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.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Witches Are Coming

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (2019)

The author of Shrill is back with a new book of essays on feminism, politics, and pop culture. Taking on everything from the #MeToo movement to abortion to Joan Rivers to Ted Bundy, she shares her clever observations and astute perspectives with her trademarked humor.

So look, I am not the sort of audience for whom this book is going to force me to look at things in a different way or make me aware of issues I knew nothing about. This is basically a book full of opinions that I already believe, but expressed much better than I'd ever be able to.

Except the thing about pockets. Apparently Lindy West doesn't care if her dresses have pockets and thinks those of us who talk about this a lot are wasting our time. But she is wrong about this. She clearly doesn't have a job in an office full of locked doors and only her phone as a watch, because if so she would realize how important it is to have somewhere to put your phone and keys. (Unless she thinks we should all walk around constantly carrying our purses like Sophia Petrillo?) But I digress.

West writes a lot about the culture of misogyny, racism, the rise of neo-Nazis in America and the backlash against people like her who speak out about these things. She addresses the complexity of things like the idea that we should all be friends with each other regardless of political views, which is great in theory, but not if you're part of a minority that people of a different political party would like to see eradicated. You can't just be friends with people who think you shouldn't exist, and you shouldn't try. And she points out the reality that those of us who aren't part of those minorities are the people who can just ignore politics and embrace escapist TV shows, and that that's what privilege means.

In an essay called "Gear Swap," she tells the story of a Facebook page her musician husband is part of, in which people swap and sell musical gear. Some (white male) sellers started offering discounts based on gender or race, and there was a backlash from some other guys who thought it was akin to communism or fascism or murder. The group moderators basically said that sellers could sell their stuff however they want and to please stop bothering them with these ridiculous complaints. West highlights this because, as she says, Facebook or Twitter could also be reasonable about things but they insist on playing the "both sides" game ad infinitum as though the Nazi perspective is one that is just as legitimate as any other.

She talks more about this "both sides" argument in the essay "A Giant Douche Is a Good Thing If You're a Giant," in which she also discusses social media memes about being offended and how they serve primarily to make large systemic injustice look like petty grievances. I also hate those memes and think that it's the people who make and share who are the ones who seem most offended. And they are offended at those of us trying to be respectful by using people's preferred pronouns and other things that are just basic human decency and not that difficult.

This is getting long, but I also want to mention "Do, Make, Be, Barf" in which West attends the Goop expo. Goop, if you're unfamiliar, is a health/lifestyle brand developed by Gwyneth Paltrow and which I really enjoy making fun of. Previously West had spent some time cooking from Paltrow's cookbook It's All Good, which was surprisingly good, apparently, though very expensive to cook from. (She specifically mentions a beet, butternut, quinoa salad that she still makes, and which I now want to try.) At the expo though, a culture of extreme privilege was on display and what I thought was so interesting was that all the stuff about self-care started sounding a whole lot more like rationalizing selfishness. This was interesting to hear because I've also thought that about some of the self-care things I read, so it was good to know it's not just me.

That was pretty much the experience of this book for me - humorous validation. It was a surprisingly quick read, both fun and thought-provoking.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

This Is Not Your City

This Is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks (2011)

Ok, I know I told you that Vampires in the Lemon Grove was really good, but I think this short story collection is even better. It all started several years ago when a coworker told me how good the 2011 edition of The Best American Short Stories is. I read it and agreed (though I had no basis for comparison, not having read any other editions.) My favorite story in the collection was "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks, who I had never heard of before. I told everyone about that story and I kept thinking about it. Recently - a full seven years after reading it the first time - I finally read it again. I still love it. So I looked for more by this author and found this book.

