Monday, April 13, 2020

I Am, I Am, I Am

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell (2018), narrated by Daisy Donovan

I've read a couple of novels by Maggie O'Farrell, but it's been a while since I've read anything of hers and this memoir has been languishing on my To Read list. I just downloaded it on audio through my library and listened to it in what felt like just a few days. Between the knitting and the jigsaw puzzles, I've gotten a lot of podcast/audiobook time recently!

This memoir is a bunch of snapshots, not in order, of all the times that O'Farrell has had a brush with death. The first one was the most chilling. When she was young (I think 18-20?) she was walking through the woods and encountered a guy who didn't do anything quite wrong that she could put her finger on, but who gave her a very bad feeling. At one point, while pointing out duck in a pond, he put his binocular strap around her neck. She chattered away, mentioning that she needed to get back to work before they came looking for her, and got away. She went to the police, who dismissed her concerns because the guy hadn't actually done anything. But a week later, they showed up at her door to ask questions because another young woman had also encountered him, and she was raped and strangled...with his binoculars strap. I will probably not forget this story for a while.

O'Farrell has some disabilities, aftereffects from what I think was her earliest brush with death - a bout of encephalitis when she was young, which confined her to a wheelchair for a time, caused lasting brain damage, and meant that she couldn't deliver a baby without a c-section. Later when she was pregnant and told her doctor that she would need a c-section, he refused, accusing her of reading too many celebrity magazines. (Can you imagine?) She almost died during the birth. Another time she almost drowned because her neurological problems mean that she has trouble orientating herself in space if she can't see, and it happened to be very dark.

The whole thing had a rather dreamy quality, partly because of O'Farrell's writing style and the way the book flitted around to various periods in her life, but also because of the narrator. Daisy Donovan has a very posh English accent and a soft, soothing voice that worked very well with this book. It was very good, and of course it's also a great reminder to be grateful for what you have because it could slip away at any moment.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Indifferent Stars Above

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown (2009)

We've all heard of the Donner Party, a group of doomed pioneers trying to cross the Sierra Nevada under such tough conditions they resorted to cannibalism. Before reading this book, that's all I knew about them. Thanks to Daniel James Brown, the gaps in my knowledge have been filled in great and disturbing detail.

The author chose to pick one character as his focus: Sarah Graves, a young newly-married woman who was traveling with her husband, parents, and a slew of siblings ranging from infant to adult. They were part of a larger group of 87 people. Things first went wrong when they took the advice of a man named Lansford Hastings, who wrote a guide for emigrants that suggested a cutoff that would trim many miles off the trip across the Sierra Nevada into California. What it shaved off in distance it more than made up for in difficulty, making travel with wagons almost impossible. The party also hit some early delays that meant their trip would be hitting it close to winter under the best circumstances. At one point they came to a complete halt, unable to make it over a pass, already hungry and cold and weakened as snow fell heavily around them. Here they built some rough shelters and stayed. They made several attempts at getting through the pass, crafting snowshoes to help them. Eventually a group, including Sarah Graves, made it across to their destination, Johnson's Ranch, but not without losing some people along the way. People who they ended up eating in desperation.

They were starving, their clothes and shoes in tatters, and some of them were snowblind. As people died, eating their flesh seemed to be the only way to survive. I know they've been judged for this behavior, but to be honest, those bodies aren't of any use to anyone, so why not? Otherwise they would just have been eaten by wild animals. (And by the way, the Donner Party consumed their own oxen and pet dogs before resorting to eating humans.)

In the end, out of 87 people in the original group, 47 died. I was actually surprised near the end to see those numbers because I didn't realize the group was so large to begin with. I think I had forgotten how many kids everyone had and, although Brown did talk about (or at least mention) everyone in the group at some point, I hadn't added them up in my head. Another thing I found surprising was the demographic breakdown of deaths, men dying at a much faster rate than women. Apparently, those who were single were in much more danger than those who traveled as part of a family group, and most single travelers were men. Also, women have more body fat and are thus less likely to die from hypothermia, and of course their caloric demands are also a little less.

There was a lot of interesting information about the science of starvation, the psychology of survival, and other related topics. Sometimes that sort of thing can feel like filler, but I found it fascinating. Brown also provided context about what else was going on in the world at the time, which I love. For instance: Christmas was just beginning to be celebrated in the 1840s, Edgar Allen Poe was writing "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Neptune was discovered, and a powerful new steam locomotive was unveiled.

Obviously the group didn't expect things to be quite so bad, but still, it's kind of shocking to realize how much people were willing to risk for the promise of a better life. From what we learned in the book, their lives weren't terrible in the first place; mostly they just wanted more opportunities than they already had. As hard as it can be to be trapped in a house during a pandemic, it's much preferable to spending months struggling across a mountain range in the winter while literally starving to death. I highly recommend this if you're interested in stories of survival under difficult circumstances.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Red Lotus

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian (2020), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

It was all very dramatic because I was on hold for this book through the library but by the time it was published we were closed because of the coronavirus. Also, a friend had mentioned to me that the audio version was narrated by Rebecca Lowman, one of my favorite (possibly my very favorite) narrators. So I bought some extra Audible credits, and it was worth every penny.

Alexis is an emergency room doctor who met her boyfriend Austin when he came to the ER with a bullet wound. In a strange coincidence, it turns out that he works there too, but in a fundraising position. Six months later they are on a bicycling trip in Vietnam and Austin goes missing. I won't say much more about the plot because I don't want to give too much away, but the story really becomes intriguing when Alexis learns Austin lied about one of the reasons why he wanted to go to Vietnam.

On top of what happened to Austin, Alexis then has to deal with the fact of that lie and what it meant about the person she thought she knew. Having their relationship be fairly new is what made this storyline great. And there's more - there's a whole plot having to do with rats and disease and what Austin potentially had to do with it.

This book shouldn't have made me want to go on a bike tour of Vietnam, but it did and I don't even ride a bike. Vietnam sounded gorgeous though. The novel is very much in the same vein of Bohjalian's last couple of books, The Flight Attendant and The Guest Room, as opposed to his older books. A little bit mystery, a little bit thriller, very much character-driven. Alexis has some darkness in her past, but as an emergency room doctor she has learned to be calm in difficult circumstances. I really liked being immersed in her story, and Rebecca Lowman was the perfect narrator for her. (Honestly I think I like characters more when she narrates them.)

You probably know that Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors and I've read all of his books except I think The Water Witches. The only other one I've listened to on audio was Before You Know Kindness because I happened to come into a free copy of it. They are the kind of books I don't have the patience to stretch out into 2 weeks, which is how long it usually takes me for an audiobook. But thanks to the pandemic, I've been at home with nothing but knitting and puzzles to occupy me which has been the perfect environment for this. If you've liked his other recent books, you'll likely enjoy this one too. And if you're into audio, I do highly recommend that version.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)

This novel opens on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. Here we meet young George Washington Black, born a slave and destined to spend his life working the fields. Until the master's brother arrives, that is. Titch, as he is known, is trying to build a flying vehicle he calls a cloud-cutter and he requires an assistant to help him and to be used as ballast. Wash seems about the right size, and this chance meeting is to change his life.

Moving from Barbados to the Arctic to Nova Scotia and beyond, nothing that happens could have ever been imagined by the young boy. He learns he is a talented artist and is especially fascinated by sea life. He is pursued by a slave-catcher and he's recognizable because of scarring on his face, so a dark shadow follows him, no matter how far away he goes.

