Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Completed: On Being Brown: What it Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan

Dear Jenny,

I loved, loved, loved this book. Despite the horrendous finish to the season that my beloved Cleveland Browns have just had, I am a die-hard fan and I thought this book was terrific.

My parents actually gave it to Bill about... 8 or 9 years ago, I think. He read it then and passed it on to me and it's been sitting on my TBR shelf ever since. I read it before the season started, so I still had a lot of hope in my heart upon finishing it. It's probably best read as an off-season book... you know... several months after the pain of the recent season has worn off.

I'll get this out of the way up front: I find the title a little awkward... although the subtitle clears up the initial confusion, when I see "On Being Brown," I think, "This book title does not mean what you think it means..." Heh.

Other than that, it's great. There are a series of reminiscences by the author himself on growing up as a Browns fan in the 70s and 80s:
A Browns game. When I was 12, a Browns game lived somewhere in my spirit between a presidential inauguration and New Year's Eve -- it was the first true event I can ever remember, trumping weddings and bar mitzvahs, holidays and anniversaries in importance in my mind. I remember gatherings of men outside the catering halls, smoking cigarettes, heads bent over transistor radios, during autumn weddings held, recklessly, on Sunday afternoons. That was a clue to what was important.
The Browns were important. They may or may not have been important to the outside world, but they were important to us. [13]
And those personal essays are interspersed with interviews with Browns legends like Lou Groza, Jim Brown, Ozzie Newsome, Otto Graham and, of course, Bernie Kosar (My favorite.) (19 should be retired!) and reviews of some great (and not-so-great) Browns moments throughout the years like the 1964 championship game, Red Right 8, and, of course, the troubles with Denver (oof).

This book was published in 1999, on the brink of the team returning to Cleveland after that no-good son-of-a-bitch moved them to Baltimore. I actually teared up several times while reading it, vividly remembering the hope and excitement of that time. I loved reading players' memories of being Browns and their emotional comments also choked me up. Seeing my waterworks, Bill said, "Hrm... I don't remember crying while reading that book..." (He is also a Browns fan, but, of course, not nearly as emotional about it... it's Bill. You know.) So I'm not sure that everyone would have such a strong emotional reaction but... I sure did.

I also had a lot of "Hell yeah!" moments... the chapter covering Browns Backers organizations (of which I am a proud member); the author's Dad's unofficial code of behavior while attending games (including: "#2: Inclement weather is part of the deal -- it's part of the fun. Rooting for the Browns when it's 10 degrees and snowing is harder than rooting for the Browns in front of your television; anyone could do that.  That's what makes this fun. That's why we're here." [30]); and, in general, all of the talk about the spirit of Browns fans, who love this team despite its never having been to a Super Bowl (only one of four NFL teams, if you were curious) and the repetitive crushing of our hopes year after year.

I could keep on gushing, but I won't. It was great. I would recommend this book to any Browns fan (or anyone who is interested in figuring out what it means to be a Browns fan.) But, again... they might want to wait until the summer to read it.

love,
kelly

Completed: The Size of Thoughts

Dear Jenny,

As I write this, it is December 30. I have two days left this year to finish my final book (Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible) and write up three other books from earlier this year (I guess you could say I am "Under the Gunn" Har har.) I was already under pressure, but my unexpected delay this week has definitely moved my situation from "tight" to "darned near impossible." But... I will try!

So! The Size of Thoughts is a collection of essays by Nicholson Baker. As you know, I am a big fan of his, The Mezzanine being one of my all-time favorite books (which you, of course, introduced me to) and I wrote about Double Fold on this very blog back in 2012.

The photo at the right is actually not the same copy I have, but the picture better illustrates how I felt about this book as I tried to read it quickly at the end of the year... not so fast with the Nicholson Baker reading.

It's a collection of essays very much in the true Baker explore-a-topic-ad-infinitum-with-extreme-verve-and verbosity style. Which I do enjoy, but some of these fell flat, I must admit. A lot of them felt like there wasn't really enough of the idea to fill a whole book, so here, let's just put these scratch pages into a collection together (in fact, one "essay" was actual discards from a novel he had written!) and really, for this style of writing to work (for me), it needs to be tightly, tightly edited, which much of this was not (or, at least, did not feel as though it was).

However, there were some good things in here and I am now going to randomly spew them at you... sorry about this, but I just gotta get it done.

Changing one's mind: In one essay, he explores the concept of changing our minds, he brings up two very interesting points:  One, that our minds often change through natural time progression and many times we don't even notice it (even when we feel strongly about something or are, shall we say, opinionated -- ahem. Not that this applies to either one of us at all. Heh.) Since reading that essay, I have thought a lot about this -- being mindful of mind-changing. Not that I am trying not to do it -- I think changing one's mind can be a very good thing -- more that I am trying to be less strident when stating my opinions. Who knows? My mind might very well change about that thing, even if I am passionate about it today.

And another way the mind changes is by comparison -- he gives a great, well-written example that basically boils down to the difference between the thinking, "Gosh, I'm old!" (say, for instance, when listening to an 11-year-old talk about music) vs. "Hey, I'm young!" (when, say, considering the impact of the flu on a 93-year-old) So we often "change our our minds," based on the situation at hand (he explained this far more eloquently, but I think you get the idea.)

Reading tip: In a surprisingly engrossing essay about the history of nail clippers (yes, nail clippers), he dropped a little nugget in a way that assumes that every reader is already doing this, but I did not and now do -- did you know you can mark passages in pBooks by dragging your fingernail on the page? Like a little underline etching? It works amazingly well. As you know, I use tabs on the sides of my pages to mark interesting passages, but this fingernail thing is a great way for me to mark what I am interested in on that page if/when I do not have a pencil! (Obviously, I cannot make notes, but underlining is helpful!) And the fingernail marking is less intrusive -- although I know you're having your own annotation odyssey right now...  this is a great technique when you really just can't write in the book.

Stephen King: Did you know that he and Stephen King apparently have a bit of a rift going? King once called Baker's book Vox a "meaningless little finger paring." Baker doesn't say anything directly negative about King, but the way he dissects this phrasing makes it pretty clear that he is not thrilled with the comment. So it might not be a "rift," but it kind of feels like one. Funny! (Authors are people too!)

Awesome writing: I'm not going to get too much into the context of this, but Baker was doing a book reading and he examines his feelings about that activity. I thought this line was so great:
"These formerly silent words unfolded themselves like lawn chairs in my mouth and emerged one by one wearing large Siberian hats of consonants and long erminous vowels and landed softly, without visible damage, here and there in the audience, and I thought Gosh, I'm reading aloud, from Chapter Seven! [63]
"Unfolded themselves like lawn chairs in my mouth" is just about the best possible example of why I love this man's writing.

Recipe! He writes an extremely detailed description of how to make a chocolate sauce that hardens over ice cream. The big finish is that you store it in the pan in the fridge, with the original spoon in the pan. So that "when you put it back on the heat source, you'll be able to brandish the whole solidified disk of chocolate merely by lifting the spoon. It looks like a metal detector." [120] HAHAHA! (Side note: The sauce sounds terrific. I need to make it sometime.)

