fannyprice reads in 2018
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I'm fannyprice, real name Kris. I've lived in Washington, DC for almost 18 years now (excepting a brief sojourn in Chicago for graduate school).
I read and write about the Middle East for a living and, though I love what I do, I work too much and am trying to develop some hobbies that don't use exactly the same muscles (literally and figuratively) as my job. I want to be a better gardner and a more creative cook; I like making cocktail bitters. I embrace my cat-lady-ness & am the proud parent of four little scamps who think books make great sleeping spots and chewing material.
After years of reading primarily non-fiction, I now read a lot of detective novels & domestic suspense for distraction when my brain is fried -- they all tend to run together after a while. Lots of stuff on sectarian violence in the Middle East, which I may or may not write much about here. I love history, science, fairy tales (reimagined or classic), and anything vaguely spooky/Gothic/family secrets/etc.
I joined LT in 2007 and CR in 2009, but really stopped using the site for anything other than cataloging books and date finished somewhere around 2014. I hope that by getting back into keeping a thread, I can at least capture a few thoughts about each book to aid my memory, even if I don't do full on "reviews" or fancy threads like I used to.
The author, Ibram Kendi, posits that the history of racist ideas (primarily as applied to Africans and African Americans, but also more broadly) can't just be understood as a two-way dialogue between racists and anti-racists in which one camp is advancing at the expense of the other camp.
Instead, Kendi asserts that racist ideas draw on two different wellsprings of thinking: segregationist -- which sees fundamental biological differences between groups that cannot be bridged -- and assimilationist -- which sees differences between groups as the product of environment. At various points in history, either the segregationist or the assimilationist camp prevailed and drove racist policies reflective of their basic intellectual orientation.
This is a really illuminating approach, because one might think the latter line of thinking is actually not racist. But Kendi shows again and again that both these strains of thought lead to racist ideas because both are premised on the idea that whiteness (specifically white, male, Christian, property-owning-ness) is the norm. He also shows how either of these strains of racist thought could be used to argue both for and against enslaving Africans and African Americans.
Kendi is also doing a masterful job of showing how racist ideas are an integral part of American history, not a sidebar or an anomaly. To me, this feels like such a vital point. Since the 2016 US presidential election, well-meaning people across this country have tried to reject hateful policies and actions by proclaiming that "this is not who we are" or "this is not what America stands for."
Any superficial look at US history would show counterexamples, but Kendi's book again and again shows how America's "founding fathers" were not just misguided products of a racist time but actively created and perpetuated racist ideas -- sometimes based on perspectives that we would not immediately realize as problematic -- to sustain economic and political systems that benefitted people like them. Not to wax sentimental, but I don't think well-meaning people who reject hateful policies can create the America we think we are unless we understand our history better.
The White Lies of Craft Culture
The first article, which I found through a roundup of like "best food stories of 2017" or something, fits so well with another theme of Kendi's book that I didn't really get into in my post above, which is the extent to which the US economy was fueled by the knowledge and labor of primarily Africans and African Americans who had been enslaved. Again, this is something that I've read a little bit about previously, but there is something about the way Kendi knits together stories that just drives home the point so effectively.
How Braids Tell America's Black Hair Story
The second article, or rather a quote from Amanda Stenberg contained in the article: “The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred, but here’s the thing: Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalization or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” -- really reinforced for me the point that the first article is making about how so much of craft culture is well-off white people getting praised for "rediscovering" and "elevating" something that is viewed as low-class or laughable when produced and consumed by the group or community that originated it.
And thanks for sharing the "Who Owns Southern Food?" article, janemarieprice, I clicked through and read the various linked pieces and there's a lot to think about there.
Silver Birch, Blood Moon is a volume in a series of fairy tales reimagined/retold/what have you. I feel like there were a lot of different variations on the Frog Prince story in this one & more stories riffing on non-traditional folklore than the other volumes, but that is hardly a scientific/quantified opinion. Stories that I liked best included "The Sea Hag" - a version of The Little Mermaid that redeems the evil witch known as Ursula in the Disney movie and "The Dybbuk in the Bottle," about a poor farmer tricked by a malicious spirit who is eventually defeated by a clever but subtle rabbi.
Meddling Kids: A Novel,, which has such a great cover I have to include it here:
I was so excited to read this book, which is a reimagining of Scooby Doo, basically. Four kids and a weimaraner, which is apparently what Scooby was, form a mystery club in a summer resort town and solve exactly the kinds of supernatural crimes you'd expect, exposing local legends as fakers, etc. etc. Flash forward to them as adults -- three of the four humans are barely getting by in various ways and the fourth committed suicide.
It comes out that all were traumatized by the last case they solved as kids, in which the supernatural elements were not quite as fake as they seemed. The three remaining humans, the ghost of the fourth, and a canine ancestor of the original dog eventually return to the resort town and begin reinvestigating their last case. This is where Scooby Doo meets H.P. Lovecraft & lots of weird, otherworldly stuff starts happening. A truly haunted house, necromancers, a creepy local family that actually might just be one dude who never ages and pretends to be his own descendant, ancient mines, monsters that breathe carbon dioxide, and so on.
I really, really wanted to love this book & there were bits that were clever, but so much of the book read like stage directions for the physical gags and chase scenes of an actual episode of Scooby Doo. I don't find written descriptions of antics terribly easy to visualize or particularly amusing and the amount of space given over to this was just tiresome. Not a terrible book, but a disappointment for me.
