Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jenny's 7.15: Command and Control

Kelly,

I know we have The Night Manager on deck for July, but I ended up feeling a little panicked about the back half of the year. As it turns out, I'm going to have to take 2 classes in the fall quarter, and I thought if I could maybe be ahead of the game, it would be better.

The first week of summer vacation, I read a bunch of books---along with The Shining Girls, I read at least 4 or 5 others. SO SATISFYING. One of the books I read was called Voices from Chernobyl, which is an oral history of those who survived the disaster. Um. Harrowing. But, it also reminded me that I have another nuclear book on this year's list, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. I was also reminded of this book when I read another nuclear-themed article in the New Yorker by the same author.

I had picked this up in March and read the first 30 pages, but then the rest of the school year happened and I just never got back to it.

I've read about 150 pages so far, it's very readable and fascinating. I hope to finish it this week before starting The Night Manager. 

Any ideas about our plan to tackle that one?
Jenny

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Completed: The Shining Girls

Kelly,

What are we to make of the time-travel trope? Obviously, it speaks to very real desires, perhaps the most human desires of all: to know what will happen and to fix what has happened. I can trace my love of the time-traveling genre pretty much straight back to 1985, Marty McFly, and a time-traveling car. Of course, there was also A Wrinkle in Time, but the thing I remember the most about that book was a giant, creepy brain at the end. [You know, we should reread some our favorite childhood books here, saying what we remember from them, and then read them and see if we were right.]

It's funny, though, although I like time-traveling movies, as a general rule, I don't love time-traveling novels. The only real exception is Long Division. (Although I do remember a bunch of hilarious time-traveling romance novels that I read a long time ago. Memorably, in one book, after deciding to stay in the past with some stud muffin, a woman sends back to the future for tampons and Advil. Lol.) I think the time-travel genre works for me when it's "fun" rather than serious. Obviously,  Long Division wasn't a "fun" time travel book, but it was saying something profoundly interesting to me about race and growing up in America. The only other time-traveling book I have a strong memory of is The Time Traveler's Wife, which is a book I never finished. People loved that book! But it was so meh for me.

One thing that's interesting to me about time-traveling books is that I have a lot of patience for mechanicians of the time-travel plot. I mean, a DeLorean fueled by banana peels or 1.21 jigawatts? GREAT! I mean, obviously none of it makes any sense, so I really don't usually worry too much about that---as long as the story doesn't try to hard to explain it, I'll be fine with it, too.

That brings us to The Shining Girls. Honestly, Kelly, it was fine. It's the story of a serial killer, Harper, and his ability to travel through time by aid of a magical house in Chicago.

**Jazz hands** magical time-traveling house **Jazz hands**

The house is filled with Harper's "treasures" that he steals from one victim and then places them on another one later in time. The house calls to him, showing him his present and his past.  I now have given you as much explanation for how the time-traveling works as the author does. As it turns out, it is possible that there can be too little explanation for me. I mean, at least 1.21 jiggawatts is about power! In this book, the house works, catapulting Harper and a few others through time, but there's never real explanation of how it works. Not even the smallest amount of explanation. I guess it's because Harper himself doesn't care that much, but it's not satisfying.

The other protagonist of the story is Kirby, a girl he attacks and stabs, but she manages to survive. Kirby is determined to figure out who tried to kill her, and she is the one who discovers the secret of the house.

I'm not sure what my problem was with this book. It's serviceable, I guess I'd say. Kirby is an interesting character, and I admired her. She's a fighter and she is determined to figure out what has happened and why. I think the problem with the book is Harper. He's a serial killer, but it's unclear why he does what he does. It's also unclear what brings his victims to his attention. The only explanation we get is that they are "shining" that there is something about the way he sees their aura that draws him to them. But honestly, it's pretty thin.  If the killer isn't creepy and well-formed as a character, it's hard to find the book all that scary. The thing that works the best is that Harper both kills the women, but then goes back and sees them as children, and goes back after to read the reports of what happened in the news. But his motives and reasons for acting, the explanation of his methods, why he limps, who his family was...NOTHING!

I mean, as a book, it was *fine* and I enjoyed reading it, but I think it's going to have about zero staying power.

One last thing: I read this on my Kindle, and that was a little frustrating. As Harper went back and forth in time, I found myself wanting to flip back and put the chapters in order. But the Kindle defies that sort of activity. Meh.

Tl;dr version: If you're looking for a quick read, go for it. It's a solid, but not spectacular read.

