount, consequently getting thrown out of her house. The Viscount, Vincent, is incredibly grateful and proposes a marriage of convenience: his family will stop harassing him to get married, she won't be living on the streets, and after producing an heir they can live independently, which is what they both want.

Predictably, they fall for each other. Less predictably....there's not much else to it, really. I expected some sort of conflict, but there isn't really one. Technically, the thing getting in their way is their arrangement because they've agreed to part ways and then both realize they don't actually want to. Well, just go ahead and say so.

Don't get me wrong - it's a pleasant enough story and I liked both of the characters. I liked reading about Sophia and the reasons why she has been more of an observer than a participator, and I liked reading about Vincent and how he was blinded in the war and the horrible time he had getting used to it afterward. Together, they work to make the grounds of his estate more conducive to his independence so he doesn't always have to rely on another person helping him around.

The only thing I actually didn't like was near the end when Vincent confronts a guy who damaged Sophie's self-esteem when she was very young. Vincent takes it upon himself to beat the guy up, which is a stupid display of manliness that doesn't to anything to remedy the situation (the damage was done long ago.) But he does this without Sophie's permission, which I think is shitty. Especially since during the confrontation he tells the guy how much his words and actions had hurt Sophie. So, okay, you're revealing her innermost hurt to someone she dislikes and mistrusts in order to justify beating him up so you'll feel better. Got it. I really, really can't stand when men feel a need to defend women as though we are weak and need defending, and without being asked, or even consulting us. However, Sophie wasn't terribly upset and in fact I think she was touched that Vincent cared enough about her to face this guy. So I guess I'm okay with it on her behalf even though I personally find it icky.

I liked the first book in this series much better, though the writing and characters were just as compelling. It was just the plot (and that one annoying bit that got my feminist hackles up) that I wasn't terribly impressed by. And I do really like the whole conception of this series - a group of close-knit friends who all survived a war but with disabilities - so I may revisit it someday and try out the next book.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

September Wrap-Up and Plans for October



I'm glad it's the end of the month and time for my Monthly Wrap-Up because I've had nothing to post for two weeks. Read on to find out why...

Reading


Obligatory dog pic
I'm still reading Catherine the Great, and Mary Balogh's The Arrangement on the side. This is why I've had nothing to post! I haven't even started an audiobook since I finished One of Us Is Lying because I've been catching up on podcasts. Though I did just take advantage of an Audible sale and now I have 3 new audio memoirs on deck.

I only completed 4 books total in September because of my devotion to Catherine the Great. No regrets though! It's been great to really sink my teeth into such a huge, rich tome. I'm looking forward to posting about it in....oh, about a hundred pages from now.

Listening


I've started a new podcast! It's called Last Seen and it's all about the Gardner Heist. If you're not up on the world of art theft and/or don't live in the Boston area you may not be familiar with this case. The largest art theft in history occurred in the 1990s at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when two men dressed as cops entered the museum in the dead of night under a false pretense, tied up the two guards, and made off with priceless art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others. It has never been recovered and the culprits still haven't been caught. It's a fascinating case.

Watching


I've slowed down a bit on Jane the Virgin as I'm not a huge fan of long-term love triangles, but I'm sure I'll continue to watch at some point. I'm very excited that The Good Place has returned because I really need this humor right now.

My library has just subscribed to the streaming service Kanopy, which has a lot of the Great Courses, so I've started watching The Big History of Civilizations. My knowledge of history is very spotty, and I think this big overview might help me a lot. So far it's very interesting! (Like, did you know that the Paleolithic era constitutes 96% of the time there have been humans on the earth and it ended more than 11,000 years ago? It's crazy to think about how insignificantly short modern history has been in the grand scheme of things.)

Cooking


I tried a couple of new recipes from Dinner by Melissa Clark. One was Garlic-Chile Chicken Breasts, which was extremely spicy but probably would have been good had I not overcooked the chicken. The other was the very simple Sardine Crostini, which was pretty delicious if you like sardines. And I made the Spicy Pork and Black Bean Chili again, but with ground beef and kidney beans, and I left out the sage, so it was more like traditional chili. I made some accompanying gluten-free corn bread from this recipe I found online.

For years, Moosewood Cooks at Home has been a go-to cookbook for me, but I hadn't ever made the Asian version of Fish in a Packet until this month. I'll definitely make it again! It was quite simple, tasty, and healthy.

I'm ending the month with a new favorite, Chicken Marsala Meatballs with Egg Noodles from Smitten Kitchen Every Day. Except my store didn't have ground chicken so they were made with ground turkey. It's still bird!

Also, I have finally bought a bundt pan! Today I made the Classic Yellow Bundt Cake from the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook. It wasn't difficult and came out pretty well. Part of the reason I don't make cakes is because there are only two humans in my household and we shouldn't eat an entire cake. So Eric is taking a lot of it to work.

Doing


Saw this beauty in my aunt's yard!
I mentioned at the end of last month that I was having a get-together to discuss On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder as part of an off-and-on political discussion group that I started. We met, went through the book and discussed it chapter by chapter, and ate and drank and socialized. It was fun and we had a great discussion!

I saw a show called The Black Clown, which was based on this poem of the same name by Langston Hughes. It was an emotional and powerful show, filled with excellent music. I also went to the Museum of Fine Arts earlier this month to attend a knitting get-together with a friend, but then we checked out an exhibit on Casanova's Europe and then had brunch in the museum restaurant.

We finally got our back yard fenced in so the dog can run around off leash. She was extremely excited to chase after balls for a while, but now she is just obsessed with the tennis balls in an unhealthy way. I take her to the yard, she picks one up in her mouth and won't let it go for anything. And now once she does this, she won't let me come near her so I've become hesitant to even let her off the leash. Why you gotta ruin everything, Petri?

Unusual flower at Old Mystic Seaport
This month was also my annual family trip to CT. Every year my sisters and my niece drive down from Maine, pick me up, and we continue on to my aunt's house for the weekend. This year while we were there we visited Old Mystic Seaport which is not at all what I thought it was. I thought it was just maybe a cute little town on the ocean? But no, it's one of those historical villages like Plimoth Plantation or Sturbridge Village. Well. Had I known I would have visited years ago! This one's a little different though because the people who work there don't dress up and pretend to be old-timey people. But they still do demonstrations, which is the important thing. Plus it's a seaport, so there are ships you can go on in addition to visiting businesses and houses.

