Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Forever, Interrupted

Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2013), narrated by Tara Sands


I've been reading all of Taylor Jenkins Reid's books, mostly on audio, and all I had left was this one, which I believe was her first book. All I knew going into it was that it was about a young woman whose husband is killed. It turns out they were only married nine days - though I don't know if that's better or worse than if they were together longer - and the story goes back and forth between the current time period and the time before he was killed, starting on the day they met. It was a whirlwind romance and one of the things Elsie needs to deal with after Ben's death is the fact that he never told his mother about Elsie at all.

Elsie is a librarian, and it is clear that Reid did not do even 10 minutes of research about what that means. It is implied that her library degree is a bachelor's (rather than a master's), and because she went into library science she was making more money right out of school than her peers. (HAHAHA.) At her job, she doesn't work on the reference desk because that is left to those without degrees. (What?) Instead, Elsie appears to spend 95% of her time researching topics for displays, and the rest of it shelving or filing things. None of this is based on reality. Reading a few job ads or a short career profile online would have cleared that up right away. I tried to ignore all of this, but my god it was so annoying. And I hate to spoil things by talking about things that happen late in the book, but I'm going to. Elsie literally punches a library patron and doesn't get fired. In fact, although she's arrested she doesn't even get disciplined at work. She works for a municipality - this is completely unrealistic. I could go on about how laughably ridiculous everything was that related to her job.

I also had some minor issues with the aftermath of Ben's death. Like, why did nobody from his life appear aside from his family? Didn't he have friends? Coworkers? Someone outside of family who cared about him enough to go to the funeral or contact Elsie? And I thought his mother handled his death a little too well for someone who was still getting over losing her husband three years ago. It seems like this would have compounded her grief, but instead she was a pro at it because she had just gone through this all not long ago.

I didn't hate it all. If I had, I would have just stopped listening. I liked the whole premise of the story, and having such a young woman lose a spouse is unusual. When you add all the complicated circumstances surrounding their whirlwind relationship and 9-day marriage, there is really a lot to think about. After Ben's death, Elsie met his mother and I really like how the relationship between these two women evolved. Elsie also had a friendship with an elderly library patron named Mr. Callahan, and I also really enjoyed their relationship.

In many ways, it was much like her other books (except The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which is very different from all of them), but not as good. It's got her trademark breezy style and relationship story with a bit of a twist, but it just wasn't as convincing to me somehow. I just couldn't get into the story of their relationship because it went so fast it was bordering on insta-love. Also I am a super-cynical middle-aged married lady and while I love a good romance, I can't take young people falling instantly in love super seriously. Come on, you barely know each other.

If you are not a librarian and not a cynic, you might like this book more than I did. Some of my criticisms are more about me than the book (except the poor research - you should always do research) and even with those, I still finished it. I still listened every day on my commute, wanting to know where the story was going. I also just like Reid's style of writing, the relationships and the emotion in all her stories. The narration was good too, which made it all go down easier. It was her first book and I've read and enjoyed everything she's written since then, so it really doesn't affect my overall opinion of this author. In fact, I also just learned that she has a new book coming out in 2019 and I'm already looking forward to it!

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Outsider

The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)

A child is horribly murdered and mutilated, and all evidence on the scene points to an unlikely suspect - local Little League coach and all-around great guy Terry Maitland. However, Maitland also has an air-tight alibi. He was out of town with several of his teacher colleagues at a conference and was even caught on film at right around the time the child was killed. But how can you argue with DNA evidence? Detective Ralph Anderson and his colleagues don't think you can, but after arresting Maitland publicly and learning of his alibi, he has a lot to answer for. This is just the beginning of Stephen King's newest novel, which goes on for over 500 pages and ends up somewhere unexpected.

Somehow, I thought this book was more of a crime/mystery novel than traditional Stephen King fare. It's definitely about a crime, but things got pretty weird quickly. Without giving too much away (because everything I describe above happens very early) I will mention that the story brings in some elements inspired by folklore which can, of course, be incredibly creepy and I like how it was used here. There was also a real-life tragic event that happened in the past at a tourist attraction which also lent quite a creepy feeling to the story.

If you've read King's Bill Hodges trilogy you'll recognize one character, Holly Gibney, who is intriguing enough in her own right to make me want to finally pick those books up. As always, King seems to pull his characters out of real life, each one fully-formed and multi-dimensional as people you see every day. I don't know how he does this. They're all imperfect - some more than others - and watching Ralph Anderson grapple to explain something inexplicable, or Marcy Maitland try to reconcile her husband with the horrible person who committed a violent crime was satisfying, but familiar to anyone who's read Stephen King before.

The Outsider is pretty long, and I spent a full week and a half reading it, but it was well worth the ride. I can't exactly say I enjoyed it, as so much of it made me feel rather uncomfortable and a bit icky, but it was so well crafted and satisfying and I definitely liked spending time with these characters as they tried to unravel this strange mystery.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Long Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (2017)

Long Way Down is a novel in verse about a teenager named Will whose older brother was just shot and killed. Will has been taught the rules since a young age: no crying, no snitching, get revenge. So he finds his brother's gun and sets out to get revenge on the person he's sure is responsible for his brother's murder. He gets in the elevator and starts down. On every floor, another person gets on - a person who is dead and who tells Will another part of the interconnected story leading up to this moment.

It was a very quick read, though you do get a lot of story. At least enough to know that Will is learning a lot about where and how things can go very wrong when you follow these rules he's been given. It's clear that following them will only lead to more violence and death. It's also clear that he doesn't even know for sure who killed his brother, even though he feels sure about it.

I keep hearing in my head what my former Teen Librarian from a couple of years ago would say every time she read something about a black kid that involved the inner city and violence. She got very frustrated that the only black kids represented in teen lit lived in the inner city, came from broken homes, were involved in gangs, etc. So I do keep thinking about that. However, that's taking a broad view of teen books which, while important, isn't the whole story. This book itself is undoubtedly good. It's popular and has won awards. It really packs a punch. It says a lot with relatively few words.

At the same time, this sparseness of words is what I think kept me from getting into this story as much as I would have liked. I think I just don't love the novel-in-verse format. I know I loved The Good Braider, but that used a slightly different style of verse that was a little denser. Here, there really were just a smattering of words on each page. They were well-chosen words, but for me, I just like more of them, if that makes sense.

As a side note, I've heard that the audio version of this book, which Reynolds narrates, is fantastic. I considered that format, but it's only about an hour and a half long and I was looking for something to fill more hours of my commute.

This is the second book by Jason Reynolds that I've read (after Ghost, which I liked more) and I think I'll probably read more of his books. I'm especially interested in The Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017)


A newly-retired professor in Berlin is faced with empty, unstructured days. Not long into his retirement, Richard learns that a group of African refugees are demonstrating in Alexanderplatz. He becomes curious and goes to visit them, becoming very invested in their lives as he continues to learn their stories and educate himself about their home countries and the situation they are now in.

They came from different countries in Africa, all by way of Libya. From there they made it to Italy and were there for a while before ending up in Germany. This complicated route also complicated their legal status, so although they all wanted to find work and start their new lives, they were instead relegated to temporary shelters where they need to wait for their cases to be processed. Richard stuck with them as they were moved to a different facility, and tried to help them with their cases as much as possible.

There was so much to like about this book. Richard's quiet, routine life. The way he was drawn slowly into the lives of these men just because he didn't have much to do and his curiosity was piqued. There was a point at which I was afraid he was just being nosy or a half-hearted do-gooder white person, but he really cared and he took steps to try and help, with little regard for his own comfort and convenience. He really was a decent human being who wanted other human beings to have the lives they deserved.

