Wednesday, July 17, 2019

City of Girls

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

When Vivian Morris was kicked out of Vassar in 1940, her parents didn't know what to do with her, so they sent her to live with her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg owned a theater and lived above it, so Vivian was instantly thrust into a world very different from what she had known. Sewing costumes by day and partying with showgirls every night, her innocent eyes were opened and she embraced this new life. Until, that is, she makes a stupid mistake that destroys everything. The story is told from her perspective as an old woman to someone named Angela who wanted to know about the nature of her father's relationship with Vivian. Needless to say, it's a pretty long answer.

Through most of the book I had no clue who Angela's father was, and I began to fear that most of the story was completely unrelated to the relationship between him and Vivian, but actually it was all pretty relevant even though she didn't really know him during most of the significant parts. It still made sense, and it was satisfying. Even if it had been unnecessary to relate the whole tale to Angela it still would have been fascinating. Vivian's coming-of-age and subsequent scandal, and the long road of recovering from it, would have been enough without this outer story in which she explains it all to Angela, but that was like the extra icing on the cake.

One of my favorite aspects of this story was all of the unconventional relationships. A lot of them come late in the book so I won't ruin the story by being specific, but there is an intense platonic friendship between a man and a woman, and two women who choose to live and work together and, when one of them finds herself accidentally pregnant, to raise a child together. I love stories in which people chose their own families.

Vivian, although off to a very shaky start, became unconventional in a way I couldn't help but admire. She was unapologetically promiscuous and has no regrets about remaining single all her life. After screwing up so young, she really figured out how to live her best life while not hurting anyone. (Her youthful transgression caused a lot of hurt, and she never forgot it.) Seeing her grow and learn throughout her life was the real heart of this book.

This is only my second Elizabeth Gilbert book (after Big Magic) and I was unsurprised at how much I liked it. She really has a way with words and imagery!

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015)

In truth, I put this book about octopuses on my To Read list after hearing a couple of co-workers talk about how good it was, but I didn't think I'd ever actually read it. Recently though, I impulsively picked it up at the library and actually read it.

It's not just a book about octopuses, but rather a memoir about one person's experiences with octopuses. This made it much more readable, though maybe not as informative. Sy Montgomery began visiting with octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston, hanging out with the staff there and getting good quality time up close and personal with the octopuses. She also learned to scuba dive so that she could observe octopuses in the wild. Along the way she learned a lot about the creatures and formed attachments, which made it pretty painful when they died, sometimes unexpectedly.

The book lacked some basic information that would have been helpful. Like she refers to them as mollusks and as cephalopods, but doesn't ever explain how those two categories relate to each other (cephalopods are a class of mollusk, but I had to google that.) She also doesn't go over basic anatomy, just making a reference to the head and body not being where we expect, or something along those lines, and says that the beak is in the armpit - these are confusing concepts and a basic diagram would have helped. Again, I just googled.

What bothered me the most - and almost caused me to abandon the book - is that she talks about how intelligent and complex and emotional octopuses are while not acknowledging the cruelty of removing them from the wild and keeping them in captivity for the education and enjoyment of people like her. In one case, an octopus was kept in a small, dark pickle barrel for around 7 months, with little access to mental stimulation aside from visits from humans. She kept talking about the octopuses trying to escape, saying they were "uncooperative" or "mischievous" when in fact they were basically imprisoned and just wanted to get out and go home.

But I stuck with it anyhow because it was interesting and I find sea creatures fascinating. Ultimately I'm glad I did read the whole thing. There was actually a point where another person in the book spoke to the idea of keeping the octopuses in captivity, saying that this is how people learn about these animals and, in turn, come to care about protecting them and the oceans they live in. Which, ok, I've mulled this over in relation to zoos too, and I'm not completely on board but I do kind of get it.