Also this month I finished the sock I've been working on and started the second of the pair! Still no movement on the sweater, but I'm determined that October will be the month I finally wrap up that project. I also went to Zumba a couple of times and, boy, I forgot what good exercise that is. I hope I start going regularly again because it's also fun. And I attended a fun sing-along that my library hosted, and dragged our new teen librarian along with me.

Plans for October


There's a professional conference I usually attend in October, but for various reasons I've decided not to go this year. I'm looking forward to just catching up on day-to-day work stuff, doing some planning, and having whole weekends (that conference eats a Sunday.)

I don't have many plans outside of work right now. I'll be getting together with a friend to cook, and I've got Cookbook Club at the end of the month. (I'll be using my new bundt pan!) And of course I plan to finish that sweater that I started two years ago now.

How was your September?

Monday, September 17, 2018

One of Us Is Lying

One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus (2017), narrated by Kim Mai Guest, MacLeod Andrews, Shannon McManus, and Robbie Daymond

Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, Cooper, and Simon are all in detention. Outside the window, they all see an accident in the parking lot and their teacher leaves to make sure everyone is ok. While he's gone Simon gets a drink of water, and then falls to the floor, struggling to breathe. His EpiPen isn't in his backpack, and all the EpiPens are missing from the nurse's office. Simon dies. Everyone else in the room is now a suspect. But when the investigation tries to uncover who might want to kill Simon, it turns out he had a lot of enemies.

I was riveted from the beginning, and had so much fun trying to figure out who was behind Simon's death. I don't often try to figure out mysteries because I'm terrible at that, so usually I just go with it. But with this story I kept feeling like there were clues everywhere, if only I could just put them together. I knew there were red herrings because of all the kids who didn't like Simon or who had been hurt by him. He had made a name for himself by finding out people's secrets and revealing them through a app he designed which, as you can imagine, made him unpopular but notorious. And the four kids in detention with him definitely had secrets.

The book was narrated by the Bayview Four, as they came to be called, and getting to know them was one of my favorite aspects of the book. Bronwyn is a super-perfect excellent student. Addy is pretty much controlled by her boyfriend Jake, who she has been with for two years. Cooper is a baseball player hoping to turn the sport into a career. Nate has a very rough living situation and a bearded dragon named Stan. Because of their situation, of course they got to know each other during the investigation, supporting each other while trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Although I liked some of these characters more than others when the book began, I came to sympathize with all of them and really appreciated how they changed and grew during this experience.

I was a bit hesitant to listen to the audio version of this one, but there are four different narrators and they sound different enough that I had no trouble distinguishing them. Each chapter also begins with the name of the character who is narrating, so that helps. I got into the story right away and couldn't wait to get back to it each time. Altogether, a totally satisfying read that I'm sure I'll recommend over and over again.

Friday, September 14, 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

Once again I have read an entire book and, only when sitting down to write about it, realized that the narrator was never named. I keep falling for this - how do I not realize it while I'm reading?

Our narrator is a beautiful, wealthy young woman. Her parents are both dead and her inheritance will sustain her for a year while she essentially hibernates. She has found a total quack of a doctor (who I think could be a whole book herself) to prescribe lots of drugs for insomnia, including one that causes 3-day blackouts. She emerges from her apartment only to visit the corner bodega for coffee and food. She occasionally sees her best friend Reva, who is pretty loyal given how she is treated by her so-called friend who seems completely uninterested in her. Reva's mother is dying and our narrator responds by being annoyed at Reva's need to talk about it. She's also still in contact with Trevor, a guy she had a relationship with and now is half-heartedly stalking by phone. This is her life: live in squalor, take drugs, sleep, don't care about anyone, don't care about herself, sleep some more.

There's not much of a plot here, which is enough to drive some people away. I get it. Sometimes you need a story, or at least a likable protagonist, and this book contains neither. It's one of those books that everyone seems to either love or hate. I'm in the love camp. This person is just so screwed up, but I can kind of understand the motivation to just step away from the world for a while and get a whole lot of rest for a long time. I was a little jealous at times. Except for the part about the drugs. I'm not a fan, especially of something that will cause you spend three days doing things that are kind of out of character and that you don't remember later. She actually went out clubbing during her hibernation while on these drugs.

I love a good character study, especially when it's about someone on a downward spiral (see also: The Cry of the Sloth, etc.) But Moshfegh's writing style deserves a lot of the credit for my enjoyment of this book too. When not a lot is happening, you need to write about it in a way that will keep the reader's interest and she did that for me. It's hard to say exactly what about it is so good, but I think the dialogue and commentary is just rather colorful and dramatic somehow, and the narrator just has so many unexpected observations and dreams and strange thoughts that she recounts. (I mean here is a person who can't drum up any feelings towards anyone or interest in much of anything, but absolutely loves any movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.) It also doesn't hurt that all the characters are pretty bizarre and screwed up, not just our narrator.

This book is not for everyone. But it was definitely for me.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner (2009)

The characters in this story all live in an apartment building that has been without running water for months, and must rely on an outside latrine in their courtyard. Also in the courtyard is a heap of garbage, several clawfoot tubs, and a band of homeless children. The first person we meet is Olga, who works as a translator for the newspaper the Red Star, and must rewrite news in a way that is palatable and less upsetting than the reality. Her son Yuri works at a museum full of not original art, but replicas made by the employees out of everything from tin foil to chewing gum. His girlfriend Zoya also works there and lives in their apartment complex with him and his mother. Tanya works in the coat check at the museum, lives in the same apartment building with her grandmother, and has been in love with Yuri for a long time. She aspires to work for the airline Aeroflot, but needs to lose weight first to fit with their requirements. The final main character is Azade, the old woman who sits outside of the latrine and charges everyone for using it. Her husband, Mircha, begins the story by jumping off the roof of the building to his death.