I loved how closely he listened to the stories the refugees told him, and how he started spending time learning everything he could about their countries and their situations. He really thought about what they were going through, and what it must be like to be in their situations. It spilled over into his private life, of course, through conversations with various friends. Some also took up the cause, while others were less empathetic.

He's not perfect. He had a lover, even while his wife was alive, and he doesn't feel bad about it. Even as he visits the refugees, he becomes attracted to the Ethiopian woman who is teaching them German, and tries to maneuver opportunities to talk to her. But his heart is in the right place, and he's a humble man who is willing to admit what he doesn't know and tries to learn as much as he can in order to be a better person.

The writing was lovely, which I always feel strange commenting on when the book has been translated because I don't know how faithful it is to the original. But much of the pleasure of this book is how it's written. Here's a passage I like:

"He walks past the vacant lot where until recently a large villa stood with bay windows, a glassed-in veranda, and carved wooden ornaments, but now there's nothing but pallid sand waiting for the new construction to begin-- there's no better way to make history disappear than to unleash money, money roaming free has a worse bite than an attack dog, it can effortlessly bite an entire building out of existence, Richard thinks."

Through it all is another small thread, in which a man drowned in the lake near Richard's house last summer and the body has not yet been recovered. Nobody will swim there, except tourists who don't know better, and Richard thinks about it now and then throughout the book. It's just a little thing in the background, but it somehow added to the overall feeling of the story. Similarly, Richard often hearkens back to the days when Berlin was divided by a wall and he lived in the East. Borders are important in this story.

This isn't a fast-paced novel by any means and there's not a lot of action. It's literary to be sure (even though I'm not certain exactly what that means.) It's quiet and introspective and rather beautiful. Of course it's also timely, with today's divisive conversations about immigration and who should be living where, and what reasons are good enough to seek asylum in another country. It hasn't garnered a lot of attention - I hadn't even heard of it until I received it as a gift - but it absolutely deserves to be widely read.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Girl is Trouble

The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Miller Haines (2012), narrated by Rachel Botchan

I recently re-read The Girl is Murder for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group, and it spurred me to finally listen to the follow-up. In the first book, Iris and her dad had recently moved to the Lower East Side. He was injured at Pearl Harbor and her mother committed suicide, and now Iris had to leave her private school and nice neighborhood and live with a father she barely knew in modest accommodations while attending a new public school. He's a private investigator and she started helping him on cases, which he wasn't crazy about, and specifically one case involving a missing boy from Iris's school.

But now, we're getting back to Iris's mother's death. In the last book Iris heard a rumor that her mother had been having an affair, which maybe factored into her suicide. Now it looks like maybe it wasn't suicide at all. Meanwhile at school, someone has been putting anti-Semitic notes in the lockers of Jewish students, and Iris has been asked to investigate. It's World War II after all, and there are Nazi sympathizers even in the U.S. Although Iris herself is Jewish, she had felt relatively untouched by these sentiments though she was aware of Hitler and his ideas.

Iris and her friend Pearl have a conversation in which Iris mentions suspecting someone of being behind the notes, but says she can't believe it about them but if they did it they must have a good reason. Pearl says something very insightful to her. She says that even if it's her best friend she can't excuse them for it, because that's what leads to situations like in Europe. You need to speak up when someone does something wrong even if you like the person. It doesn't matter if they're a good person otherwise. The Nazis came to power in Europe because of otherwise good people being excused for bad behavior. I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it and it was a very powerful moment in this story, and also true. It's a valuable lesson for all of us, not just Iris.

There's so much more about this I found fascinating and relevant to any time where there's a rise in hatred towards certain groups of people and society is divisive in response. It gets very morally questionable in a way that I found kind of fascinating. It could lead to some great discussions, I think!

All the while, Iris is trying to chase down the person who she thinks murdered her mother, while ascertaining how much her father knows, and trying to figure out how her uncle Adam fits in. Plus, she's pretty sure her dad is hiding something from her and lying about where he's spending his time. She's also seeing a boy named Benny, who she became interested in during the first book, despite the fact that he insists on calling her Nancy Drew. (Ugh, boys and their stupid nicknames.)

As much as I liked the first book, I think this one was even better. Everything about the anti-Semitic notes at school, and the mysteries surrounding her mother was just SO interesting when you start finding out the secrets. Although it's a sequel and I do recommend the first book, I think this one can stand on its own. They were both great on audio too!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

April/May Wrap-Up and Plans for June



Oh my gosh, I completely missed the April wrap-up! A few days into May I realized I didn't do it and at that point it felt too overwhelming to do all at once so suddenly. I usually start it in the middle of the month and work on it a bit here and there until I can finalize it at the end of the month. ANYWAY. Here's two months of my life at one time!

Reading

I read some hot new books: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. And in the not-as-popular as it should be category was the new Peter Swanson book All the Beautiful Lies. And a hot-off-the-press nonfiction book that I highly recommend, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. This is probably why I forgot to do my monthly wrap-up - all these amazing books I was reading!

My April read for my TBR Pile Challenge was The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. It was actually an alternate, but it was what I was in the mood to read. In May, I've tackled A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

I've handed off my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group to our new librarian after the May meeting, so now I'm completely free of assigned reading for the foreseeable future. I'm sure I'll do something silly like sign up for a mid-year reading challenge or start another book group or something, but in the meantime I'm going to enjoy reading whatever I want to read in the moment (aside from my TBR Pile Challenge Books, but I did pick all of those myself.)

Listening

Notable audiobooks I listened to were The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley, which I bought on sale from Audible and then totally forgot about about for several months, and the new Alissa Nutting novel, Made For Love.

I saw Pink perform in early April, which was amazing, especially since we had crazy good seats like I've never had at this kind of show before. A couple of weeks later I went to see George Ezra. He's always fun to see perform live!

I've also been listening to the new Janelle Monae album, Dirty Computer, and will be seeing her perform in July. I never used to even listen to her and then I saw her open for Prince, and wow, she's an amazing performer. I'm very excited to see her again!

Watching


I'm watching the second season of The Handmaid's Tale, which is very good but also traumatic. Honestly, I know they've renewed for season 3 but I hope that's it because I'd like to think this situation comes to a happy end before too long.

Speaking of unhappy stories, I also watched the second season of A Series of Unfortunate Events and enjoyed it a whole lot! There will be another season, I imagine, because there are 4 more books, but I don't know if it will follow the book trajectory and end there, or continue.

The only movie I've gone to see recently is Black Panther, which, if you're only going to see one movie in a stupidly long period of time, this is definitely the one to see. I don't really like superhero movies - they're so samey and cliche and sexist - but this one really knocked it out of the park. Even if you don't compare it to the low bar of superhero movies, but movies in general, it's really good!

Knitting

I finished a sleeve and started another. I'm so slow! Also, sleeves are boring! At this point I definitely won't be wearing it until fall which makes it even harder to motivate myself. But I'm trying to tell myself that when I finish this I can start on some socks which a) I need, and b) will be a nice summer project to take on the bus with me.

Cooking

Delicious scones!
I think I've gotten bread out of my system, at least for now. I made Whole Wheat Quinoa Bread from America's Test Kitchen's Bread Illustrated a couple of times in April and by the second time it came out quite well. I made Anadema bread, from the same cookbook, for the second time in May and it came out very well also. So now I think I can move on. Plus, it's hard to use up the fresh bread before it goes stale unless I eat it all right out of the oven, which is tempting but probably not a great idea. Oh! I also made Quick Cheese Bread from Bread Illustrated, which was pretty delicious - I've never made a savory quick bread before. I made that again in late May for a goodbye party for someone at work. So delicious and unhealthy.