Borne: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer, was just so weird. The book is set in some future post-apocalyptic world (presumably our world, as there are things that are familiar enough) where the genetically engineered monstrosities created by a corporation have been left to rampage throughout the ruins of a city. Most people are genetically modified in some way, there's a particularly nasty gang of altered child thugs who periodically appear and are horrible, and a giant flying bear terrorizes the city but is kind of worshipped by others. Oh, and there are all kinds of smaller bears who do the big bear's bidding. It reminded me a lot of the world that Margaret Atwood created in Oryx and Crake, minus the cutesy portmanteau names for animals.
The plot, to the extent that there is one, centers around what happens when a female scavenger finds some sort of engineered purple blob and brings it home. Is it a plant? An animal? The main character and the blob (which is called Borne, hence the title) eventually develop a child-parent type relationship that borders on obsessive. I'll not say more about the plot, but in many ways this book echoed the theme of VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy in that it involves an encounter with something that is truly other and an ill-fated attempt to understand it. Like those books, it's something that I gave a middling rating to but that probably deserves a higher one because I'll be thinking about what it all means for a while.
There's also a really cool idea that seems like it could be the grain of another story or series of stories.
ETA cover image -- what IS that thing? It's Borne!
I've gotten behind. Fortunately, my next book was a more unequivocally positive experience for me.
Naomi Alderman's The Power is kind of everywhere right now -- "the dystopian novel for the 'Me Too' movement," and other cringe-worthy plaudits have been slapped on it. However, it's actually good. And oddly, Alderman is apparently the person who created the narrative running app "Zombies Run!," which I always mean to start using, should I ever take up running.
The book explores what happens when women -- mostly young women, but eventually older women as well -- discover they have the ability to send electric charges out of their hands. The book alternates between the perspectives of three female characters -- two young women with messy and traumatic pasts and a middle aged mayor -- and a younger male journalist.
The reviews of the book that I first saw implied that women gain this power and are suddenly ruling the world. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the book actually deals as much with the fear of and backlash against women's emerging abilities and how persecution of newly empowered women and girls effectively leads to a revolution. There are also some hilarious lines in these early chapters, such as when the female mayor (whose teenage daughter is newly empowered and who is hiding her own abilities) tells the male governor (who is panicking about the public safety implications) that he can't go around advocating shooting teenage girls. (I borrowed the book from the library and no longer have it, so my ability to reproduce some of the choicest lines is limited, sadly.)
I enjoyed that Alderman wasn't positing some cheesy feminist utopia in which women get the upper hand and all of the sudden its all puppies and tea parties. All of the main women react differently to having this power. One of the young women uses her power to convince others that she's channelling the divine; it feels like a con at first but then you start to wonder if she actually believes what she's selling. The other young woman--the illegitimate daughter of a London crime lord--refuses to buy into the idea that there's a conflict between men and women and wants to use her power to benefit her father and brothers. The female mayor uses her power to advance her political career in some decidedly not nice ways.
The aspect of this book that I enjoyed almost more than the actual plot or characters was the framing device - the story above is actually a work of revisionist historical fiction that a male author is trying to sell to his skeptical female editor hundreds of years after the events described. (This isn't a spoiler, as the story actually starts with an exchange between the two.) The world that these characters live in is one in which women appear to have always been dominant and the female editor is unconvinced that the reading public will believe that men were at one time more powerful. I am a sucker for books within books, so this was a nice surprise as well.
So overall, great book. Both fun and thought-provoking.
There's basically no way to talk about Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff without spoiling the book. The teaser for the book is something about a marriage that looks perfect but there are two sides to every story or something cheesy like that. I actually LOATHED this book until halfway through -- the first half of the book is the husband's story of his life and marriage and he.... is..... tedious..... He's the apple of his mother's eye, the most popular kid in college, an aspiring (but likely talentless) actor who eventually becomes a famous playwright. We follow him through his artistic ups and downs, his bouts of frustrated genius, his depression and alcoholism, his feeling that his wife (who supported him unquestioningly when he was penniless) doesn't really understand or love him, and his various drunken meltdowns at various points in his life. It's just all so repulsive -- he's the very stereotype of male genius and she's always there, folding the laundry, making his life work, helping him out of whatever self-indulgent drama he's gotten into. And because the first half of the book is how he seems himself, we're meant to sympathize with him. Ugh, no.
And then, halfway through the book
Another reviewer on LT said that one of the amazing things about this book is that you really can't form an opinion about it until the last word -- I agree and would go further. I still don't actually know how I feel about the book as a whole. I hated the first half and was thrilled by the second half but none of it would have had the same impact had I not read the husband's portion.
I did a combination of reading and listening for Neil deGrasse Tyson's Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. The author reads his own work & I find him very entertaining in a super-dorky dad way, but for some reason I wasn't able to focus very well every time I tried to listen to this book. I also had a lot of technical issues that resulted in me re-listening to some portions accidentally. I will probably go back and just read it, sans the audio, to better absorb the information.
I was feeling low and really wanted to re-read something I loved, so I grabbed Helen Oyeyemi's White is for Witching, which I first read in 2010. I still enjoyed it, but I wasn't as gobsmacked as I was the first time, maybe because I knew some of the surprises/twists that were coming. An argument against re-reading your favorites perhaps. I feel a bit like I've tarnished the memory.