He's not gone though. As his body remains under a pile of snow in the courtyard, he also visits the characters throughout the story giving them advice. Like Yuri, whose girlfriend Zoya is desperate to get pregnant, while Azade's son Vitek is trying to convince him to join up and go to war. But Yuri already went to war and hasn't recovered. He is plagued by the memories, by the ticking he hears in his head, by Zoya who he's really not happy with. But he's not taking charge of his life. His mother Olga is also struggling. She's becoming increasingly upset at the lies she is force to write for the newspaper, but she can't tell the truth if she wants to keep her job. Only her friendship with her coworker Arkady makes her job tolerable. Tanya is also experiencing pressure at her job, when her boss asks her to fill out a grant application, and the result is a visit from some Americans who want to see the museum and are expected to stay with Tanya while they're visiting. In the apartment building with no running water and homeless children terrorizing everyone out in the courtyard.

Nothing is going well for anyone in this book, but it's the life they're used to and they just do the best they can what with they've got. It sounds like it could be depressing, but it's not. It's written in that uniquely Russian (I think?) absurdist style that is funny but darkly so. Some parts - including dialogue - read like rather poetic riddles. It's a very specific kind of story and writing that I imagine is not for everyone, but I like it.

The story doesn't have a lot of forward momentum and it's rather thin on plot, so although I liked it, I didn't exactly fly through it. Unfortunately, I also wasn't really in the mood for it when I started, but once I got going I was glad to be reading it. If you like absurdity and Russia and quirky characters, you might want to give it a try.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Radical Element

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls, edited by Jessica Spotswood (2018)

Back of November of 2016 I posted about A Tyranny of Petticoats, a feminist anthology edited by Jessica Spotswood. The Radical Element is the follow-up, and it's just as good.

There weren't any stories I disliked, but four of them particularly stood out to me. "Lady Firebrand" by Megan Shepherd takes place in South Carolina in 1863. Rose is visiting an aunt and uncle with her friend Pauline, a free black woman. They are unhappy about Pauline's presence, but Rose claims she is specially trained to help people who use wheelchairs (which Rose does). Coincidentally (or not?) their visit coincides with a rash of crimes committed by a mysterious Northern Sympathizer called Lord Firebrand.

In "Step Right Up" by Jessica Spotswood, a young woman in Tulsa in 1905 eagerly anticipates the annual visit by a traveling circus. She has been obsessed by the high wire act since she first saw it, and hopes that this year she can finally pursue her dream. Ruby's Uncle Jack, however, is an abusive hothead who doesn't care what she wants and she'll need to contend with him before she can really be free.

Anna-Marie McLemore's "Glamour" is set in the roaring 20s and stars a young woman who is pursuing fame despite not looking the part, but she has a special power that allows her to change her appearance. Grace is Mexican-American and disguising her appearance doesn't keep others' cruel words from affecting her. It's getting harder and harder to pretend she's someone she's not, but how else can she fit in?

"When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" by Dhonielle Clayton is about a very unusual family with a secret they've kept hidden by moving to a new place every few years. Emma is tired of just being a teenage girl who needs to obey her parents, and can't ever form friendships because they'll just be over the next time they need to move. She wants to do something more with her life, something real, something involved, but she also needs to keep her secret closely guarded.

Interestingly, these last two contain otherworldly elements, magical realism, I guess. I remember from A Tyranny of Petticoats the stories I liked least were those with the same kind of elements. I don't know if these stories are just better or if my tastes have changed, but I was a little surprised at how much I liked "Glamour" and "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough." I was less surprised how much I liked the first two I mentioned. These stories are full of young women trying to make their lives their own, despite the expectations of those around them. In some cases, the characters are non-white, which proves extra difficult in the context in which they're living, and the stories also include LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. There are all sorts of ways these characters are being hindered from living their best lives, but still they persist.

I found the stories in this collection inspiring and hopeful, and just as with A Tyranny of Petticoats I also learned more about the historical periods in which they took place. The authors included notes about the settings and characters which give us a broader context in which to understand the stories. All together this was a very enjoyable collection, and I've found some new authors I now want to read!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (2012)

It started with a book. An unusual book from an unknown source with a cryptic message. But not just one - they were mailed to a number of people, mostly neurologists, and one of them contacted Jon Ronson in hopes that he could solve the mystery. He did, but it became part of a much larger mystery about the nature of psychopaths, and their prevalence in society. Ronson got to know Scientologists, a patient in a hospital for the criminally insane who claims he doesn't belong there, a CEO who may or may not be a psychopath, and a guy named Bob Hare who invented the test that will tell you if someone is a psychopath.

It's an entertaining story that feels more like multiple stories loosely woven together. Very loosely. You might say tenuously. Ronson speculates a lot about people who may possibly be psychopaths and weaves them into the story, which is not a complaint. Just don't go into this expecting a clear cut logical narrative.

I've not read anything from Ronson before, but he's clearly a fairly neurotic anxietal kind of guy, but not in a bad way, in a way that is relatable and a little humorous. I especially appreciate that after learning about the psychopath test and the factors to consider when evaluating someone he kept applying them to himself. Like if he did something impulsive or expressed a slight lack of empathy he would immediately worry that perhaps he was a psychopath, which would cause him great anxiety. It should be noted that one expert he talked with said that if you recognize some of the traits within yourself and are becoming worried that you might be a psychopath, you're not. Which was a great comfort.

A couple of stories stood out to me as particularly fascinating. One was about a woman named Rachel North who survived the 2005 London subway bombing, wrote about it online, and then was subject to harassment by a group of conspiracy theorists who claimed the entire thing was a hoax. I'm honestly not sure what this had to do with psychopathy now that I think of it, but it was an interesting and scary story. Another one had to do with experimental treatments in a psychiatric program where the patients were all high on LSD and doing very long intense group therapy sessions naked. I don't know why anyone thought this was a good idea, but at the time it apparently seemed legit to whoever has to approve such things.

One of the more interesting themes in the book was the nature of mental illness itself. The Scientologists really enjoyed making fun of some of the conditions added to the DSM, like Internet Addiction and Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Relational Disorder. They clearly don't understand that sometimes things cross a line and make it hard to be a functional human, but it does beg the question: where is that line? When is something part of human nature and when is it a disorder that should be treated? When is a person eccentric and when are they mentally ill, and is the line between the two just an arbitrary distinction based on one person's decision?