All that bread baking meant that I hadn't gotten around to trying to make scones, which I had been wanting to do for a while. In May I finally did so and was very happy with the result. They were the Cream Scones from America's Test Kitchen Cooking school. I had only tried scones once before, years ago, and they didn't turn out well at all so this felt like a huge success.

Chickpea Shwarma Flatbread from
Pretty Simple Cooking
In April I hosted the Cookbook Club and Potluck at my library. We cooked from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, and I made a simple dessert of pears poached in white wine and cardamom.

I recently checked out a cookbook called Pretty Simple Cooking, about which I was skeptical, but I tried three different recipes and they all turned out well. And they were fairly simple, as promised. I copied those recipes from the book before returning it in case I want to make those dishes again.

Doing

In early April I took some days off to go visit my aunt in CT with my niece, and we went into New York for the day, which was fun. Then my niece and I came back to MA and we saw the Pink concert. It was a great trip!

As part of my season tickets to the American Repertory Theater, I saw Jagged Little Pill which is a musical created by Diablo Cody based on the Alanis Morissette album. It wasn't quite what I expected, but it was a great show! I can't imagine how difficult it must be to come up with a story to go along with an album of songs that have already been written.

Obligatory dog photo. Action shot!
I've been running more, sometimes with the dog. She does...ok? But the problem really is when we encounter other dogs and she completely loses her shit. And when the weather is nice, ALL the dogs come out to play.

What else? I almost stopped blogging. I felt overwhelmed with keeping up with everything, and also I feel bad that I never change the look of my blog, but I HATE all the technical finagling that's involved and it's always more time-consuming than you think it will be. I didn't post anything for a couple of weeks and it felt very liberating but then I panicked because I really depend on all my blog posts to remind me about books I read and what I thought of them.

Work has been...a lot. A couple of people left so we need to hire replacements, and also I got approved for a new full-time person in my department - a position I've been trying to get back since I lost it in late 2013, so this is a huge success! But it means that I'll be spending most of my summer interviewing, and I used to love hiring people but now it's not as fun anymore. I mean, it turns out well - we've got some great people on our staff - but it's just so hard to tell from resumes and interviews what someone will be like to work with.

Plans for June

I'm throwing myself a birthday party because why not? I haven't done so in ages, and I'm turning 45 which seems kind of numerically significant. We're also going camping later in the month for the first time since we got a dog and we're taking her with us. We bought a larger tent and everything. Worst-case scenario she's horrible and won't stop barking and nobody gets any sleep so we call it quits after one night. We're not going very far away and it's only $17/night so we'd only be out $17 for the second night. It's worth trying!

How was your April and May?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)

Well, I kind of regretted putting this on my list for the TBR Pile Challenge, but all the same I was determined to finish it once I started. It's a condensed history of everything, but everything in the sense of what exists rather than events: space, the earth, life. Chapters focus on topics such as the solar system, measuring the earth, cells, plate tectonics, DNA, and extinct animals. The subject matter is vast and specific at the same time, and all explored with Bryson's trademark wit and conversational style.

It is often, but not always, about the how. For instance, there's a whole chapter about the history of attempts to measure the size of the Earth and how it was done and the scientists who did it. On the other hand, it tells us what the Earth's mantle is made of but doesn't tell us how that was discovered, though it does say we've never dug down that far. Sometimes we learn a lot about the scientists and how they went about their discoveries, yet learn little of what they discovered. I wish the book was one or the other - the history of scientific discovery or the actual content - but instead it's sort of an inconsistent hodgepodge. In a way I liked it, since the more academic scientific parts were broken up by stories about people, but the overall effect was uneven. Rather than a blend of the content and how we know it, it was more a patchwork of the two with a lot left out.

Bryson covered so much it is really crammed in there, and I fear that little of it will actually stick with me. Just as I was gaining an understanding of one thing, it moved on to something else. A better way to read this would probably be to do so very slowly, putting it down to research things a little more elsewhere before moving on to the next chapter. But if you know anything about me it's that I don't have patience for that sort of thing.

Definitely not the sort of patience displayed by scientists who spend the better part of their career studying, say, slime molds. I was struck by how dedicated some of these people were to learning everything about their little corner of the world. If only I could be so focused on one thing. Another thing I can't help but notice whenever I read about great people of the past is how much leisure time they apparently had to pursue their interests. It seems that quite a number of these men (for the majority were men) had independent means to support them while they caroused about looking at mosses and shooting birds into extinction in order to study them.

It was a little under 500 pages, which is pretty doable but still kind of a slog. I definitely enjoyed it in parts and feel more interested in someday reading some more focused books about the natural world. For now, though, I'm really looking forward to reading a novel.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor (2018)

The Night Masquerade concludes the imaginative Afrocentric science fiction trilogy which began with Binti and continued with Binti: Home.

In this third and final volume, Binti is away from her family's home when the village is attacked by the Khoush, a people with  a long-standing rivalry with the Meduse. She rushes home but it is too late. Now Binti must try to prevent the situation from escalating into war.

This story contains many surprising and creative elements, just as the first two did. Binti continues to evolve as a character - not just emotionally, but physically, as she becomes part of many different kinds of people. In the first book she became part Meduse, and in the second she discovered and awakened her powers as one of the Enyi Zinariya. Now, after an act of violence she becomes one with yet another life form. We are transported from her family's village through the rings of Saturn, as Binti tries to save her people from destruction.

This was the longest book in the trilogy, and although the story continued to be very creative and full of surprises, I had a harder time getting into it than the first two books. In the beginning of the series it was all strange and new, and I think now a lot of the basics have already been introduced so it's harder to sustain the novelty, even though there were some new elements that appeared here. Although it didn't pull me in the way the first two books did, I still liked watching Binti develop as a character and, honestly, just wanted the girl to get a break. She's been through a lot.

Okorafor has written a number of other books, and I'm especially intrigued by her teen book Akata Witch and its follow-up Akata Warrior (I'm not sure if there are more coming in that series) so I may check those out sometime. If you're looking for something out of the ordinary, I highly recommend checking out this author.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Made for Love

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting (2017), narrated by Suzanne Elise Freeman

The author of Tampa returns with another novel touching on some quirky and taboo topics, though not as quite as controversial as in her previous novel. When Made for Love begins Hazel has just left her husband, Byron, the CEO of Gogol Industries, a giant technology company infiltrating every aspect of daily life. It was his proposal of a mind-meld that was the last straw for Hazel, already unhappy at being quarantined at the compound for the entirety of their marriage, every move and vital sign tracked and shared with Byron. She goes to the obvious place, her father's home in a senior citizen trailer park. When she arrives, she is greeted by not just her father, but his new "girlfriend," an extremely realistic sex doll named Diane. Now she must come to grips with this new quirk in her father's life, and the fact that her presence isn't entirely welcome, while worrying that Byron will hunt her down and kill her.

A little later we meet Jasper, a con artist who plays a long game, convincing women he is in love with them and then stealing their money. He depends on sex for his income, but after a freak accident while swimming, he is only attracted to dolphins. Stay with me here. It's ridiculous, but so hilarious, and I couldn't wait to find out how his story intersected with Hazel's. It did so in a very satisfying and entertaining way.