And finally... Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I read this because I'd just finished the HBO adaptation--which I loved--and was really curious to see how they compared. Perhaps it was because I'd seen the series first, but the book felt flat and inferior. For me, this was one of the rare times when a tv/film version was better than the source material. I'd be curious to know if people who read the book first and then watched the show felt differently.
Finally caught up! Now I'm reading Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook for work stuff and it is awesome. There is a special kind of dorky joy that comes from reading about the different methods of vote allocation in electoral systems that use proportional representation and being able to determine which one a particular Middle Eastern country uses. It's the largest remainder method, in case you're curious. I'm sure you're curious.
Shoot. I lied. I completely forgot about The Immortalists, possibly because it was such a disappointment.
This book is about four siblings who visit a fortune teller as children and supposedly learn the precise date on which they are going to die. After a brief portion of the book devoted to their collective learning of this, we jump forward in time probably 10 years or so to a section focused on the youngest son. This section was the best in terms of just being an engrossing story -- the youngest son runs away from home as a teenager at the encouragement of his older sister, who accompanies him to San Fransisco. This portion of the story is about a young gay man finding himself, creating a new life, and having that life destroyed by what would later be identified as AIDS. He dies, on the exact day predicted. We then jump to the next oldest sibling, his sister in San Fransisco, and see the lead-up to her death. And then the next oldest sibling, a brother; and finally to the oldest sister, who actually ends up being the last to die.
This book had an interesting conceit and could have been great if it had either gone totally magical realist with that conceit or actually explored how each of the siblings reacted to the knowledge -- did having this information, whether they believed it or not, change how they lived their lives? Did the first to die live carelessly because he knew he didn't have long? And in doing so, did he bring about his own death?
But at some point, I started to get irritated that there was no story in between these long stretches of time & that the three younger siblings lives just seemed like filler that had to be killed off before we got to the oldest sister. She is given a death date that gives her a long full life and her convoluted plot--that involves things that somehow everyone just didn't notice back in the day--kind of hijacks the story. There's also a lot of disturbing imagery relating to experimentation on monkeys that felt really - pardon me - f*cking gratuitous, like it was just there for shock and horror and so the stupid oldest sister could learn some trite lesson like "family is important." And I know I'm silly for getting mad about the treatment of fictional people and fictional monkeys, but for some reason this book really rankled me. And now I'm done. Hopefully I can re-forget this one as quickly as I did the first time around.
>8 janemarieprice: I'm currently reading Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene about his family history with food and cooking, and his travels through the country reinacting cooking that informs southern recipes today.
Borne and The power are on my list.
I have to confess that Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook actually looks interesting. I just found it on line. I was one of those who felt a certain degree of "dorky joy" when the Canadian government established a Special Committee on Electoral Reform in 2016, in partial fulfillment of an election promise. The idea was to find some sort of PR system to replace the FPTP current system. Unfortunately the committee was disbanded and the idea was shelved.
I was interested to note that you didn’t like the first half of Fates and Furies but that it picked up for you. I gave up on it not very far in; maybe I should persist with it.
I saw it listed recently as the #1 novel to read about Florida. (See the interesting articles thread). Now, that seemed really weird.
>21 markon:, I think at one point I had an advance review copy of The Half Has Never Been Told, but it was a terribly-formatted copy and impossible to read, so I never got into it. I'll definitely look for an actual published copy.
>21 markon:, I'll be interested to hear other takes on Borne. I just saw a trailer for the first movie adapted out of the author's Southern Reach trilogy & I'm not loving it.
>22 SassyLassy:, Glad to know there are some other electoral systems nerds kicking around here! It's a fascinating field.
>23 rachbxl: and >24 dchaikin:, Re Fates and Furies - I think it all depends on how much you found yourself despising Lotto and how many other things you have on the TBR pile. There were many times during the first half when I almost threw it down in disgust because he was so obnoxious.
>24 dchaikin:, Dan, That seems silly to me. Florida is not really a focal point and barely a backdrop for most of the book. I'll have to check out this article.
I have finally finished Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World. This was a great read/listen and the fact that it took me nearly two years to finish should in no way be seen as a commentary on the book. I have a bad habit of trying to read too many non-fiction books at the same time, which means that many of them end up taking forever to finish.
Anyway, Stuff Matters is about the materials that surround us and that we probably barely think about, it all seems so commonplace. The author explores everything from glass to chocolate, focusing on both the chemistry & physics of the substance and the socio-cultural uses and implications of the stuff at hand. So for instance, the chapter on glass talks about the history of glassmaking and how we couldn't really manufacture useful, quality glass until we mastered working with sufficiently high temperatures but then also talks about the impact of glass on architecture (windows), art (stained glass windows!), and science (microscopes and telescopes leading to revolutions in astronomy, chemistry, medicine, etc). I did a combination of reading and listening for this one, which meant that I sometimes missed out on the rather humorous photographs of the author surrounded by each chapter's material of focus and other illustrations that I think might have been helpful. But the audio--which is narrated by the author--is also quite good, very engaging and funny. This is one of those books that makes you appreciate everything ordinary just a little bit more -- highly recommended.
I've also just finished another collection of retold fairy tales, this one Black Heart, Ivory Bones. I am now almost done with this series, sadly -- I think there are only two more that I have not read. Like all short story collections, it's a bit uneven, but each of the entries in this series has had at least two fantastic stories and the rest are generally at least good/fun. In this volume, I particularly enjoyed:
-- "The Cats of San Martino" based on an Italian fairy tale that I was not familiar with, about a woman who stumbles upon a villa inhabited by hundreds of talking cats. I'm not gonna lie, I could live there.
