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.


Completed: Beloved



This year, as we looked at our *read-together* books, (PS. I still love that we're doing some books together! Good idea, past Jenny and Kelly!) we talked about choosing something we both wanted to re-read. Toni Morrison's Beloved has been on my list for a while. From our vague memories, we had both read this in college. I don't remember much about that first read, but I definitely remember reading it again in my mid-20s and it feeling like a completely new and different experience. I was actually kind of...scared?...of reading it again post-motherhood.

I'm going to sketch out a few of the big themes from our Skype discussions. Feel free to jump in and add!

Yep, Still Great. 
One question that's always on my mind when re-reading a book I loved is, "Will I still think it's as great as I did back then?" I don't think that there was any question for either of us that this book retained it's rather awesome power. You specifically noted her complete control of a dazzling number of literary styles. This book is powerful, disturbing, and an absolute tour de force. We were doing two things the entire time: reading it, and marveling at it.

Still So Relevant
Since it's 2016 and slavery ended 150 years ago, you'd think Americans would have better knowledge of the basic facts of slavery. Alas, as we discovered last week, lots of people were really upset to have it pointed out that slaves built the White House. Maybe more people ought to read this book, or other slave narratives. This led to an interesting conversation about when it should be taught in school. Lots of high school kids read it, but I can't even comprehend the scaffolding it would take to teach this book to teenagers and to do it well. HOWEVER, if they don't read it in high school, maybe they never will? The unrelenting horrors of slavery, both physical and emotional, are so terribly wrought in this book---and that's what makes it so vital.

[Kelly here: We also talked about how it could be a good book for high school students to read because of all of the different writing styles used. How she sometimes uses obscure language and sometimes it's so direct. Repeating phrases to emphasize certain themes, and the use of poetry within the prose. Buuuuut... it would have to be a pretty advanced class and definitely older students.]

The writing
There was so much here to parse: we were both impressed by the language, but also the many styles that she harnessed in the novel. We spent a lot of time talking about the scenes that were deliberately opaque -- both of us described scenes that we read and re-read. Those scenes made us work very hard to read the text carefully -- there is no "skimming" over the horrific events in this book.

However, at other times, the language was deliberate, almost plain. The scenes where Sethe kills her child are described in both ways -- the first time it's described, it's (mostly) from the point of view of "the four horsemen." It's opaque and abstruse and difficult to understand -- the horror of the scene is hidden from the reader, only dawning on us gradually as we piece together all the previous hints and clues. Here it is from schoolteacher's perspective... no details about what has actually happened, and far more focus on the "lost value" of what they had come to claim:

"Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim. The three (now four—because she'd had the one coming when she cut) pickaninnies they had hoped were alive and well enough to take back to Kentucky, take back and raise properly to do the work Sweet Home desperately needed, were not. Two were lying open-eyed in sawdust; a third pumped blood down the dress of the main one—the woman schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left. But now she'd gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who'd overbeat her and made her cut and run." [175]
But later, when Stamp Paid tries to describe it to Paul D (and fails, really, to deliver the news directly to him), Toni Morrison takes the reader aside and spells it all out for us, quite directly and explicitly:
"Stamp looked into Paul D's eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children." [186]
[Kelly here: We discussed these technique changes quite a bit. It felt like Morrison wanted us to work hard to parse scenes so that we're really immersed in them -- to really spend time with the action and get the full impact. But juuuuust in case we didn't get it... she's going to go ahead and make sure we really understood.]

Memory vs. Rememory
The difficulty of the text seems related to one of the major themes of the book: the role of memory or rememory, as Sethe calls it. They don't actually seem to be the same thing. In looking back over the notes from our conversation, it strikes me that the difference may be that "memory" is something that is active. We create and examine our own memories. But in Beloved, rememory is passive, it's something that crashes down upon a person, a flood or tide that takes over. Sethe doesn't want to remember what happened or what she did, and those rememories are just fragments that she doesn't really want to examine or claim. Rememory, then, is partial or incomplete. It's the terrible things we turn away from when they come to mind.