Hazel was sort of an unlikeable protagonist, but it was easy to sympathize with her. Directionless and unappreciated, when Byron took an interest in her she was easily swayed into a relationship. It was shocking that someone so wealthy and powerful and well-known was interested in someone so uninteresting and unliked, and so what if she wasn't especially drawn to him? I think their marriage lasted around a decade, during which Hazel grew to dislike Byron more and more, and I think matured a bit herself. When she left, sure that he would have her killed, she still felt like it would be better to die free than to live in captivity.

There's so much more to say about this zany story, but recounting the plot in detail won't really get across what is appealing about the book. Sure, there were lots of strange surprises, but it is more about the telling, and I think the audio version served it well with a narrator whose even - almost deadpan - delivery was the perfect way to convey Hazel and Jasper and their stories.

So much about this book was ridiculous - the sex dolls, Jasper's dolphin attraction - but it was such fun! I didn't know what to expect from Nutting's sophomore novel, but it exceeded my expectations. I think this solidifies her as an author I will officially read anything from.

Monday, May 21, 2018

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

I just read Tayari Jones for the first time earlier this year. I had been wanting to read Silver Sparrow for quite a while and finally got around to it, coincidentally, right around the time her newest novel was released. I loved how Jones wrote about her characters and their relationships so I was eager to try An American Marriage. Plus, who wouldn't be enticed by that gorgeous cover?

The marriage is between Celestial and Roy, who have only been married for a short time when Roy is arrested for a crime they both know he didn't commit. He is sentenced to twelve years in prison. While he is gone, Celestial continues building her artistic career making realistic dolls she calls poupées. But the length of his incarceration may be too much on a fledgling marriage, despite how much Roy and Celestial clearly care for each other. Chapters alternate viewpoints between the two characters, joined later by chapters from the perspective of Celestial's long-time friend Andre.

I loved the characters in this book, how realistic and flawed they were and how painful it was to see the strain on their relationship. Worse was the fact that it was so unnecessary, Roy having been falsely accused of this crime. His life had been going so well, and I don't have to explain what a setback prison is to someone just getting started on a career and marriage. Both Celestial and Roy had promising futures and were hoping to start a family and it was incredibly painful to see it all come tumbling down.

Celestial was an independent and strong woman, and Roy appreciated that about her. I remember thinking at one point while reading that none of the men in this book deserved her, but I do have to say that Roy was actually a really good guy. Several times he reflected on his behavior toward Celestial and admitted that he should have acted a different way. He owns up to his mistakes and honestly sets a pretty high bar for himself. Some of this comes through in conversations he has with his biological father, who he coincidentally meets in prison, and some is just through his own thoughts.

Jones's writing is straightforward and conversational, allowing the focus to be on the characters and what is happening rather than the way she is telling it. This makes it so easy to become immersed in the story, which I did as soon as I began and I easily read the whole book in just a few days. If you haven't read this author before I highly recommend giving her a try.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Immortalists

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

This book has been super popular for a while now and I haven't even read any of the reviews (which are apparently mixed), but I was very drawn in by the premise. Four young siblings visit a fortune teller who reveals the dates of their deaths, and the novel follows them through their lives. That was all I knew - it's intriguing, but would the story live up to this idea?

The novel begins with a chapter introducing us to the siblings when they were between the ages of 7 and 13. In descending age, they are Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon. One of them heard from a friend that a mysterious woman told her family when her grandmother would die, and it gave them all an opportunity to say goodbye to her and be prepared. The kids were intrigued and I think it was Daniel who convinced the others that they needed to visit this woman. They tracked her down and she took them into her apartment one by one and told them what they wanted to know.

The next four sections follow each of the siblings. First, Simon, who leaves home at the age of 16 for San Francisco in 1978 where he becomes a dancer. Then Klara, who follows her passion to be a magician. In the third section we learn that Daniel is a doctor who works for the military. Finally, Varya is a scientist studying longevity. Although they don't discuss their dates and sometimes seem to forget that visit altogether, it becomes clear that the choices they make - and their ultimate fates - are influenced by that information.

Although it's this idea that holds the story together, much of the pleasure is in reading about the lives of the siblings and becoming immersed in their worlds. And they're all so different. Simon's story is of a young man finally free of his family, who finds the gay community in San Francisco and revels it in. He originally goes there with Klara, who is driven to pursue magic, refining her art and finding a partner in life and business in a man named Raj. She struggles between her artistic vision and the kind of performance that will earn them a living. Daniel was most elusive character to me. We meet adult Daniel when he has been suspended from his job. He evaluates people going into the military to determine whether or not they are fit to serve. He does his job honestly, but it's clear his superiors want as many people approved to serve as possible. This event, combined with a visit from someone investigating the death of one of his siblings, sets him off in a downward spiral. Throughout most of the book we don't hear a lot about Varya; but it is her story that I think will stick with me. She works in a lab performing longevity experiments on monkeys, but it is clear she is also trying to control every little variable in her own life too. She's obsessed with cleanliness and order to an unhealthy degree, and holds secrets she has kept buried for quite a long time.

You could be the kind of person who believes in fate and read this book and think, yes, the woman was right. The dates of their deaths were predetermined. Or you could be a skeptic and think that they made sure - consciously or unconsciously - that they'd die on the dates they held in their heads. It really gives one a lot to think about.

(Side note: I love the cover. If I'm going to be honest, that was part of what made me want to read it.)

In the end, it absolutely lived up to my expectations. I think it would be great to discuss with a book group too, because you can really spend a lot of time going in circles about destiny and causation and how much control you really have over the trajectory of your life. Fascinating.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Wedding Date

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (2018), narrated by Janina Edwards

Drew Nichols is in town for his ex-girlfriend's wedding, and his date has cancelled, leaving him to attend alone. But then he gets stuck in an elevator with a stranger, Alexa Monroe, who agrees to pose as his fake girlfriend for the weekend. They have a great time together, after which they both return to their normal lives - his as a pediatric surgeon, and hers as chief of staff to the mayor of Berkley. The weekend stays with them though, and soon they're traveling back and forth most weekends to see each other. But is it just a bit of fun, or something more?

Drew is not the boyfriend type. In fact, he almost always breaks off relationships just when they're getting good. Unfortunately for him, Alexa learns this from some of his exes and tries to preemptively get out of the relationship (is it even a relationship?) before she gets hurt. This is the main point of tension in the story: Drew's reputation as a commitment-phobe vs. their need to be together. There are other, more minor, tensions as well. Alexa is black and Drew is white, and it takes him a bit to realize she would really like to know if she's going to be the only black person at events they attend together. (Oh, not to mention some of the stupid things some of his white acquaintances say to her!) Plus Drew doesn't understand the importance of the youth-at-risk program Alexa is trying to get started because he doesn't realize that some kids really have more privilege than others based on circumstances entirely beyond their control, like race. He's also a terrible communicator. To be honest, he's kind of a jerk? I mean, he's a bit insensitive and more than a bit oblivious.

He's basically a good guy though, and he makes Alexa happy. I do think she's too good for him, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of their story. And I found their relationship believable. Their problems weren't based on ridiculous neuroses but realistic problems like poor communication and not knowing what each other actually wants out of the relationship.

I liked the arc of their relationship, but one of my favorite things about the story was all the food Drew and Alexa consumed together. Crackers and cheese, tacos, burritos, doughnuts. So many meals and snacks! I always love female characters who have actual appetites like real people and Alexa did not let me down. She didn't try to make herself fit what she thought Drew would like - make no mistake, she was very aware of his type and that she didn't seem to fit, aware of every spare bit of flesh on her body, but that didn't stop her from eating a big dinner.