It starts strong with "Zolaria," an unusual telling of childhood friendship and imagination in which the narrator speaks in future tense of later events, her best friend Hanna's devastating illness and her own marriage. The second story - probably my favorite - is called "It Looks Like This." It's a school assignment written by a girl who had to drop out to take care of my mother who has rheumatoid arthritis and can no longer use her hands. The assignment may be enough to allow her to graduate and she tries to fill it with knowledge she remembers from class and related skills she uses in her life, such as the geometry required to sew quilts. She also talks about her friendship, if it is in fact a friendship, with a young Amish neighbor. I love the narrative voice, the honest and earnestness of this character, her inclusion of maps and photos, and the way she accepts that she'll be spending the next several decades devoted to taking care of her mother.

"Zero Conditional" is about a teacher who is cruel to her students, and it sneaks up on you because she seems so reasonable until then. Even more upsetting was "Steal Small," probably the most unpleasant story in the bunch because it's about a couple who procure dogs and make money off them, and you just know that whatever happens to the dog isn't good, and this is confirmed. I can't stand animal cruelty, but I have to admit the story was effective and well-written. Speaking of stories that are disturbing, in "Embodied" the protagonist claims to be on her 127th life and she starts recognizing people from previous lives and she has a baby who died and when you learn the whole story about that it is just shocking and bizarre.

The title story is about a woman who has married through a matchmaking service, leaving Russia with her teenage daughter to start a new life. They are in Finland now (also the setting for "Going to Estonia") and the daughter goes out with boyfriend and doesn't return. His family reports them as missing, and the woman needs her new husband to talk to the police for her since she doesn't speak Finnish. It's a tragic story, but not in the way you expect. The final story, "In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui" is also a sad family story, but in a different way. A couple is traveling and they meet other people and tell them about their kid, except they tell different stories each time. We don't know until late in the story why they are lying. In the meantime their cruise ship is hijacked by pirates. This couple really needs a break.

Many of the stories involve travel, which means the characters are out of their elements, lending a feeling of alienation. They are not as strange or bizarre as many short stories tend to be, focused instead on relationships and tragedy. I also feel like they are somehow not as literary as most short stories I've read and no, I can't really explain what I mean by that but it's definitely a compliment.

This is not an especially well-known collection of stories and in fact is only owned by a few libraries in my network. But I believe it deserves a wider audience, and I look forward to more stories by Horrocks.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Jessica Darling

Sloppy Firsts (2001), Second Helpings (2003), and Charmed Thirds (2006) by Megan McCafferty

I read these books sometime back in 2006 when they were all the rage, and I've wanted to re-read them ever since. Several years ago I even bought my own copies and they've been sitting on my shelf. Over the holidays I was flitting from book to book, starting things and not liking them, and finally I pulled Sloppy Firsts off my shelf.

It begins in January 2000 (remember Y2K? The references are so quaint!) when Jessica Darling is a sophomore in high school, and goes through January of 2001. When the book begins, her best friend Hope has just moved away. Her older brother Heath died of a drug overdose and her parents thought it would be better for them all to leave New Jersey and move to Tennessee. Jessica is bereft without Hope. Early in the book, she has a strange encounter with Marcus Flutie, a druggie friend of Heath's who Jessica wants to avoid. But somehow he convinces her to pee in a yogurt cup for him so he'll pass a drug test, a crime which she heretofore refers to as the Dannon Incident. It is also the beginning of her long, complicated relationship with Marcus.

Second Helpings begins the summer before her senior year and goes through graduation, and I'm already feeling like it was a terrible idea to combine all three of these books into one post so I'm going to leave out a lot of details. Her relationship with Marcus is still a very slow burn and she ends up dating someone else for a while before she and Marcus find their way to each other. But it's all further complicated in Charmed Thirds when she is in New York attending Columbia and Marcus is in California attending some experimental Buddhist college.