[Kelly here: I read something that said "re-memoring involves remembering memories," which I thought was an interesting take on it. Meaning that sometimes memories are forgotten and then they come back to us. Paul D locked his memories up in "that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut." [86] which, of course, eventually opens back up on him. And when Sethe talks about her rememories, she says that that memories (in this case, she is referring specifically to places) still live on, even after they are gone...
"I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not.  Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place -- the picture of it -- stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. [...]
Then Denver says: "If it's still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies."
And Sethe says: "Nothing ever does." [44]
And, of course, Beloved come back or... never died? Or perhaps her memory manifests herself because of Sethe's rememory of her? Oh, boy. I feel like I have just fallen into an rabbit hole or the movie Inception.  I'm not really giving this thought full justice. Just more "Whoa" moments.]

Magical Realism
We spent a lot of time talking what was "real" in this book. Obviously, the biggest question was about the young girl that arrives, the ghost of the girl that Sethe killed in the shed. Is she real? Can we know? Does it matter? Why has she taken the form she did? Why are her powers sometimes small but nevertheless terrifying? What happens to her? Is she really gone for good? I don't know that we came to much of a conclusion, but it was interesting to see how both of our points of view changed as we continued to read.

[Kelly here: This led to other talk of what is real and what is not. After we read the birth scene in the boat, I said, "Is Amy real?" We don't really know -- she seems unlikely (a random kooky white girl who happens to show up and help Sethe give birth?) but we only have Sethe's story to go by. This led you to observe that all escapes in the book really are metaphors because... what is the likelihood of any escape from slavery happening at all? (and even if you physically escape, you could never actually escape) Paul D and his entire chain-gang swimming under the mud, Sethe encountering Amy -- these are both fantastical stories. Because the idea that a slave could escape from slavery is fantastical, right?]

Community vs. Individual
The first two times I read this, I was overwhelmed by Sethe's past. This time around, I was so heartbroken for her present. Her loneliness and the way she had been cut off from the community were just wrenching. Denver paid that price, too. I found her isolation to be devastating. The book shows how we close ourselves off out of guilt and shame, which further isolates us from people who might help.

[Kelly here: When the community does finally help, part of it is their own guilt and shame that brings them to Sethe's aid. A woman named Ella leads the party because, "She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by 'the lowest yet." It lived five days never making a sound. The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working..." [305] Seems like she had a rememory of her own that brought her to help Sethe.]

This is not a story to pass on
You pointed out the many different ways to read this sentence. First, that it's impossible for a reader to skip or skim any parts of the book. One thing I tell my students about poetry vs. prose is that in a poem, every word matters. You can't *skip* anything. That's true of Beloved, too. Nothing can be passed over or skipped. Morrison wants us to fully engage and read every word.

Second, there's no way to read this book and forget Sethe and her courage, determination, or failures. Once you've read her story, it's with you.

But finally, a reminder that this is not the entire story of slavery. This is not *a* story -- there are many, many stories. We can't know the full extent and horrors of slavery. And yet, we have passed on and have been so afraid to look at the truth. This book forces us to examine the true cruelties of slavery and how its influence, like a ghost, haunts us all.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Jenny's Book 6.16: The Most Dangerous Book


A return of the preview post, albeit a brief one, and a summer update. Also, a bit of a panic moment for me, since it's August, and this is only my 6th book, I'm more than a little behind.

The Most Dangerous Book
I picked this up when it came out a year or so ago, you may remember my love of James Joyce from college. I keep thinking that I should actually reread  Ulysses now that I'm done with grad school. In the meantime, this is a pretty interesting story of how it was brought to publication and the ways in which is was suppressed for being pornographic. I'm about a third through it and hope to finish it soon and get myself back on track.

Categories were different than a typical bookstore!

What I've REALLY been reading this summer
Romance. Romance. Romance.

You know the story, of course, of how I discovered a bag of remaindered romance novels in my Grandma's basement when I was in middle school. I used to get bored at her house,...and look at this big bag of books. Lol. I would sneak them out of her house and smuggle them home. Good times. I still remember some of those plots. Ever since, I've had a steady and abiding love for the romance novel. To me, it's like reading a chick flick: beautiful people fall in love and live happily ever after. My romance reading almost perfectly correlates to my stress level. I am always reading *something*, but if there's a lot going on, it's likely to be the fun, breezy awesomeness of romance. This past year at work and finishing grad school was VERY STRESSFUL, and all of June and July I detoxed with romance. It was fabulous.