His relationship with Titch remains the focal point of the story though. Wash always wonders why Titch picked him, and long after they are separated he still is not free of him. Without Titch, he'd still be on the plantation, but he doubts that his admiration for the man was reciprocated, and he is tortured by what he sees as their unfinished business. Another significant relationship is with Tanna, a woman he meets while drawing at the seaside and who happens to be the daughter of an author with whom Wash is familiar. She and her father both become integral to his life.

This is the best thing I've read recently. It's a grand adventure to many disparate parts of the world, more than a well-traveled modern person would ever see, and it all begins accidentally for Washington Black. He meets new friends, but never forgets those from the plantation, especially Big Kit, a mother figure with whom he had a close but tempestuous relationship. He thinks about her often as he travels the world.

This is such a different view of the 19th century than I am used to. First of all, it doesn't take place primarily in England or the United States. But also, we see parts of the world I don't usually see in novels set in that era, such as Barbados, Nova Scotia, and even Morocco, and those places all come with vivid descriptions. Wash is black, which of course provides a very different perspective, and his unique situation is just fascinating. Everything felt fresh and unexpected. I haven't read anything like it, and I was completely absorbed.

Washington Black was on many "Best of" lists after it came out, and the honor is well-deserved. If you'd like to read an adventurous historical novel told from an unusual perspective, I highly recommend it.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Wallflower Wager

The Wallflower Wager (Girl Meets Duke #3) by Tessa Dare (2019)

We've met Lady Penelope Campion earlier in this series. She is an animal lover - her house full of a whole menagerie of animals from a dog to a goat to a hedgehog - and a vegetarian who is constantly foisting her creations, such as her "sham" sandwiches on her friends. She is also (unsurprisingly?) single. When the book opens, her Aunt Caroline tells her that her brother is on his way to come collect her and take her back to the country since she has no marriage prospects and has pretty much squandered her opportunities in society. Penny panics, and makes a deal with her aunt that she'll get rid of all her animals and appear in the society pages at least once if it means she can stay.

Meanwhile, the house next to hers has been newly purchased by Gabriel Duke, also known as the Duke of Ruin. He has a tragic backstory of growing up in a workhouse and making himself rich, I guess by financially ruining other people. He has a terrible reputation, but Penny is irresistibly drawn to him and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. He's planning to resell the house after it's remodeled and wants Penny to stay in her house because apparently having a Lady next door makes the property more valuable, so he ends up agreeing to help her rehome her menagerie and make it into the society pages.

I read all three books in this series because I had heard such good reviews of this one, but it turns out to be the book I liked least. The premise wasn't very strong to begin with and somehow the romance between Penny and Gabriel didn't have enough tension for me. The latter part of the book, where things ramp up before the finale, was not very satisfying. Without spoiling too much, it involves a part where Gabriel threatens another person on Penny's behalf and without her approval, which is thing I hate, and which also happened in the first book in the series. Here though, it was worse and he could have gotten himself killed, which makes it clear it's something he's doing to satisfy his own anger and not actually for her (which I think is usually the case when men get all self-righteous about going after someone who wronged their woman.)

Also, this all came to a head in the middle of a ball, and things were kind of left hanging. When the person arrived who had wronged Penny in the past, Gabriel took him to his study and Penny followed and it got all dramatic, but then the story skipped ahead to the morning. First of all, Gabriel was going to announce their engagement at this ball. But did they even return to the ball after this meeting? I mean, they must have since it was at Gabriel's house. Or did he make everyone leave? It was weird to not even mention this. Also, just before this thing happened, Penny's friend Nicola freaked out because she spotted someone in the ballroom who she said was her fiance, and everyone was shocked and asked her to explain. They all went to discuss this surprise, but Penny followed Gabe instead and this thread of Nicola's secret relationship was never picked up again. I assume that's what the next book will be about, but it was handled rather clumsily here.

I know a lot of people loved this book, and I didn't dislike it enough to stop reading it - mostly, it was fairly amusing and I do love Penny's character. But when all was said and done, it fell rather flat for me.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (2018)

Frances Price is well known because twenty years ago when her husband died at home, she responded by leaving on her planned ski trip and didn't report his death until she returned. Now, she and her adult son Malcolm have lost all their money, and are moving to Paris to live in Frances's friend Joan's apartment. Coming with them is their cat, Small Frank, who Frances is convinced is actually her dead husband in feline form.

They are a strange pair, Frances and Malcolm. Mother and child BFFs, more devoted to each other than anyone else, including Malcolm's fiance who he left behind to go to Paris. No question he'd choose his mother over her, which was fine with Frances, who didn't even like Susan to begin with.

On the way over, they meet a psychic aboard their ship (they are the sort of people who travel by ship) with whom Malcolm has a brief affair. Her name is Madeleine and when she sees their cat, she knows he's not a regular cat. Once settled in Paris, Small Frank run away and Frances decides she needs to find Madeleine, who could help them find, or communicate with, Small Frank. She hires a private investigator to find Madeline and soon, both of them are hanging out at the apartment with Frances and Malcolm, along with Joan (the owner of the apartment), a wine seller, Malcolm's ex-fiance and her boyfriend, and I think a couple of other people I can't even remember. It's a bizarre assortment of people, and unclear why they all remain hanging about, but it adds to the comedy of the situation.

It's a dark comedy though, which is the kind of comedy I like best. Frances and Malcolm are not likable people at all, so even though you're left not caring what kind of end they come to, it's fascinating to watch it happen. Their friends and hangers-on comprise a motley assortment and I've just realized what an amusing and entertaining movie this would make. I've also heard that the audiobook version is spectacular. There are so many strange and quirkly personalities here, and such a great premise, it was bound to be a lot of fun. Dark, twisted fun.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren (2018)

The first time Josh and Hazel met, she was drunk and propositioned him before throwing up on his shoes. She has no restraint whatsoever, says whatever she's thinking, and is totally wild and carefree. Josh, in contrast, is mellow and sensible and not at all her type, obviously. Many years after college they meet again, unexpectedly, and become friends. Platonic friends. They start going on double blind dates, fixing each other up with a series of increasingly unsuitable potential partners. But of course, they really just want each other.

Hazel was great. She's a third grade teacher who definitely understands eight-year-olds and lives in an apartment with a dog, a rabbit (Janis Hoplin!), a parrot, and a fish. She is the sort of person who is considered "too much" by many people, even "embarrassing." She knows this and she knows why, but also doesn't try to change who she is. I love that her mother is the same way. They have a great relationship that I really enjoyed, and seeing how people like her father treated her mother only makes Hazel more determined to stay true to herself.

Although Josh is totally different, he finds Hazel to be a lot of fun. She's genuine and a great person and seems to like his family. She's best friends with his sister Emily, also a teacher, and makes an effort to get to know his parents, unlike his recent ex-girlfriend Tabby who was totally uninterested in his family. When he and Hazel get together, it is always an adventure.

So what's keeping them apart? Their newly-developed friendship is so important to both of them that they don't dare risk losing it. Hazel worries about being way to obnoxious for Josh and Josh thinks he might not be enough for Hazel. Of course, they can only put their feelings aside for so long.

The only thing I didn't love about this book was that the epilogue is several years in the future, which is something I almost never like. Otherwise, it was just exactly what I needed right now. So funny, so sweet, so quick to read - I think I read it in about 36 hours. I almost wish I had slowed down to make it last longer, but it's like candy and I couldn't resist.