Suzanne Vega: This is not at all a critical point in this book, but he talks about CD-ROM of poetry (ha! Remember those?) he is about to listen to and he refers to "removing the Suzanne Vega CD" that was in his CD drive. You know she's my favorite, so I absolutely loved that -- Nicholson Baker also likes Suzanne Vega! (And that was written in 1994, so long after the Luka hype!)

In conclusion: I will conclude this post with Baker's final line of the book: "All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close." [355]

Indeed.

love,
kelly

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Completed: All the Names

Kelly,


Well, looks like the combination of Option 2 and a plane ride were a good choice. I have to admit, the very idea of somehow downing 500 pages of Postwar in the last week of the year seemed impossible.

So, this probably has been on my TBR shelf for over ten years! As you know, I was a huge fan of Blindness, and I'm sure I bought this book when it came out---which according to the copyright date, was 1999! As you also know, Jose Saramago is of the "wall-o-text" writing style, but honestly, it's so over the top wacky, that the lack of quotation marks doesn't even bother me. There's no paragraph breaks for dialogue, there's sentences that run for paragraphs, and paragraphs that run for pages.

Another funny aside before I get started. I don't usually annotate in books that I am reading for pleasure. This is tricky, because there's a big push to have kids annotate in school books, and I'm actually pretty ambivalent about it. I think annotating is a highly useful skill, and yet it's one that's difficult to master. Kids either hate it or love it, but the ones who love it just write all over every page and then their annotations aren't helpful. I'm honestly wary of it for middle schoolers, but it's hard to buck the party line, so I do lots of "guided annotations" where I ask kids to look only for very specific things. However, just last week, I read this article by Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books blog. In quite enjoy his writing about how to read, and this came to mind when I sat down to tackle All the Names. 

As I started to read the wall-o-text, I could tell I wasn't paying attention. And Saramago novels are driven more by flights of fancy than they are plot, so I decided to read with a pen in my hand. Kelly! It made a huge difference for me. I was far more attentive to the text, to the sentences and ideas I liked, to noting the strange behavior of the main character, etc. I especially liked Parks' suggestion to "always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive." I mean, why not? For example, at one point the narrator thinks of someone as a "nincompoop" and it's clearly a strange translation error. What a bizarre word! And yet, I woulnd't have paid much attention to it had I not been reading with a pen in my hand. 

As for the story, it's about a town with a Central Registry, in which the births, divorces, and deaths of all the townspeople are recorded. The Registry is staffed by an actual pyramid of desks: 8 clerks in the front row, followed by 4 senior clerks, then 2 deputy Registrars, with The Register, an all-knowing, God-like figure in charge of it all. The main character is one of the lowly clerks, a 50 year old man named Senhor Jose. Jose lives in a house adjacent to the Central Registry and he has a sad and lonely hobby, that of collecting information about the most famous people in the town. One day, while surreptetiously collecting the registry cards of five famous people, Jose accidentally pulls the card of a regular, unknown woman. Jose becomes obsessed with knowing this woman, determined to know more than just her birth and divorce information, and sets out on a strange quest to discover the story of her life. 

Overall, I liked this book. I certainly liked the feeling of being done with the 2014 list, but I also found myself really enjoying the "work" of annotating this book. Not only underlining words and phrases, but also having little arguments with the author in the pages. Rather than saying a whole lot more about the plot, I thought I'd share some of the sentences I annotationed (in bold) and then what I wrote in the margins (in brackets, you know, the square ones. Ha!).

...He went into the stationer's and bought a thick notebook with lined pages, like the ones students use to make notes on their school subjects, believing that they are actually learning them as they do so (41). [Ouch!]

Here's a two parter. Jose has just broken into a school in order to find the school records of the unknown woman. This is the last sentence at the end of the chapter. 
Then, straightening up, he reached in, fumbled for and found the window catch, dear God, the risks burglars take, opened it wide and, grasping the windowsill, his feet frantically scrabbling for non-existent footholds, he managed to lift himself up, raise one leg, then the other, and finally drop through to the other side, as lightly as a leaf falling from a tree (73). [Bullshit! No one drops as lightly as a leaf from a tree!]

So, this is the sentence at the beginning of the next chapter, at the top of a turned page.
Respect for the facts, and simple moral obligation not to offend the credulity of anyone prepared to accept as plausible and coherent the difficulties of such an extraordinary exploit, demand immediate clarification of that last statement: Senhor Jose did not drop as lightly from the windowsill asa  leaf falling from a bough. On the contrary, he fell very heavily, the way an entire tree would fall, when he could perectly easily have lowered himself gradually down from his temporary seat until his feet touched the ground (74). [Ha!]

In other circumstances, it might have occured to Senhor Jose that, just as he had enriched his collection of clippings with copies of the relevant birth certificates, it would also be interesting to add documents regarding attendance and success at school. However, that would never be anything but an impossible dream. It was one thing having the birth certificate in hand in the Central Registry, quite another having to wander the city breaking into schools to find out if so-and-so got an eight or a fifteen in math in the fourth year...And if, in order to get into each of these schools, he had to suffer as much as he had suffered breaking into this one, then it would be better to remain in the peace and quiet of his home, resigned to knowing of the world only what the hands can grasp without actually leaving the house, words, images, illusions (86). [Before Big Data and the Internet! Now it's all possible!] As an aside, there were lots and lots of passages like this that sort of predicted the crazy things that would be possible one day. 

Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things (228). [I agree but others don't. Is this a statement about the meaning of literature?] 

And with that, Kelly, I put a lid on the 2014 list. Honestly, I never thought I would get it done. 
Jenny

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Postwar Situation

Kelly,

Got home and checked out Postwar. I have 500 pages to read before the end of the year.

Option 1: Get the hell off the internet and actually *start* reading some more of the damn thing, to the tune of 50-75 pages per night.

Option 2: Put it on my 2015 list and read the 264 total pages of the last book on my list, All the Names.

Option 3: Continue to stall and read As You Wish instead!

Grrr...argh! Decisions. I'm going to be honest with you that Option 2 is looking pretty darn good right now.

Jenny

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Finished: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Dear Kelly,

As previously discussed, we both enjoyed Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. However, this one was not my favorite. I really hope The Bone Clocks does not make it into the 2015 TOB, because I might be all David Mitchell-ed out for a while.

It's interesting to think about the two books in context, because Darrell and I have a long-running conversation about artists (me authors, him filmmakers) who are working with the same theme. This conversation started when we saw Boyhood this summer, and we spent a lot of time talking about Richard Linklater's exploration of how people change over time.

Given my experience with these two books, it seems obvious that David Mitchell is also interested in the profound impact of time. However, unlike Cloud Atlas, which leapfrogs hundreds and thousands of years into a bleak future, Jacob de Zoet goes back to 1799. The setting is Japan, specifically the city of Nagasaki, which was the only Japanese port that was open to Europeans for trading. Even more specifically, the Dutch are the only European trading partners, and they are restricted to an island in the Nagasaki harbor called Dejima.

The novel itself centers on Jacob de Zoet, who is newly arrived in Nagasaki with the Dutch East India Company, hoping to make his fortune and return to Holland to marry. However, after his arrival, he meets and falls in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito.

If I were to categorize my problem with this book, I guess I'd say this: the author clearly spent a lot of time doing fascinating research on the Dutch trade in Nagasaki, Japanese culture and language, medical practices of the late 1700s, etc. However, the book lacked interesting, compelling characters and conflicts to make all that research come alive.