I found this to be an entertaining read, but I didn't think it delved very deeply into the issues. Rather it sort of meandered around in a way that was still fairly enjoyable. It didn't blow my mind, but I liked it well enough and it gave me some things to think about.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Wrap-Up and Plans for September



Reading


The best books I read this month were the first and second of the Wayfarers trilogy. But I also read The Song of Achilles from my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list and that was pretty great too! Convenience Store Woman was a short, odd little book that I've kept thinking about much longer than I expected to. I've also done some reading about planning, which I talked about in my review of Journal Me Organized.

I also read a little poetry here and there online, some sestinas and villanelles.

Listening


PEI dunes
I haven't been listening to any audiobooks this month, which is unusual for me. But I've been having a very hard time focusing, probably because I haven't been meditating and also because of lots of distracting things going on at work. So I've been mostly listening to podcasts and music. By the Book has been especially great, and I also went back and listened to some episodes of Dear Sugar, which I love but haven't been listening to much. And my new favorite, Slow Russian, but I save that for when I can concentrate for a short while.

Since I just saw Janelle Monae in July I've been listening to her a lot. I've also been digging "No Roots" by Alice Merton, "Hi Ho" by The War and Treaty (love that song!), and this amazing cover of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" by a band called Taggy Matcher that has made me want to seek out more good cover songs.

Watching


I've started watching Steven Universe based on a coworker's recommendation. It's cute? And I keep getting the theme song stuck in my head. The episodes are only 11 minutes long so it would be silly not to watch it. It's growing on me a lot.

A coworker mentioned they like Jane the Virgin, which was already on my radar as something I might want to watch. When this particular person whose views I trust mentioned it, I decided to start watching. It is so good! I'm a little obsessed.

I'm still watching Poldark, but kind of slowly. Eric and I are watching it together and it is rather dramatic so we're taking it slow.

Cooking


I'm still not doing a ton of cooking this month, but I think slightly more than last month. Dishes of note include Shakshuka and Roasted Sumac Chicken with Plums, both from Dinner by Melissa Clark. I am getting a lot of mileage out of this cookbook. They were both delicious dishes that I'd make again, and fairly easy. I've also been making some salads to take in my lunch for work, like this Orzo Pasta Salad which I make fairly regularly.

I also hosted Cookbook Club at work, which was a fun way to end the month. Our book this time was Appetites by Anthony Bourdain, which I honestly was not a fan of (though I had no problem scarfing down all the food everybody made.) The recipes were just very meaty for me and I had a hard time deciding what to make and finally settled on Belgian Endive with Curried Chicken Salad, pictured at right.

Last month I mentioned cutting down on food altogether and using an app to track what I eat, but ha ha ha! That hasn't been super happening. I ate 5 s'mores in one night while camping and I have no regrets. (Except that I still can't fit into my pants.) But the last few days of the month I've started being a bit more strict again.

Doing


I posted last month's wrap-up a little early because I was heading to PEI, a vacation which went into the first few days of August. It was lovely. We had beautiful weather, stayed at a charming Bed and Breakfast in Charlottetown, took day trips around the island, and of course ate a ton of delicious food. I keep joking that there is no seafood left in Canada because I ate it all. Even the oysters, which I think of as the phlegm of the sea. But they're so classy-looking when they're served, and they come with cocktail sauce and horseradish!

At the end of the month we went camping! When we went in June we got rained out after one night, but this time the weather was beautiful all weekend. You have no idea how happy I am that Petri has gotten to the point where she behaves enough to go camping. She really likes snuggling up with us at night in the tent. It's a special treat because she's not allowed to sleep with us at home.

Work has continued to feel very busy with interviewing and staffing changes and it's just not letting up! But thank goodness at least summer reading is over.

I've knit a lot of my sock! The sweater, though, it languishes. I just need to sew up some cuffs and attach the sleeves. Thing is, I held up the sleeves to the armholes and they didn't seem to be nearly the same size, which is a problem. I mean it's yarn, it's forgiving, I just need to sit down and do the thing. If they fit they fit; if they don't....maybe I can block it all into submission?

I still haven't gone to yoga again, and now maybe won't for a while because in addition to all the various health issues in my household this month, I have managed to injure my rotator cuff. Now I have a whole regimen of exercises, icing my shoulder, and taking a ton of Advil. It eats up a lot of time in my day, so I'm trying to plan and stick to my plan so I can do all the things in the day that I want to do.

Plans for September


In my wrap-up from last May, I mentioned hosting a group called Pizza and Politics. We actually haven't met since then (though I didn't realize it had been quite so long!) but I decided to do a one-off book group on Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny.  So that's coming up!

In other book-related plans, I'll be reading Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie with my same friend with whom I read War and Peace and Middlemarch. This book is on my TBR Pile Challenge list, which I'm zooming through.

I'm also looking forward to my annual family trip to CT, and a knitting get-together at the Museum of Fine Arts.

How was your August?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Journal Me Organized

Journal Me Organized by Rebecca Spooner (2018)

This isn't the sort of book I normally review - or read cover-to-cover for that matter - but I've been thinking a lot about my planner recently. Before this year I had been bullet journaling for a while (a year? more? I have no sense of time) but I got a little burnt out on having to create the framework for my planner. Even worse was having to do it at a certain time, since with a bullet journal you use however much space you need at the time rather than creating a structure with a certain amount allotted for each day/week/month. So it would suddenly be the last day of the month and I'd panic because now I have to create my new monthly spread and then the weekly spread for the new week and it all had to look pretty but it was a busy day and I only had like 10 minutes to do this project. I decided that I needed some structure.

Enter the Passion Planner. I did a lot of research into planners in late 2017, and this one appealed to me for a lot of reasons. It has a structure, it has a built-in goal tracking feature, and a list of questions at the end of each month to evaluate how the month went, what I learned, etc. It's filled with inspiring quotes! It's designed by a young woman of color, not a huge company! It has a social media presence with various tips and tricks! The month page has spaces to fill in a monthly focus, places to go, people to see, and a "not to do" list. The weekly spreads also list a focus as well as a spot for "good things that happened." Halfway through the year though, the planner started to physically fall apart. I had also become frustrated with the weekly layout because the space for each day was split up by the half hour. My day isn't a schedule, it's a to-do list - so I washi taped over the times and just make lists, but it's really too narrow. The spots could be wider if space wasn't allotted to the weekly focus and good things that happened, which I didn't use after the first few months anyway. I do like the goal-setting aspects, and the monthly evaluation questions. Clearly, I know what I want and I'm going to need to make it myself.