I also really liked Christina Lauren's book Dating You / Hating You so I guess now I can consider myself a fan. I'm definitely in a space where I'll probably be reading a lot more romance so I may check out their other books.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Giver of Stars

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (2019)

Jojo Moyes became very popular with Me Before You, a book that I am still very uninterested in reading. I've not been interested in any of her books until this one, a historical novel about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky during the Depression. Librarians, you say? Why yes, yes this does interest me. It helps that one of my coworkers who doesn't like her older books told me that this one was good.

It begins with Alice, a young English woman who meets and marries an American named Bennett Van Cleve, partly just to escape her unsatisfying life in which she is constantly disappointing her parents. So she moves to rural Kentucky with Bennett and his father, and proceeds to disappoint both of them. But! She meets Margery O'Hare, who is running the local packhorse library and signs up to help with book deliveries to poor families who aren't able to come into town. It's hard work, but very satisfying, unlike her lackluster marriage, which has basically fizzled before it even got started.

The Van Cleves don't like Margery because of her family and disapprove of Alice being associated with her. I don't think Bennett actually cares that much, but he just goes along with whatever his father wants because he's a total wuss. But his father continues to get riled up and starts complaining pretty publicly about the library, disapproving of the effects of all this book readin' on local women who are no longer doing their housework because they are instead reading novels (yeah!) and also there's a rumor of a very inappropriate book about sex being passed around. In short, Mr. Van Cleve is an ass, and also a total hypocrite since he owns the local mines and is not looking out for the well-being of the people who risk their lives working for him.

Well, there is so much more to this story but of course I don't want to give it all away. A lot of things come up about the conditions of women in this place and time, and I really rooted for all the librarians who were bucking tradition in various ways. I loved Margery O'Hare especially, the leader of the library and pariah in the town, who very much lived her life the way she wanted without a care for appearance or expectations. Of course it hurts her, but she is a very strong woman. Alice had a transformation throughout the book and it was great to see how she navigated her terrible marriage and her friendships and family expectations, and figured out what she really wanted for herself.

My only criticism is that it all wrapped up so very quickly at the end. I hoped things would be pretty neat and tidy (we're in the midst of a pandemic and I don't need more bad news) but I just wish more time had been allotted to the ending and how everything turned out for everyone. But that didn't put much of a damper on my enjoyment.

This story has it all - adventure, romance, even a murder trial - and I had a great time immersing myself in it.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Coupla graphic novels

Recently I read two very different graphic novels, which I'm combining into one post.

Swimsuit by Rachel Ang (2018)

In this quiet story, a young woman named Jenny meets up with a former love interest at a local pool. They have some awkward conversation, go swimming for a bit, then sit next to the pool. They witness a traumatic event happen to another person, at which her ex says, "This sort of thing seems to always happen when we're together." Then they part ways, Jenny goes home, and is sad.

It's a very moody story, made more so by the blue-on-pale-yellow drawings on every page. Jenny is clearly self-conscious in her bathing suit, especially as her ex shows her photos of his new girlfriend. Watching someone come close to death does not lighten the mood. It was all very uncomfortable, yet relatable.

Mostly told through sparse conversation and simple but emotional drawings, it was very understated yet powerful.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (2018)

My coworkers have been raving about this one for a while! It's about a prince whose parents are trying to find a wife for him, and the dressmaker he hires to make dresses for him. He has a whole secret life where he dresses as a very fashionable woman and he needs to keep it a secret. Frances is happy for the opportunity to work for a prince and her work is really getting noticed - but she has to stay out of the spotlight because people know she works for Prince Sebastian and they can't know that this fashionable woman wearing such amazing creations is also Sebastian.

This story is very sweet and I love how their friendship bloomed and how Frances accepted Sebastian for who he is without question. The art was colorful and dramatic and everything about it was so much fun.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper (2019)

We all know what Westboro Baptist Church is famous for - I'm not even going to repeat their hateful potty-mouthed slogans here, so you can Google them if you're unfamiliar. Started by pastor Fred Phelps, the church is made up primarily of his family members. Until a few years ago that included his granddaughter Megan. From the time she was 5, she was out on picket lines spewing hate. By the time she was in her 20s she was the most recognized voice from the church on social media, where she seemed to enjoy sparring with their detractors. But then something changed, and once she began to question everything she was raised to believe, there was no going back. This memoir is about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church and the very painful, but necessary, decision to leave the church and her family for good.

A lot of things that I learned here surprised me. First, Megan's family was very kind and loving and supportive of one another. They had fun, joked around, and were very closed to one another. Given the things they say publicly, I did not expect them to be nice people. Second, Fred Phelps was a well-known civil rights lawyer. Why someone would be a strong proponent of civil rights - an unpopular stance in that place and time - but be so committed to hatred of the LGBT community seems very inconsistent. He also required that all of his children and their spouses be lawyers and work for the family law firm. I'll admit I was surprised to learn how well-educated WBC members are.

I heard about this book on a podcast (I think it was Get Booked) and the host mentioned that it was Megan's conversations with people on Twitter that led her to leave the church, remarking "It's probably the only good thing that's ever come out of Twitter." Reading this story, I don't know that I'd give all the credit to the conversations on Twitter, but it's true that some very kind people took the time to get to know Megan as a person, which was way more effective at helping her see why WBC is bad then just ranting at her. There were changes at WBC at the time that also contributed to her questioning their direction and their adherence to scripture. I think she's not even entirely sure what happened, but it seems like a lot of little things added up and she knew she could no longer live that way.

I've never understand many of the church's positions and Megan did her best to explain them. Picketing the funerals of soldiers is one that has always mystified me, and apparently they also celebrated deaths of children, such as those killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. It had to do with punishing people for their sins, and something about God's will - I don't know. It kind of sense in a twisted way when she explained it, but only for a moment. That's the thing about many of their beliefs. They are based on the Bible, but really twisted and manipulated.

It must have been terrifying to leave the only home she had ever known. She knew she would be cut off from family, because that's what happened to the few others who had left. But her sister Grace also left with her, so at least they had each other. Phelps-Roper clearly still loves her parents deeply and mourns the loss of their relationship, and holds out hope that they will come around. And the same for her remaining siblings. I was struck by how she wrote about death of her grandfather, Fred Phelps. He was actually kicked out of the church just before he died and was in hospice all alone because he had been abandoned by his family. I don't know how anyone who calls themselves Christians can treat family the way the Phelps clan does.

I found the earlier parts of the book a bit slow, I think because it was all about growing up in the church and what they believed and there were a lot of Bible verses quoted, and they just make my eyes glaze over. Otherwise it was thoughtful and hopeful, and mostly I'm just glad this person was able to get out of the cult in which she was raised. I hope more of her family follow her.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Sundial

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958)

The Halloran family is gathered together for a funeral - poor Lionel, apparently pushed down the stairs by his mother, Mrs. Halloran. While they are gathered, eccentric Aunt Fanny receives a communication from her dead father, warning the family that the world is going to end and only they will be saved. They must remain in the house together to await the apocalypse.

I didn't actually know what this book was going to be about, but luckily I am unbothered by reading about people hoarding food and supplies for their isolation period at home while it is happening all around me in real life. It is never a bad time for a Shirley Jackson novel.