The book has 5 parts, only one of which I would say I truly enjoyed. Part 1 (175 pages long), introduces Jacob and the ins and outs of the Dutch-Japanese relationship. The trade part was super boring and not that interesting to me. Jacob's infatuation with Orito isn't very believable. It's just not all that well-developed, and therefore it just all felt a little confusing. There were lots of characters with complicated Dutch and Japanese names acting out small, political motives that only become clear later, if at all. It was tiresome. I almost gave up.

Part Two was the only part of the novel that I truly enjoyed, about 150 pages. In this section, Orito's father has died, and to pay for his debts she has been "sold" to a monastery to be a nun. However, this is like no monastery you have ever heard of. The nuns are "engifted" by the monks as determined by the word of a goddess. The nuns then think the babies are taken down the mountain to the local villages. Orito starts to understand that she has not been brought to the monastery to be "engifted" herself, but rather for her skills as a midwife. Honestly, this whole part of the book is just awesome. I was trying to figure out the horrifying mystery of the monastery along with Orito, and cheering her on as she plots her escape. Also in this section, her former suitor comes across a scroll detailing the secrets of the monastery and he plots to rescue her. It strikes me as entirely plausible that I liked this section the best because it was purely fiction. I seriously doubt there were monasteries where the monks were killing babies and drinking their blood to achieve immortality. Because it was cut loose from most of the burden of all that research, it was far more enjoyable for me. Unfortunately, this section comes to an end too quickly.  

By the way, my favorite sentence in the book appears in this section. At some point, Mitchell must have found such interesting research on surgical practices that he felt he must include it in the novel. He includes a scene where a man's kidney stone is to be removed---without anesthesia or painkillers! The doctor is training another and describing how the surgery will be performed in front of the patient. Here's the sentence that's given right before the surgery, "The rectum of Wybo Gerriszoon releases a hot fart of horror." Hahah. I laughed out loud.

Part Three (130 pages) tells of a British ship trying to horn in on the Dutch port and Jacob's attempts to salvage Dutch control of Dejima. This section is probably the one where Jacob seems the most fully formed as a character, remembering his earlier failings and trying to stand up for what is right.

In Part Four (10 pages), Jacob has been in Japan for over ten years and is now a father. He meets Orito one last time and tells her how he hoped to save her, but regrets that he didn't. This is, presumably, the section that is meant to tie up the interesting Orito plot that was left hanging 200 pages earlier. It's not at all satisfying, but then again, I guess life isn't. Sometimes you just don't see someone again for ten years. Also, Jacob has this moment where he thinks about his son, "How quickly you grow...why wasn't I warned?" But ultimately, this statement even though heartbreaking in some ways personally (his son, like mine, is 11), doesn't carry any real emotional weight. The boy's been in existence on for 4 pages, we never saw him being born, growing up, or losing a mother. We don't know anything about Jacob's life for these past years, and so his sadness about the passing of time ultimately feel empty.

Part Five is only about 6 pages, and details Jacob's return to Europe after 20 years in Japan and his death of old age.

I don't know. This was a bit of a clunker for me. I guess with historical fiction, if you veer too far from "fiction" you might lose me. I'll take my history straight, but something about history with a thin veneer of plot just isn't very satisfying.

One more to go!
Jenny




Thursday, December 18, 2014

Completed: The Sisters Brothers

Dear Jenny,

I know you have read this book (winner of the 2012 Tournament of Books!) so I feel the freedom of not having to give you too many details. Heh.

First I must say that this book cover design is one of my favorites of all time. Seriously brilliant -- I might have to frame this dust cover and hang it up. It's just terrific.

Okay... now. Onto the book. In a nutshell, I loved it. Can I just stop there? Heh. All right -- I'll say a bit more... but just some random thoughts. This is an incomplete list, but the orange "Publish" button is calling my name...

Random thought #1: Eli's intelligence
Because I was feeling "under the gun" (that's a pun. Har har.) I did a aBook/pBook combo on this one -- reading the pBook when I had time to sit and read and listening to the aBook when I was on the move. And I must say that this sort of affected my reading. Because... the narrator of the aBook probably sounded more intelligent than I think the author intended Eli to be.

I had some notes to talk more here about Eli's "intelligence," but I can't remember what I was going to say. Basically, he is supposed to be dumb, but his language and the thoughts that he has are... not at all dumb. Mostly, I found this to be charming, but every once in awhile, I did think, "Waaaait a minute...." But if he came off as dumb as he is supposed to be, the book probably would have sucked.

Random thought #2: Violence
I was a bit reluctant to read this book because I understood it to be violent and rough, but actually... it wasn't so bad for me. Which makes me feel like, "What kind of psycho am I that I wasn't bothered by that horse's eye getting removed with at spoon?!" I mean, sure, I was bothered by it. But it wasn't intolerable. Perhaps it was one of those situations where I had heard how terrible everything was, I was braced for it and it ended up being not so bad.

I'm curious about your reaction, because you had certainly heard far less about it: Was the violence horrific for you?

Random thought #3: Story telling
The writing was pretty fantastic. One notable example is the graceful way we find out exactly what "Sisters Brothers" means. We get early on that they have been hired to kill someone, but we do not know that these are notorious and feared killers.

The first time the reader gets an inkling, Eli says something like: And so I told him my full name and let it sink in. And then again awhile later, with the direct reference to the "Sisters Brothers" and seeing the panic on the person's face. It's just really artfully done. (I am not reporting it artfully at all here, but I'm sure you know what I mean. Bear with me -- gotta get this done!)

Random thought #4: Words!
I love the name "Hermann Kermit Warm." That is all.

Random thought #5: New cover? Nooooooo!
I just looked this book up and saw this seriously craptacular book cover  that apparently went with the paperback. What?! First of all, why mess with one of the best cover designs ever? And secondly... Eli is supposed to be overweight. Who is overweight in this weird picture? UGH. Publishers!

And... that's it. I thought this book was fantastic. I burned through it and did not want it to end. I will be recommending it to many, many people. (I've already passed it on to two others!)

love,
kelly
 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Completed: Arc of Justice

Dear Jenny,

Okay. Time to churn these puppies out -- I've only got 14 days left!  I don't know why I have gotten so bogged down this year talking about my books -- I just feel like I have so much to tell you. This is my most recently finished book. I actually wrote a preview for it in October. Gonna burn through it here.

This book tells the true story of a black doctor (Ossian Sweet) and his family who moved to a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925. Predictably, the neighbors were not happy and mobbed the house. Once the mob started throwing stones, the family and friends inside the house fired some shots into the crowd, killing someone on the street.

So, of course, everyone in the house was arrested and detained in jail for many months (that's a total of 11 people. For, you know, one shot.) In the end, everyone was (miraculously) acquitted. Take note: That was a short sentence I just wrote there, but the jail time and the prolonged trial did not pass nearly that quickly.

While much of this book made me feel like "nothing has changed in this world!" the fact that the innocent black people were found innocent (whoa!) actually made me think, "Aw, crap... we're actually going backwards." Sigh.

It's a good story well told, but the exhaustively reported research was sometimes a bit too much. Beyond the key story (in which eight full pages were devoted to jury selection), the author went into great detail describing the historic background of the main characters, their extended families, and, delving even deeper, the history of race relations in our country for a couple of hundred pages. It's valid reporting, but not key to the story and I did find myself slogging through it.

