December Book Blizzard

The lovely thing about vacations is I get to read so much more! And when that vacation is also Christmas, where I usually receive even more books, well

This year, between stocking up for long plane trips and receiving some wonderful gifts from family, I ended up devouring 7 books over 2 weeks, which is an average of a book every 2 days. Not my best record (thinking back fondly to the Christmas break when I reread the entire Harry Potter series in 2 days) but a respectable amount!

Here are the books that made up my blizzard of reading at the end of 2018:

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I want everyone to read this book. I so admire and deeply appreciate Ijeoma Oluo’s willingness to create this work, particularly given that people of color are already frequently required to take on the often exhausting role of educator in racial encounters. Oluo weaves her personal experiences and research together into all the drawn-out, in-depth conversations you wish you knew how to have with people. She presents advice for having these conversations in your own life, reminding the reader that they will fail and be wrong at some point in talking about race. It’s just going to happen. The important thing is that talking about it anyway and learning from those conversations will improve our nation’s systemic racism and give us ways to address other institutionalized forms of oppression.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This was an absolutely gripping read as I followed Johnson’s lyrical, mythical writing in her telling of a mother and daughter and how they both remembered and misremembered a pivotal event in their shared history. It read like modern mythology, which was apt since it is a retelling of a myth. I didn’t know which myth Johnson was dealing with until almost the end of the book, and when all the pieces fell into place, it fit perfectly. I just happen to have a strong dislike for the myth in question! I wished it was something else, since the new association left me with mixed feelings, but the experience of the novel up to that point (and setting aside my personal feelings about its basis) was incredible. A minor plot point about the mother making up words shared only between her and her daughter and how that singular language isolates the daughter later in life was also an interesting concept to consider.

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History by Catharine Arnold

I began this cheerful read on the plane back to the Pacific Northwest, probably scaring my seatmate. I’ve been fascinated by the 1918 influenza pandemic ever since a friend had me read Gina Kolata’s book about it in 8th grade. (We even made our parody assignment of “The Night Before Christmas” flu-themed. “‘Twas the year 1918, and all through the world / A virus’s wrath was about to unfurl…”) Arnold gathers firsthand accounts of the flu’s devastating waves throughout the world, demonstrating how the war facilitated both the virus’s spread and research into defeating it. The timeline was difficult to follow, nudging toward Armistice Day and then suddenly jumping backward as we visited another region, but overall it held my interest. The anecdotes from civilians and institutional workers alike were what made this book great for me.

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

I have wanted to read the first translation of Homer’s Odyssey by a woman ever since it came out last year, and my wonderful mother-in-law gave it to me for Christmas. I dove in and finished all 24 books in about 24 hours. Wilson not only strives to eliminate the male biases that come with male translators, but she uses plain language because, as she points out in the introduction, flowery antiquarian English is no closer to actual ancient Greek than our modern speech. While I’m not exactly afraid of old-fashioned language, the plainer words definitely made it easier to get into the story – especially since I have a strong apathy toward Odysseus himself. Wilson does not excuse his infidelity while praising Penelope’s opposite behavior; she merely presents the story and its moral ambiguity.

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

I’ve loved Rejected Princesses since discovering Porath’s comics online, so I asked for the book version for Christmas, and my brother-in-law tracked it down. This one was a quick read, since the illustrations are usually a full page and the language itself is so funny and relatable that I just wanted to keep going. The book includes not only historical but mythical and legendary women from various cultures as well. Porath also organizes the stories on a spectrum of “maturity,” from 1 (happy endings, good triumphs over evil) to 5 (the heroine herself is probably morally ambiguous, depressing content, probable death). Aside from learning about intriguing women throughout history and cultures that I was previously unfamiliar with, I appreciated that Porath doesn’t make the women saints or put them on pedestals. He acknowledges their realness and their flaws.

Disney’s Twisted Tales by Liz Braswell

My other brother-in-law also knows me well. Last year he gave me the boxed set of the Disney Villains series, and this year brought books 1-3 of A Twisted Tale. These books imagine what might have happened if a key plot point in a Disney story had gone a different way. In this case, Aladdin never gets the lamp from Jafar, Aurora doesn’t wake up when Phillip kisses her, and Belle’s mother was the Enchantress who cursed the Beast. These were intriguing – and also extremely violent. Far more Grimm than Disney usually gets. Surprisingly, the Beauty and the Beast story was not my favorite, but I loved the new take on Sleeping Beauty. I’m always up for dark fairytales, so these were fun for me.