Honestly, the matriarch of the family murdering her own son became quite beside the point, but lent a lot of dark humor to the story. Lionel's widow and daughter brought it up a lot at first, but then everyone became consumed by the dead Mr. Halloran's prophecy. Everyone had to decide whether or not they were on board with the plan to hunker down and wait for the world to end, and most of the family went along with it. They also had some hangers-on who weren't family - Essex, who had been hired to catalog the library but who the family ended up treating as a general servant and source of advice. A late arrival known only as "the captain" was the only other male aside from Essex and the unwell Mr. Halloran who kept to his wheelchair and seemed very confused most of the time. This is important because after the apocalypse this group would need to repopulate the world and there were more ladies than gentlemen so there was a bit of competition for attention.

The subject is dark, but like I said it was pretty funny too. People just outwardly insulted each other in a fairly carefree way, and there was a good deal of ridiculous melodrama. It was slightly creepy and ominous and enough was left open to maintain an air of mystery. I thought it was great - I continue to love Shirley Jackson's work more and more.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Gentleman's Guide to Getting Lucky

The Gentleman's Guide to Getting Lucky by Mackenzi Lee (2019), narrated by Christian Coulson

This novella takes place between The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, both of which I loved. In this story, Monty, Percy, and Felicity are in Santorini and although Monty and Percy are definitively a couple, they have not had sex yet. The entire two hours of this audiobook is the two of them feeling anxious about having sex, wanting to do it, not feeling ready, lather, rinse, repeat.

Percy is a virgin and feels a lot of pressure about his first time. Monty is very much not a virgin and feels like expectations about his performance may be high. Plus, he's never before been with someone with whom he is in love. Hilariously, his sister Felicity tries to help him out by orchestrating activities for the rest of the party to leave the couple alone, and by furnishing the place with flowers, wine, and pastries. But all of that just creates more pressure and the two lovebirds really need to come to this on their own.

I found this story funny and sweet and totally enjoyable, all the more because of the great narration. Mackenzi Lee writes such fun stories, and I'm very excited to see that she's got another novel in this series coming out later this year. Yay!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Oona Out of Order

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (2020)

It's New Year's Eve and when the clock strikes midnight, it will be 1983 and Oona will be 19 years old. Except that's not what happens. Instead, it's 2015 and she's 51 years old. She is with her personal assistant, Kenzie, who explains everything to her. Each year when it becomes midnight on New Year's Eve she leaps to a different year of her life. Of course she's never met this man before and doesn't believe that this mansion is her house, and she flees. But soon she realizes that it really is 2015 and her life makes no sense anymore.

This all sounded very gimmicky, but I assure you it's actually a great story! When Oona leaves 1982 she was on the precipice of making a major decision about her life. Go to London for school, or stay in New York with her boyfriend Dale and tour with their band. She has no idea what is the right decision and now that decision is delayed. I mean, she made it back in early 1983 but she hasn't experienced that year for herself yet. She sometimes writes notes to herself on New Year's Eve so the following morning, whichever Oona is inhabiting her body will have some guidance for that year or clues about who she is with at the time. It can get very complicated. I cannot understand time travel and there were times I was figuratively scratching my head but I think it all makes sense.

Living life with no continuity means that it's extremely difficult to maintain friendships and relationships. Her mother Madeleine is a constant, and she and Kenzie are the only two people who know the truth about what happens with Oona. It can be a lonely existance in many ways. But it's also a great lesson in living in the moment and not worrying too much about the consequences of your decisions or what is going to come next. Oona really needs to roll with it. There are some perks. If a person dies, she'll probably still see them again. And youth isn't wasted on her because she has been much older and knows to appreciate being young. It was fascinating to experience this and learn these lessons along with Oona.

If anything, I wanted more. This isn't a long book so we can only get so many years. It jumped around, obviously, but there were some years that were near other years we read about, which filled in the blanks on some of the storylines and kept the whole thing feeling more like a story rather than a series of vignettes. It was a pretty quick, light read even though it tackled some serious themes. It was a whole lot of fun and very satisfying!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow (2019), narrated by the author

Ronan Farrow is the journalist who broke the story about Harvey Weinstein's pattern of abuse, pursuing his leads despite pushback from NBC. He documents the whole crazy story here, including his interviews with Weinstein's victims, interactions with NBC executives who refused to run the story, and a creeping sense of paranoia that turned out to be very well-founded when he discovered he was being watched by a surveillance team hired by Weinstein.

It's hard to know where to start here, and I don't want to recount the whole story because there's too much of it and you should really read it, so I'll pull out a few things I found especially interesting. One is that he worked closely with NBC News producer Rich McHugh on this story, and McHugh was the only person at NBC who really stood by him through all of it. The two continued to be confused about why NBC kept telling them they didn't have enough, even though they had women on camera telling their stories and a recording of Weinstein admitting to his behavior. Which is the second thing - the audiobook actually included this clip from an NYPD sting operation, in which Weinstein tried to get Ambra Gutierrez to go to his hotel room with him, admitting that he was "used to" forcing himself on women the way he had done with her the day before. That was really hard to listen to. I felt really gross just from hearing it. I was shocked and heartened that when Gutierrez went to the police, they believed her. Another heartening part of the book was that Farrow often went to veteran news anchor Tom Brokaw for advice, and he supported Farrow and his work and kept encouraging him to make sure the story was told.

Mostly I found the story horrifying and enraging. That Rose McGowan's lawyer told her she wouldn't be believed because she had once done a sex scene. (What does that have to do with it?) That tabloids like the National Enquirer helped Weinstein by smearing his victims and buying stories about his abuse and not running them (which is what "catch and kill" refers to.) That so many people helped cover up this guy's crimes. Even Hillary Clinton refused an interview with Farrow about something entirely different when she learned he was working on a story about Weinstein. Women who helped protect Weinstein was mystifying. The fact that non-disclosure agreements are a thing that is legal - Weinstein would regularly pay off women who he hurt and make them sign an agreement they wouldn't talk about it. What kind of a world do we live in where that is ok? Beyond the legal agreement, all the women were terrified to speak because they knew Weinstein was powerful enough to kill their careers and their reputations. And there were just so many parts in which men hemmed and hawed over whether or not any of this was enough of a big deal to be news. We're talking about rape here. I wanted to punch these guys. And it's all a great lesson about bias in the news, and why you should get news from a variety of sources.

In some ways it wasn't the best choice for audio for me because there were SO many people and it was hard to keep track. But I don't know if I ever would have picked up the print book, and Farrow does a great job of narrating. I was listening to this while reading The People in the Trees, which is about a man in prison for sexual assault, and still listening to it when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race leaving us with old white guys as the only remaining viable candidates. So I was (am) pretty full up on patriarchy and really honestly glad to be done hearing this story.

Still, it's such an important story to tell and Farrow faced so much difficulty in doing so. I wasn't familiar with him before this book, but I can't help admiring him after what he went through to get this story out there. Of course the outcome wasn't known at the time of publishing, but I'm glad I read it knowing that Weinstein was heading to prison.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The People in the Trees

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (2013)

Norton Perina graduated from medical school and didn't know what to do with himself, so he accepted an offer to accompany an anthropologist on an expedition to a small island in Micronesia. There they hoped to find a tribe that had been rumored about but never studied. They found the tribe, as well as some others who lived apart from them in the forest and appeared to be in a state of mental deterioration. Perina's discovery about the secrets of these long-lived people launch his career and even win him a Nobel prize. However, the book begins with Norton having been arrested for sexual abuse, and most of the book is his story he has written from prison, introduced and edited by his good friend Ronald Kubodera.