All in all, it was fun, entertaining, and satisfying. I was invested in Drew and Alexa, their careers, their friendships, and of course their relationship. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Janina Edwards, who did a great job. I've never listened to her before, but I would again. Speaking of which, there is apparently a sequel to this book which stars Drew's friend Carlos, a minor but very endearing character in The Wedding Date. It's not out until fall of 2018 by which time I will have forgotten that it exists and will get excited about it all over again.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pro

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (2014)

A former coworker, with whom I enjoyed many feminist rants, recommended this book to me a couple of years ago and I put it on my list. Recently I was inspired to finally pick it up after reading a novel in which a character has an abortion, and starting the second season of The Handmaid's Tale.

I've always been pro-choice, from the time I learned that abortion was a thing that existed and that some people thought it shouldn't be allowed. In my case, my position has a lot to do with the fact that I've never been interested in having children (again, from the moment I learned about pregnancy and childbirth I wanted nothing to do with it.) But I know many women who do have children and are still pro-choice and, as Pollitt points out in her book, the majority of women who have abortions already have children.

Pollitt is preaching to the choir, but she lays out her reasoning for maintaining legalized abortion in a way that it would be hard to argue with. (Obviously people will try to, but they won't win on logic.) One of the reasons I no longer engage in debate on this topic is that anti-choice people believe that abortion is murder. I do not. And I don't see any way to get past that fundamental difference. However, Pollitt shows that people who claim to think abortion is murder usually feel that you can make an exception in the case of rape or incest. In which case....it's not murder? You're still removing the embryo that could have grown into a baby, right? But as Pollitt shows, the issue is not so much that people think abortion is murder, but that they think it should be allowed only in circumstances in which they approve. From here, she easily builds her case that it is not about the embryo at all but about controlling women. I've always kind of thought that, but never considered it as comprehensively as she does here.

For instance, middle-class mothers have been pressured to stay home with their children, and shamed for placing importance on their careers and putting their kids in daycare. Meanwhile, poor mothers - many of whom, not coincidentally, are women of color - were under the opposite sort of pressure, being criticized for being on welfare and at home with their kids and expected instead to go to work and spend most of their meager paycheck on child care. This kind of hypocrisy is highlighted again and again throughout the book.

She touches on a lot of issues - women's sexuality, poverty, race - and makes thorough and well-crafted arguments. Ultimately, she wants pro-choice people to stop making excuses. Stop coming up with worst-case scenario situations to justify why abortion needs to remain legal, stop defending Planned Parenthood based on the other services they provide, and just come out and say that we should trust women to make decisions about their own bodies, in any situation.

This book isn't going to sway the minds of the most stalwart anti-choicers, but those are a very small percentage of the population. (Chapter 2: "What Do Americans Think About Abortion?" goes into the numbers in great detail.) It could, however, convince those who approve in some situations but not others that it's ok to get off their high horse and put some trust in responsible adults to make their own decisions. For the rest of us, she's connected the dots and solidifying arguments that could come in quite usefully the next time we decide to open a conversation about abortion, and getting us fired up about protecting our rights.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

This book has been incredibly popular since even before it came out last fall. The description didn't really grab me - a bunch of people in a snooty suburb and a controversy involving a white couple adopting a Chinese-American baby. Meh. Not having read Celeste Ng before, I wasn't sure what the great appeal of this book was, but I impulsively decided to put myself on the hold list to find out.

It is indeed about lots of white people in a suburb, and not just any suburb. Shaker Heights is a planned community with extremely strict rules. There are only 3 styles of houses, and there are laws about what colors can be used to paint each style of house. Trash is not brought to the curb where it looks unsightly, but left behind the house to be collected by people on scooters. (Although this is a work of fiction, I don't think Ng made this stuff up. She's lived in this community.) In other words, this community places a very high value on appearance.

The story opens with the Richardson family standing outside what used to be their house, but which is now a burned-out shell. They all seem to know that Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson family, is responsible. It's quite an opener. It then goes back to the beginning of the story, when a single mother and her daughter move into a rental house owned by the Richardsons. Teenage Pearl befriends Moody Richardson, while her mother Mia starts working for the family. At this point, very little happens for quite a while. As much as I liked getting to know these characters, I started getting bored. However, once the real action starts, it's easy to see how important all that setup was.

A couple who is friends with the Richardsons are in the process of adopting a baby who had been abandoned, and who they've been caring for now for several months. They've been desperate for a child for years, and it seems that finally their dreams have come true. But then, it seems less sure that the adoption will go through because of something that I won't go into in detail. Mia is involved, and the Richardsons are involved, and everyone who isn't directly involved has an opinion, often a pretty strong one. There are several plotlines that involved pregnancy, birth, and motherhood, and the different choices that women make. Ng doesn't judge anyone - rather she reveals the complexities involved in all the situations.

There were also a lot of class issues, both in the story of the pending adoption and in the relationship between the Richardsons and Mia and Pearl. I disliked Elena Richardson, the mother of the family, who was apparently pretty progressive as a young person, but now that she lives a conventional and comfortable life, seems to think it's the only way to live. She also seems to think that she and her family and their ilk are better than people in other socioeconomic spheres. (Spoiler: they're not.) Her kids, though, were mostly better people than she was, though to some extent they were also products of the environment in which they were raised. I liked Mia and Pearl a lot. Mia was an artist who initially was supporting herself by working as a waitress until Elena insisted she come work for the Richardsons. Then, of course, Elena expected incredible gratitude and loyalty from her, because in her world social relationships contain a complex system of debt and payment. Ugh.

When all is said and done, I was very satisfied with the book. The characters and the plot were well-crafted, and it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Just reading Ng's writing is quite a pleasure. This would be a great pick for a book group - there's so much to talk about!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Lottery and Other Stories

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)

Although I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the short story "The Lottery" when I was a teenager, it is only recently that I've become somewhat of a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan. I even read a biography about her a couple of years ago. So this year I decided to revisit "The Lottery" and read some of her other short stories as well.

The stories are divided into four sections. In the first section, most of the stories are about someone taking liberties in someone else's home. For instance, in "Like Mother Used To Make," a meticulous man has prepared dinner to share with his neighbor, and while they're eating someone enters their building to visit his neighbor. She ushers him into the apartment, inviting him to join them, and then pretends as though it's her own apartment and she has cooked the meal. The man who actually lives there, is left to go to his neighbor's messy, disordered apartment and stay there until her friend leaves and he can return to his place.

The second part seems to be about propriety and convention, and the way people in communities judge each other and their behavior. A couple of them were about race and I'm sorry to say that things haven't changed as much as they should have between the present day and time in which the stories were written. "After You, My Dear Alphonse" begins with a woman's young son bringing a friend home for lunch. The friend is black, and the woman keeps making assumptions about him and his family. She asks questions and seems surprised at the answers, like when she learns that his mother doesn't have a job. Her own son points out that she herself doesn't have a job, so why would Boyd's mother? She then assumes that he has lots of brothers and sisters. It culminates with the woman trying to give the boy some of their old clothes, and when he says that they have plenty of clothes, she gets angry and points out that "many little boys like you" would be grateful for the offer.

The theme of the third section is less clear to me, but the stories contain disorientation or unease or minor slights against others. I can't pick a favorite from this section, but I think I was most struck by "Seven Types of Ambiguity," in which a couple visits a bookstore hoping to buy large quantities of books, sets of books, presumably more for decorating than reading. While they're there, a boy comes in to spend time reading a book that he comes in for every day but hasn't been able to buy. Before they leave, the couple add that book to their purchase.