Jenny


Friday, June 5, 2015

Jenny's Book 6.15: The Shining Girls

Kelly,

Every once in a while, I make the mistake of buying a bunch of Kindle books all at once when there is a sale. This is one of those books. I think it was some sort of special sale, because this is a pretty new-ish book, published in 2013. From what I could tell, it's about a time-traveling killer that's set in Chicago. I think the Chicago thing was probably the hook for me. I like a creepy book, but the last book I read about a time-traveling serial killer, NOS4A2, was so fucking scary, I have never finished it. I keep thinking I should finish it, but then I think about how scary it was... I don't know. Maybe I'll read The Shining Girls as a way of leveling back up to that one!

Here's the reason I say that buying a bunch of Kindle books is a mistake. Unlike pBooks, eBooks don't remind you that you exist. They just...linger there, waiting for you to remember you bought them. I guess I should spend some quality time this summer organizing my Kindle books into folders, but it's such a pain creating and making collections or whatever. However, now that I think about it, maybe that's easier to do now than it used to be. It's been a while since I fooled around with it. I think the easiest way to do it would be *from a computer* rather than the actual Kindle! Maybe I should check it out. Hmmm. Do you keep your Kindle books organized?

All right, it's summer. Time to read. Along with my planned TBR books, my book club book, I also scored a rather intimidating stash from the library. I mean, I obviously won't get through all of the 12 books I checked out, but I like to keep it aspirational!

Jenny




Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Book Club Dilemma

Kelly,

My book club is tonight. The great news: we read Station Eleven for this month. I started to re-read it but don't feel a whole lot of pressure to get through it all. I read it so recently! Sometimes I take the ToB cheat, which is to go back and re-read the commentary as a way of refreshing myself. Hah! Either way, so far it's been just as enjoyable the second time around.

Here's the dilemma part: the host pitches a few choices for the next month's book. And since this month's book club is at my house, I have to think of which books I'll suggest we read next. There's really no constraints: it can be new or old, it can be fiction or non-fiction, it can be something I haven't read that just sounds good! [I say that because in my California book club, someone had to have read the book in order to recommend it. And, it had to be out in paperback so it would be more affordable or likely to be a the library.]

Of course I have no idea what books to pitch. I mean, obviously, I have too many choices to count. When I told my husband I was worried about this last night, he totally gave me the side-eye. Hah! Should I offer up some adventure books---about surfing or mountain climbing? Should I be sneaky and recommend a book that I put on this year's TBR list? Should I just pick something that I've read and loved? Should I pick a classic I've always meant to read, but haven't quite gotten to yet? Should I go get something new that sounds interesting to me? I actually hate making recommendations! The pressure!

How does your book club pick books?

Jenny

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Jenny's Book 5:15: Wave

Kelly,

Wave is a memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala, I bought it about a year ago when we popped into the bookstore to get something for Darius. I had read some good reviews of it, but still memoirs are not usually my thing. However, as time goes by, I realize I have a little space in my black, bitter heart for memoirs that are about truly exceptional events. And this definitely qualifies. It is by a woman who lost her two sons, husband, and both of her parents in the 2004
Indian Ocean tsunami.

However, I think it's more than just disaster porn for me; there was another reason this disaster spoke to me in particular. We were in Seattle at the time, and the tsunami struck the day after Christmas. We had family in the house, and Darius was only 18 months old. I remember that on the front page of the New York Times there was a photograph of a person surrounded by bodies, some of which were very small. And, Kelly, I couldn't even bear to look at it. The very idea that your child could die in a disaster was too terrible to contemplate. I'll always remember that moment (Okay, this is very upsetting so fell free to skip. This is not the exact photo, I don't think. But this brought back exactly the feeling I had that morning.)

I think because of that memory, I was drawn to this book. After the earthquake in Nepal last week, the "coping with a natural disaster book" went to the top of my list. I don't know what that says about me, but there it is.

One question I ask my students over and over again is why do we read? They come up with a pretty good list, but one of the top choices is to experience other people's lives and emotions. I sometimes joke that there's nothing better than a read like The Fault in Our Stars, the kind of book that leaves you crying so hard you have snot on your face. Interesting, although this book is tremendously sad, it isn't that kind of book. It's the most dignified and raw exploration of loss that I've ever read, but without being a tear-jerker.

It's beautifully written, and the story starts with her looking out the window from their hotel in Sri Lanka (the author is Sri Lankan, and she and her family split their time between Sri Lanka and London). They are at a hotel on the beach in what is essentially a National Park. Her parents are in the room next door, and when they see the wave coming, she and her husband grab the children and run. She doesn't even stop to warn her parents. They simply run. But the wave catches them, and she survives only by grabbing a branch at the last minute before sweeping out to sea.