Of course, I will admit some reader bias there... the ground covered was not new to me. But... I have to think that anyone who would pick this book up in the first place would know at least a bit about the history of race relations in our country. If not, I guess it's a good thing to have this in-depth primer.

Okay. Now I'm just going to fire off some random comments/observations about this book and be done with it. Cause... I have 6 more to do in the next two weeks.

1. The hospital where Dr. Sweet worked was in the news earlier this year because it went up for auction with a starting bid of $3,800. I actually said to Bill at the time, "Let's buy this!" cause it's amazing. It sold for $198k, but has since been recovered by the Detroit Medical Society.

2. The Sweets' house is still standing in Detroit (no mean feat in a city where 40,000 buildings were recommended to be torn down earlier this year). It's a historical site, so it will probably remain for awhile, but it's still a private residence and, of course, not in a great neighborhood. The house itself looks to be in decent condition (check it out here) but... I did a little Google Wandering and found this one directly across the street. Traveling down that street via Google finds more and more blight. Oh, Detroit.

3. In an effort to speed my "reading" along, I also listened to the aBook. It was well narrated except that the narrator kept pronouncing the NAACP as "N-A-A-C-P" (vs. "N-double-A-C-P") and that was distracting. It's a minor nit, but it comes up a lot in this book and just sounded so odd. Other than that, her reading was spot on and engrossing, which was helpful when I got distracted during the really deep delving into history.

Aaand... done. I am doing this book a disservice, because this story is an important one ("The most famous civil rights trial you never heard of," according to the New York Times) and this book tells it well, but... I gotta get sh*t done around here. I do think that this book will stick with me, though... I finished it a few weeks ago and still find myself thinking about it.

How's your list going?

love,
kelly


Sunday, December 7, 2014

I'm not actually sure I can pull this off, Kelly.

Kelly,

It's December 7th. I just want you to know that this may be the year I don't make it across the finish line. I am hopeful for a last minute sprint across the finish line once Winter Break starts...but...it seems so daunting. I am finding The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet sort of boring, and I still have at least three or four hundred pages left in Postwar.

Eek.

How about you?

J



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Completed: Please Look After Mom

Kelly,

I'm not sure I wrote a preview post about this one. I bought this book a few years ago when it won the Man Asian Prize for fiction. As you may remember, I try to read the big prize winners ever year---which has come in handy for my Tournament of Books reading! However, there are lots of less mainstream reading awards out there. You may also remember that I feel a little stuck in the "American authors" rut, so I'm pretty sure I picked this up at a time where I was looking to expand my reading horizons. I'm glad I did---this was an enjoyable, interesting, and quick read.

Please Look After Mom is set in modern day South Korea, and was translation from Korean. It won the Man Asain Literary Prize in 2011. This is the author's first time being published in English. The story is about a sixty-nine year old woman who goes missing from the Seoul train station one day. She's with her husband, but he's walking too fast and gets on the train without realizing she's not with him. The story has four major sections, with each section being told through the lens of one of her family members---her daughter, son, husband, and finally herself. Here's the weird part, though, the narration is told mostly in second person. It's a strange hybrid that doesn't seem like it would work, but somehow it does. You get to experience Mom through each character, experiencing their worries, fears, hopes, and memories.

I'll admit, this one kind of snuck up on me. Even though it's about an older mother with adult children, it still hit home. There's a lot of poignant and pointed observations about motherhood. At one point, the daughter asks Mom if she enjoyed cooking. "Mom held your eyes for a moment, 'I don't like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not.' Mom's expression asked, What kind of question is that? And then she murmured, 'If you only do what you like, who's going to do what you don't like?'" The novel makes clear that Mom is a woman who always fulfilled her duty to her family, even if they didn't always reciprocate. This pull between duty and freedom is experienced by each character, but only after Mom goes missing do we realize the extent to which Mom herself was torn.

Each character reveals some different part of Mom's life, her secrets, and her fears. The daughter is a famous author, but Mom is illiterate and cannot read her own daughter's books. Her son reveals the lengths to which Mom went to make sure all of her children were educated, which only makes sense when her husband reveals how his younger brother desperately wanted to go to school and they couldn't send him. Mom loved the boy, and when he dies tragically, she blames herself for never going to school. Mom reveals her long-standing friendship (affair?) with a young man in her village. The book unravels all of the small secrets of an ordinary life. There's something delicate and lovely about the careful unpacking of Mom's life.

I enjoyed reading about Korean culture and family life. The book's ending was lovely and sad. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I'd definitely recommend it. It's a short but lovely exploration of motherhood, family, and identity.

Jenny

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Completed: The Poisonwood Bible

Dear Jenny,

I feel like I am the last person on the planet to read this book. It was extremely popular when it first came out (1998) and I feel like I have heard every reader I know talking about it. Now I know why -- cause it was really good.

Took me a little while to get into it, but once I did, it was definitely one of those "I cannot wait to get back to reading this!" books. I won't bore you with a plot summary -- I know you (and everyone else) have already read it. The story was engrossing and what impressed me the most was that it was told with 5 different voices and each one of them was *so* distinct... I could literally open the book at any place and know exactly who was "speaking." That's impressive.

I didn't really know much about the Belgian Congo/Zaire/Republic of Congo, etc. when I picked this book up and, since reading it, I have spent some time learning. Like much of world history, it is interesting but heart-wrenching (perhaps that is why I can't get into history -- I'm too soft. I can't handle the truth!) and this book did a good job of following a difficult time in the history of that place with a personal heart-wrenching tale. The domestic issues of this dysfunctional family played well against the larger national issues going on around them.

I was so happy when the mother finally just bailed on the crazy preacher father, although I was sad that it took the death of their youngest to be the catalyst -- I guess she finally found out what the "last straw" was for her. I really enjoyed all of the different "lenses" of the book -- the shallow oldest sister truly did come across as being totally shallow and dumb from her own perspective (even misusing and misspelling words) and to view her from her sisters' point of views only confirmed that.

For me, the only real misstep in this book was... the end. Which is a rather common issue, right? I wonder what percentage of books really do stick the landing for me. Perhaps I should start making a notation next to books -- StL or not? This one did not.

I was not terribly thrilled with going all the way through with their "future selves" (the injured twin becomes a doctor and manages to heal her life-long physical ailments, the other twin stays in Africa and manages to reunite with her husband after a long jail sentence, the shallow oldest sister runs a hotel in Africa for rich white men and manages to succeed at that endeavor, the mother finds peace growing flowers...) but the nail in the coffin was the "observations" from the dead youngest sister of their lives and her afterlife. After such pitch-perfect narration throughout, this tacked-on ending was a little bit disappointing to me.

However! It's been over a month since I finished this book and I barely remembered that problem with it -- if I hadn't marked the pages to write about on this very blog, I probably would have blocked them out already and been left with the general feeling of: "I enjoyed this book."

And there! Another post done! (Still not sure why I have struggled so much in 2014 to write these posts, but oof... I have many more before I am done.)

love,
kelly

PS -- Back on the acacia tree sunset treatment observation -- click that link and notice the last book.  Is that.... The Poisonwood Bible? Indeed it is!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kelly's Book 9.14: Arc of Justice

Dear Jenny,

Yes, yes -- I still have 4 other posts to write. But I also have 4 more books to read, so let me write a preview post on one of those: Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle. I am about 40 pages into this book and just wanted to jot down some thoughts before I go any further.