Best bathroom in a store..ever!
I've never kept track of my romance reading, mostly because I read them so fast, or I reread them, or I start something and never finish them (I only use my Chicago public library card to check out romance novels from Overdrive)...but I was just updating my book list, and it looks like I haven't read at all this summer! Trust me, I've read plenty---PLENTY OF KISSING, THAT IS. (Actually, lots more than kissing these days. They're *way* sexier than they used to be---which makes the whole idea of Ulysses being pornographic even more entertaining.)

That leads me to probably my favorite book thing I did this summer. When I was in LA for a conference, I took the time out to visit The Ripped Bodice, the only romance brick and mortar bookstore in the entire country! And, Kelly, it was the best thing ever. The space was welcoming and friendly, and it just felt like this magical *woman* place where no one would judge me for my romance-reading. I only wish it was in Chicago so I could go there more often. The store has two owners (they're cousins with a guy I did TFA with---he posted their kickstarter to FB, which is how I found out about it!), and when one of them checked me out, I asked how business was...she laughed and said, "it's great! If anyone's buying lots of books, it's romance readers." No kidding, all you have to do is take a look at my Kindle to see the truth in that statement.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Completed: Excellent Sheep


I never wrote up a preview post for Excellent Sheep, but I'll just give you a quick overview of how this came to be on my shelf. The HOW it ended up there is pretty easy: My friend Liz is a college counselor, and she and I talked about reading this book together a few years ago when it came out...but then things fell by the wayside and I never got around to it.

The WHY for this book is pretty obvious by just glancing at the subheading (which, come on, dude, get ahold of yourself!) says it all about why it would be of interest in my particular field: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. The question of whether or not kids are prepared for life and college is pretty relevant to my current line of work because of the school I'm at and the families we serve. Even then, the word "elite" makes me cringe, but this is definitely a  book that is marketing itself to a particular class of people. Whatever.

Basic premise of the book: Super rich parents are churning out kids who are automatons who only want achievements that are determined by their parents, and they are unable to think for themselves. They are afraid of failure and don't know how to take risks. They've been taught that achievement is the only thing that matters.

My thoughts on this book are pretty muddled, honestly. But that's probably because the book itself is pretty messy. My biggest complaint is that the author doesn't seem to have that much control over himself---he is constantly shifting the audience he's addressing. At times, he addresses young people directly, urging them to think for themselves and do what they want. But it's such a bizarre fiction. No *kid* is going to read this book! It's all finger wagging and smugness. I mean, how could any kid take seriously the "don't worry so much about where you go to college" from a guy who works at the Ivy League?!?! Then there are the times it seems his real audience are these controlling, wealthy parents---but even then, are they reading this book? They don't want to hear what they're doing is wrong. If a parent agreed with the premise of this book, they probably would have no reason to read it! And if a parent disagreed with the premise, they'd never bother with it. It's preachy! I honestly think the *real* audience for this book are for the faculty of exclusive colleges. It's sort of this back-slapping reassurance that parents and society are the real bad guys, instead of having the faculty and administrators of exclusive colleges look at all the ways they enable and benefit from the college admissions arms race.

Honestly, this book was sort of annoying. It's not that it's bad---it's just that it's all rehashed. The question of what we're raising our kids to do is a fascinating and important conversation, but this book didn't feel like it made all that many interesting or even new points. I could name other books that cover the same territory and seemed more urgent, revelatory, or interesting.

Meh. Not too into this one.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Completed: Five Children and It


We read this book forever ago, so sorry for the late (and maybe brief) recap of our conversations. I
like when we have our little video conferences about the books we read, but it does make it harder to do the write up. I just feel like saying, "Remember that thing we talked about? Yeah. Wine!" Lol.

As you know, even though this book was one I owned for decorating purposes, you suggested we read it. How could it be that this children's classic, which had been in print for 100 years, is something we'd never heard of?! In fact, when I went to check it out from the Chicago public library on was already checked out! People read this thing, and then we did, too.