 

 

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Finishing a Series…15 Years Later

I first discovered Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic quartet during the Dark Ages of my local library. Our beloved brick building had been torn down and the library relocated to a former auto shop, where many of the books had to be left in storage because there was simply no room.

Sad as this was, the cozier shelves made the newly narrow choices stand out. I discovered some new favorites I would revisit again and again, including the four young mages of Winding Circle. Following them in their journeys to claim their strange magic, I read Sandry’s Book, Tris’s Book, and Daja’s Book. And until recently, I thought I had read Briar’s Book too.

Thanks to PaperBackSwap, I know better.

I bought the first three books at a used bookstore in my little college town a few years ago, eager to revisit Pierce’s masterfully crafted world. Her worldbuilding is still incredible, reminding me with each little detail of how fully developed these cultures and magics are. The relationships between the four central mages and their teachers were beautiful and believable. All of the kids have understandable abandonment issues, and all of them deal with that in their own ways, from pushing others away to becoming a people-pleaser. I don’t even like all of the kids; Tris annoys me to no end with her so very teenage insistence on knowing best and dismissing authority. And yet they and their world captured my heart so that I remember it well. Revisiting Winding Circle, the temple where they live in a cottage called Discipline and learn their magics, felt like remembering an old song where the lyrics come unbidden as you sing.

Until I finally got Briar’s Book in the mail and began to read.

It turns out, since I have no memory of this plot, I probably never read it before. In all the years of checking out and rereading these books, I never actually finished the quartet. As I got deeper and deeper into the plot, I kept waiting for that sense of familiarity, of buried memory to resurface as it had with the others, but it never did. Vague memories surfaced of three books – not four, how could I not remember that there were only three? – on a library shelf.

Briar’s story is a nice end to the quartet.  Instead of exploring their bonds and magic (and bonded magic) as something entirely new, Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar begin to grow into new ways of helping their society. It moves the foursome out of discovery mode and points them toward the future.

But I’m still going to have to go back and reread the whole quartet.

Review: In This House of Brede

I finished this book on the flight from Seattle to Raleigh.  To my left was a dad watching a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie.  To my right, across the aisle, was an Unaccompanied Minor who was too cool for school, or for playing peekaboo with the adorable toddler who kept popping over the seat in front of him.  The toddler gave up eventually, turned to me, and waved with that jellyfish finger wiggle of small children.  I smiled and waved back, but he looked quizzically at the tears in my eyes.  I was, yet again, having A Moment, courtesy of a book, in a public place.

Bird had recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede to me after she read it – part of her reading had, in fact, overlapped with us sharing a room at our nana’s house, and she kept me awake with her exclamations over the Benedictine monastery at Brede.  It’s a novel about nuns (Bird loves nuns) and a high-powered businesswoman, Philippa Talbot, who refuses a career-making promotion in order to go and follow the (unexpected) call to become a nun.  The book follows Philippa on her journey from preparing to enter the monastery to her Solemn Profession and beyond as she finds her place in the community in the years before Vatican II.

“What do you ask?”

“To try my vocation as a Benedictine in this house of Brede.”

At first, I found Godden’s narration a bit difficult to get used to.  It’s not quite like the third person omniscient one usually reads; there’s too much interjection from various characters, as though you’re dropping in on multiple overlapping conversations held in some sort of nondescript space, because it doesn’t matter where they said it, or even when (many of the side characters’ observations about events are followed by, “Dame So-and-so said afterwards“).  But, much like protagonist Philippa Talbot, once I grew accustomed to the rhythms of the story, I felt right at home.

The hop-around narration fit the community of the nuns, the self-effacement they were meant to seek, and the way each in turn affected all the others.  It is a book about relationships and communities of faith, and about relationships with people who understand neither community nor faith.  In one instance, Philippa’s former secretary is near death following complications from an abortion.  Her formerly shallow husband is shocked when Philippa says the sisters will pray for the secretary – “But they don’t even know her!” he says.  Nevertheless, all the sisters, even those with conflict between them, participate in a vigil praying fiercely for the life of this girl they do not know.