The most immediate affect of the book is that it gave me an overwhelming desire to watch Finding Nemo again (we own a copy and have watched it about 47 times and no, we don't have kids) and I immediately did so the very evening I finished reading the book. Man I love that movie. I also want to read more books about ocean life, so if you know of another easy-to-read book along these lines, please let me know.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Mr. Kiss and Tell

Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2) by Rob Thomas (2015), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

A young woman, close to death, was found in a field after being raped and beaten. She had been a guest at the Neptune Grand and when she regained part of her memory she accused a staff person from the hotel of the crime. The hotel hired Veronica Mars to investigate the claim, which is especially difficult since the afore-mentioned staff person has already been deported so Veronica can't talk to him. The victim herself, someone Veronica knows from her past, also isn't speaking much, refusing to tell Veronica who she was meeting at the hotel that night. With so few witnesses and a victim who won't talk, it's a tough case to crack, but of course we know that Veronica will get to the bottom of it.

The victim is Grace Manning, younger sister of Meg who died after the bus accident in season 2, leaving behind a newborn fathered by Veronica's ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane. Veronica remembers finding Grace as a child locked in a closet in her house by her religious fundamentalist parents. Now Grace is a young woman, an aspiring actress, and she won't say who her mysterious boyfriend is so that Veronica can talk to him about the parts of the evening that Grace can't remember.

Veronica enlists the help of her friend Mac and they spend a lot of time with security footage and hotel guest lists until they come up with a likely suspect. The tricky thing is that the person smuggled the unconscious Grace out of the hotel without it being on any of the footage, but these are smart women so they have a pretty good theory about how it happened. The hard part is finding evidence to support that theory, and as usual Veronica encounters a lot of surprises along the way and ends up in some fairly dangerous situations.

Meanwhile, Logan is on leave from the Navy and they are enjoying their time together. But when a tragedy occurs aboard his ship, he may be called back early and this causes some stress in their relationship. I fear it will never be smooth sailing for this couple, but at least this situation didn't have the drama that their early relationship did. Oh, and they got a puppy! That was a fun part of the story.

I thought this was a little better than the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. It was a more interesting mystery with a more satisfying conclusion and I think the plot was better crafted. Rebecca Lowman is one of my very favorite narrators and I'm always happy to listen to her. Some people who reviewed this on Audible seem to hate her and it's true that she reads very differently than Kristen Bell, but she's still great. And it didn't have the awkward feeling that Veronica Mars is talking about herself in third person. All in all, this was a very fun and satisfying book to listen to and now I feel prepared to watched the new season of Veronica Mars when it comes out later this month.

Monday, July 8, 2019

My One and Only

My One and Only by Kristan Higgins (2011)

Harper James is a divorce attorney who is skeptical about love. She's never gotten over her youthful failed marriage to Nick Lowery, and now she spends her days urging people to get their "hearts to accept what their heads already know." Suddenly her younger stepsister Willa is getting married to a guy she just met and Harper has to leave her home in Martha's Vineyard to attend the wedding in Montana. And it turns out that Willa's groom-to-be  is none other than Chris Lowery, Nick's brother.

Harper, along with her dog Coco and her boyfriend Dennis, heads to the wedding, dreading running into her ex-husband. Especially now that Dennis has so recently turned down her marriage proposal. She's also very upset that Willa is getting married for a third impulsive time. By the end of the weekend, Harper and Dennis have broken up and Harper finds herself unwillingly on a road trip with Nick who is just as attractive as he ever was.

I'm already a fan of Kristan Higgins, having read my way through the Blue Heron series and the more recent (non-romance) Good Luck With That. This is an older stand-alone romance that I picked up at a used book store ages ago, and I kept putting it off because I was afraid it wouldn't hold up to Blue Heron. (I had cause for concern as I tried reading Just One of the Guys from 2008 and couldn't get through it.) I needn't have worried. This novel was not only as good as my other favorites of hers, it may have been even better.