The final section ends with "The Lottery," but also contains several other stories about fear or being trapped. (Honestly, it's an interesting but difficult exercise to look at groups of stories and try to coax out the common thread.) In "Pillar of Salt" a young woman looks forward to vacation in New York with her husband and enjoys it for a while, until they find a disembodied leg. The incident casts a pall over everything, and the woman comes a bit unmoored, suddenly afraid of everything around her until one day she can't even manage to cross the street by herself and ends up calling her husband to come get her. Now that I think of it, the stories in this section all start out with a fairly everyday vibe and then take an unexpectedly dark turn.

"The Lottery" is the story Jackson is undoubtedly most famous for, but stands out from the other stories in the book in that it takes place in a kind of dystopian village and the others are more firmly rooted in our own society. But some of the themes are the same - societal norms, traditions, the expectation to conform. Don't go into this book thinking the stories will all be like this one, but there are definitely some common threads. There were only a couple of stories in the collection that left me feeling like I had no idea what they were getting at, and I imagine that's my own shortcoming, not Jackson's. Mostly, I found a lot to think about, particular in the ways our culture has changed, and how it has stayed the same, since Jackson's time. I'm very glad to have finally read this collection.

This book is part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. It's actually one of my alternates, though now I don't know why it wasn't on my main list. It also feels like I shouldn't be reading my alternates before I've even tried reading all of my regular list, but this is just what I felt like reading at the time. Plus, somehow I managed to put a lot of long books on the list, and I wanted something shorter to read. At any rate, the challenge is going very well so far. Check the page I linked to above to see my whole list, and links to posts about the books I've read so far.

Friday, April 27, 2018

All the Beautiful Lies

All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson (2018)

Just days before his college graduation, Harry Ackerman learns that his father has died. He returns home to Maine, to his stepmother Alice, where he learns that his fathers death may not have been an accident. A mysterious young woman attends his father's funeral, and Harry befriends her because he's convinced there's a connection. Meanwhile, his relationship with Alice is a bit awkward as Harry tries to dampen the attraction he's always had to her. As the story progresses, chapters alternate between the current time and Alice's youth, until the full story is revealed.

In true Swanson fashion, the twists and turns the story takes are often surprising and in that way it lives up to his other books that I've read, The Kind Worth Killing and Her Every Fear. I think I was less shocked at some of the reveals this time, but that's likely because I'm familiar with Swanson's work and I know by now to expected the unexpected. I had a lot of fun guessing what was going on.

Unlike with his other books, I got mightily creeped out for a while here. I tend to read before bed and I had some strange dreams, and once I even had to stop myself and put the book down for the night because I saw where it was going and I wasn't ready to experience it just before sleeping. I could barely put the book down, but was also motivated to finish it quickly so I wouldn't have many sleeps while reading it. Once I got past a few of the parts around the middle of the book, I was less affected by the rest. But of course I kept plowing through it because it was good and I needed to find out the truth!

Aspects of this story will likely turn off some readers who are easily icked out by certain taboo relationships, and there were moments where I wondered at some of the coincidences. But ultimately it didn't much matter and the story was completely engrossing. I think I liked his other two books more, but just by a hair. I can't imagine why Swanson isn't more popular. There was a waiting list at the library when it came out, but it was modest. I know crime is popular and in my opinion Swanson's books surpass - or are at least equal too - those by popular authors like Ruth Ware and Gillian Flynn. If you like crime novels, Peter Swanson is a must-read.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough (2017)

Nope, not the 800-page doorstop by Ron Chernow that inspired the musical we all know and love (ok, I haven't seen it but I'm sure I would love it) but the shorter and more manageable version written for teens. In her book, Brockenbrough tells us the story of Alexander's whole life, from his birth in the Caribbean through his remarkable military and political career to his untimely death. Her book contains illustrations and some background material on the time period to round things out a bit.

I knew very little about Hamilton going on this book, so it was very educational for me. The style was generally pretty easy, but I got a bit bogged down during the Revolutionary War. I think I just find it difficult to read about war because I don't know what some of the military activity looks like, and I always try to envision things as they're happening. But when you just describe a particular maneuver or battle in a few words it's hard for me to picture. But afterward, when we moved into the era in which Hamilton was instrumental in authoring the Federalist Papers, drafting the Constitution, and basically creating a government from scratch it got much more interesting to me.

I was also a bit fascinated by how quick to duel everyone was. This was also a big theme in War and Peace, but apparently it was a universal phenomenon. Any little insult - like calling someone a rascal - was grounds for a duel to defend one's honor. Please. (And we think people are easy offended these days.) It's such a waste too - Hamilton survived a frigging war but allowed himself to get killed over honor? I realize from reading this book that honor was the most important thing to him ever, but I have a hard time understanding that, especially when he left behind a wife and about a bazillion kids. (Seriously, every time his wife was mentioned in this book, she was pregnant again.)

Another part that struck me was the passage about the election of 1800. I always think about current elections being especially dirty and smarmy, what with everyone dragging out every bit of dirty laundry they can find - or fabricate - on candidates they don't like, but that's apparently not new at all. In 1800, Adams was called "hermaphroditical" and it was claimed that if he won adultery and incest would be taught and encouraged throughout the country. (It reminded me a bit of the 2016 "threat" that if Clinton won there would be a taco truck on every corner which, to me, sounds like paradise.) Furthermore, the reason that Alexander Hamilton didn't ever run for President was because he was afraid that his adulterous affair would be made public. I don't know if it was heartening or depressing to learn that things really haven't changed very much in the last few hundred years.

At times, I wished there was a little more explanation. For instance, as a child Hamilton's father went away on a trip and never came back, abandoning Hamilton and his brother and mother. Later when he was about to get married, there was mention that he wanted his father to come, but he was unable to. Had they been in touch this whole time? How did they get in touch after he abandoned the family? There were a couple of others parts where I had similar questions. Of course, if all the details were fleshed out, we would have ended up with an 800-page book like Chernow's. Overall, I think Brockenbrough did a great job of giving us as complete a story as possible while keeping it short enough for those of us who are daunted by lengthy, detailed works of nonfiction.

I read this book for the Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work, and we discussed it at my penultimate meeting. I hired someone new in my department and she's going to take over this group starting in June, which will absolve me of my monthly required reading. I've loved a lot of the books I read for this group, but I'm also very happy to read whatever the hell I want all the time. Plus I'm sure she'll bring new life and ideas to this group that I've been running since 2012. But I'm going to keep reading teen books so you'll still see me posting about them here!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Sourdough

Sourdough by Robin Sloan (2017)

As part of my efforts to become a better cook, and my recent desire to bake kindled by The Great British Baking Show, I've been making bread at home. Robin Sloan's latest book has been popping up on my radar since it came out in the fall, but suddenly it seemed immensely important that I read it at once. Mind you, I haven't made sourdough bread, nor do I even especially like it, but when it comes down to it bread is bread, and bread is delicious.

The story is about a young woman named Lois who has just gotten a job at a robotics company where she works approximately a million hours a week, leaving her no personal life to speak of. She doesn't even have time to cook herself a meal (nor does she have the energy) so one day when she comes home to a flyer from Clement Street Soup, she orders their Double Spicy Combo of soup and homemade sourdough bread. Then she orders it again, pretty much every day. She learns that the shop is run by brothers from the Mazg culture, and when they suddenly need to leave the country due to visa problems, they leave their sourdough starter with Lois, giving her a quick lesson on bread-baking before heading out the door.