First of all... I thought this book was fiction. Really paying a lot of attention to these books, eh? Sheesh.

My mother-in-law gave it to me a few years ago when it was the "Great Michigan Read" for 2012 (kind of a neat idea -- the whole state is essentially in a giant year-long "book group" together where everyone reads a single book written by a Michigan author). I've never participated in the "Great Michigan Read" but for some reason, I thought all of the books were fiction. They're not. This book is not. Nope. It's a true story.

We've talked before about how I don't read much non-fiction, so I am laughing at myself that I chose a book I thought was fiction but it's not. (Also! I have just realized the 4 of the books I have read this year are non-fiction! How did that happen?! Maybe that is why I am struggling to write about them? Hrmm.)

Didn't take me long to realize this was non-fiction -- the endnotes were a dead giveaway. (Ha) Aaaand they're also kind of annoying -- I always feel compelled to stop my reading and go straight to the endnotes. But in this case, they are literally *all* just sources, so I have done a good job of skimming straight over them. Go, me!

The subtitle (long subtitle -- another giveaway that this book would be non-fiction, right? Duh.) is " A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age."

It's a story about a black doctor who moves to an all-white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, and then all hell breaks loose. I've actually already read that part, and it was difficult. Pretty much exactly what you would expect to happen, happens: Day after he and his family move in, a mob of white neighbors gather outside his house. As tensions mount, someone throws a rock through the window and one of his friends fires a shot into the crowd, killing one white person and injuring another. He and everyone in his house are immediately arrested and taken away. It's a bad scene. (And made me think "1925 or... 2014?" Which is just f*cking depressing.)

Once I realized this was non-fiction, I recalled that I actually do know some of this story. The man's name is Ossian Sweet. As I recall, against all odds, he was acquitted. I'm curious now how that all goes down because, honestly, it seems like an unlikely outcome.

As a side note, this book also won the National Book Award in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Sooo... has everyone and their brother heard of this book while I'm all, "Oh, my MIL recommended this book to me so I guess I'll read it. (La-la-la...)?" Probably. And now the Internet knows. Heh.

love,
kelly

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jenny's Status Report

Kelly,

I like this status report thing. Keeping me honest. Hah!

Well. My plan to "listen" to Postwar is a total and utter failure. I basically feel like I have been listening to that sucker *forever*, and then today went to check my progress in the actual book to find out that I am only about a quarter of the way through it. Argh!

I think there are a few problems. One is that the material is just too dense for an audiobook. I'm having trouble keeping track of all the facts and figures, etc. Also, I don't love the narrator and find it sort of hard to listen to for long stretches.  I am sort of annoyed by how I notice the change in audio...I don't know how to describe this because I don't have a great vocabulary for it. But, I can tell when the recording switches, as if he's reading on a new day? There's not smooth transitions and sometimes it's a little louder or softer or his pacing seems different. There are obviously lots of foreign names and places, and I can tell that he went back later and rerecorded just the names. It's super distracting. I think I have to abandon the audiobook plan. I'm honestly not sure where that leaves me. Maybe I'll just try to knock out a few chapters every week with the goal of finishing it by the end of the year.

I also abandoned one of my books this year, Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Presuming I can finish Postwar, that means I have to choose 2 out of the remaining: Please Look After Mom, All the Names, or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I'm thinking it's going to be All the Names that's left on the road, but we'll see. 

I'm at that point in October when I really want to wrap it up and thinking about next year's list---so excited we're making plans for that! 


Maybe I just need to read a little more Postwar today to feel that sense of forward progress. 
Jenny




Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014: Kelly's Status Report (October)

Dear Jenny,

2014 hasn't gone quite as smoothly for me as our first few years of doing this and I'm not sure why.  I've been reading, but I've been getting bogged down posting. My last status report was in June. I have since read all five of those books, but only posted about 3 of them. So let's see how it's going...

 

Books that are DONE! (Woo-hoo!): 4

You already know about these, but hey -- I gotta pat myself on the back for getting something done around here!

Completed books, awaiting blog posts: 4

I have finished all of these, but still need to write about them:
  • Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binellimk
  • Digressions on Some Poems By Frank O'Hara by y Joe LeSueur
  • On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan by Scott Huler
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
If I write one of these per week, I can be done by the end of October -- that seems doable, right? Sure.

 

Books in Progress: 2

I am reading two books at one time right now (the Baker is essays, so I spread them out) and they are:
  • Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle
  • The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker 

 

Have not even started: 2

I'm not 100% sure what these will be yet, but I think I finally have to give up on Don't Know Much About History. After February, I did not stick to my "chapter-per-month" plan and since I've been on a crusade to "abandon books with abandon" this year (I have abandoned 9 books!), I think that's got to go.

After that, the longest page count is Stones from the River, so I'll just give it the boot right now. That leaves:
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  • Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet by Tim Gunn
(Unless I cannot get through one of those and then I will bring back Stones.)

I have, once again, done a year-end page count and I have to read a little over 15 pages per day to make it, which is totally doable (there are 90 days left in the year today, FYI). The key is the writing! Aaaaand yes, I do realize I have just spent 30 minutes writing this "status" post... aaaaand I could have been writing a book post instead. Whatever.

How's it going over there? You're already planning 2015, aren't you? ;)

love,
kelly

Monday, September 29, 2014

Completed: Cry, the Beloved Country

Dear Jenny,

As I mentioned in my status post (that I wrote back in JUNE!), I knew pretty much from the start that this book would be a downer, and I was correct. It is set in South Africa the year before apartheid came into being, so you know things are going to be f*cked from the start. Add to that a pretty depressing personal tale and... whee.

Ok! I deleted a few paragraphs here where I tried to tell the story right after I read this book and just got bogged down. It's convoluted and tragic -- some of the same sorts of "Weird-coincidence-results-in-crazy-tragedy" business that I also saw in Hunchback. (Aaaand... this may be the first time in history that someone has drawn a connection between Cry, the Beloved Country and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame...)

When I was in college, I was in a show called the South Africa Project and we did a lot of reading about apartheid, so I have some knowledge of it, but this book was set in the years leading up to it, which is an interesting (and kind of nerve-wracking) perspective -- it definitely adds a certain tension to the story (which is already pretty tense).

While I was reading this book, you sent me a link to this blog post, showing how almost every book about Africa gets the "acacia tree sunset treatment."

Second row, first book? Yup. That's Cry, the Beloved Country. My copy also has the acacia-tree-sunset treatment, as you can see at right.

What if every book set in the US got the same cover treatment? What would that look like? And eagle flying in front of the stars and bars with a gun and/or hamburger clutched in his talons?

One thing that I found of interest in this book -- things are falling apart in the rural areas, so the people are fleeing *to* the cities for salvation. Of course, that is the exact opposite of what is happening in many modern US cities, where people are fleeing to the suburbs to get away from the sh*t that's falling apart in the cities (hello, Detroit!)

I understand the reasons -- very different times, of course. Just particularly struck me on the heels of reading Detroit City is the Place to Be (yes, another one of my TBR books that I have not written about yet...)