Another nun, Sister Cecily, struggles against her mother’s worldly expectations.  At her Clothing (when the postulant receives her novice’s habit to wear), Cecily’s mother calls the ceremony, which resembles a wedding, a mockery because there is no “real” bridegroom.  Cecily’s pain is palpable, for what could be more real to her than faith?  Godden gets vocation absolutely right – how some people are called to secular life, others to missionary work, and still others to contemplative lives, enclosed in a world of prayer that still touches and works for the world outside.

And meanwhile, the nuns are all too human.  Dame Veronica struggles with weakness of will and pride.  Abbess Hester leaves behind an enormous, secret debt from circumventing her advisers to achieve a pet project.  Philippa herself must unlearn all the things that made her so successful in the business world, realign her values, and learn to lean on the community.

Now, I don’t know how non-Catholics or non-Christians might like or dislike this novel, but I do think it could at least provide a genuine look at what religious communities strive to accomplish and how faith motivates everything they do.  Godden’s amazing portrayal of these characters as they navigate their personal relationships and their relationships with God struck me as so emotionally accurate that, yes, I found myself holding back tears on an airplane when I had to close the back cover and leave this house of Brede.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: The Girl From the Metropol Hotel

We bought this because of the nonfiction link to A Gentleman in Moscow, and Bird, Mom, and I passed it around.  This short memoir chronicles the childhood of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, who was born in the Metropol but spends little time there throughout her wild, chaotic upbringing.  Told in vignette-style chapters that seem to overlap and occasionally go out of order, Petrushevskaya shares her experiences alternating between near-homelessness and schools/camps with rigid expectations.  Sometimes I was cringing at the feral society she found on the streets, beyond the reach of her aunt and grandmother.  Sometimes I was sympathetic toward the unreasonable strictness of the structures that attempted to socialize her.

But Petrushevskaya’s language is the stuff of fairy tales (in fact, now I want to go read her other books, including There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby).  So the rhythm of the sentences and the pretty diction make the horrible things she writes about seem bearable.  It’s presented in the way of children – this is just how things are.  Her faith that her mother would return someday was a little heartbreaking from an adult perspective, but little Lyudmila is just so sure.  Mama will come back.  No one else will do.

It was the writing itself, presenting uncomfortable realities in such a pleasant way, that made me like the book.

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

*Requisite spoiler warning

You know those books where after finishing the last page, you close it, sit for a moment, take a deep breath, and restrain yourself (or not) from grabbing passersby and shaking them and telling them that they absolutely must read this book?  The books that turn you into a book evangelist?

This is one of those books for me.  And Bird.  And our mom.

I’m a sucker for microcosms, so the premise of Amor Towles’s novel had me hooked immediately.  Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat convicted for his status but spared for his poetry, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the fall of the Tsar.  The idea of a man building a life within the parameters of a single building, even one like the Metropol, appealed to my “watching from inside a small space” personality.  The story spans Rostov’s years inside the hotel, introducing us to the friends – and enemies – he makes and showing us the spaces he carves out for himself along the way.  The ensemble of side characters are just as charming as the protagonist, and as well-drawn, and the conflicts within Rostov’s shrunken world represent the greater clashes of larger powers outside.

Successful as he is in making his own little niche work for him, Rostov’s gentlemanly skills are put to the test when he becomes the foster father of a friend’s daughter.  Watching him (and his Metropol family) try to fit a precocious, energetic child into such a small allotted space (illegally, no less) reminds readers of the bargain Rostov makes to maintain a delicate peace with his situation – he has given up a future.  He has accepted the petering out of his own spent life.  But his sense of justice, of noblesse oblige (for, despite the revolutionary ideals of his jailers, Rostov’s greatest honor remains true gentility) will not allow him to accept the same lack of future for an innocent child.

All this is compelling alone.  But it is Towles’s language that makes the book great.