What I'll do is use a blank journal but instead of creating it as I go along, bullet-journal style, I'll create a structure that works for me. I'll definitely be borrowing aspects from the Passion Planner, but leaving out what didn't work for me. So I was looking around for inspiration and Pinterest is honestly far too overwhelming. I also find that all the bullet journal stuff there is too much about being artsy and looking pretty and not enough about being useful. Plus there are always a zillion lists like "50 things to put in your habit tracker" or "create a page where you list all the new hobbies you want to start" and I'm not trying to find more stuff to do, I just want to be more organized about what's I'm already doing. Just at the moment I was looking for it, I saw that a book called Journal Me Organized by Rebecca Spooner was about to be published and I requested it from the library.

It's divided up into four main sections: Getting Started, Breaking It Down, Collections, and Step by Step. In Getting Started, Spooner introduces the difference between cerebral and creative planning, cerebral being more structured (this is me!) and creative being a looser, more artsy method. She also talks about tools - the actual journal, pens, markers, etc - and how to plan your planner and establish a planning routine. Section two, Breaking It Down, delves into all the layouts: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. It ends with Specialty Planning, which includes habit trackers, time trackers, meal planning, and other sorts of specific planning you may want to add. Next is Collections, which are basically lists, or places to organize ideas about something in one spot. Some of these might include a cleaning schedule, bill schedule, movies and tv shows to watch, books to read, goals, rainy day ideas, evening or morning routines, and my favorite: 10-minute tasks, a handy list of things that need to be done that you can do when you have just a short bit of time. The final section, Step by Step, contains detailed techniques for brush lettering, watercolor painting, creating custom tabs, bookmarks, pockets, and even creating your own notebook. At the end of the book is a list of resources, an index (yay!), and templates for lettering and illustrations.

This is a large format book complete with lots of examples, illustrations, and pictures of her planner pages. I'll admit I got very distracted by reading her sample pages and trying to figure out her life and what some of her items mean, which is totally beside the point but also gave me some good ideas. Also I can't believe how busy this woman must be. She's got five kids who she homeschools, plus all the writing and social media stuff she does, plus selling books from a children's publisher, plus all the regular household stuff which includes cooking a whole big meal every night because with seven people in your household you don't have a lot of leftovers.

Despite all she's managing to plan in her own life, I found her advice very forgiving. She's so low-pressure about trying different things and just seeing what works. She acknowledges that no matter how organized or pretty you try to make your planner, there will be mistakes and messiness, and she includes photos of pages where that happened, and pages that she just didn't like how they came out. I found this all SO much better than looking for ideas on Pinterest where everything is completely perfect and the vast amount of content is so overwhelming.

As for what I'll take from this book, I'm definitely a more cerebral kind of planner. Spooner uses a lot of artsy watercolor on her pages which isn't my kind of thing (and honestly way too much effort) so I didn't pay much attention to how to do that, but I may try some of her other layouts. I mentioned earlier how much I like her 10-minute list, and I think I might try to use that. She also talks about "scripting," which is describing a plan for the day rather than just listing out tasks. She likens it to coaching yourself and says it can be motivational as well as rational. I'm intrigued and may try this in my journal (I don't tend to do much writing beyond lists in my planner) although I will definitely still have to-do lists in my planner. I just like the idea of thinking through my day before I create a list of tasks. I'd also like to add something for meal planning and some sort of loose cleaning schedule.

Overall, I found this book inspiring and filled with great ideas for setting up my new planner. Having mostly just used Pinterest in the past, I liked the experience of using a book by one person who goes through the whole process and presents their ideas, and I may look for more books on this topic. Have you seen any books or other resources on creating planners that you found helpful? If so, please let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2012)

Patroclus is an awkward young man who commits a violent act and is exiled for it. He's taken in by a king who welcomes youth with nowhere else to go, and it is here that Patroclus meets the king's son, Achilles. They become constant companions, and eventually realize they are much more than friends. They spend an idyllic couple of years in training in the forest with Chiron the centaur, but then are called away to war. Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped and they are expected to go fight to get her back. Achilles is known to be a shining example of a man - fast and strong and brave - and Patroclus promised as a child to come to Helen's defense if it were ever needed.

There is also a prophecy, and Achilles's mother Thetis hates Patroclus and is not happy about their relationship, and the war goes on much longer than anticipated. Oh, and apparently Helen went willingly to Troy in the first place so why are they even fighting?

To start off, I should mention that I know practically nothing about Greek mythology and I was concerned going into this that I'd be lost, but it turns out that the book stands very well on its own. There's no assumed knowledge of anything, though I don't have a good sense what is from the original myths and what Madeline Miller created. I also wasn't sure I would like it because I've never been terribly interested in mythology, but it didn't feel like that was what I was reading. It just felt like I was reading a richly-detailed character-driven historical novel.

Her writing is beautiful and the characters came alive, and I felt like I got to know them and their lives in a way that made them feel so much more real than in the mythology. Gods and goddesses were characters in the story, and somehow she made them fit in, even though it's obvious they are not of this world. I was worried when Achilles and Patroclus left for war, because war is often rather boring and confusing to read about, but I never felt lost during this story. She didn't get too bogged down in the details of battle so that I couldn't see the larger picture of what was going on.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was beautiful and sometimes painful, their future always uncertain, and this was what the book was all about. The war was big, obviously, but it felt like a backdrop to their love story. All the parts about Achilles and his relationship with his mother, their training with Chiron, their friendship with Briseis - a Trojan woman the Greeks captured and whom Achilles claimed so she wouldn't be raped during her captivity - were all great parts of the story, but still seemed to exist only as something that affected Achilles and Patroclus, who were the real focus.

This was on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, and if it's still languishing on your TBR pile or list I suggest dusting it off and diving in. It's a great read!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)

Keiko Furukura was never like other people. When she saw other kids get into a fight on the playground she knew it should be stopped, so she grabbed a shovel and smacked one of the kids. When she found a dead kitten, she asked her mother if they would be eating it. She didn't seem to have the same feelings as other people and knew they thought there was something wrong with her. At the age of 18 she saw that a local convenience store was hiring and got a job. The training was very detailed and even included phrases they were supposed to use, and directives about how to behave. Keiko was relieved because now she knew exactly what to do to fit in.