It sounds like it would be very interesting, but in fact I found most of it quite tedious. It was initially kind of interesting, a young Perina traveling to such a remote place and learning about a new culture, and detailed descriptions of the jungle and the people and their rituals. A lot of the book was this initial trip, which was significant, but eventually it got kind boring, and there's a lot more story that was rather glossed over later. He made many other trips to this and other locations; he adopted dozens of children; presumably other things happened in his life, but we only ever hear about his work, and after that initial visit several decades were basically summed up in a blur. It honestly felt rather pointless.

Of course what the reader wants to know is about the alleged sexual abuse of these children, which doesn't get addressed at all until the very end. Late in the story, which was full of footnotes with explanations by Kubodera, a footnote says that he decided as editor to remove the next passage. Ok. But then he presents that missing passage at the very end, and it is the part of Perina's story that addresses the abuse. I don't know what Yanagihara thought would be gained by leaving it out and then including it just a few pages later, but whatever it was I don't think it worked. Also, I don't understand why both Perina and Kubodera insist on Perina's innocence.

But it's hard to know what Perina thought or felt about anything. He tells his story in such a logical way, and it is clear that he doesn't have a normal range of human emotions, nor does he seem to have any sort of moral or ethical beliefs. This might be a good spot to mention the many instances of animal cruelty described in the book, which I found very unpleasant and which Perina is completely unbothered by. He is a scientist through and through and only wants knowledge and data and clearly does not care who is hurt in order to get it. He also talks about the people he studies as "backwards" and describes them in ways that are unfeeling at best, often mentioning how ugly people are. I often like an unpleasant characters, but his schtick wore pretty thin. Possibly because I am tired of old white men who feel entitled to do whatever they want to anyone they want and he is just one more of these. We have enough of those in real life, I don't need more of them (and from a female author, no less.)

I read Yanagihara's other book, A Little Life, and loved it. Loved it. I knew this was going to be a very different book, and did not go into it expecting it to be anything like her second book. But I did hope it would be good, and populated with compelling characters, and in that I was disappointed. About halfway through I actually considered putting it down, but decided to continue, and I kind of wish I hadn't. The story has a great premise but the execution really fell flat.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Trespassers

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell (2019)

After extensive screening, a lucky group of passengers have been able to board a ship and leave an illness-ravaged UK for Australia. There they hope to start a new life with good jobs, but none are sure what really awaits them. Out at sea, a young passenger named Cleary stumbles upon the victim of a murder, and that's just the beginning of their troubles.

This story is told through three narrators. The first is Cleary, who has been deaf for three years since he was sick and who is traveling with his single mom. Billie is a former nurse, who worked in the death wards and is hesitant to talk about the circumstances of her departure from her job. Finally, Tom was hired as a teacher for the kids who are among the passengers, and has begun an affair with a crewman. Each of these characters brought a different perspective to this tale of migrants with an uncertain future.

During the time I was reading this book, I found my mind often wandering to this ship and its passengers. It was just one of those books that holds you in its grasp every moment until you've finished. Almost the entire book takes place on the ship, the passengers crammed into shared quarters, falling ill one by one even though they were so thoroughly screened before being allowed to board. The ship is not equipped to deal with the outbreak, and how the illness got on board is a mystery. There is a lot of fear in this story, and some struggles regarding authority and power, and uncertainty - so much uncertainty.

We don't really know much about the illness that has ravaged the UK or, as it refer to it in the novel, the former UK. This is set in the not-too-distant future, and reading it during the coronavirus panic and accompanying stories about quarantined ships made it feel less like speculative fiction and more like a prediction.

A friend brought this back from Australia for me as a gift because it's not available in the U.S. but I do hope it is eventually so that you all can read it. I certainly won't forget this story or stop thinking about the characters anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Monday's Not Coming

Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson (2018), narrated by Imani Parks

Claudia hasn't heard from her friend Monday all summer. Usually they write to each other while Claudia is at her grandmother's house and Monday is back home, but this year Claudia's letters went unanswered. On the first day of school, Claudia looks everywhere for Monday, but she is not to be found. Day after day is the same. Claudia tells her teachers, her parents, anyone who will listen that Monday must be in trouble but nobody seems very concerned.

The timeline moves around from The Before to The After and even back to One Year Before and Two Years Before. Events in The Before and The After are remarkably similar, Claudia still looking for Monday and wanting to know what happened to her, but you know that something has happened in between. There were lots of hints along the way, and I assumed it would end up being totally different than what we were led to believe.

I was kind of disappointed when the mystery was solved, because it was pretty much what I assumed had happened. However, I also realize I am not the audience for this teen book and have probably read considerably more psychological fiction and thrillers than the average teenager. One of the things that bugged me throughout the book was how Claudia didn't pick up on certain things that people said, and that ended up being explained. Other things weren't though. Like, why does a kid in junior high still play with dolls and coloring books? Why did Monday lie to her about seemingly mundane things like her swimming lessons? There was also a lot of homophobia - someone at school started a rumor that Claudia and Monday were more than friends and there was a whole lot of defending themselves against accusations of being lesbians, and very little acknowledgement that there's nothing wrong with being a lesbian. One teacher, who had recently married another woman, addressed this VERY briefly, but it wasn't nearly enough and didn't seem to get through Claudia's head.

Although the idea of this book was pretty good, I ended up thinking it was only ok. However, I also listened to the audiobook pretty compulsively as I was dying to find out what was going on. So I've got to give it credit for being a page-turner, or whatever the audiobook equivalent is.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Feminine Pursuits #1) by Olivia Waite

Our story begins with a wedding; Lucy Muchelney's lover for the past five years is getting married. Lucy is heartbroken that Priscilla has left her for a man who she doesn't care about, but she returns home to find a letter from the Countess of Moth that is sure to provide a welcome distraction. The Countess is looking for a translator for a French astronomy book; she would have employed Lucy's father, but now that he is dead she wonders if Lucy has a suggestion of another person who is well-versed in both science and French, who could undertake the translation. She does. But rather than try to convince the Countess by letter that she can do the work herself, Lucy decides she'd make more an impression if she presents herself in person. As it turns out, she does make a strong impression on the Countess, and soon Lucy has quite decidedly moved on from her heartbreak.

Catherine, the Countess of Moth, is a widow who isn't at all upset that her husband is dead. He was a bad-tempered, controlling man. He read her mail, so she wrote letters to her aunt in which she used illustrations of flowers to say what she didn't dare say in words. Speaking of flowers, she's a very talented embroiderer who perhaps would have been a botanist had she been a man. She doesn't take her gorgeous designs seriously until Lucy points out that what she does is art. After a time, Catherine begins thinking of her own potential, wondering if she is too old to start something new, and deciding to forge ahead regardless.

Much of the plot of this book surrounds this scientific translation and the politics surrounding the organization supporting it. It's a very exclusive organization that doesn't allow women, or believe that women can grasp science. The romance isn't fraught with angst, just a little doubt about their level of commitment since they can't get married, and of course there was a certain amount of secrecy required. But to be honest it was nice to see a relationship not steeped in drama. There was enough else going on the book that I didn't feel like I was missing anything, yet the romance remained the central focus.