Of course, it's life-changing. Lois becomes obsessed with baking bread. And this is no ordinary sourdough starter - it sings, it reacts to music (especially Mazg music), and it seems to have a life of its own. Lois begins bringing it to work where her coworkers devour it (well, except for the guy who won't touch carbs) and the chef in the cafeteria is so impressed she starts paying Lois for it. Lois builds an oven behind her building since her kitchen oven won't accommodate enough loaves. She hears about a farmer's market and takes her bread there hoping to get a spot - and through this, she is invited to another, secret, experimental market where things begin to get really interesting.

This was one of those quirky, funny books that is slightly absurd without being ridiculous, and it left me feeling stupidly happy. And also wanting to eat approximately an entire loaf of bread. (Which, if I'm being honest, isn't that different from any other day.) I really liked Lois and wanted something better for her than the drudgery of her corporate job, so I was very happy that her newfound hobby led her to what I'm pretty sure is a better, happier, more fulfilling life filled with actual food and not the nutritive gel she and her coworkers sometimes ate at work. I also like that she joined a group called the Lois Club, which is a club for people named Lois to get together and socialize and it's a thing that actually exists. How silly and charming is that?

Sourdough was funny and delightful and surprising and filled with carbs. Delicious, delicious carbs. I've not read the book that first made Robin Sloan so well-known - Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - but I'm pretty sure I will now.

Friday, April 20, 2018

My Real Children

My Real Children by Jo Walton (2014)

Two of my coworkers read and recommended this book, which I had otherwise not even heard of. The story opens with an old woman suffering from dementia in a nursing home. She has memories of two distinct versions of her life and doesn't know which one is real. She think she remembers a recent visit from one of her kids, but then also remembers a kid from the other version of her life visiting as well. In alternating chapters, we are told both stories of her life.

They are the same up to a point, but diverge with one phone call: her boyfriend Mark telling her that if they want to get married, it's now or never. In one life, she jumps at the chance to marry him, and they have four children and an unhappy relationship until she is finally rid of him and starts living a more fulfilling life, albeit pretty life. In the other version, she turns him down and ends up in a long-term relationship with a woman named Bee, with whom she has three children, spends a ton of time in Italy, and has a career writing travel guides. It's clear that one version is superior in terms of Patricia's personal life, but the thing is that world events are also different. In the story in which her life is unhappy, the world is fairly peaceful and AIDS has been cured. In the world in which her life is good, there is nuclear war.

It reminded me a little bit of Maybe In Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid. What I liked about that book was that the two versions of her life were both still pretty good, whereas in My Real Children one of the versions was definitely a much better life. That makes me a little anxious about the difference that your choices can make, because it's sort of like saying that you can make a wrong choice. I like the idea that although some of our decisions are better than others at the time, ultimately one little decision won't have a cascading effect that ruins our lives. Still, I found My Real Children to be a better book. I just really enjoyed reading about the characters and their lives, particularly since it spanned decades. It made me feel like I really got to know Patricia, both versions of her.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Rose Garden

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley (2011), narrated by Nicola Barber

It's funny. I never rate Kearsley's books very high (on Goodreads I usually give them 3 stars, occasionally 4) yet they've become my comfort reads. I had purchased The Rose Garden on sale through Audible and forgotten about it until I was scrolling through my library one day. I immediately thought about English country gardens, history, romance, and that ethereal time-slipping that is in all of her novels and realized it was exactly what I wanted at that moment.

The protagonist is a woman named Eva who just lost her sister to illness, and she returns to Cornwall to scatter her ashes in the place where they spent their childhood together. She is staying with old family friends, but begins traveling back in time to the early 18th century where she meets previous inhabitants of the house. She can't control when she moves back and forth in time, and it's a bit jarring to suddenly appear in a place wearing clothing from the wrong time period. As she spends more time in the early 1700s, she begins falling for the smuggler Daniel Butler, and questioning where her true home really is.

This is the first book of Kearsley's I've read in which the main character actually travels in time. In the others, it's more like she will have a very close connection with someone from the past and maybe experience their story, but as that person, not as herself. Here, Eva showed up and interacted with people from another time, having to explain that she is from the future and being careful not to give them too much information or do anything to potentially change the future. Kearsley didn't dwell on the mechanics of the time travel, though it was connected to the house. It's not clear why not everyone there traveled through time, but that's not important. It's really about the life she lived in both places and the people she knew there.

I found it a little strange that the people she met in the 1700s didn't ask her about the future, and that no time was spent speculating on why it was happening, and why to her. It was also convenient that she never happened to disappear or reappear in front of the people in the current day, though a few people saw her come and go in the 1700s. But I can't really say that there are complaints as I think a lot of conversations about what was happening would have detracted from the real story.

Late in the book we learn some things that delightfully tied various bits of the story together. Of course I don't want to spoiler anything, but I loved how it all wrapped up. (Well, mostly.) I enjoyed this book the whole way through, and found Nicola Barber's narration perfect for the story.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

So You Want To Talk About Race

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2018)

As it turns out, this book really is a guide for talking about race. I wasn't sure, I just knew that if Oluo wrote it, I wanted to read it. I follow her on Twitter and have read some pieces she has written, and she's brilliant, thoughtful, clear-headed, and concise. In addition to all her sensible advice, she shares her own experiences about, for example, being followed around in stores, and having to explain to her son why he can't play with a toy gun outside although his white step-brother can. She also helpfully includes information and statistics on things like income and police brutality as it relates to race.

The structure of the book is based on questions she has been asked. Chapters include "What if I talk about race wrong?", "What are microaggressions?", "What is cultural appropriation?", "Why can't I touch your hair?", "I just got called racist, what do I do now?", and "Talking is great, but what else can I do?" Each chapter is short, succinct, and filled with advice. I don't want to try and pick out bits of it to share because I think it's really important to read it in context.

But I will share the other actions - from the "what else can I do?" chapter - which is always what I want to know. They include things like voting in local elections, speaking up in unions, supporting POC-owned businesses, giving money to organizations working to fight racial oppression and support communities of color, boycotting businesses that exploit workers of color, supporting music, film, television, art, and books created by people of color, and supporting increases in the minimum wage. These should all be easy, and it's really the least we can do.

I also appreciated how inclusive the book is. She talks about LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and some of the specific problems faced by Asian-Americans. Did you know that 41-61% of Asian-American women experience physical and sexual abuse, which is TWICE the national average for all women? I didn't, and this is a horrifying omission from our conversations about feminism, and is exactly the sort of thing we mean when emphasizing the importance of intersectionality.

There is so much for most of us to learn from Oluo's writing. I consider this required reading for anyone wanting to take part in the current conversation about race (and we all should be doing so.) It's also the kind of book I want to keep referring back to, so although I returned my copy to the library I'm likely to purchase one to keep for myself.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Wrong To Need You

Wrong To Need You by Alisha Rai (2017)

In the first book of the Forbidden Hearts series, we were introduced to the Kane and Chandler families and their intertwined history, and the tragedies that tore them apart. That story continues in this second book, but at the forefront, of course, is romance. After the tragic events that occurred ten years ago, Jackson Kane took off, a pariah in his community because of a crime he didn't even commit. Now he has returned and is working for his widowed sister-in-law Sadia Ahmed, but their feelings for each other are not of the sibling variety.

Sadia's husband (and Jackson's brother) died alone in the woods in a hiking accident. He shouldn't have been alone, but he and Sadia had recently separated, a secret she has kept to herself all this time. She inherited his cafe and is determined to keep the business afloat to support herself and her son, Kareem. She's not a businesswoman at heart, preferring instead her shifts at a local bar, but she is determined to keep going with her incredibly busy over-scheduled life. And then Jackson returns to town.