Flash forward 18 years and she is now 36. She's still working part-time at the convenience store and it is pretty much her life. She's completely satisfied, but also aware that other people don't understand why she doesn't have a career or a boyfriend. She's never been interested in relationships, but when she meets another outsider she wonders if the appearance of a relationship would help her socially. Maybe everyone would stop asking about her dating life and questioning how she lives her life.

A lot of the appeal of the book for me was the unusual main character and the everyday details of her job. I kind of love detailed descriptions of everyday lives, especially when it comes to jobs that aren't office jobs (see also: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan.) She describes her tasks, such as arranging rice balls in a display case, and it all feels very comforting in its order. Keiko is a woman of routine, and I enjoyed the satisfaction she got from her job and her simple life.

But she was definitely playing a part. The specific directives of her job - how to greet and interact with customers - were supplemented by characters she took from her coworkers. She would often note that she was adopting another person's voice or tone in a given situation. In this way she attempted to fit in as normal. She says, "My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me." I tend to like unlikeable protagonists and while I don't quite consider her one, she's definitely not exactly likable and she's an outsider, and I don't actually understand her. Although we get the details of her life and some of her thoughts, I didn't feel like I had access to everything. Or rather, her inner workings weren't expounded on enough to really understand her. Which is fine - I didn't feel like it was lacking because it wasn't that kind of a book.

I wish I got a more complete picture of her life though. Her job is part-time, but I don't know what she did the rest of the time. It sounded like she worked from morning until evening, because it said she would often just bring something home from the store for dinner because she was too tired to do anything else. I also wondered how she still had friends, given that nobody really understood her and she wasn't exactly one to have fun. She would show up at gatherings because she was expected, but it always seemed very awkward. They would question her life choices and assume she must be desperate to find a husband, and she was ask why she couldn't go on as she was, and they would get exasperated. Often they just made assumptions and she would let them think what they wanted. It doesn't seem like there were very strong friendship bonds.

Still, I found it unique and refreshing. At 163 pages it's hardly an investment of time and I read the entire book in one (albeit lazy) day. I would say my time was well spent.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

From Here To Eternity

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty (2017)

After reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, I was very excited to hear that Caitlin Doughty had another book coming out. I follow her on Twitter too, and everything she writes is very thoughtful and interesting and gives me new perspectives on how death is viewed in our society.

From Here to Eternity is a journey around the world as Doughty witnesses death rituals in various cultures. It begins in Colorado with an outdoor cremation on a pyre, very different from the behind-closed-doors-with-special-equipment kind of cremation that is the norm in the US. Then to Tana Toraja, Indonesia for ma'nene,' a yearly ritual in which bodies of the dead are exhumed, dressed up, and walked around town. She goes to Mexico for Días de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, when the line between the living and dead dissolves and families welcome their deceased with altars and offerings of food. In North Carolina she visits the site of the Urban Death Project, an experiment in composting human remains. She travels to Barcelona, Spain where families can view their deceased loved ones at their funerals, but only behind glass. And graves aren't permanent resting places, but rented spaces where, once your lease is up, your body is transferred to a mass grave. Japan has a 99.9% cremation rate, and cremains are stored in a super-organized high-tech building in which you can scan a card and a crystal Buddha on the wall will light up to indicate where your loved one is being stored. After a cremation comes a ritual called kotsuage in which families are presented with the fragmented skeleton of their person, and they use chopsticks to pick up the pieces and put it in an urn. In Bolivia, many people collect ñatitas, skulls that are believed to have special power connecting the living and the dead. Our trip comes to an end in California with a natural burial conducted by Doughty's funeral home, and then she meditates a bit on other methods of burial and expresses her wish for a "sky burial" in which a body is cut up to be picked clean by vultures.

Her overarching theme is about all the different ways there are to mourn someone's passing and to treat their body, and her sadness that in the West our rituals are now controlled by business. In fact, she notes that after Hurricane Katrina, a group of Benedictine monks began selling low-cost handmade caskets and were challenged by the local Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors (though the courts sided with the right of the monks to sell caskets.) There's a lot of control over how our death rituals work. The open pyre in the first chapter is an exception to the rule, and there are a lot of rules. We're removed from death, we can't usually witness a cremation; in fact, as soon as a person is just a body they are whisked out of sight and we can't see them until they've been embalmed and made up by professionals. She says that the Western funeral industry likes to talk about dignity, but to them the word seems to mean rigid formality that doesn't take into account how an individual or family actually wants to mourn their person.

Her companion when she visited Mexico, another American named Sarah, had lost a baby rather far along in pregnancy. She felt pressure to keep silent in her grief so as not to depress others. In Mexico, she saw many altars and elaborate grave sites with mementos and photos of the deceased, including children. The pride with which the dead were remembered and celebrated was so different from what she experienced in the US.

Some of the rituals explored in this book might seem strange and off-putting to those of us used to the sterile standoffish customs we're used to, but there's a lot to be said for spending time with a body, or picking up fragments of bone with chopsticks. It's a way to confront the realities of death rather than avoid them, and having a ritual is for some people a productive way to channel their grief. Even if you don't want to have a natural burial or personally handle a family member's body after they've died, it's enlightening to understand why other people do.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers (2016)

As soon as possible after finishing The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I picked up the next book in the series. I read it in just two days (and now I'm on hold for the third one, but it just came out so I'm going to have to sit tight and wait my turn.) This one is about a couple of side characters from the first book, but I'll describe it without spoilers so don't worry about that.

Pepper is an engineer who has befriend an AI (Artificial Intelligence) and put her in a body kit. This means that an AI designed to monitor a ship is now living in a very human-like body. So the AI goes to live with Pepper and her partner Blue and tries to get used to her new situation. She picks the name Sidra for herself, and she is completely disoriented and frustrated by the fact that she can't see behind her, that she isn't permanently attached to the Linkings (which is like the internet), and she just doesn't know what to do with herself. Plus it's illegal to house an AI in a body kit, so she needs to do a very convincing job of acting human.

The other story being told at the same time is Pepper's backstory, from back when she was known as Jane 23. Her early life was spent in a factory, where she sorted scrap, determining what could be useful and what wasn't. She slept in a dorm with other girls, sharing a bunk with Jane 64. Their meals were just liquid in a cup, referred to only as "meals" and Jane had no idea there were different kinds of foods. The girls were watched over by the Mothers, which were robots. Obviously she escaped and it's a really fantastic story that I loved reading about, but I'm not going to ruin things by telling you all about it here.

We don't see any of the other characters from the first book, but I'm ok with that because there's just so much good story here and I grew to love being with these characters just as I did my old friends from book one. There weren't as many different species introduced here, but we got to see more slices of life, and I'm starting to think Becky Chambers can just keep writing more and more books set in this universe and I will never grow tired of learning about these characters, their worlds, and their histories. I can't wait to get my hands on book three!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Dating You / Hating You

Dating You / Hating You by Christina Lauren (2017)

Evie and Carter are Hollywood talent agents, who meet by chance at a party and are very attracted to each other. They both hesitate, because dating another agent is potentially horrible. They work constantly and are always at the beck and call of their clients. One person like that in a relationship is bad enough, but both of them? They'd never see each other. Nevertheless, they can't keep their eyes (and hands) off each other, so they go for it. Then, without warning, their companies have merged and they are now coworkers. Even worse, their horrid boss Brad tells them he won't ultimately be able to keep them both, so now they're basically pitted against each other in a fight to keep a job.

Brad was with Evie's company before the merge so she's very familiar with his ways - his misogynistic, jerkbag ways. Now that she's in direct competition with a man for her job, it's even more glaring. She is clearly the more experienced one, but Brad continues focusing on her one failure, never mind that every agent has had failures, and treating her like more of an assistant than an actual agent. Even Carter is horrified. But that's not enough to keep Evie and Carter on good terms. No, their relationship is now a fight to the death and they begin playing awful (but kind of hilarious) pranks on each other while trying to resist the magnetic pull that won't go away, regardless of their professional situation.

Everything about this was pretty satisfying. The way Evie dealt with her sexist workplace, the dynamic between her and Carter, and the look into a world that I knew nothing about. I've probably spent about 4 seconds of my life thinking about talent agents before reading this book. It's a professional I've only been vaguely aware of. Are there even any other books or movies that focus on talent agents? I'll be honest, it's not something that actually appealed to me and I wouldn't have picked the book up based on the description. I read because I kept hearing how good it was from many different sources from blogs to book review journals. And I know that it's impossible to tell from a plot summary whether something is good or not, so I'm glad let my disinterest about the inner workings of Hollywood put me off.

I'm always happy to find a contemporary romance that works for me. It's not easy - there has to be something keeping people apart, and in the modern worlds that's difficult. The two-author team known as Christina Lauren found a very effective way to create a love/hate relationship that was a lot of fun to watch, and their writing style was clever, funny, and engaging. This book really lived up to the hype for me.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) by Becky Chambers (2014)

Friends, I've just read the most wonderful book! I kept hearing that it was good, and I even checked it out of the library once before and returned it without reading it. But this time I took it on vacation with me and we had the best time together!

As the title suggests, this story is about a journey to a planet. Ashby is captain of the Wayfarer and its multispecies crew. He has finally hired a clerk, which he was totally overdue for, and which has now given his team a more professional air and helped secure a very exciting new job. They are to create a tunnel to a planet called Hedra Ka, which has long been unfriendly to everyone but has suddenly joined the Galactic Commons. (Nope, not suspicious at all. Nothing to be concerned about.)

The new clerk aboard the Wayfarer is Rosemary Harper, who is trying to flee some secrets of her own. She's more than happy to take on her new job with her interesting crewmates. Like Rosemary, some of them are human: Ashby, Kizzy, Corbin, and Jenks. But their doctor/chef who they call Dr. Chef is a Grum (his real name is unpronounceable by humans) and he's described as a cross between an otter and a gecko, and he walks like a caterpillar on a few sets of hand-feet. Sissix is the pilot and she's an Aandrisk, a reptilian being with feathers on her head and claws. Her people are very physically affectionate beings and have a lot of casual sex, which is not considered especially private. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, is Ohan. They are a Sianat Pair, which are all infected with a virus called the Whisperer that gives them a much deeper understanding of space and therefore great value as navigators. They think of themselves and their virus as a pair, so they are always referred to as "we" and "they" rather than a singular pronoun.

What makes or breaks my experience reading science fiction are the characters. Sometimes they're two-dimensional because the story is all about the plot and the world-building, and those books just don't do it for me at all. These characters are all fully realized and genuine and I had a fun time with them on their long journey. This wasn't at the price of other factors though; in fact, the world-building was great, and totally borne out of the characters, each of whom had a story that told us more about the universe in which it takes place.

But I think what I liked best about this novel was the way all these characters from very different cultures communicated and worked together. Most of them spoke a couple of languages, and they learned about the histories of other species and, at the very least, their customs and conventions. They were all super aware that their own way was not everyone's way. And when they didn't really understand another species' ways, they still respected them. They still went along with it and didn't try to convince them their way was silly or made no sense. It was pretty great. There's a point in the story when Corbin is talking to Ohan about how Jenks is in love with Lovey, their AI on the ship, who doesn't even have a body. He says "I don't pretend to understand. Frankly, I find the whole notion absurd...But it doesn't matter what I think. Jenks thinks something different, and his pain is very real right now. Me knowing how stupid this whole thing is doesn't make him hurt any less." And Corbin is an asshole. But even he has respect for others' differences.

The cultures were so inventive and well-thought out too. Aandrisks will give one of their feathers to someone who has touched their life, and keep the ones given to them as a reminder of everyone they've had an impact on, which I thought was a neat practice. More interestingly, they don't see children as fully-fledged people until they get their feathers. The death of hatchlings is fairly common and to be expected. Sissix doesn't understand why an infant would be considered of more value than an adult, saying "the idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around." Me too, Sissix. Me too. I've never understood why we consider babies and children to be more important and valuable than adults (although I still think they're people, and don't think they are necessarily of lesser value.) And the Sianat Pairs! To think that a virus is absolutely necessary to your identity, even though it is greatly reducing your lifespan. So many philosophical questions come up in relation to Ohan and their species and their relationship with this virus. And I haven't even mentioned the Aeluons, who don't speak or hear as we do, but communicate through colorful displays on their skin.