I like that this book acknowledges things about the world that many people don't realize, like that there were times in history that gay people maybe weren't super ostracized, and that black people existed in history other than in American slavery. There's an older character in the story who reveals her love affair with a woman in her past, and she points out to Lucy and Catherine that society wasn't always so restrictive about same-sex relationships as is in their time. There were also a couple of black characters who were part of the scientific community. For some reason many historicals are very white and, of course, heterosexual and it has led to the idea that that's all there was. That's just not the case, and I like how this book acknowledges that without making a big deal out of it.

I found this story quite enjoyable, both the plot about Lucy's work and the related plot about her relationship with Catherine, and I liked how both characters grew and changed over the course of the story. I'd definitely check out this author again, and I'm happy to see that this is the first in a series.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Dutch House

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

I don't think I ever bothered to read the description of this book, because I had the idea that it was a historical novel that took place in the Netherlands and had something to do with art, maybe. That is not at all what it is about. The only Dutch thing in this book is the house, which used to be owned by the Van Hoebeek family. They're all dead now; the house was bought by Cyril Conroy for his wife, who ended up hating it. But the story is about their kids, Maeve and Danny, and their longstanding obsession with the house.

When they're very young, their mother leaves and doesn't come back. Their father marries a horrid woman named Andrea who brings two little (not horrid) girls of her own to the house. Several years later, events result in the banishment of Maeve and Danny from the house. They're on their own with nobody except each other to rely on.

The story is mostly about Danny and Maeve's relationship. They are very close, enough that when Danny eventually has a serious girlfriend, she and Maeve resent each other. I didn't like Cecilia either; it was hard to, given that her role was primarily supporting Danny, begging him to marry her, and being jealous of his sister. And his sister always came first in his life.

Years after leaving the Dutch House, Danny and Maeve still go back and park on the nearby street to watch the house. They talk a lot about the house and their lives growing up. They can't let it go. They have unfinished business though - their mother could still be alive out there somewhere and although Danny was too young to really remember her, Maeve has always longed to have her mother back.

The story follows the two from when they are kids to middle age, so it spans decades. It's hard to describe what is so compelling about this story, but it is. It's told from Danny's viewpoint and I really enjoyed reading it from his perspective. He and Maeve were both great characters to immerse oneself in, and even though their lives weren't super eventful or exciting, the story is told so well, as is often the case with Ann Patchett. I liked it more than her last book, Commonwealth, which had too many characters and jumped around a bit too much for me. She writes so well about family and relationships though; her books are always a pleasure.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Danger Close

Danger Close: My Epic Journey as a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan by Amber Smith (2016)

Amber Smith grew up in a family of pilots and learned to fly when she was still a kid. Then she and both of her sisters joined the military and became pilots. Amber writes about her experiences, starting with boot camp and flight school, through her tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where she flew Kiowa helicopters. I never read books about the military, but I happened across this one several years ago when I was looking for books about helicopters. I think it was soon after I had taken a helicopter flying lesson and I was a little obsessed. (I am still a little obsessed.)

I was doubtful that I'd actually like this, to be honest. Interesting and talented people who have great stories aren't necessarily good writers, but Smith writes well. She was pretty casual about some of the training she had to endure. I know she enjoyed some of it, but some sounded terrible. Like in flight school where you have to learn how to get out of a helicopter if it crashes in the water - they strap you into a cockpit and dunk it into a swimming pool, repeatedly. She hated this. Survival school consisted of crawling through swamps, not eating for days, and drinking algae-infested water. I actually wanted to hear more about this, but she didn't dwell on this part for very long.

I'm not, and never have been, interested in the military. When I was growing up I couldn't fathom why anyone would do such a thing. In many ways that hasn't changed. But the way Smith wrote about her experiences, I could kind of see the appeal. I definitely see the appeal of flying, and the military is probably the best opportunity for that. But also there is a logic and order to the work that leaves no room for uncertainty. There are very specific procedures to follow for every situation, leaving no room for ambiguity. She tells one story in which she was out in her helicopter and waiting for orders from above and they weren't coming; finally she was forced to leave the situation to refuel. She says, "Indecision is a decision." For a moment I was almost jealous of how cut-and-dried her job is, but then I remembered that although I am faced with uncertainty at my job, I am in much less danger of dying.

My only criticism is that I think she glossed things over a bit. She was working under some pretty tough conditions. She mentions the heat in the Middle East, and the spiders (she's afraid of spiders and they have HUGE ones there) but somehow these were just asides. She didn't deny that it was hard, but surely she must have been scared at times and I wonder if she left out some things about how the guys treated her. She talks about how hard it was to fit in. She was one of very few women, but also she says that she smiled a lot and didn't try to be a badass, and that made it harder. I definitely respect that she didn't try to change too much to fit in. But I've heard some horror stories about the way women are treated in the military and I have to wonder what she experienced that she's keeping to herself. She describes some situations where men didn't take her seriously, and I think that if that was the worst she endured she is extremely lucky.

All in all, I found it pretty interesting. I went into it for the helicopters and I got a LOT of stories about the helicopters. It was pretty eye-opening in other ways too, because I just know so little about the military and I think I got a much better idea of what it's like day to day. As much as I try to read books about people who are different from me, those differences are usually based on race or country or origin or something like that. Amber Smith may also be a white woman in America, but she is definitely very different from me and I found her story surprisingly engaging.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017)

I am on a short story kick the past couple of months. I'm also trying to go back and read the books that have been languishing on my To Read list the longest, which is what made me pick this one up now. Several of my coworkers have read it and raved about it, but somehow I kept putting it off.

There are a total of eight stories in this book, and I'm sorry to admit that I read only seven and a half of them. One is a tediously long list of summaries of (fake?) Law and Order episodes, and it was amusing at first but I've never watched the show so probably am missing a lot of the point and also it went on for far too long. Finally I couldn't stand to read any more so after 35 pages I decided to skip the second half of the story.

Otherwise, the stories were great! They were weird and creepy and I often couldn't tell if something was actually happening or if the person was delusional in some way, but I liked that. Many of them are difficult to describe adequately.

"The Husband Stitch" is the story of a relationship and marriage, and the wife's refusal to explain to her husband why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck. In "Inventory" a woman recounts all her sexual encounters, and after the first few it grew decidedly dark as they all happened against the backdrop of an apocalyptic descent. The main character in "Mothers" has just been handed a baby by her female lover and now has to take care of it...but I'm not sure there is actually a baby. "The Resident" is about a writer attending a residency near where she attended Girl Scout Camp as a kid, and her experiences and the other people there are strange in a way that is hard to describe. It's probably my favorite in the collection, though it's hard to say what it's even about.

Machado's writing is a pleasure to read, and even the story I ultimately didn't like was actually written well, it was just far, far too long. They all have an otherworldly quality to them, yet are still full of sharp, palpable imagery. I'm sorry it took me so long to pick this book up.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Yes No Maybe So

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (2020), narrated by Tiya Sircar and Michael Crouch

Jamie Goldberg's family is very involved in the campaign for their local Senate candidate and Jamie has been happy to volunteer behind the scenes. It's a busy time - in addition to this election, Jamie's sister's bat mitzvah is coming up so there are lots of plans afood for that. Meanwhile, Maya Rehman is having a terrible Ramadan, as her parents have decided to separate and their family trip to Italy has been cancelled. Their lives are getting very complicated and she's having severe transportation issues; but then her parents agree to consider buying her a car, but only if she works on this local Senate campaign. Jamie and Maya end up going door-to-door together, becoming very invested in the political campaign they're working on, and in their new friendship.