-- "Mr. Simonelli" by Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I loved. A man moves to an isolated English village to become a rector and gets caught up in fairy scheming. I loved the setting, but also the theme of an initially hapless mortal outsmarting a magical creature, which also came up in the story of the rabbi and the dybbuk in the last collection I read.
Also finished The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, about a woman who travels through her parallel lives after undergoing electroshock treatment, which I've had kicking around on my Kindle for way too long. This was also a bit of a time travel novel, as the worlds the main character is flipping between are in 1985 (her original time), 1941, and 1918. It was pretty good -- a comfort read, I think, rather than anything particularly challenging; especially in light of how the ending gives everyone pretty much exactly what they want in a rather convenient fashion.
Without intending to, this is now the second book I've read within a fairly short period of time that uses the early days of the AIDS crisis as a backdrop for at least some of the story, using a straight woman whose gay brother dies. The Immortalists being the other one. I don't know whether this is a good thing, bad thing, or just a thing thing. I'm too young to remember a time when we didn't know what HIV/AIDS was or how it was/was not transmitted and just old enough to remember when being HIV-positive began to become something other than a death sentence, so its been striking to read a couple of books set in a time when no one knew what was happening.
All of this has got me wanting to read a book about that time period that is actually focused on the experience of gay men. I know that And the Band Played On is supposed to be great, and I've actually just bought another book by the same author about gays and lesbians in the military, but if anyone else has recommendations, I'd love to hear them.
Concerning books about the AIDS epidemic, are you looking for fiction also? In one Person by John Irving is a fiction book not centered on these events, but a significant part of it is about this.
The Collector by John Fowles is a twisted little book about a man who becomes obsessed with a woman he sees and decides that if he can only get her alone, he can make her love him. So he buys an isolated house, with a creepy even more isolated basement, and kidnaps her. As one does. He also collects rare butterflies -- the analogy is not subtle. The book is divided into three chunks. The first is his perspective, reflecting back on the events leading up to the woman coming to live with him (how he frames it) and the initial few weeks of her captivity. The second is her perspective, while captive; the third shifts back to his perspective in the final phase of her captivity.
This book had a very flat affect most of the time, reflecting the collector's perspective and his refusal to think of himself as bad guy. This, combined with the fact that it wasn't sensationalistic or gory, like a more modern take on this topic might have been, made it somehow creepier to read. The end, which
One of Us is Lying -- fabulous cover -- is exactly what it's described as: Pretty Little Liars (i.e., high school murder mystery) meets Gossip Girl meets The Breakfast Club (i.e., kids from different cliques thrown together in detention). This book pretty much beats you over the head with the Breakfast Club parallels, having one character basically quote verbatim from the movie as he describes his detention mates - the brain, the jock, the princess, and the criminal. (Sorry Ally Sheedy, I guess you're not in the remake?) Once you get past that eye rolling moment, however, this ends up a being a fairly good locked-room mystery.
Five students go into detention and one of them -- the character not given a John Hughes movie role, I guess -- dies within 15 minutes. The dead student also happens to be the creator of a wildly popular rumor-mongering app (there's the Gossip Girl bit) and it is revealed that he was about to publish the deepest darkest secrets of the other teens he was in detention with, making them all potential suspects. The book follows the investigation, flashbacks in the teens' lives, and reveals what they were all keen to keep hidden. Many developments strain the imagination -- why are teenagers investigating a murder? that they are accused of? -- and the eventual reveal is so convoluted as to be ludicrous, but I didn't care. This was fun, fast-paced, had interesting characters who end up being a lot more than they're stereotyped as, and I was in the mood for something light.
Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East - I've been working on this book for nearly two years now, which is not a commentary on it's quality, I just got terribly sidetracked. The author, David Hirst, was the Middle East correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. The main focus of this book is the role that Lebanon has played in the larger Israel-Palestinian conflict, so the title is actually quite clever, as it refers to multiple small states and not just to Lebanon itself. Much of this material was familiar to me, but I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a good, generally balanced history of the western Middle East that looks that the Israel-Palestine conflict through a lens that is perhaps less familiar to general readers.
Red Clocks: A Novel - I guess this counts as a dystopia, but it seems pretty plausible. Red Clocks is set in what seems to be a fairly near-future United States that has legally designated fertilized embryos as people with all attendant rights. This outlaws not just abortion but also all forms of fertility treatment that involve fertilized embryos because they cannot consent to being transferred from the lab into a woman's body. Yep. Additionally, a law restricting adoptions to two-parent families (presumably straight two-parent families, but it's never specified how same-sex parents would be affected or if same sex marriage is even legal in this world) is about to go into effect.
The book focuses on how this reproductively repressive environment affects the lives of four women, who are first only referred to as "the biographer," "the mender," "the wife," and "the daughter." They live in a small Pacific northwest town and are all connected in various ways (sometimes more meaningful than others - the biographer teaches with the wife's husband at the daughter's school, while the mender
The mender, who is the local medicine woman/witch, was the most interesting character for me. Family lore claims she is descended from a local pirate and a witch and she lives alone in the woods with two goats, a cat, and the frozen dead body of her aunt, the previous medicine woman who trained her. She is alternately shunned and needed by the women of the town, who rely on her for everything from discreet treatment for STDs and domestic abuse injuries to potions that will cure infertility or induce abortion.
Overall, this book was fine. I'd heard great things about it, but it didn't draw me in and I almost gave up on it until I discovered that I was already halfway through and figured I'd just finish it. (I read fast when it's fiction.) I liked how it treated both sides of the reproductive control coin, examining the impact of legislative changes on both women who don't want to be pregnant and women want desperately to be pregnant. That aspect widened the story a bit. Others may have more success.
Stuff matters sound quite interesting.
Somehow, the cover for Red Clocks is reminiscent to me of the one of Tampa, which was discussed on AlisonY's thread (the one that shows a button hole ;) Now having though that I wonder what are the red clocks mentioned in the title?
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, a collection of linked musings on the ways women and their bodies fail to stay within acceptable norms, is either genius or junk, perhaps some of both. Each chapter in the book focuses on a female celebrity who's been accused of being "too" something but have still managed to be part of the mainstream. Among the offenders: Melissa McCarthy ("too fat"), Serena Williams ("too strong"), Nicki Minaj ("too slutty"), Hillary Clinton ("too shrill").
-- The entire Serena Williams chapter was fascinating and though the author doesn't explicitly call it out in the table of contents, this chapter also examines how Williams is "too black" for the still largely white world of tennis. Williams repeatedly gets called out for being "rude" or "aggressive" despite being 10 times more restrained than players like John McEnroe, whose assholery is charming.
-- The Melissa McCarthy chapter has a really interesting portion on how McCarthy is the "right" kind of fat person because she generally doesn't talk about size issues and then the backlash against McCarthy when she lost some weight.
-- The acknowledgement that it is mostly white, straight women who get to be transgressive AND mainstream. "that the difference between cute, acceptable unruliness and unruliness that results in ire is often as simple as the color of a woman’s skin, whom she prefers to sleep with, and her proximity to traditional femininity...It’s one thing to be a young, cherub-faced, straight woman doing and saying things that make people uncomfortable. It’s quite another—and far riskier— to do those same things in a body that is not white, not straight, not slender, not young, or not American."
-- There's a real drop off in the level of insight after the chapter on Nicki Minaj & the book kind of just becomes gossipy nonsense. The chapters on some of the more tabloid-friendly celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner are fairly meh, sometimes recounting entire plotlines from reality TV.
-- The chapter on Madonna ("too old") seems like it engages in exactly the same norm policing the book criticizes, shaming Madonna for her attempts to remain young and relevant to pop culture even as it criticizes her ageist critics.
Overall mixed impressions. It was a very fast read though, so at least there's that.
I picked up The Book of Speculation after reading a lukewarm review of it from ursula because I'm a sucker for so many elements that are present in this book -- two timelines, family secrets, circus people, magical realist elements, mysterious books. I knew there was a great likelihood I'd be disappointed, but I found it at the elibrary with no wait, so what the heck.
It ended up being fine, but vaguely disappointing. The story focuses on a librarian and his sister, orphaned in childhood after their mother's suicide and their father's death from natural causes. The sister reads tarot cards with a traveling circus, but returns home as her brother is being drawn into a mystery that seems connected to their family after receiving an old book containing names and dates of death of his female ancestors, all of whom die of drowning, like his mother did.
The parallel plot concerns a young, mute boy called Amos who is adopted by traveling circus performers in the late 1700s and comes to assist the company's fortune teller in reading tarot cards. Amos later falls in love with a mysterious girl who wanders out of the woods and joins the company doing a mermaid act that involves holding her breath for ridiculously long periods of time.
The book centers on the librarian's obsessive investigation of the book and the history of Amos and the other circus performers. Eventually the two connect.
Like I said, it was fine but there was something missing or wrong that I can't quite put my finger on. I was not sucked in the way I had hoped I might be.
I've been putting off reviewing/writing about So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, which I finished near the beginning of March, because it is such an excellent, thought-provoking book that I didn't feel able to do it justice. I don't feel any more capable now, but I wanted to capture my thoughts before it gets too much further in the past.
Everyone should read this book, but white people, we especially should read this book. America should have some equivalent to the college freshman common reading, where everyone reads a book at the same time and then has to talk about it. The book is structured as a series of questions, from "what is racism?" to "why am I always being told to check my privilege?" to "why can't I touch your hair?" and ending with "Talking is great, now what can I do?" Oluo examines each question, usually through personal stories about her encounters situations related to the question at hand.
In nearly every chapter, Oluo frames her response in such an effective way that even if you went into the book agreeing with her positions, you will feel like you're seeing things with new eyes and have a new way to refute racist arguments.
In a discussion on affirmative action, for instance, she notes that the basic purpose of the practice was to represent minority populations in educational institutions or federal employment relative to their numbers in the larger population. Against the charge that it is unfair (usually to white men), Oluo writes (emphasis mine):
When you say that a representational number of women or people of color cuts out more deserving white men, you are saying that women and people of color deserve to be less represented in our schools and our companies and that white men are deserving of an over-representational majority of these spots.
Or, in a discussion on the question "why can't I say the n-word," Oluo presents a deeply-personal story about a time when the word was used against her and a long-discussion of the history of racial slurs, but her most effective argument is contained in two short sentences: "Why would a well-meaning white person want to say these words in the first place? Why would you want to invoke that pain on people of color?" So simple, yet so effective--one would hope--in helping someone realize what they are doing.
The one part of the book that I did struggle with a little bit was the seeming contradiction between two repeated themes. The first theme is the harm that the victims of racism experience when bystanders don't speak out against racist practices or speech (raised implicitly by Oluo's personal story in the "n-word" chapter); the second is the idea that bystanders should follow the lead of the POC in deciding whether to call out an act of racism (stated explicitly in the more academic chapter on microaggressions). I will be reflecting on this element of the book the most going forward, I think.
My first five-star read of the year, both because of the importance of the topic and the quality of the book.
In reading articles about and interviews with Oluo after finishing her book, I came across another book on this issue that seems like a natural follow-on read: Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama - If you've ever wanted to read a crime novel centered on bureaucratic politics, this book is for you. (Despite the list of characters and hierarchies provided, I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia reading about the structure and history of Japan's police force and press secrecy in Japan, trying to develop a better understanding of some of the dynamics at play.)
Six Four is ostensibly about two kidnappings in Tokyo, one in the past that is the driving force behind much of the plot of the book and one in the present that drives the last few chapters of the book, the only part that comes even close to a conventional crime novel. In actuality, the book is about power struggles between the press and the police, between local police and national police, and among elements of the local police.
Along the way, the main character, a detective who's been put in charge of the media relations department, has to navigate conflicting loyalties, ferret out a cover-up, and generally try to figure out what is going on. This book wasn't boring, but it felt overly long, as the main character would repeatedly resolve his conflicting loyalties and decide to pursue a course of action, only to have yet another crisis of conscience, throwing him back into indecision. It was interesting to read something that was so different from the usual crime & detective novels that I read, but I'm not sure how much I actually enjoyed this book.
I went into reading The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani expecting basically a typical domestic suspense novel set in France. There would be a secret or something sinister that would eventually throw a perfect family into disarray. I knew from reading the reviews that the nanny would murder her charges - this is not a spoiler, as the first lines of the book describe the dead children. I figured maybe there would be more to it, maybe the nanny didn't really do it and the book would be figuring that out or something.
But nope, the book is exactly what it seems and yet it is so much more interesting. The nanny did it, no question, and this book will tell you how she gets to that point. But it's not even really about figuring out why one person snapped, so much as it is showing how an endless series of deprivations, small humiliations, and thoughtlessness can destroy a person. And what the world feels like to a person who is told she is "like one of the family" but praised for her ability to be almost invisible.
The reader is probably supposed to have an equal balance of sympathy for Louise (the nanny) and Myriam/Paul (her employers), but from the very beginning the relationship is so exploitative and self-centered that I had a really hard time empathizing with anyone except Louise.
Paul and Myriam quickly see Louise as indispensable. They are briefly, slightly ashamed at taking advantage of her willingness to work long hours, cook dinner for their friends, and handle household repairs, but her self-sacrificing nature and breadth of skills is just so useful. Myriam, the wife, is "at once embarrassed and secretly thrilled" that Louise does things she's never been asked to do. They never consider paying her for these extra duties (never mind that they couldn't afford to), and Myriam comes to believe Louise is "grateful" to shoulder the burden. They occasionally make token gestures, like inviting her to attend a dinner Louise has cooked for their friends, but then show her off like she's something they own and fail to notice when she leaves the table to clean up while their friends get drunk and put out cigarettes on the dinner plates Louise will have to wash.
Although Louise is "like family," she does not exist to Paul, Myriam and their children when she is not attending to their needs. They never once ask about her life or even how her day is. When, accompanying the family on vacation, Louise reveals that she never learned to swim (which is presented as a class issue), the children mock her. Paul is embarrassed and angry with Louise "for having brought her poverty, her frailties all the way here." He feels her sadness and embarrassment spoil the day and is irritated that she cannot relieve him of the task of caring for his children. In what he likely believes is a magnanimous gesture, he buys her a pair of child's floating armbands and tries to teach her to swim, ignoring her obvious terror. After the vacation, the family cannot wait to separate from Louise and decide that they will not ask her to accompany them next year because it is "too hard" for her to be exposed to things she's been deprived of.
As the family begins to turn on Louise for the crime of making them acknowledge class differences, they spend more time apart from her, and the reader gets to see more and more of Louise's life when she is not with the family. And again, the reader realizes that Paul and Myriam have never once expressed interest in or concern about Louise outside of her ability to be useful to them. We discover more about Louise's backstory, how she came to be working as a nanny, her horrid living conditions, and her inability to afford food or rent on what Paul and Myriam pay her. When Myriam realizes that Louise seems to always wear the same clothes, she is sickened, rather than concerned. When Louise is deathly ill and unable to work, Myriam thinks only of how this will inconvenience her. Yes, Louise is creepy and damaged, but she is also so desperately alone and has spent her entire life serving people who would prefer not to think of her as a person who exists separate from their needs. It is hard not to feel at least anger on her behalf.
I highly recommend this excellent and unbelievably sad -- though not for the reasons you might think, given that it's about child murder -- book.
>48 fannyprice: I had skimmed reviews of this and decided it wasn't for me, based on the assumptions you mention at the start of your review. You make it sound much more interesting than that.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black is Gaston Leroux's second book focusing on the brilliant young reported Joseph Rouletabille who made his first appearance in The Mystery of the Yellow Room. I read that book because it was mentioned somewhere as one of the first locked-room mysteries, a genre that I love, and one that didn't depend on the existence of a secret passageway or some other such trickery. The Perfume of the Lady in Black--which is effectively a "locked fortress" mystery--delves deeper into Rouletabille's history with the mysterious title character and reunites many of the characters from the first book for the second round of a battle with a villain who was presumed dead. The story in this one asks the reader to accept some pretty outlandish notions, but I enjoyed it anyway and I am finding -- to my surprise -- that the melodramatic, all-seeing reporter is growing on me. The next book, which I believe is the last, supposedly embroils Rouletabille in a conflict between the tsar of Russia and socialist revolutionaries, so that should be fun.
I was disappointed by Katie Kitamura's A Separation, which focuses on a couple who has separated but not really told anyone. The husband disappears in Greece, where he is researching professional mourners, and the wife decides she would rather track him down than confess to her mother-in-law that they are no longer together. It may not have been the author's decision to pitch this book as one of those "how much do we really know another person?" stories about marriage, but it really wasn't -- the wife knows exactly who her husband is & the additional bits she learns about what he's been doing since they stopped living together don't change her view of his essential character. The book is really about what happens when events change how we see ourselves or how we've decided to feel about a given situation, as the wife's feelings about her husband change when she stops being an "about-to-be-divorced-woman" and becomes a widow. (Her husband is found dead, the victim of an apparent mugging. This doesn't happen early on in the book, but it's hard to consider this a spoiler, as the husband is not really the point.) With the exception of the small bits of the book focusing on the professional mourners, which were fascinating, I was mostly bored by this book.
My Pet Human Takes Center Stage, by Yasmine Surovec, who writes the awesome "Cat Vs Human" comic, which basically never fails to capture my life spot on. See for instance:
I have a number of Surovec's other books, which I've just realized I haven't catalogued, so I'll have to remedy that. My Pet Human Takes Center Stage is a set of interlinked stories about a girl named Freckles and her pet cat Oliver, told from Oliver's perspective. It was cute and I think young readers would like it, but it wasn't as great as the comics themselves. I'm happy to support the author though.
Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework by Wanda Gag, a Minnesota author and illustrator from the 1920s/30s who is probably most famous for Millions of Cats, which Wikipedia tells me is the oldest children's book still in print. Gone is Gone is the story of Fritzl and Liesi, a farming couple. Fritzl one day gets it in his head that Liesi--who runs the house, cares for their baby (who has the amazing name of Kinndli), and tends the animals--has it much easier than he does toiling in the fields. They decide to switch roles for a day, and you can almost guess where it's going to go.
I loved this book. It was funny and snarky. I loved its amazing black and white folksy illustrations, the fairy-tale mood, and the proto-feminist sensibilities. I'm so glad that the University of Minnesota is publishing some of Gag's less famous work as part of their effort to preserve MN heritage.
Some examples, from a nice Brain Pickings article about the book:
Fritzl churns butter while Kinndli pretends to be a cow:
Why wouldn't you tie yourself to a cow on the roof, by way of the chimney?
Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions, is the third installment in Amy Stewart's historical fiction series about Constance Kopp, a real-life female deputy sheriff in WW1-era New Jersey. I enjoy these books quite a lot, but I had some distractions while reading this one that may have reduced my rating slightly. Which is too bad, because the third book does a really nice job of bringing together family storylines from all three books--including Constance's own personal history--with the cases Constance is working, all of which are connected to the issue of female vice and virtue. It's kind of crazy to be reminded of how much laws and norms relating to women working, living on their own, and just being in the world have changed since the beginning of the 20th century.
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - I owe a fuller review to this, since I acquired it as an ARC through NetGalley.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier -- I loved Rebecca and have been gradually trying to read everything du Maurier wrote. This was a good, if somewhat plodding, read. Orphan grows up with misogynist relative whom he idolizes, experiences shock when said misogynist falls in love with a mysterious widow in Italy, experiences more shock when he receives letters indicating the widow and his cousin have married and that his cousin has fallen ill and died. Did the widow do it? Somehow, despite thinking she did and despising her, the main character falls in love with her when he meets her. Characters kind of shallow -- especially main character, who behaves in totally inexplicable ways. Why would you sign over your estate to a woman you believe killed her husbands? Why would you become more determined to do this when you believe she's trying to kill you? But somehow you root for Rachel, the black widow, because these men are a$$holes.
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin -- I really liked Godwin's Flora, which was one of those quietly devastating sort of books that's way more powerful because it avoids histrionics. Grief Cottage is similarly quiet, but never really got off the ground for me. A boy is orphaned, goes to live with his bohemian great aunt by the sea, discovers an abandoned cottage where a family supposedly died during a hurricane decades ago, sees a ghost (kind of?). There were parts of this book I really enjoyed, like the relationship the orphaned boy forms with an elderly neighbor lady and (oddly) the passages about sea turtle hatchlings the town helps out every year, but otherwise this was sort of meh for me. Not enough of a ghost story, not enough of a human story...
>58 RidgewayGirl:, I hope you like all of them! And thanks for the comment on the review. Like I said, Grief Cottage wasn't bad, it just didn't feel fulfilling in any way.
>59 NanaCC:, I also have a few books of her short stories that I keep meaning to start on. I did NOT like the titular story in The Doll and Other Stories - it really creeped me out, but not in a good way.
Oh Tangerine, you held such promise. A novel about intense female friendships and dark secrets, told by not one but two unreliable narrators, variously likened to Daphne DuMaurier and Patricia Highsmith, written by a scholar of Gothic literature. You could have subverted so many cliches while paying homage and maybe you were meant to, but instead, you're kind of a vaguely anti-lesbian, vaguely Orientalist mess.