I can only describe the syntax as musical.  This is a “me, too” book, one that observes common experiences in such a way that they feel new.  A few chapters in, for instance, Rostov must cull his belongings to fit into his new attic apartments (a disgraced aristocrat being unworthy of his former fourth-floor suite).  In a few paragraphs, Towles meditates on why it can be so much more painful to let go of things than to let go of people – and I promptly had to read it aloud to my family so that they could also say, “Yes, that’s exactly it!”

In other books, the reader would quickly tire of too much time spent pondering life’s little quirks.  Not so with our gentleman in Moscow.  The sentences lilt and flow in such a way that none of Rostov’s many reveries feel too weighty or boring – and if they ever begin to drag on, Towles brings in another character to cut the monologue short, and Rostov himself chuckles at his own tendency to get lost in thought.

With good characters living out an intriguing story in such beautiful language, this book is one I will continue recommending (loudly, eagerly) to everyone.

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Review: Remarkable Creatures

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

It doesn’t take long into reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel to figure out that the title isn’t just referring to fossils.  Remarkable Creatures alternates between two narrators: Mary Anning, the lightning-struck fossil finder from a poor family, and Elizabeth Philpot, the higher class spinster from London who turns out to be rather good at finding fossils too.  Both use fossils as an escape from their disappointing life: Elizabeth for the intellectual stimulation of collecting and learning, Mary for the money she can earn selling her “curies.”

At first, their relationship is sweet and symbiotic.  Mary takes the older Elizabeth under her wing by teaching her about the creatures they find on the beach and showing her where to find the best ones.  Then Elizabeth reciprocates by advocating for Mary when she finds a “croc,” an apparent monster skeleton embedded in the cliff, making sure Mary retains ownership despite other cury-hunters on the beach and trying to help her get a good price for it.

But, like the two women suddenly finding themselves thrust into the scientific world, the novel quickly becomes more about Elizabeth and Mary against the people who misunderstand them, or worse, mistreat them, and how those struggles start to strain their own relationship.

Elizabeth acts as Mary’s advocate, whether Mary knows it or not, for much of the book.  Here is where we see the struggle for female contributors to be recognized in the 19th century scientific community.  Elizabeth is outraged, for instance, that the collectors who buy skeletons from Mary and then sell them on to museums are listed as the finders of those fossils when they have never personally set foot on the beach.  For her, intellectual property and the right of a person to be acknowledged for his or her work is paramount.

Mary herself tries to balance the ownership she feels for the “crocs “and “monsters” she finds with the knowledge that selling them will bring in much-needed money.  Her arc deals more with class and elitism, recognizing that the best way for her to rise in status and secure her family’s future is to appease the men who come wanting tours of the beach – and to possibly marry one of them.  Few people besides Elizabeth recognize Mary’s intellectual potential, seeing her as a tool or servant to be used and paid rather than someone who could ever write papers about the things she discovers.  Indeed, to many of the men in the book, Mary doesn’t discover anything at all.

Beyond this already interesting feminist layer is the question of the “croc” itself, which turns out to be an ichthyosaurus – an as-yet undiscovered species no longer extant anywhere on earth.  This is a much bigger deal in the 1800s than nowadays; as many characters uneasily point out, an extinct species would seem to imply that God had made a mistake, or didn’t care about keeping His creations alive, which shakes their faith-based worldview.  I appreciated Chevalier’s evenhanded treatment of this debate.  She was far more interested in portraying the significance of Mary’s find than in condemning or promoting either extreme.  Indeed, Elizabeth comes to a sort of middle ground on the matter, while Mary doesn’t prioritize the God-vs.-science debate at all.

I didn’t much care for the amorous jealousy that undermines the two women’s friendship.  It seemed a bit forced to have Elizabeth envy Mary a man’s attention, even as she pronounced him a fraud and a cad (he reminded me a bit of a more abashed Wickham). Given how aware both women are of the ways social expectations limit them, I would have preferred to focus on their efforts to live despite those expectations (i.e., marriage) rather than let a clearly shabby suitor damage their friendship so much.  Then again, I suppose flaws are what make characters interesting, and an inability to let go of romance as a Way Out is certainly understandable given their setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this fictional look at two real women in the fossil community, and could definitely see parallels to the way some of my female friends in STEM have been treated today.  A worthwhile historical fiction read for any feminist or fossilist!

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography?