Friday, November 25, 2016

Completed: The Fall of Rome


Well, that "four more weeks to go and why haven't I read more of these books" panic struck so I decided to sit down and work on one of these TBR books. We should really think about how we want to handle 2017...I do really look forward to the months we have a common read (speaking of which, we should talk about our December book soon! ), so maybe we should do MORE of that? Add some graphic novels and comics into the mix?

Anyways, I bought The Fall of Rome on the recommendation of a friend of mine from grad school. It's about the intersecting lives of 2 teachers and one student at a fancy prep school, and my friend thought I might like it since it's an exploration of how black students and faculty members wither or survive in mostly-white institutions.

I feel bad because I'm going to give this one a pretty quick review (the end of the year reviews tend to be a little more perfunctory). I liked this book a lot. It's set an exclusive all boys boarding school in Connecticut in the late 90s.   There's 3 narrators: Jerome Washington, a Latin teacher and the only black faculty member at the school; Jana Hansen, a newly divorced teacher; and Rashid Bryson, a young black kid new to the school and reeling from a family tragedy.

It's a good read! The drama of the book is almost all internal: how do people internalize their own tragedies and traumas? And what happens when those lives intersect and bump into other damaged people? The author does a great job of making each narrator sympathetic when you're in his/her chapter. But the tour de force character is the older teacher, Jerome Washington. He's someone I both understood and felt really sympathetic towards, but he was so repressed and tortured that I also wanted him to get his ass kicked. Jerome's been hiding from the world at that boarding school, and the appearance of the fierce and fearless Rashid brings everything to the surface. My one mild critique of the book is that since the characters struggles are all so internal, the relationships between them seem less *real* than I would like. I don't really think it's a weakness of the text, but just a natural consequence of a book where all the conflicts are internal. Even big plot points are really just fuel for the inner struggles. For example, Jana and Jerome have a brief weekend affair, but it's mostly fuel for contemplation. There's not much actual fallout from the event, even though Jana comes to deeply regret it: not because she's sad about the sex, but rather because she realizes she's disappointed in Jerome as a person.

One thing that's always interesting to me is how writers portray school, but honestly, the setting is just a metaphor for America: it's a place that's stuck in its ways, and afraid of the future, wondering how these brash young folks will challenge and change us. It's a nice little weekend read.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Completed: About a Mountain


Your "Holy Shit, It's September!" post has prompted me to catch up on some reading and writing here. By looking at my list of books I've read in 2016, you'd think I haven't been reading at all. Not true! I've just been reading romance novels, and I don't keep track of them. And I'm fine with it!

Anyways, I picked up About a Mountain a few years ago when my friend Lori mentioned it. It seemed it would fit right into my tiny little nuclear niche because it's about the plan to turn Yucca Mountain into a nuclear waste repository.

Honestly, this was sort of a weird one for me, mostly because it wasn't what I expected. I thought it would be a pretty straightforward examination of the Yucca Mountain site, and it was more like the philosophical stylings of the author when thinking about the mortality of humanity and of the Earth. So, although I did learn some about Yucca Mountain--how it came to be the site, the legion of problems with it, its unsuitability for long tern nuclear storage, the massive transportation problems of moving the entire nation's spent fuel there---it wasn't really as much as I would have liked. Instead, there were a lot of digressions, some of which were pretty interesting. By far, the best was the discussion of how a nuclear storage site could be "labeled" with appropriate signage so that future generations could recognize the danger without counting on language. Answer: carve Edvard Munch's The Scream into granite plates. Mmm'kay. That seems like it would work, actually.

Other parts of the book didn't work for me at all. For example, there was a whole other section that talked about how Vegas is the suicide capital of the world, and although I'm sure the author was going for some super interesting framing setting up the suicide of individuals as a metaphor for the suicide of humanity as a species...but really, it was pretty fucking tedious. Finally, the author was super into list-making as a rhetorical device. So when he talked about what would happen if a nuclear disaster hit Vegas, he described a list of what would be destroyed, over a couple of pages, and I get that he's hoping to create a cascading fear and realization of how it would all play out. But in 200 pages of text, he pulls this listing maneuver at least 20 times, and all it created in this reader was a cascading feeling of annoyance.

Meh. Not really the kind of nuclear read I'm interested in. Maybe it's because every nuclear book I've ever read creates that feeling of dread and dismay at humanity's stupidity all on it's own. Here, the author's attempt to hit me over the head with it just didn't work.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Holy Sh*t! It is [almost] October!

Dear Jenny,

WHOA. What the what?! It seems like just yesterday that I wrote my Mid-year Status Report but that was, in fact, 3 months ago. And since that time... I have not made much progress. Eep!

So far this year, I have completed four books and read two more that still need posts (Same two that were on my list in June. Really. I am stalled out.) That means I have six books to read in the final three months of this year. Did I already say "Eep?" Yeah. Eep again.

Time for the time-honored tradition of... page-counting! But looking back to my post about this from last year... I am actually right on track for panic-page-counting in late September/early October. I guess that's part of being a life-long procrastinator -- forgetting all of the times that I've been in a Procrastination-induced Panic before. HA!

(Cause I've actually been in worse shape before, if you can believe it!)

So I'll start with booting my longest books: So long, Stones From the River! (For a third time... that one was also on the 2014 and 2015 lists. I'll bring ya back for one more year, SFtR but... we're not going past 2017 together.) Traffic also gets pushed.

Here's what's left to read, plus Hitchhiker's Guide (I loaned it to someone... not sure if/when I'll get that back) and Housekeeping (you and I are reading this together in December -- I have the eBook):

For a total of 1505 pages. There are 94 days left in the year, which leaves me at... 16 pages a day.

Which is NOT that many but... I just have not spent much time over the past few months reading books with my eyes and I'm kind of... out of the habit, if that makes sense? I have have listened to a ton of aBooks this year, but I have not done much traditional reading.

In fact, I may have to go ahead and listen to a few of these. Hitchhikers is narrated by Stephen Fry, so I bet that's terrific... yeah. I'm totally going to listen to that one. Heh.

I know this is a busy time of year for you, so no pressure. Buuut... how you doin'?


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Completed: Prayers for the Stolen


Oh, jury duty. The only good thing I can say about it is that I knocked another of my ToB books off of the list while I was sitting around doing nothing all day.

I didn't do a preview post for this because I ended up turning it around so fast. However, this book does hold a weird place of honor for me: it's the last book that I ever bought without quotation marks! It was early 2014, and I read a review of the book that made me interested in reading it. It's set in Mexico and about the impact of the drug wars on young women in Mexico...and it just sounded great. I think I even tried to add it to my ToB pile in 2015, but it wasn't officially old enough, so I put it on hold for another year.

At some point right after I bought it, I picked it up and was so pissed that it doesn't have quotation marks that I just put it right down. And it was then that I promised myself that I would always check before buying.

I think I added it back to the 2016 list because it's SHORT (about 200 pages!) and I was so annoyed that I bought it that I felt compelled to finish it and just get it out of my life. Lol. One more thing about my review...I finished the book while at jury duty and then abandoned the book right there in the jury duty room when I was finished. So...this review brought to you courtesy of my memory with no actual quotes. Which seems sort of ironic and funny.

I must say, I really wanted to like this book more than I did, but it just didn't work for me. Yes, obviously, the lack of quotation marks bugged the shit out of me on every page; but ultimately, but the plot and characterization were just too thin for me. The story is about a young teenage girl, Ladydi [Like Lady Diana, her mother named her that as a sort of reminder to herself about how shitty men are.] and what it's like to grow up in a country where men are either gone in the USA or gone because they are members of drug gangs.

In the first section, Ladydi is a young teenager in her village, worried about her friend Paula who has been stolen and mysteriously returned. The women and girls remaining are at the mercy of the remaining men. The mothers try and hide their daughters, and Ladydi and her friends all have these pits in the backyard where they hide out when they hear SUVs coming---Remember Paula? She and her mother didn't hear the SUVs coming and there was no time to hide.

In the second section, Ladydi goes to the nearest big city, Acapulco, to work as a nanny for a wealthy family. But the family is gone and has been killed, so she mostly just hangs out with the housekeeper and sleeps with the gardner.

In the third section, Ladydi has been framed for murder and is a Mexican prison until her Mother comes for her. There, she finds out more details about a connection between the murdered family and her friend Paula.

I don't know. I actually want to blame Toni Morrison for my dislike of Prayers for the Stolen. Morrison is *the fucking master* of a kind of lyrical exploration of what it's like to be a woman in the face of great obstacles, where the link between what is known and unknown is so tenuous. I don't that Prayers for the Stolen was terrible (well. the lack of quotation marks is terrible. lol), it just didn't seem nearly as sophisticated, smart, insightful, lyrical, or beautiful as Beloved.   I know that's not fair! But it's how I felt. I guess I just want more magical realism, or more adherence to a plot that makes sense, but this just seemed to want it both ways. It was the part where she went to jail where the book really lost me---I didn't buy it as a plot twist and then I was just reading for it to be over. Ladydi was in jail because our author wanted her to be there, not because the narrative put her there in a convincing way. I'm not sure it makes sense, but whatever. This book was just thoroughly meh for me.

The good news--I'm now done with 7 of my 12, and I'm feeling like I'm in good shape for the back end of 2016.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Completed: The Most Dangerous Book


There's something about this book that really was peak-nerd for me: reading a book about another book. Lol.

As you know, I read Ulysses in college and was super into it. It just hit every single one of my book-loving bells. I took a class on James Joyce, another just on Ulysses, and also wrote my senior thesis about it. You asked about reading it again, and it's actually been on my mind a lot.  I think it would take the whole year, and ideally, we'd find someone else reading it online or podcasts, etc. It's such a communal effort and I think it might be something worth checking out---with structure and support, we could definitely come up with a Ulysses in 2017 plan. There might be a woman in my book club who's interested, and it might also be fun to have a few more people...Let's talk about it.

There are so many books published about Ulysses, but this one got a lot of attention for being approachable and aimed at a general audience. The subject of the book isn't so much Ulysses itself, but rather the charges of obscenity against the book and ways in which it was censored. As it turns out, the post office plays a really big role in censorship. Because most things were mailed, the post office had the power to censor works they thought were obscene. The whole tangled story of how the post office would find--and burn!--obscene materials was fascinating. I definitely felt like I fell into one of the historical rabbit holes where you learn a bunch of really weird shit about the ins and outs of American government.

The other big part of the book detailed the struggles of many people to bring the book to publication. Obviously, there are descriptions of Joyce's struggles with his health, eyesight, and alcoholism (although I don't know if that word was every used, it certainly seems accurate). The stress and strain on Joyce is well-documented, and I actually skipped a two page description of an eye-surgery. Ee. But we also meet Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co, Ezra Pound, a New York financier, John Quinn, and many others who tried to publish Ulysses. Joyce must have been a real son of a bitch to work with, that's for sure.

The book ends with the trial that finally makes the work legal by declaring it a classic and therefore not subject to obscenity laws.

I'm not really doing this review justice. It was a great book! I dog-eared lots of interesting passages about obscenity, modernism, the role of the modern courts, and the meaning of art. But for whatever reason, perhaps the panic of knowing I only have one more week off, and would love to knock another book off my list, I'm just going to wrap it up and try moving along to the next thing.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Completed: Wolf in White Van

Dear Jenny,

Oh boy.

I finished this book several months ago and I totally burned through it. Sooo... I don't remember much. Just consulted my pal Google and was all "Oh, yeah! Oh, yeeeah!"

Since I didn't do a preview post on this one, I'll start with that. Then let's see what else I can tell you.

You know how sometimes a book keeps coming up in your life over and over again? This was that book for me in late 2014/ early 2015. I heard it reviewed/raved about on a podcast, then another podcast. Then I read a review (notable because I generally don't read/keep up with book reviews) and spotted it on the 2015 ToB long list. When I walked into my favorite local bookstore in back in Alameda, it was right on the front table. The cover is awesome so... I bought it.

It also sounded like a neat premise and looked like a well-written book. And it was! The structure of this narrative is a large part of what makes it so great. But it's also what caused me to burn through it so quickly (I had to get to the bottom of this story) which is why I don't remember it very well.

At first, it's sort of difficult to understand what's going on -- we get some bits and pieces: the narrator, Sean, has had a severely disfiguring injury; he runs some sort of text-based role-playing game through the mail (the actual mail -- I loved this part); and there is a court case against him that is quickly dismissed. (Note: I have just delivered you that information far more directly than I received it.)

The rest of the book basically builds on all of that information -- everything is related and explanations are slowly revealed by going back in time, finishing with the incident that cause his disfigurement. As spoileriffic as we are around here, I'm not going to spoil it because I genuinely recommend this book and part of what makes it good is uncovering the truths including, and especially, the final truth about what happened to Sean's face.

There are many poignant moments, especially when Sean encounters others and their reactions to his disfigurement. Little kids are generally more accepting, but ask more questions. Many people just don't know how to react and end up stumbling over themselves. Sean's empathy in these situations is well-written and heart breaking. The author is a songwriter and his mastery of the language shines throughout.

There is a quote from Patrick deWitt on the back of my copy: "Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving" and I agree with that 100%. As I flipped through it again to write this post, I thought, "I need to read this again." And I'm not much of a re-reader, so that says a lot.