I think we were both worried about a hundred year old children's book, but I must say, this is probably the most pleasantly charming cold read I've ever done. The plot is pretty simple: five children go exploring one day and come across a magical creature at the beach (the It), and he has the power to grant one wish every day. Every chapter is a different wish---wishes that of course go completely wrong from what the wishers intend. However, as the sun set every day, the effect of the wish disappears. Those poor kids never seem to learn their lesson and just keep going back for more wishes, though!

Here's some things we noticed...

Childhood and parenting
Lots of differences in the portrayal of childhood. This just isn't a time when four kids would be allowed to wander all day and take a baby with them. There was also some pretty interesting observations about city kids vs. country kids that have also totally changed. It's hard not to wonder at how we think differently about what kids are capable of now. There's far more intellectual freedom and knowledge that kids have access to, but their physical freedom is totally curtailed.

However, there were some observations about parenting that seemed pretty much the same today. For example, both of us highlighted the same passage when we were reading: "You know, grown-up people often say they do not like to punish you, and that they only do it for your own good, and that it hurts them as much as it hurts you -- and this is really very often the truth" (53). I'm both entirely sure that all parents think that's true, and just as sure that no kid would believe it.

Humor, language, and slang
I know I for one was wondering if I would find the language abstruse or difficult. For example, when thinking of some old "children's classics" like Robinson Caruso or Treasure Island, I just would not want to read those. I didn't even want to read them when I was a kid. But this book was not at all difficult to read. In fact, there was a very funny, albeit dry and British, kind of humor in the book. At one point, one of the kids threatens another with, "smell my fist!"

You also noticed that they used the word "snarky" in the text, which seemed ahistorical. How could such a *now* word have been used back then? I looked it up in the OED, Nesbit is the first person to have used the word in print. Nice catch! (Although you'll notice that they note the first usage in 1906's Railway Children instead of 1902's Five Children and It. Maybe we should send them a correction?!)

Part of the humor came from the narrative voice, which was sort of old-fashioned in that it directly spoke to the reader. Here's an example we both liked:
“But one thing you can’t imagine, and that is how soda-water behaved when you try to drink it straight out of the syphon -- especially a quite full one. But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown-up to give you the syphon. If you want to have a really thorough experience, put the tube in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard. You had better do it when you are alone - and out of doors is best for this experiment." (45)
It sort of made me think of what it would be like to describe the Diet Coke and Mentos trick to a future audience.

Plot v. CharactersSo this book really wasn't about the kids as characters, it was definitely about childhood as an adventure. In fact, it's clear that the real idea is that for each wish that goes wrong, the kids learn a moral lesson. As the chapters build and progress, the lessons become a little more sophisticated and complex.

But a few months later, I can't even remember much about the specific kids except for the baby, who all the kids call the Lamb. And the Lamb is most memorable for what happens in the chapter where they grow him up all at once---as it's a bleak look at a future adulthood where people are cold, brusque, and a little clueless. It's the children's world that is warm, empathetic, caring, and kind.

You made a great point that this one way children's books have really changed. Now, we expect that kids are going to want to latch on to the character in a powerfully empathetic way. We don't just *like* Harry, Ron, or Hermione---we want *to be* them!

Big cultural differences and time changes.
I was cooking with gas, sort of loving this whole thing, until the chapter about the Indians. From a modern perspective, it was absolutely cringeworthy. I guess we should have seen it coming with the references to gypsies...but it was jarring.

However, on the plus side, there did seem to be some attempt at gender equity. You noticed that phrases like "don't be a girl" and "be a man" were more about disdain for adult ways than true gender statements. But in other ways, it was obviously unable to escape its own time period.

One thing we both noticed, too, were the references that were dated because of history that hadn't happened yet. In the chapter about flying and flying machines---the Wright brothers hadn't flown yet! That would have been purely speculative and a total flight of fancy (pardon the pun). At one point, there was a joke about "germs" instead of "Germans," and I had to remind myself that the Germans weren't everybody's permanent bad guys. It was totally an okay thing to joke about.

As an overview, we both found this book charming and delightful. I sort of wished Darius was younger so I could have read it to him, but I would have had to skip that whole Indian chapter.

And I believe you said it best when you said, "The book really captured that sense of every day of childhood being an adventure--that when you're out playing with other kids, anything could happen." I think we both enjoyed this book and reading it together.

Sorry for the super delayed post!