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!


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.)


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!


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!


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.


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.


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: 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'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.