Well, I feel like I kind of pooped out this "review."  It's another book that I wouldn't necessarily recommend, unless someone is really into reading a fictional story set in pre-apartheid South Africa. The writing style is very poetic, which can sometimes be lovely and sometimes feel like a slog, depending on one's mood.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that's the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much. [80]
See what I mean? It's lovely and it's tragic.

love,
kelly



Friday, September 26, 2014

Completed: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Dear Jenny,

First, a bit about my TBR progress (or lack thereof). Even though this is only my third post of the year, I have actually read eight of my books. This is the ninth month, sooo... reading-wise, I am *sort of* on track. (Ignoring the fact that the ninth month is nearly over... moving on!)

My problem with most of my books so far this year is that... I have soooo much to teeeellll yoooou. Heh. And so I need to make the time to get that all down (before I forget it all!) Or maybe now that so much time has passed, I will have forgotten what I read, so the writing will be easy ("I read this book. Done.") So this is all out of order, but The Hunchback of Notre-Dame* is pretty easy to talk about, so I'm doing it.

My mom bought this book for me when she was in Paris, and then she took a photo of herself holding it in front of Notre-Dame. That's pretty cute, so I committed to reading it. I've never been terribly interested in it, but I have always had a sort of vague notion of: "I... sort of know what that story is about... right?" Which is based on, I guess, "cultural literacy" -- some dude named Quasimodo who rings the bell at Notre-Dame and is in love with a chick named Esmerelda...?

But... when this image comes into my mind, I know there's probably more to the actual story than what we've gotten so far in in life (although I have never seen the Disney version, either.)

So I was somewhat prepared for it to be pretty dark (basically, the opposite of a Disney story) and... it was. It was also a little longer than I think it needed to be. Some have called this book a "Love letter to Paris" and I can see why -- there is a verrry extensive part of the book that is dedicated to describing Notre-Dame in great detail, as well as many, many other buildings all over Paris. I admit: I glazed over. The most interesting part of it was Hugo's condemnation of the changes that have been made to the various architecture -- he's basically pissed about a lot of the renovations/modernizations and his criticism is biting, well-written, and not-at-all veiled.

In discussing the changes to architecture around the city, he acknowledges that yes, time has a hand in any changes (ruination, decay, repair of said issues) but the egregious changes come from humans. About Notre-Dame, he writes: "Upon the face of this ancient queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle, we constantly find a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior -- which we would willingly render thus: Time is blind, but man is stupid." [138]. This made me laugh out loud -- tell us how you really feel, Victor!

The only other book I've ever read by Hugo was Les Miserables and the person who recommended it to me said, "You can skip the 400 pages about the sewer systems of Paris... " It was good advice -- I skipped that. (There was also a 500 page detailed description of the war that I also skimmed... I was really in it for the love story.) I am grateful that Notre-Dame is about a third the total length of Les Mis, meaning that his digressions did not go on for nearly as long.

While I was reading the "I love you, Paris" part, I did think, "Could we just get to the story already?" but the story ends up being so convoluted that the reprieve into building description might have been a good thing, after all.

Overall, the story is tragic and well-told -- lots of confusion, unexpected reunions of "long-lost" relatives, convoluted situations where people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unrequited adoration. But it's also pretty weird -- a few times, I had a sort of "Wait... what now?" reaction to some of the business that Hugo was putting down. Aaaand... If this write-up was for an academic paper, I would have made a note to support that statement. But it's our personal reading blog, so I'll just say: "There was some weird sh*t in this book." (Almost... magical realism, I guess? But then it kind of gets explained away in the next chapter, so there's a sort of, "Just kidding" thing that happens a few times.)

Overall, this book was decent. Cleared up some of my "I think I know what this book is about" misconceptions, but a visit to Wikipedia could do the same thing. The writing is excellent but I'm not sure I would necessarily recommend it to anyone (unless they were super interested in Paris architecture in the 15th century. Then... go for it!)

love,
kelly

PS -- I just realized this book was a carry-over from 2013. Go, me with the cleaning up! (Spoiler alert: 2014 could be the year that Don't Know Much About History gets played off the stage before it's done.)

* I hate the title of this book. I've had a couple of friends over the years with kyphosis and it makes me feel icky to use this out-dated term. The name of the book in the original French is Notre-Dame de Paris and I wish that we could just go with that here as well. /rant

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Completed: Solar by Ian McEwan

Kelly,

My friend Judy gave me this book, it was a "We're done with it, want it next?" sort of situation. I like free books, I've liked books by Ian McEwan, and of course I'd read a review of it. So why not?

I wish I would have done a little more investigating before putting it on my list. Because as soon as I opened it, I knew I was in trouble: the epipgraph in the front of the book is a quote from one of Updike's Rabbit books. I actually groaned out loud when I saw it.

Oh no. But having already abandoned one book this year, and being unsure about my ability to finish Postwar, I didn't think I could give up on this one. I decided to just read the damn thing despite my misgivings.

The main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel-prize winning physicist and an absolute and unrepentant dickbag. The book has 3 major sections, in 2000 as a loser coasting along on his Nobel win from at least a decade earlier. In this section, he witnesses the accidental death of someone, and rather than calling the cops, he decides to set up his wife's lover for the murder. Nice. In the second section, five years later, he has stolen all of the intellectual property of the dead man and is trying to make a business out of it, mostly through solar panels. He also finds out one of his girlfriends is pregnant. In the last section, he is about to get his whole solar array started when he is sued by a former co-worker who has proof he stole all the intellectual property.

Kelly. This book was so tedious. This character so self-absorbed. The themes so heavy handed---oh, unlikeable people can attempt to do good things for the world? Oh, the solar scientist is ignoring his own skin cancer? /rolls eyes. He treats every woman he meets with disdain and possessiveness. All his lovers and wives are one-sided and malleable, just a series of generous lovers willing to put up with his bullshit. There was a lot of science talk that I just skimmed through. As the book went on, he drinks and gets fatter, and I just kept hoping the thing would come to a sudden end with a massive heart attack.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Like all of McEwan's books, there was lovely writing and astute observations about the human condition. But mostly, I just wanted it to be over. And now it is.

Jenny

Friday, August 29, 2014

Completed: Life with My Sister Madonna

Kelly,

I guess I don't have to say much about this one---I got it from you! This was the perfect, trashy book to end the summer with. AND, even more satisfying, I am now caught up with 8 books in August. Whew!

What is there to say about this little gem? I made a little list, but it's sort of more listicle than real review.

1) Christopher is obsessed with her money an portrays her as a total cheapskate, which seems sort of funny to me. This is particularly tough not only because she lacks generosity, but because she so grossly underpays him! In theory, I totally get that it's not her responsibility to support everyone who just happens to be related to her; but in reality, I guess I'd feel pretty upset if I had a sibling worth hundreds of millions of dollars and they weren't willing to help me. I am particularly sensitive to this because of my Mom's story, I guess. But still, even though I doubt it's all true, she just seems like a total ass about it.

2) Family photos were definitely the best. This freaky photo of Madonna at her First Communion....LOOKING JUST LIKE HERSELF! It's totally weird, right?

3) There were parts of this book that were just a little creepy to me. I don't care how embarrassed he was by it, the idea of a brother being his sister's dresser was just...bizarre and more than a little yucky. As were any and all scenes where he described how well they danced together, their being soul mates, etc.