The memoir itself does not detail every minute, a period of years is covered in a few paragraphs. Years pass before it picks up again. If anything, it portrays the long arc of grief, the quick bursts of memory, the surprising way that even a small object can bring it all back. What's also fascinating is how she grieves for each person in turn, starting with her boys, her parents, and finally her husband. She literally couldn't process all that happens, and because her story is so unbelievably tragic, it's almost impossible to share. We know what to say when a friend reveals they lost someone, but what do you say to a person who lost everyone? Deraniyagala writes, "I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate. I hear this occasionally. A friend will say, I told someone about you, and she couldn't believe it was true, couldn't imagine how you must be. And I cringe to be bereft in a way that cannot be imagined, even though I do wonder how impossible this really is. Occasionally an insensitive relative might walk away if I mention my anguish, and I reel from the humiliation of my pain being outlandish, not palatable to others" (114).

The magic in this story, is that for her, grief is an act of suppression. Of just trying to not think about it, and only as years pass does she allow herself to remember. Its lessons are powerful: only as we can remember can we truly heal.

This book is lovely, and I would recommend it to anyone who knows what it is to love and feel loss.
Jenny

Friday, May 15, 2015

Kelly's Book 6.15: The Roald Dahl Omnibus


Dear Jenny,

A friend gave me this back in college. Yup, I've been dragging this puppy around for over 20 years. And I'll tell ya... every time I move, I flip through it with an eye to boot it and yet... it's made the cut again and again. I'm interested! I think I just haven't picked it up because it's long (almost 700 pages) and it's short stories (which, as I mentioned earlier this year, I'm just not sure I am really into) (but 2015 is the year I will find out for sure, with nearly half of my TBR books being collections!)

One of my favorite books as a kid was James and the Giant Peach. I loved that book so much that I brought it to college with me, which is saying something. (In fact, now that I think about it, that may be one of the oldest books I own -- it was a gift to me when I was... 6 or 7?) Anywhoo... The person who gave me this book had never read it, so I lent it to her and she loved it. She saw this collection one day (one of those Barnes & Noble straight-to-the-sale-shelf deals, looks like) and bought it for me as thanks.

Other than JatGP, I have only read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I have not read any of Dahl's adult works at all, so I'm going into this sort of blind. Based on what little I know, I think that these stories are going to be dark. And maybe a little kooky. Which is why I've kept this book for all of these years, of course. Heh.

love,
kelly

PS -- This is great: In the UK, they celebrate Roald Dahl Day on September 13. Love me a literary holiday!

PPS -- Note the big, fat, red spine on this bad boy. As I have been going on and on about my bookcase re-arranging in the comments of this post, know that I am looking forward to adding this one to the red shelf when I am done! /dork

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Completed: The Secret History

[Just in case there is anyone out there besides Jenny reading this post and has not already seen our Spoiler Alert in the margin over there --->

... this post is totally and irrevocably spoiler-y. I'm giving it aaaaaallll away. You have been warned.]

Dear Jenny,

As we have discussed in the comments on my Preview post, I had a weird start to reading this book because for the first 100 pages or so, I kept thinking, "Wait -- I've read this before!" but after that, it was all new to me, so I must have started it at some point and put it down. I don't remember that at all.

You say you read it in college -- now I am wondering if I picked up a copy then and read the first 100 pages at around that same time? That would explain my complete blank -- my college days were spent reading nothing but books for school. So if I somehow found a copy of this on a break or something... maybe?

Oh, well. Once I got past that "Wait, have I read this already?" problem, the game was on! Like The Goldfinch, this book is thoroughly engrossing (Obviously -- I just tore through it in a few days.) It opens with the information that this group of friends killed one of their own (Bunny) and I thought, "Whoa. Um... spoiler much?" but have faith, cause Tartt has plenty more up her sleeve to keep you flipping pages as the story unfolds.

The one thing the immediate knowledge of Bunny's death did was keep me from getting very "attached" to him. Later attempts to make me feel something more for Bunny -- and there were many -- did not work. I know he's going to die. And that his friends killed him, sooo... yeah. I'm never going to get to know or love Bunny. And maybe that was the point -- maybe that helps us identify better with the basically cold-blooded way that the group decides to do him in. But I do wonder if it might have been a more dramatic reveal if I had gotten to like or love Bunny more before he was killed.

After we get the "Yup, we killed our friend" opener, roughly the first third of the book (the part I had previously read and forgotten) is spent introducing us to the characters -- Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Bunny, and our narrator, Richard. The first 5 are in some kind of creepy Greek Studies program together (creepy because it's so super-exclusive that the students in the program only study with a single professor, Julian, during their entire college career) (Also... really? No.) Julian generally does not accept new students (Richard is a transfer) but ends up taking Richard into the program. I was a little bored by this part (probably why I put it down the first time...?) but then...