This story is complex. We have Harper's history with Nick, their passionate young relationship and disastrously short marriage, which has left them both a mess emotionally. Harper's problems go even deeper, back to her mother walking out on the family on Harper's 13th birthday. This story is a big part of the novel too, coinciding with marital troubles between Harper's dad and his wife BeverLee. Not to mention Harper's current relationship with Dennis, a sweet firefighter who she wants to marry only because it seems practical somehow, having long ago lost any romantic notions about true love. Dennis sports a rattail and calls her "dude," but she is grudgingly willing to overlook these details. He's really not a bad guy at all, and honestly deserves somebody who loves him more than Harper does.

I like how unusual the premise of this story is: it's a romance between people who used to be married, and when the story begins one of them is still in another relationship. Their (half- and step-) siblings are marrying each other, and Harper disapproves. When they meet at the wedding, she and Nick immediately start bickering with each other, volleying insults that were, frankly, kind of hilarious. Plus she lives in Massachusetts and he lives in New York so they have that whole Red Sox vs. Yankees thing going on. But also there's all this interesting family stuff, like with Harper's mother - who she ends up seeing for the first time in decades during this story - and her stepmother. BeverLee is from the south and she's very bubbly and chipper and uses a ton of hairspray and is super excited that her daughter is getting married, even though she barely knows the guy. But she's also loving and loyal and, as Harper eventually realizes, more of a mother to her than her biological mother ever was.

I just loved all of this - the emotional depth, the difficulty of these relationships, the acknowledgement of how hard you need to work to make relationships last. Nick and Harper have a whole painful history they need to grapple with, and even that is not enough because if they're going to start up again they have to figure out how to make it different this time. When they were married, Nick worked all the time, leaving Harper feeling alone and neglected. She, in turn, made a life for herself that was very separate, not even telling her new friends that she was married. They need to make sure they won't fall into the same patterns.

Other elements that added to the story were the beautiful descriptions of Montana and Harper's comparisons between its natural beauty and that of Martha's Vineyard, and Higgins's trademark humor. I could have used a few less instances of the word "boobage" (zero would be perfect), but her funny zings and quips more than make up for it. This is probably one of the better romances I've read, and I highly recommend it.

As I said, I've had this paperback sitting around for a while, so I put it on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Amazingly, I only have 3 more books to read for the challenge this year.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Growing Things

Growing Things by Paul Tremblay (2019)

I've never read Paul Tremblay before, but saw him speak on a panel at the Massachusetts Library Association Conference in May. I went to the panel because Peter Swanson was on it, but also enjoyed hearing from Paul Tremblay and Katherine Hall Page, and grabbed copies of all their recent/upcoming books. Tremblay's Growing Things was just released this week.

The collection begins with the title story, in which two girls and their father are holed up in their house while some sort of out-of-control plant seems to be taking over the world. We don't get a lot about the bigger picture since we're just hearing from the girls' perspective, but of course that makes it all the more creepy and mysterious. And as I look back at it now, I realize the characters have the same names - Merry and Marjorie - as those in the final story in the collection, "The Thirteenth Temple." I can't immediately see how they're related, but I understand from the notes at the end of the book that Tremblay often writes stories set in worlds he has created previously.

"Growing Things" isn't the only story with an apocalyptic feel. In "Where We All Will Be," Zane is troubled by his father's suddenly odd behavior and compulsion to get in the car and drive towards...something. Everyone else seems to be doing the same thing, but Zane seems to be immune, perhaps because his brain is somehow different from other people's as they learned when he was a kid. "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks" is about a family on vacation, told from the perspective of a young child who can see that something very strange is happening, and we can tell it's some sort of doomsday scenario, but what? In a way, I'd love to know more about what is actually going on in this stories, but I don't think any explanation could improve upon the feels of uncertainty and apprehension Tremblay cultivates.