4) Overall, I just felt sorry for him because his whole life is playing second fiddle to his megastar sister. He struck me as a little sad and pathetic. But I still enjoyed the gossipy nature of a lot of the book. I especially liked the parts about how faked Truth or Dare was...which doesn't surprise me at all. Mostly, though, it made me want to go back and watch that and other Madonna videos again.

5) I generally really dislike memoirs, as you know and so it was particularly irksome that Christopher & his ghost-writer wrote a *memoir* in *present tense*!!! This annoyed the fuck out of me pretty much the entire time I was reading it, and I dog-eared a few particularly cringe-worthy sentences that resulted from this choice: I last see Warren four years ago when we have lunch together...  Oh, really? You last see him? What the ever loving fuck? if hadn't have been for the Madonna angle, I totally would have quit this book out of sheer annoyance. Even if it's to make some sort of  literary point (he's always living his memories as if they are present!), it did not work and it bugged me throughout the entire book. In fact, it bugged me more than any other stylistic choice I've seen authors make, up to and including, the dreaded lack of quotation marks. So, that's saying something, right? No one  reads this book for the lovely prose, I get it... But it was still ~painful~ to read.

I know that's a super brief review, but it's just a fluffy little number, as you know.
Jenny

PS. Do you want this book back, or should I send it on into the universe?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Completed: The Plot Against America

Kelly,

It feels really good to be getting back on track---especially before school gears up again in a week. I'm definitely hitting that Madonna book next! You've told me it will be fast and fun, and I'd love to be at 8 before Labor Day.

I just finished The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. I've had this book for a long time---at least 5 or 6 years is my guess, maybe more. I don't remember anything specific that made me buy it, but my guess is that I just read a good review of it. It just sounds like the kind of book I'd like: speculative historical fiction. In this novel, Roth creates a different version of the history of WW2. FDR loses in the election for his third term to Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh is a famous pilot, of course, but I guess he was also a Nazi sympathizer. He cashes in on his celebrity and becomes President after swearing to keep American neutral during the War. After his election, he signs a pact with Japan and Germany to stay out of Europe---meaning there is no Pearl Harbor to drag the US into WW2.

Against this somewhat creepy revisionist history, Roth tells the story of...the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey, and 9 year old Philip Roth is the narrator. In other words, the author is the narrator as a child, imagining how his life would have been different if a fascist had come into the White House at exactly the wrong moment. For example, Jews *in America* are subject to special laws and it becomes clear that Lindbergh intends to round up America's Jews and put them in internment camps, there are policies for Jewish resettlement, etc. In order to fight Hitler, young Jewish men (Philip's cousin Alvin is one of them) go off to Canada to fight.

I liked this book. Philip's family is full of interesting characters---his Mother longs to leave for Canada, seeing America is no longer their country. His Father clings to the idea that they will always belong and to leave is rash. Philip's brother Sandy comes to believe his parents are being foolish. The author brilliantly shows  tenor of their family life become confused, then threatened, then terror-filled as events spiral out of control.

More interesting is to see how people change and morph in a pressure cooker. Philip's Mother seems meek and not at all interesting in the beginning, but as time passes, Philip sees that she is the strongest member of his family. In one brilliant scene near the end, she marshals everything she knows in order to save a neighborhood boy. On the other hand, his father shows himself to be a good man with flaws, and certainly more stubborn than insightful. Again, near the end, there's a fascinating scene where his Father has a violent fist-fight with Alvin, the cousin back from Canada. Philip's description of the fight begins with it's aftermath, and a long description of the wreckage not only in their bodies, but also in their home. Only after is there a brief explanation of what started the fight. It was a brilliant scene---how often something small becomes something too big, so much so that the aftermath is more damaging than what started it. Philip understands it is symbolic of political forces winning in their effort to destroy and destabilize Jewish life itself, he observes, "The South Boston riots, the Detroit riots, the Louisville assassination, the Cincinnati firebombing, the mayhem in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Akron, Youngstown, Peoria, Scranton, and Syracuse...and now this: in an ordinary family living room--the anti-Semites were about to be abetted in their exhilarating solution to America's worst problem by our taking up the cudgels and hysterically destroying ourselves" (295). Kelly, it was hard to read these passages without thinking of Ferguson. This small scene perfectly describes how people put under immense pressure sometimes explode--with fury and an impotent and crushing sense of disappointment.

Philip is also an interesting character. As political events become more dangerous, he begins to take matters into his own hands to try to save himself and his family. At one point, he visits his aunt, recently estranged from the family. He says of her, "Never in my life had I so harshly judged any adult...nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others" (213). We understand in this moment that Philip is becoming an adult in the sense that he is starting to judge and evaluate by himself rather than parroting what adults tell him. But this is a double-edged sword, because by the end of this scene, Philip himself has foolishly set another family on a different and dangerous path. His observation is true of both his aunt and of himself.

It's interesting to consider that a work of speculative history has 2 choices---allow your novel to continue as is, or bump it back into the lane of historical reality. Roth takes the latter path, and has FDR returning to the presidency, engaging in the war, and the standard course of history resumes. However, that leaves little for Roth to do except wrap it up and leave the family to cope with their devastating losses and the knowledge of the harms done to others in an effort to protect themselves. I wouldn't say it's a bad ending, but it sure is abrupt. I actually turned the page looking for the next chapter! After thinking about it a little, I think it's probably a good thing---don't have a great plan for what to do when history returns to normal? Then just end the thing!

How are you doing? Making any progress with the reporting out?
Jenny

PS I did find out that his book won The Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Who knew such a thing existed? I'm going to have to check that out. I might like more books like this one.



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Completed: The Widow's War

Kelly,

To no one's surprise, I'm a bit stalled out on Postwar. I did listen to the first 7 or 8 hours of the audiobook, which took me up to Chapter 6. It's actually stunning to realize just how long it takes to read things out loud! But now that the commuting to Evanston has stopped, so has my audiobook listening. I certainly intend to read the back 2/3 of the book, but it won't be all that fast.

In a moment of panic, then, I thought maybe I ought to start reading some novels. I have two more weeks before I start back to work, and the fall quarter at Northwestern doesn't start until September 23rd.  There's no reason I can't knock out a couple of TBR books before then!

My Mom actually gave me this book, The Widow's War by Sally Gunning. Here's the weird part, she was telling me about it, and I was saying, "I feel like maybe I've already read that book, Mom." But it turns out that I had read the sequel, Bound. 

Both of Sally Gunning's novels are set in a small whaling town in Massachusetts (a state I still need help spelling, by the way) in the 1760s. In both novels, she uses her characters to explore the state of women in pre-Revolutionary society. The Widow's War begins when 39 year old Lyddie is told that her husband has drowned off of his whaling ship. Her husband's will is standard for the time, leaving her the "standard widow's third" which means their property goes to her nearest male relative (her despised son-in-law) who is charged with taking care of her financially. He can either sell or rent the house, leaving her with either a third of the property to use or a third of the interest of the sale, along with any personal belongings she brought into the marriage.

The story is the one of Lyddie's life in that first year after her husband's death. She decides to strike out on her own and live in 1/3 of the house rather than live with her daughter and son-in-law.  The story tells of her struggles to support herself, of how the town gossips about her and ostracizes her for her choices, etc.