The middle of the book hits its stride as there is some mysterious business going on in the group that Richard doesn't know anything about -- he wakes up to strange conversations, notices weird hints that the others are clearly dropping to one another, etc. You definitely get the idea that there is something else building up besides Bunny's death. And Tartt delivers -- it turns out that these chuckleheads decided to have some sort of out-of-their-minds old-school Bacchanal in the woods and whoops! In their frenzy, they ended up dismembering a farmer. Like, a man. A human. They murdered someone. And tore him apart with their bare hands.

Bunny wasn't with them, but he ends up finding out (sheesh, I cannot remember how now and I just finished this book 2 DAYS ago -- ugh. Well, in my defense, I've been sick in bed. So it's a blur.) (Also, I just cannot remember book plots. I just can't.) Anyhoo... once he finds out, he ends up being a bit of a loose cannon -- he kind of goes off the rails (as one would -- cause, you know, it's murder) and it seems like he might give them up. So in order to shut him up, they decide to shove him off of a cliff near where he goes walking.

BTW, as engrossed as I was, I did find some parts to be so unbelievable that they pulled me out of the story. The tiny Greek program with one professor and no new students (Really? Then... how does the program continue when someone graduates?) was one example. And this thing where Bunny takes these long rugged walks along a cliff that is unprotected and dangerous enough that one could fall to one's death was another -- nothing about Bunny's character suggests ruggedness throughout the book.

In fact, here is our introduction to him:
"... a sloppy blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers. He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye. Bunny Corcoran was his name, Bunny being somehow short for Edmund. His voice was loud and honking, and carried in the dining halls." [18]
Does that sound like a kid who takes wilderness hikes up along big ol' dangerous cliffs by himself? I don't know -- it just doesn't come together for me.

Back to the story. Well, Bunny gets the heave-ho about 2/3 of the way through the book, so there's a whole, "What the heck else is going to happen?" sensation. There are some scenes that I think are supposed to be tense where we are supposed to be worried about whether or not our heroes are going to get caught, but I felt like the intro to the book, where the narrator was ruminating on Bunny's death, didn't seem to come from behind bars, so that felt oddly false.

But wait for it, cause Tartt's gonna hit you with another whammy -- basically, the group is on the verge of a psychotic break (cause, hey -- they've killed some people!) and... icky... the twin brother (Charles) and sister (Camilla) have been sexually involved with one another (yet another plot point that just does. not. ring. true. Nononono -- They're siblings! This is not Flowers in the Attic, people!) and Charles is getting drunk and abusive and Camilla and Henry are in love, so Henry puts her up in a hotel so she can hide from Charles there, but Charles finds her and he brings a gun and a fight breaks out and... Richard (narrator) gets shot (wounded, but not killed) and then, to wrap up all of the loose ends, Henry kills himself. Boom.

So there ya have it. It's no wonder this book was the "big book" when it was out -- it was all pretty nutso and page-turneriffic. But I still have problems with some of the basic fact-checking kind of flaws... even something simple like this: on the very first page, the narrator describes the search for and discovery of Bunny's body: "when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from the town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was packed down like ice." [3] which is a nice, dramatic image, right? But then... in the story itself, they were actually looking for him a couple of miles from where his body was, and it was a woman playing fetch with her dog who happened upon him, nowhere near anywhere they were searching. So that just seemed kind of sloppy to me. Maybe Tartt was making a commentary on memories? They're not as clear as we think they are? Not sure, but it was a little bothersome. (Not nearly as flawed as The Goldfinch, though... so there's that!)

In other news, you mentioned the cover in our comments on the Preview post, so of course... I looked that up.

The jacket, as you recalled, was fancy. The image was the same as that on my paperback (the dude to the right there) but, according to this article, it was "wrapped not in a regular paper dust jacket, but a clear acetate sheath on which the title, blurb and author photograph are printed in purple." Sounds like maybe Tartt wasn't on board with the idea at first, but it was a big hit. However, the designer now says that "It’s kind of a practical disaster" because the acetate is so easily marred (which I have found myself with the acetate cover on the book Cover).

The designer was Chip Kidd and he's another big name in book covers -- he works with Peter Mendelsund and he was interviewed in that movie I linked to in my Cover post. And he's done a ton of cool book covers. Seriously -- check that link. This guy is prolific -- he's a bookcover-designing superstar.

On a personal note, I have inadvertently read three novels in a row set in small, academic communities (this one, On Beauty, and Winger) and I am now feeling a might claustrophobic. Going to have to choose my next book with that in mind.

Holy cow! It's mid-May and I have just wrapped up my 5th book of the year! Can it be? Whoa. Well, don't worry -- I'll screw that up and fall behind somehow. Hahahaha.
Ha.
Ha.

love,
kelly