While those may be my favorites in the collection (I do love a good apocalypse) there are others that were also especially...effective. I can't say I love them since they make me so uncomfortable but they certainly do what they set out to do and I have a great appreciation for that. "------------" (which is an annoying title for a story) begins with a man enjoying a day at the beach with his kids. A woman shows up, acting super familiar like they know each other. He tries to figure out where he knows her from, feeling a little uncomfortable as she acts more and more like they are close, and he kinda wishes his wife was there. She also acts familiar with the kids, like she's their mom, and as the guys packs up to leave, she's all like "wait! don't leave me behind!" and gets in the car with them. All this time he's asking himself who this woman is and why she's acting like he should know her. It's so very unsettling.

A few of the stories are pretty experimental in form. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken" is told like a choose-your-own-adventure, and "Further Questions for the Somnambulist" is pages and pages of three columns of questions and I don't quite understand it. "Notes for 'The Barn in the Wild'" reminded me a bit of House of Leaves, with its diary format and footnotes and underlined and crossed out sentences, like you're hearing the story in real-time, a stream of consciousness, complete with tangents and asides.

Some of the stories worked more for me than others, as is always the case with a collection of short stories, but I could almost always at least appreciate it on some level. I read the collection fairly slowly over a couple of weeks and was very unsure how to rate it on Goodreads, which is also generally a problem with short story collections. But now as I look back and remind myself about everything that I read, it seems clear to me that it's a pretty solid 4 stars. I think it's worth pointing out that Tremblay is a high school math teacher when he's not writing, and I love that his day job is so incredibly different - English teacher we'd expect, but math? He's most well known for The Cabin at the End of the World which recently won the Bram Stoker award, and which I should probably consider reading. He's clearly a very talented horror writer and I'm sorry I missed him up until now. I'm glad I impulsively grabbed a copy of his book!

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Big Rewind

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore (2016)

Jett Bennett opens her mail one day to find a mix tape addressed to her neighbor, KitKat. When she goes downstairs to deliver the misdirected package, she finds KitKat dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Her boyfriend is the first suspect, of course, but Jett is convinced the mysterious mix tape is a clue so she decides to try and solve the case herself.

This neighborhood and all its inhabitants seem to be super retro hipster, and at first I was a bit put off by the vibe. But that changed pretty quickly as I got into the story. Music is a big theme here so there are lots of artists and songs mentioned, some of which I even recognized. (I am not nearly as cool as Jett and her friends.) Jett listened to Warren Zevon a lot actually, which really takes me back.

Although Jett moved to New York because she wanted to be a music journalist, she was temping as a proofreader (and sometimes a purchaser and launderer of women's lingerie for a guy who wanted discretion regarding his choice of undergarments.) She was BFFs with a guy named Sid who falls in love with a stripper just as Jett starts to realize she is falling for him. So, little bit of murder mystery, little bit of angsty love, lots of fun.

Interestingly, Jett's proofreading job is for a PI firm, and she occasionally tries to get some advice from one of her coworkers about the case. Mostly she was on her own though, following the path of a mysterious song on a mix tape, hoping it will bring her closer to KitKat's murderer. I liked how this story shaped up, and how I didn't expect it to end up where it did. I also like that it didn't have the suspenseful tone of other mystery stories I've read. It was a fun enjoyable novel that happened to be a mystery.

Jett was easy to like, totally relatable in that young person figuring themselves out kind of way, and a witty observer. At one point she describes "one of those boutiques that carries only four items, none of which are in your size." She also mentions being stressed out and trying to calm herself with breathing exercises she learned in a yoga class in college. "I got a B in that class. Who gets a B in yoga? Someone who can't calm down, that's who." At other times I felt like she might be a different species, like when she described a "tall, skinny blond guy with combed-back sharkfin ridges and rimless cheaters." I think she's talking about his hair and glasses? But suddenly I feel like I'm about 90 years old. I was surprised at one point to realize she's actually in her 30s, because she felt so far from me. I guess it's just because she's so hip.

I've had this book sitting around for a while - it was a gift I was planning to read last summer. Then recently I saw a blogger post about how much she liked it and it reminded me that I had a copy. It was a quick read, fairly light, fun, and refreshing.