Look, I could go on at length here, and I guess I already have. There's just so much interesting stuff in this world, and it's populated with people I really want to get to know more. It was super creative and a lot of fun to read. Fortunately, there are two more books in this series (so far? I don't know if it is complete) so I may pick up the next one. I read the description and it's pretty intriguing, though I haven't heard if it's as good as this one. But I'm willing to find out.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

A young American man named David is in the South of France, his girlfriend having just left to return to the US. David is about to return to Paris where Giovanni is being executed. He reveals the story of how he met Giovanni at a gay bar he visited with his friend Jacques, and how he began a relationship with Giovanni, eventually moving in with him. He knew it wouldn't last as his girlfriend Hella was in Spain only temporarily and would return, but Giovanni hoped otherwise. Eventually we learn what a huge mess David has made of everything and why Giovanni is being executed.

This is a very short book (my edition was 170 pages) but one packed with beautiful language and emotion. The atmosphere was one of a sort of tragic hedonism. David and his friends Jacques, Guillaume, and of course Giovanni drank a lot and drifted about aimlessly and hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. The language almost romanticized it at times, but also sharply conveyed the more sordid and ugly parts.

Considered a gay classic, Baldwin's publisher apparently initially balked at it because of the content. More recently, it has been acknowledged to be bisexual - it seems weird that it wouldn't have before, but I guess it took a while to accept that bisexuality is actually a thing. David had a relationship with a boy before when he was young, but he also loves Hella and does want to marry her. Even Giovanni also had a woman in his life before he and David met, and one with whom he shared a loving relationship before it ended with tragedy.

This is the cover of the edition I read and it's a little odd - I never understand occasionally an author's photo appears on the front cover. I would understand if the novel was more autobiographical, but I don't thing this one is. Also, from what I can tell, the characters are all white. (David is described as blond and Giovanni is Italian.) But of course this is just one of many editions, I just really enjoy a beautiful cover and this one doesn't do justice to the story within.

I can't believe I haven't read James Baldwin before. Why did nobody tell me how lovely his writing is, and how compellingly genuine his characters? I know he also wrote a lot of nonfiction in the form of essays, as well as short stories, plays, and poetry, so there's a lot to choose from. If you have suggestions about what I should try next, please let me know in the comments!

July Wrap-Up and Plans for August




Reading


I read THREE books from my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list, which is making me smug. This is what happens when I don't have any assigned reading for book groups or whatnot - I read things that I've been wanting to read for a while! Most notable was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I think everyone in America should read.

Listening

Boston Harbor Island view

I listened to the audiobook of the new Alyssa Cole novel, A Princess in Theory, which was even better than I expected. Another audiobook I enjoyed this month was the teen book Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson.

In between audiobooks I'm continuing to listen to my regular podcasts, including the newest one in my rotation, Slow Russian. I don't know how much I'm picking up from this because I feel like there are so many new words and expressions in every episode, but if I keep listening regularly I'm sure I can't help but increase (or rebuild) my vocabulary.

This month I also got to listen to Janelle Monae live! This is the second time I've seen her perform and she is just fantastic. The first time was a few years ago when she opened to Prince, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you how great that show was.

Watching


I saw the RBG documentary, which was great. I really didn't know a ton about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so I was very happy to learn about all her early cases that she chose because they advanced the rights of women. I also learned that she survived pancreatic cancer, which I didn't even think was possible, and that gives me a lot of hope that she might be immortal.

This month I also finished watching The Handmaid's Tale season 2, and continued with Poldark and Parts Unknown. If you're interested in travel to unusual places and you like food, I highly recommend that show.

A while ago a friend recommended the movie Mudbound, and I also finally watched that. It's about two families in Mississippi - a black family and a white family - during World War II. It's very upsetting, but also very good.

Cooking

Corn Fritters

Very little, mostly fritters. I had a lot of social plans this month which means I didn't have a ton of time for cooking. I ate a lot of things like tacos and pasta with pesto. But I did make the Zucchini-Cornmeal cakes from Dinner by Melissa Clark, which were actually a lot of work but very tasty, and the Corn Fritters from the Smitten Kitchen website, which were also delicious but easier to make. It was nice to be able to buy fresh ingredients from the farmer's market that's near my work. The only thing I cooked that wasn't fritters was the 8-minute Pantry Dal from the Oh She Glows website. Don't be fooled by the title, it takes a lot longer than 8 minutes. But you can use up whatever vegetables you have on hand and it is very easy to throw together in a pot, and then you can relax while it simmers away. I'll be making this again. And probably the corn fritters too.

In addition to all my social plans I've been making a concerted effort to cut down on food. When I pulled out all my summer clothes this year I found that some of them didn't fit. I've been using an app called MyPlate to track calories, though I'm not restricting myself as much as the app suggested because that's just not sustainable. It worked out fine this month, but I had little cooking time anyhow. I'm not sure how it will go when I do have more time for cooking and baking, but I probably won't find that out until fall. At any rate, I have a lot of cookbooks with options for pretty healthy fare so I'm not very concerned.

Doing


As I mentioned, I had a lot of social activities. July 1 was an annual day trip with friends to the Boston Harbor Islands, followed by a delicious seafood dinner in Boston. The following weekend I went to a party, and then spent an afternoon with a friend I hadn't seen in a while and we did an escape room, which was WAY more fun than I thought it would be. I had evening dinner plans with various friends throughout the month and then this past weekend was a friend's birthday and we went to the Janelle Monae concert.

Sock in progress
After not having gone to a yoga class (or my gym at all) for a year or close to it, I went to yoga this month and it felt amazing. I'm hoping I can get back into the habit of going!

In knitting news, I finally finished that second sleeve! All I have to do now is sew in the sleeves, sew up the hems and cuffs, and make and attach the elbow patches.

I have also begun another project! First time in close to two years, so this is big news. I started a black sock, because I am in need of black socks. I've been working on it on the bus and while watching tv, so it's moving right along already. It's the Chain Rib pattern from my old friend, Sensational Knitted Socks.

Plans for August


I'm actually posting this a little early, because I'm ending July and beginning August with a trip to Prince Edward Island. I've never been there before and I'm really looking forward to relaxing, eating, and enjoying nature.

Later in the month we'll be going camping again since we were a bit shortchanged by the weather last time. And I have unspecified plans to take a day trip with a friend one Saturday, so I'm sure we'll end up doing something fun.

How was your July?