I remembered very little from my first reading, mostly the romance part, but had definitely forgotten pretty much everything else. I was surprised at how much stuff happened during the books and the seriousness of much of it. When I started the first book I was also really struck by all the dated references (Y2K was really just the beginning) and, more so, by some of the language. Jessica comes across as pretty homophobic, despite her insistence that she is not, but her language is just not what we use now and it was a bit jarring. She also often talks about about other girls being fat, and really just generally being kind of mean about people. Again, I think this is because of the time in which it was written; she is meant to be a bit snarky but it comes off more mean when reading it today. (It was also more pronounced in the first book than the later two.)

There was a lot to like though! The first book was definitely an angst-filled, neurotic, kind of silly look at high school. Jessica refers to her friends as the Clueless Crew because she doesn't really like them and finds them shallow and vain and slutty, but still hangs out with them because that's just who is left after Hope moved away. She doesn't have a great relationship with her parents; she's pretty sure her mom wishes she was more like her older sister Bethany, and her dad doesn't know how to talk to her about anything except running, which she eventually stops because of an injury, to his great disappointment.

In the second book, she is part of a pre-college summer program where she takes a writing class with a bunch of other students who take themselves way too seriously, and an instructor who ends up having a big influence on her and her future. Also near the beginning of this book 9/11 happens, which greatly adds to her angst especially since she has decided to apply to Columbia in New York. Her parents have never wanted her to live in New York, and they definitely don't now. Jessica gets some great advice from her grandmother Gladdie, who is in a nursing home where Marcus works. She talks to Jessica about World War II to help her put 9/11 in perspective, and tells her she needs to do what she loves without being afraid of what could happen. Gladdie also loves Marcus, and I loved everything about this whole storyline involving Gladdie.

The third book has a rather different feel to it than the others; Jessica is definitely older and a little more mature, but there is so much despair. She's separated from Marcus - after they finally really get together, they have little time before they both go off to college, and later their relationship is totally called into question. It was like they finally found love and it was practically over before they really got to enjoy it for long. Jessica has some unsatisfying hookups and relationships during this book, and makes some new friends who she then loses. There's really a great deal of both loss and growth in this book. There's a point near the end where she says "We're all affected by life's random outbreaks of beauty and brutality," and I thought that was a rather poignant way of looking at things, and it really summed up the crazy ride of her life in these three books.

There is so much more that happened in these books that I didn't even touch on. I was surprised that I remembered it as a fun, light teen romance and that is really not at all what it is. First of all, her relationship with Marcus Flutie is very intense but in a hate-turned-love-turned-dislike-turned-various-other-things kind of way. It was really up and down and not totally resolved by the end of the third book. Second, there's a lot more to this than her relationship with Marcus - her friendships are a big part of this, and her family (particularly her rocky relationship with her sister), and everything relating to just growing up and trying to figure out who she is and what she's going to do. I'm very glad I finally went back and read these books again; they were just what I needed to read at the time.

When I first went into Goodreads to add Sloppy Firsts to my Currently Reading shelf, I was surprised to see that there are actually 5 books in this series because when I read the series there were only 3 and I guess I thought it was a trilogy. I wasn't planning to read the last two, but during the third book I impulsively requested the fourth in case I wanted to keep going. I still haven't decided yet, though I've got a stack of other books out from the library so even if I do decide to continue the series, it might not be for a bit.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (2013)

This was sort of an impulse checkout from the library. I wanted to read short stories, and I specifically wanted to read Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, but the library copy was in disgusting condition so I sent it to mending instead. Since I don't read many short stories I didn't have another collection on my To Read list, but over the years I've heard repeatedly how good this one is, so I grabbed it.

Karen Russell became known several years ago with Swamplandia!, a book I still have no interest in reading, but I thought stories would be more manageable because I could just try one or two and then stop if I didn't like them. But I kept going because these stories are pretty great.

The title story is exactly what it sounds like - it's about a couple of vampires who hang out in a lemon grove because they feed on lemons instead of the blood of people. To be honest, I didn't quite understand this story when all was said and done so it wasn't my favorite. More interesting, and weirder, was "Reeling For the Empire" in which girls in Japan are taken from their homes and turned into human versions of silkworms. Their bellies expand with the silk they need to release from their fingertips in an endless daily cycle. It was horrific. In "Proving Up" homesteaders in Nebraska await an inspector who will hopefully legalize their claims, but they don't all have the required glass window, so a teenage boy is tasked with delivering the one window to various households in turn, but he gets caught in a freak storm. Possibly my favorite in the collection was "The Barn at the End of Our Term," in which several former U.S. Presidents are reincarnated as horses who all end up on the same farm. It was bizarre and amusing. Where the hell does she get these crazy ideas?

Although I liked some more than others, there really wasn't a dud in the bunch. Probably my least favorite was the final story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," which was still a good story but it was about a bunch of bully kids and a scarecrow and I don't like bullies or scarecrow. Also there was a rabbit that I was worried about because I don't like when people mistreat animals.

These stories are imaginative and generally pretty weird. Why are short stories always so strange and unsettling? It's as though all short stories are horror stories. This was a great choice to read while working on the Jessica Darling series. I can't just read a book of short stories because I like to read each story in one sitting if possible and I need to pace myself. This one was a great choice and if you like short stories I encourage you to give it a try!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Year of Reading: 2019

1. The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
2. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
3. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
4. How Long 'Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin
5. Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman
6. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles
7. A Memory of the Future: Poems by Elizabeth Spires
8. Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess
9. Nightingale by Amy Lukavics
10. My One and Only Duke by Grace Burrowes
11. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
12. Becoming by Michelle Obama
13. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
14. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
15. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
16. Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller*
17. The 100 Best Poems of All Time edited by Leslie Pockell
18. Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness by Robert Specht
19. Dark Woods: Poems by Richard Sanger
20. Educated by Tara Westover
21. Milkman by Anna Burns
22. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
23. Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
24. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
25. Refugee by Alan Gratz
26. Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen
27. The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton
28. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
29. Puddin' by Julie Murphy*
30. Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak
31. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath
32. I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers*
33. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
34. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
35. One in a Million by Lindsey Kelk
36. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
37. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler
38. American Street by Ibi Zoboi
39. Paradox Bound by Peter Clines
40. Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
41. Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
42. Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
43. Pride by Ibi Zoboi
44. We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle
45. There There by Tommy Orange
46. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman*
47. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
48. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
49. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
50. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas
51. Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly
52. Llama Destroys the World by Jonathan Stutzman*
53. Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole
54. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
55. The Farm by Joanne Ramos
56. The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore
57. Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay
58. My One and Only by Kristan Higgins
59. Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas
60. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
61. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
62. I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn
63. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
64. The Goodbye Summer by Sarah Van Name
65. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
66. Costalegre by Courtney Maum
67. Version Control by Dexter Palmer*
68. What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli
69. The Body in the Wake by Katherine Hall Page
70. The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele
71. The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson
72. Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
73. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston*
74. Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston
75. The Everything Buddhism Book by Arnie Kozak
76. Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
77. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
78. Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe
79. Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
80. The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit
81. The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare
82. Exile From Eden by Andrew Smith
83. The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai
84. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
85. The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle
86. To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
87. Far From the Tree by Robin Benway*
88. Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey
89. Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Willie Parker
90. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
91. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
92. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
93. Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky
94. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard
95. Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
96. Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
97. Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien
98. Henry, Himself by Stewart O'Nan
99. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
100. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
101. It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
102. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Phew! That's a lot. * denote those to which I gave 5 stars on Goodreads. The links all go to my posts about the books, and I apologize that there's not one about Llama Destroys the World, very deserving of its 5 stars, but still a picture book so I don't have a lot to really say about it. It speaks for itself.

If I had to pick favorites, I'd probably say Version Control and Red, White, and Royal Blue. However, I think everyone in America could benefit from reading I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening), and in fact I'm thinking of re-reading it myself. I might even buy a copy.

I read so many great books this year that as I look through the list I'm tempted to go on at length about many of them. Here's to another great year of reading!