All these years, Sadia had emailed him regularly. They were good friends before she married his brother and missed him a ton while he was away. He missed a lot, including Kareem's birth and Paul's death, without explanation for his absence. Sadia is angry at him now, but also curious about what he's been doing and where he has been. It turns out that he is now a trained chef who has an international pop-up restaurant, and he's willing to fill in at the cafe now that Sadia's chef is gone. But his presence in the town dredges up old animosities and grudges, and as he and Sadia become closer, he considers maybe sticking around, but there's a lot that needs to be straightened out between his family and the Chandler family if he is to stay.

The tension between Sadia and Jackson is obvious - she feels like her relationship with him should be a family one, not romantic, since he's her brother-in-law. And she's still working through her feelings of guilt over her husband's death and their failed marriage. Plus Jackson has cut himself off from everyone for a long time, keeps to himself so much it's hard to get to know him, and it seems like he could bolt at any moment. He, of course, is still dealing with the fallout of being accused of arson so many years ago and though he knows he's innocent, there are some pretty dark secrets about the event that he has kept to himself all these years.

There is a darkness in these books, because of the family secrets and tragedies that everyone is dealing with, which is one of the reasons I liked the first book so much and that has carried through. Rai has done a great job of creating this family situation and, within it, contemporary romances that are challenging for reasons other than the hero and heroine's inner neuroses. The third book, Hurts To Love You, has just been released and I'll definitely be reading it at some point. I need to get to the bottom of all the secrets in the Kane and Chandler families!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

March Wrap-Up and Plans for April



Reading


TBR Pile Challenge: Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Nonfiction: In addition to my TBR book, I read Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life (which isn't what I had in mind with my nonfiction goal but it still counts!)

Listening


The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley, which I'm about halfway through.

Watching


I really like this cat who hangs out
with me at my bus stop.
I've finished the reboot of One Day At a Time. Funny story: I came to the end and was a little sad that I was out of episodes but then realized I HAD BEEN WATCHING SEASON TWO. For some reason Netflix had defaulted to the second season and I didn't realize it.

Now I'm watching season 2 of Jessica Jones, and looking forward to the return of Call the Midwife and Handmaid's Tale.

Knitting


Er, I'm still working on my sleeve. I'm on the cap shaping though, so the end is in sight. Then I just have to make another one. I should be done by....October?

Cooking


I bought two cookbooks: Dinner by Melissa Clark (which I mentioned last month) and Bread Illustrated from America's Test Kitchen. I've been experimenting a bit with bread from that cookbook and from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, because I've had good luck with those recipes in the past. Mostly my bread is coming out fine, but a little underdone. I think my oven temperature might be to blame - I'm going to try turning it down more next time because it runs hot, and maybe the inside will be more done by the time the outside is dark.

Blood Orange Chicken
I've cooked a lot of things, but the new recipes I tried that came out the best were the Blood Orange Chicken with Scotch Whiskey and Olives from Dinner, Black Bean Skillet Dinner with Quick-pickled Onions and Lime Crema from Dinner, Mediterranean Chopped Salad from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, Turnip Greens Frittata from Food52 (which I made with chard because the store didn't have turnip greens), and Baked Ziti from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook. I think I'll be making all of these again!

Doing


I got together with my friend I've been working with and we made the above-mentioned frittata. It was much easier than the other recipes we've made, but when we get together we spend the first part of our time drinking wine and talking so by the time we eat it's all kind of a blur. But I'm pretty sure the frittata was good; in fact, I had some leftover the next day and quite liked it. The important thing is that we have fun hanging out without spending a lot of money. And the dog wasn't quite as awful this time, so that was a bonus.

Another friend and I went to see Roxane Gay at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We bought tickets way back in September and I rearranged my work schedule for it.  It was on a Wednesday night when I usually work until 7pm so I took the day off, but there was this storm threat and I worried that the event would be cancelled, but it turned out that the storm pretty much passed us by despite all of the dire warning. (We had some super crazy winter storms this month and really didn't need another!) Roxane Gay is amazing. She's brilliant and funny and thoughtful and the audience asked really great questions. I'm so glad I went!

Petri the day we went running.
Work has gotten a lot better this month. It's not that all our problems have gone away, but now that I've hired someone for the position that has been vacant since the end of December, I can actually do things besides put out fires. I've had a meeting with a committee that I'm on that deals with intellectual freedom, and another meeting about being on a local cable show, and I've actually been able to do some planning for upcoming programs and just have thoughtful conversations with coworkers that don't feel rushed.

I went running a few times, which is great improvement over the last couple of months. I took the dog with me twice and it didn't go too badly, so I'm hoping to take her more regularly in hopes of tiring her out.

Plans for April


My niece is coming down from Maine the first weekend of April and we'll be going to visit our aunt in CT and will go into NY for the day. Then we're coming back to Boston and seeing P!nk in concert. Later in the month I'll be seeing George Ezra for the third time.

How was your March?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby (2017)

Samantha Irby is known for her blog bitches gotta eat, but I hadn't heard of her until she published this book of essays. I heard that she's hilarious and I think what really sold it for me is that she works for a veterinary clinic and has a psychotic cat named Helen Keller. I'm always up for animal stories, especially ones about difficult pets. She writes about other topics too, like her friendships, parents, anxiety attacks, diet and exercise, and romantic relationships.

The very first essay is called "My Bachelorette Application" which sets the stage nicely by introducing herself with statements like "I'm sucking in my stomach, I've taken thirty-seven Imodium in case my irritable bowels have an adverse reaction to the bag of tacos I hid in my purse and ate in the bathroom while no one was looking, and I have been listening to Katy Perry really, really loudly in the limo on the way over here. I'm about to crush a beer can on my forehead. LET'S DO THIS BRO." I think you can get a decent sense of what she's like from that opening. Other essays include "Do You Guys Pay Your Fucking Bills or What?", "You Don't Have To Be Grateful For Sex," "A Case For Remaining Indoors," "Fuck It Bitch. Stay Fat," "Yo, I Need a Job," and "Feelings Are a Mistake."

She talks a lot about junk food, sex, and pooping. To be honest, I got about halfway through and almost put the book down. It was funny, but there was an awful lot of oversharing and it was a bit much to take. Like, a story about having to stop on the side of the highway for an emergency poop followed by one about sex that makes it sound so very unsexy, and I thought "Is this just going to be one unpleasantly embarrassing situation after another?" The answer is yes, but that turned out not to be such a bad thing. I thought I might just read an essay here, then a chapter of another book, then another essay. You know, so the experience wasn't so intense. But I guess I got over the hump because I was soon zooming through the rest of the book.

The pictures she paints of herself is an awkward introvert who has unhealthy habits and just wants to be left alone with them. In college she became close friends with a couple of guys because she didn't know any other girls who just wanted to sit on the couch for hours watching bad tv and eating pizza rolls. She doesn't want to put a lot of work into relationships and, as a matter of fact, said that ideally she and her partner would live in separate - but nearby - apartments. That is basically my fantasy. Another thing we have in common is that our parents had us late in life and our siblings are much older than we are. INTERESTING. (Oh, she uses a lot of caps and exclamation points. It's a pretty conversationally written book.)

It's also the sort of book where you think she must be exaggerating for comedic effect. I mean, can you possibly be that awkward? And how can someone so funny be as unpleasant as you claim to be? But ultimately it works, so I suppose it doesn't matter how factually accurate it is. If you like self-deprecating humor and need some laughs (and don't mind the TMI and swearing) this book might be for you.