The book focuses on a pair of women who meet at Bennington College and form the kind of bond that blurs the division between them and excludes all others until it is severed by a mysterious incident that caused both girls to leave school. Alice is a rich, physically and psychologically delicate orphan; Lucy is a scholarship kid who clawed her way into the ivory tower. The chapters alternate between each woman's perspective; sometimes events are retold from a different point of view, sometimes we only get one take on them.
The book does some things so incredibly well that it's almost heartbreaking. The passages where Alice and Lucy size each other up, each feeling painfully insecure and lacking by comparison -- both when they first meet and then again throughout their relationship -- are so true to female friendships I've had. Realizing that the very things you admire in another person are the things about which they feel deeply insecure. "You thought I had it all together? I thought you were so cool!" "You thought I was cool? I was such an idiot back then!"
Other passages that allude to the -- possibly one-sided? -- obsessive nature of their friendship are positively chilling, like when Alice accuses Lucy of stealing a piece of jewelry that is the only relic Alice has of her mother and Lucy completely straightfacedly tells Alice that the jewelry never belonged to Alice's mother, but to Lucy's mother. That this episode occurs after we've learned that Alice sometimes doesn't remember things and has trouble differentiating between dreams and reality AND after Lucy is feeling abandoned by Alice and acting spiteful toward her heightens the creepiness because it's impossible to tell who is telling the truth and what is going on.
But then the book does stupid ahistorical stuff, like talking about "liminal states" and "intertextuality" even though it is set before those concepts were first introduced into the world, and it seems both overwrought and sloppy. Or turns Lucy from an obsessive friend into a would-be-lover, and you can't help roll your eyes in disgust at the "evil lesbian" trope. Or presents the absolute bare-bones set of stereotypes about the Middle East and presents it not as a place where real people exist, but as an "exotic" backdrop for the dramas of Euro-American characters. This last one I'm less up-in-arms about, because I suppose you could argue that's how the characters themselves treat Tangier and that we're meant to find their self-centeredness obnoxious.
In the end, I'm torn. This book WAS in many respects like a female version of The Talented Mr Ripley (which I adored) and I enjoyed many parts of it. The way in which Lucy's true intentions and character are revealed near the end of the book is fairly clever and
I'm not sorry I read it, I'm just sad it wasn't AMAZING, because I really wanted it to be.
I've been reading, though less than I would like to, but have had no time to even jot down a few thoughts about the books. I've already completely forgotten the plots of some books that I really enjoyed.
The Gone World was a disturbing twisty-turny time-travel/alternate worlds crime novel about a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent who gets involved in an investigation having to do with missing space travelers (the navy runs a space program... go Space Force!), unexplained astronomical phenomena, and the possible end of the world. I really enjoyed it, though now I realize I remember very little of the details.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit are the first and second books in a series about a world where warring humans destroy the Earth, colonize Mars, and live in fleets or on planets populated by dozens of alien races. In a small twist, humans in this series are pretty minor league--we're not the smartest, strongest, fastest, our technology is pretty subpar. These alien races are linked through membership in an interplanetary UN-like body and travel by means of wormholes across the galaxy. The first book focuses on the hijinks of the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship who finds themselves at the center of an intergalactic crisis involving a formerly isolationist species in the middle of a civil war. As many others have said, this book has a very "Firefly"-like feel to it, but with a much more diverse crew. It's a good setup to enable kind of a data dump on this fictional universe without it ever feeling like a data dump, and there's enough character development, humor, and disasters to keep the pace moving.
While the second book focuses on a couple minor (and one not-so-minor) characters from the first book, there's almost no similarity in plot or structure. Less space opera, more character study/coming of age with a heist caper thrown in for good measure. It's a really interesting choice but it really works, because it allows the author to expand her universe and tell stories that are appropriate to different kinds of characters, rather than having to contrive ever-more dangerous or outlandish situations for the same group of people.
I really loved both of these books, which I first heard about from bragan, I think. I'm anxiously awaiting the next in the series.
ETA: Yes, it was bragan, here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/279741#6414174
This Sweet Sickness - I love me some Patricia Highsmith, but this one was just so-so for me. A delusional man, who can't seem to understand that a married woman who he's obsessed with is actually NOT pining for him, stalks her and creates a fantasy life in which they are together. I think between this and John Fowles' The Collector earlier this year, I've had enough of fictional men who don't get it.
The Woman in the Window is a super-problematic re-writing of Rear Window with a female protagonist. I love domestic suspense and I love unreliable narrators, but I'm beginning to agree that The cult of the unreliable female narrator must be stopped after reading this travesty.
Unlike Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott, women authors who have made their name by portraying complex, flawed women realistically, AJ Finn is deliberately gender-ambiguous pseudonym of a male author who seems to have decided that the best way to make a buck is to cram a ridiculous pile of neuroses and bad behaviors together to produce a basket case and then stick her in scenarios where "normals" can pity and objectify her. The main character of this book is so off the rails, it's unrealistic and verges of glamorizing really dangerous behavior, like repeatedly mixing massive quantities of anti-depressants/psychotics with enough wine to fill a bathtub and waking up the next day with nothing but a vague sense of unreality. Combine that with the unceasing series of "she thinks X, but she's proven wrong, but maybe she's not wrong!" plot twists, and I did not enjoy this at all.
And the third book is out now! I have a copy in my hot little hands, although I'm not sure when I'm going to get to it. It's one of those books where I want to make sure I have some time set aside to immerse myself in it.