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 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!