There was so much to like about this book! For one thing, the way these teenagers, who weren't old enough to vote, were nonetheless civically engaged. As they learned more about what was at stake in the election, they both approached their canvassing with a new fervor. They learned about a piece of legislation that could prevent Muslim women from wearing hijab while doing everyday activities such as driving, which would adversely affect Maya's mom. Their candidate winning could make all the difference to this legislation. While knocking on doors they had some strange experiences, including meeting a nasty Islamophobic guy.

Speaking of which, I really liked how important a role each of their religions played in the story. For Maya, the story began during Ramadan while she was fasting, which resulted in a couple of awkward exchanges with Jamie when he kept trying to give her food. Also, her family's religion played a big part in how they thought about dating in high school, which came up as she and Jamie realized they were attracted to each other. For Jamie, the story is working up to his sister's bat mitzvah, and also he was subject to an anti-Semitic attack in the form of a sticker put on his car.

I loved the way that Maya and Jamie's relationship developed throughout the book. Maya's best friend was distracted that summer and so Maya turned to Jamie when she needed to talk about her parents' separation. Jamie had a huge crush on Maya from the start but kind of assumed she wouldn't be interested in him. He was so delightfully awkward, and I loved seeing him grow more confident and find his voice. He had dreams of running for office, but worried about the public speaking part, especially since he was filled with such dread about giving the speech at his sister's bat mitzvah.

Becky Albertalli cannot write fast enough for me. I preordered this audiobook and listened to it as soon as I got it, so I have to wait who knows how long for another book. And I really enjoyed Aisha Saeed's book Written in the Stars so I was pleased to see her as co-author. By the way, this book is great on audio, as all of Albertalli's tend to be. Michael Crouch also narrated Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda so I already knew he was an excellent narrator; Tiya Sircar was new to me but also did a great job. This book would be enjoyable anytime, but it is extra relevant during an election year.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Governess Game

The Governess Game (Girls Meets Duke #2) by Tessa Dare (2018)

Alexandra Mountbatten has been on her own for quite a while since her sea captain father died, and she now makes her living setting clocks. But when she loses the instruments of her trade, desperation drives her to take a job as a governess for Chase Reynaud and his two orphan charges. Many a governess has passed through their house and Chase is ready to send the kids off to boarding school far, far away. He can't be bothered to deal with them himself; he's too busy seducing every female in the greater London area. That is, until he can't take his eyes off Alexandra.

Alexandra was a great heroine, with her interest interest in science, especially comets, and her friendship with other smart, single women. Before moving into Chase's house to take care of the two little monster girls, she lived with two of her best friends, who were both fairly eccentric single women. I also like that when Chase finally decides he's in love with her and asks her to marry him, she's like "Meh, it seems like staying single might be better?"

Chase is her employer, which I find a bit distressing (as do her friends.) The power unbalance, especially when so much is riding on her employment, is something we'd never tolerate in a contemporary novel. Chase is also a rogue, a character type I don't especially like. This is one of those situations with a sexually experienced man and a virgin heroine and I'm kind of sick of that whole setup. But despite that, I did really like both of them.

I'm also not a big fan of plot moppets, but although the little girls were just a way to help get Chase and Alex together, I thought Tessa Dare did a good job of making their story, and their relationships with both Chase and Alex, interesting. Alex knew what it was like to be unwanted, to be sent off to school, and to not know what the future brings. She was able to relate to these girls because she knew where they were coming from. She also abandoned thoughts of making them into proper young ladies and started teaching them piracy instead, channeling their natural interests to trick them into learning. Chase insisted he didn't care for the girls but every morning when they announced that their doll Millicent was dead (yet again) from consumption or dropsy or whatever illness Daisy was currently fixated on, he was right there at the funeral.

All in all, I found it to be a pretty well-crafted romance. Maybe not a favorite, but it was exactly what I felt like reading at the time and it was definitely satisfying.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Olive, Again

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (2019)

Olive Kitteridge is back in another set of connected stories that feels like a novel. We meet a slew of interesting characters as Olive finds love and marries for the second time, and the book takes us at least ten years beyond that. We see Olive get into her eighties and decline a bit, but she's not too old to make new friends and to maintain her straightforward, slightly abrasive personality.

It's been a while since I read the first book, but I think she stars in more stories in this one. There were still a few focused on other characters in which she only made a passing appearance, but she maintained a pretty strong presence. Somehow she felt more likable from the beginning of this book, but that may just be because I already got to know her and I know she's not the mean old lady some people find her to be. She doesn't have a great relationship with her son or his wife, so she hasn't even met her grandchildren at the start of the book. But they do end up having a family visit, a struggle that is eventually worth it.

I was pleased to see Olive begin a friendship with a man which turned into a marriage. We get so few stories of older people having relationships, and I like the reminder that romance doesn't have to stop past a certain age. I also enjoyed her new friendship with Isabelle (who we first met in the novel Amy and Isabelle.)

One of the things that so endears me to Olive is that despite coming across as aloof and even unkind, she speaks up on behalf of others. For instance, she had a rotating schedule of home health aides, and the first day that Betty arrived and Olive noticed that her truck had a bumper sticker promoting "that horrible orange-haired man" who is president, Olive told her immediately that they would not discuss politics. One day when Betty was relieved from her shift by a Somalian woman and was rude to her, Olive gave her a very firm talking-to about how she wouldn't have prejudice in her house.

It could have been depressing to see Olive get older, deal with health issues, and lose people she loved. But somehow it didn't. Perhaps because Olive herself didn't want sympathy; she knows that's just the direction life goes. I really enjoyed revisiting Olive and seeing that she isn't letting old age get her down.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Nature Fix

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams (2017)

I first heard about The Nature Fix on the By the Book podcast, which you probably should be listening to if you aren't already. The two hosts live by self-help books for two weeks and then talk about it and have follow-up episodes where they share feedback from listeners. The Nature Fix is by no means a self-help book and now it's been so long since I listened to that episode that I don't remember how they managed to frame it into one, but it was a great episode about getting outside more and encouraged me to pick up this book.

It's arranged in five parts. Part one introduces the two dominant theories about why our brains benefit from nature; the author visits Japan and goes forest bathing, and then spends time in a Utah desert. The next three parts focus on the effects of spending different lengths of time experiencing nature. Part two examines short bursts of nature, like having forest views from your windows, using nature smells in aromatherapy, and listening to nature sounds. Part three focuses on the Finnish recommendation of spending five hours a month and how that affects your body and brain. In part four, she looks at longer forays into the wilderness through some pretty interesting initiatives such as an outdoor school for kids with problems like ADHD and a program that helps veterans with PTSD by taking them on several-day long whitewater rafting trips. In the final part, she examines what all of this means for how most people live, which is in cities, and how we might benefit from letting more nature in.

I am already totally on board with the ideas in this book. Even before reading it, I've been trying to take walks on my lunch break a few times a week (it's winter, but it's a really mild winter!) and I have vague plans to go snowshoeing, if we ever actually have snow. I might go hiking in a couple of weeks. I go camping every summer already. So I'm absolutely the audience for this book and Florence Williams is really preaching to the choir here. But since I listened to that podcast episode I've definitely been thinking about this more, and wondering how certain things affect me, for example, that I live next to a highway. I know that the longer I live here, the more chance I have of developing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases (I was even in a Boston Globe article about this. Yay me.) But now I'm also worried about the effects of listening to traffic constantly. So hooray - now I have even more things to worry about!

I found it disturbing to think about all this in the context of the way we now normally live our lives. Williams shared a lot of scary statistics about kids and illness and vitamin D deficiency and teen suicide and anxiety and depression. Kids stay inside so much these days that rickets, a disease that was once virtually eradicated (and which is caused by lack of vitamin D) has had an upsurge in both the US and UK. It's crazy to think that these issues could be dealt with by simply spending more time outdoors but that we'd rather just medicate everyone. For all our sakes, I really hope the solutions that Williams presents start to catch on.

There were other, more random, interesting bits as well. I was amused by an Oscar Wilde quote that I haven't heard before; he defined nature as "a place where birds fly around uncooked." I was also really intrigued by learning that in Finland the law allows you to traipse all over everyone else's land, pick their berries, and camp out (you can't cut timber or hunt game.) I bet a lot of Americans would be absolutely horrified to hear that, but I think it's kind of nice. Also, Thoreau bloviated about how in order to "preserve his health and spirits" he had to spend at least four hours a day just outside walking, "absolutely free from all worldly engagements" and if that's not privilege, I don't know what is.

Having said all that, and being totally on board with the ideas in this book, this is going to sound kind of strange, but I didn't actually love reading it. I did really like all the stories about the outside trips and forest bathing, and everything that took place somewhere outside of the US, but the science itself didn't really interest me a ton. I may also have really not been in the mood to read nonfiction at the time, which isn't the book's fault. So I guess I can sum it up by saying that I like the book but I love the ideas and it all reinforces something I already believe.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Seep

The Seep by Chana Porter (2020)

When the aliens come, it is in the form of an amorphous substance that makes people kind of high. It also can cure illness and transform things into other things. People don't really die anymore. For some reason there is also no longer money; everyone has a credit stick they use and they all have unlimited credit (which begs the question of why they need to go through the motion at all.) The Seep is so pervasive in society that the small sector who live without it are treated like some kind of a cult.

Trina isn't as into the Seep as some people are, but she also doesn't necessarily want to free herself from it entirely. She used to be an artist but is now a doctor and she sees how important the Seep is to medicine now. But her wife, Deeba, embraces it in a way Trina never will. Deeba decides she wants to be reborn as a baby and live a new life in Europe, a thing you can do now, and Trina is devastated by this. Most of the book is about how she handles this decision and how she lives once Deeba is gone (it primarily involves alcohol).

This whole book is 200 pages and it's a very quick 200 pages. I read half of it one evening after work and finished it on my lunch break the next day. (Normally I can't read more than 20-30 pages on my lunch break.) I'm always happy to read a nice short book but this one....part of me thinks it could have benefited from being fleshed out more, but the other part of me thinks that maybe I just don't like this author's writing. I liked the premise, love the cover, and I like that the main character is transgender but that it's not the point of the story and barely came up at all. The writing style was surreal, which I sometimes like, but a lot about this story and and the style in which it was told just wasn't for me. I couldn't really get into the characters, and I struggled with how little was really explained. We're supposed to just take everything at face value without understanding what the Seep is and how it has caused society to change in these particular ways.

This book had a very intriguing premise, but was ultimately disappointing. I didn't hate reading it, but it just didn't do a lot for me. And now that I've reread the Goodreads description I see that they recommend it for fans of Jeff VanderMeer and Carmen Maria Machado, two authors I'm planning to read very soon but now am suddenly less excited about. For me this book was just okay, but there are some positive reviews out there so you might feel differently.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Nicholas and Alexandra

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie (1967)

Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia before the revolution, and in this classic book by Robert K. Massie, he tells the strange and dramatic story of this last generation of the Romanov family and their downfall. Nicholas and Alexandra had five children, the youngest of whom, being male, was the heir to the throne. He suffered from hemophilia (inherited from his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria) so his family was extremely protective of him. Part of that was a close relationship that developed between the family and Rasputin, who they believed to be a holy man who performed miracles of health on their sick son. But this relationship with Rasputin only exacerbated the growing distrust of the royal family by the public, feeding the flames of the revolution to come until the government was dissolved, Nicholas forced to abdicate, and the entire family was murdered in a cellar in 1918. Spoiler alert.

This is a detailed account that took me more than two weeks to read and I'm not gonna lie - it was a little tough to get through. All of the parts that focused on the family and their domestic life and their friendships with Anna Vyrubova and Rasputin were easy to read, but there's necessarily a lot of politics and details about World War I and that was harder. It was also difficult to keep track of all the different people involved in the government, especially since some of them had similar names. So in this way it wasn't quite as compelling as Massie's Catherine the Great, which I read a little over a year ago. But still, it was quite a story!

What really stands out from all the drama of the last Romanovs is, of course, Rasputin. A peasant who passed himself off as a holy man, he was this unwashed weirdo who would just go up to women and start unbuttoning their clothes. Many women had affairs with him, but he was also accused of attempted rape many times. (The police did not take action.) Despite his known drunken and violent tendencies, he presented a completely different character to the royal family and the Alexandra specifically was very devoted to him. When World War I began and Nicholas was away at the front, she handled some government affairs, always on the advice of Rasputin. He earned her trust when Alexei was sick and seemed to get better with Rasputin at his side. There were a number of times when he seemed to have this effect or when his predictions appeared to come true.

I'm not certain how Massie determined the truth of Rasputin's predictions. I looked in the back of the book at the citations for one instance, and it was from the account of Anna Vyrubova, herself a very loyal friend of Rasputin and hardly an unbiased observer. Perhaps it's true that certain prophecies of his did come to pass, but I have to wonder how many prophecies he made all together. If he made 1000 prophecies and we're only talking about the 10 that came true, those can probably be chalked up to coincidence. But I don't have the information to really know. However, what seems certain is that Rasputin was one creepy dude and the fact that he had to be poisoned, shot several times, AND drowned before he actually died only adds to his creepiness. It was also clear that he was manipulative, as one of his prophecies to the Empress was "If I die or you desert me, you will lose your son and your crown within six months." No wonder she kept him around. (This particular prophecy came true, too.)

As for the family itself, I mostly felt bad for them. They were born into this life (or in Alexandra's case, married into it) and Nicholas was not a terrible ruler. He did the best he could. Of course the children were all just victims. When they were murdered the oldest daughter was twenty-two and Alexei was not quite fourteen. Despite being born into wealth he had a very hard life. He wasn't allowed to run and play the way other kids were (he always forbidden to ride a bike, which he really wanted to do) because of the risk of injury. And when he did manage to hurt himself, he'd be in bed in terrible pain for days at a time, or even weeks. Even though I knew how their lives ended, as I was reading I kept hoping they'd escape and leave Russia to start a new life. None of them were bad people. Alexandra was the worst, and she was more misguided than actually a bad person.

All in all, it seemed a very thorough account of a significant family and period in history. The only thing that really bugged me was how all the names were westernized. Alexei was referred to as Alexis, for example, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was called Kaiser William which really confused me for a while. I had to look up "Kaiser William" to see if that was a person. I'm guessing this must have just been a convention at the time this book was written.

As I said, I didn't love this one as much as Catherine the Great, but it was still quite good. I had already read The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, which was excellent but it was written for teens and was much shorter. Now having read Nicholas and Alexander, it only affirms my opinion of what a good job Fleming did in condensing the story down into a shorter book, but of course there was a lot that was left out. (I just knew there was more to Rasputin's sketchy character than she told us about, for example.) It's altogether a fascinating story, and Robert K. Massie told it well.