It's a good book and a fast read. The thing that was weird about it (for me) is that I had read the sequel and so I sort of knew how things would turn out for her, so it did take some of the drama out of the "will she make it on her own" plot line. I liked this one better than it's sequel, which explores the harrowing life of an indentured servant. I think the question I always have in historical fiction is the question of accuracy: how likely was it that a 1760s woman would fight for property rights and her wish to live on her own? She knows how to take care of herself because her husband was gone for months at a time on whaling expeditions, but I'm still left wondering about her mindset. I'm absolutely sure that Sally Gunning did an amazing amount of research, and the book is full of fascinating details....but....I'm still left wondering.

Either way, I enjoyed it. And I definitely enjoyed knocking another book off my list.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jenny's next book: Postwar

Kelly,

It has been so long since I've written a real preview post, that I can't quite remember out naming protocol for it. Sorry about the awkward title of this post.

This is sort of a weird choice for my next book. After all, I'm taking 3 classes this quarter, and the summer quarter is short---only 6 weeks. You'd think I'd tee up the Madonna book, but I've picked this super long World War II book (next year, I pledge to make my TBR war book *not* about WW2!) by Tony Judt. It's called Post War: A History of Europe since 1945. 

I originally read about this book at the site of my favorite blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic. Basically, this book is right in my wheelhouse. I've read a lot of books about Europe during the war, and I read a book about Japan after the war, but not as much about Europe after the war.

Now, you might be wondering why on Earth I would tackle this behemoth of a book right now. The actual number of pages in the book is north of 900, but of course there's the huge number of endnotes. So what was am I thinking? I am thinking I had to burn an audible credit, so I looked to see which of my TBR books was available--and, voila! Postwar, weighing in at a massive 45 hours long. Is that normal?! It seems terrifically long, but then again, I'll be driving back and forth to Evanston three times a week, which is at least 45 minutes each way from my house. This is a lot of listening time!

I listened to the first 45 minutes today in the car. It's a little weird to listen to *history* rather than *a story*, and certainly I think there are going to be some problems when it comes to all of the names in other languages, etc. However, I am willing to give it a shot. I think I might have to review the text sometimes when I get home, but overall, I feel pretty hopeful about this as a way of tackling the text.

Speaking of which, I finally finished listening to the Veronica Mars book! I liked it. I think the best part of the book, honestly, was listening to Kristen Bell say "fuck" so many times. Hahah. I hope there's another one!

How are things going on your end?
Jenny

Completed: Presumed Innocent

Dear Jenny,

Completing this book was something of a personal accomplishment because it's been sitting on my TBR pile since 1996. That means this book has lived with me in 9 different homes and I have moved it across the country twice.

Oddly, in a heroic fit of "Throw it away!" I donated it to my local library immediately upon finishing and now I'm bummed I didn't take a photo for this post. Heh. Oh, well. The thumbnail photo shows what it looked like, basically (found image online, complete with messed-up nearly 30 year old paperback cover).

That cover image is actually pretty good -- the partial fingerprint is a major plot-point. Makes me think about how many book covers have nothing to do with the book at all.

What seemed like a pretty straight-forward "legal thriller" at the beginning got really interesting when I started to wonder "Did he kill her? Or didn't he?" At first, it seems like he was framed, but as the evidence adds up, I wondered about his reliability. I know we frequently post spoilers around here, but I feel guilty posting the end of this book, so I'll just say: I didn't see it coming.

I guess this was a pretty popular movie, so I probably should have known the entire plot all along, but I'm not really into thrillers...  I've only read a few and have maybe seen a handful of movies. I think, in some ways, that makes them more "exciting" to me --  a practiced thriller-reader probably could have predicted everything from the start.

I just googled this book (because I do that when I am trying to both remember the book and find intelligent things to say about it...) and I discovered this essay that calls it ground breaking -- it's interesting to read about the influence that it had on the genre (according to this author, at least). He mentions Gone Girl, (one of the few thrillers I have read) which I thought of several times as I had my "Did he or didn't he?!" moments throughout.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I only had a couple of minor problems with the writing. One was keeping track of character names -- it reminded me of a Russian novel with all of the darned nicknames, and all of the characters are referred to interchangably by first name, last name, and nickname (Main character: Rozat “Rusty” Sabich. His buddy: Dan “Lip” Lipramzer. His lawyer: Alejandro “Sandy” Stern. The opposition: Nico Della “Delay” Guardia.  Just to name a few.)

Also, it's set in fictional "Kindle County," which seems to be a thinly veiled Chicago (although it's frequently referred to as "Tri Cities") and that was disconcerting at times. I kept thinking, "Where are we now?" It's fine to make up a whole town, but because of the similarities to a real place that I am somewhat familiar with, I kept looking for references to actual details which would then be missing/changed.

Other than that, it was a fun read -- it kept me guessing and I didn't expect the ending, so that was good.  Have you read it or seen the movie?

love,
kelly

PS -- I called this one "Book 4" in my Status post, so I'm all out of order, but hey -- it's done! I have finished Detroit City is the Place to Be and am feeling somewhat stymied by all that I want to say about. Just need to Get! It! Done!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Completed: American Gods

Kelly,

I feel like of all the books on my list, I feel like this might be one that you have already read. I got it from a co-worker, Sam, after we were talking about foundational myths and how kids don't really know them anymore. At that time, I was experimenting with doing some myth work with them, but it's been tricky. Maybe reading this book will help me rethink it.

American Gods was published in 2001, and it's easy to see how it led to children's books like the Percy Jackson series. In this book, a man named Shadow is about to be released from prison. However, days before he is released, he finds out his wife has died in a car accident. Upon leaving the prison, he meets a strange man named Wednesday who turns out to be Odin, Thor's father, and they embark upon a long adventure through godless America.

The premise of the plot is that the old gods from other countries were brought here by immigrants, but over time, they were forgotten and replaced by new gods: the gods of trains, cars, and the internet. Wednesday convinces Shadow "a storm is coming": a war fought between the old gods and the new ones. Shadow must help Wednesday as he travels the country, marshaling the old gods together to fight the new ones.

I would not say that I loved this book. It's hard to put my finger on what I didn't like about it. I think, maybe, it was trying to do too much: an adventure! a love story! a meditation on the role of religion and belief in modern life! a mystery! a commentary on Americans and America! For me, it just felt like it was trying to do too much. I don't want to give anything away, but I also felt like it was anticlimactic---sort of like the end of that last awful Twilight book. You spend *hundreds* of pages leading up to the big battle, and it ends with someone explaining to everyone else what has really been going on. I sort of hate those endings.

I realize this is a pretty lackluster review, but it's sort of how I feel about the book. It was okay. There wasn't much to dislike, but there was nothing to rave about either. My most important feeling upon finishing this book is relief that I have knocked another one off my list!

I'm not sure what will be next. I'll have to take a look and see. BUT, my first class of the new quarter is tonight, so I'm pretty happy to have completed this book and its review!

Jenny

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Completed: Bring Up the Bodies

Kelly,

Here's the story: at a Bar Mitzvah in February of 2010, I was sitting with some other book nerds, and they recommended Wolf Hall to me. It had already been on my radar because it won the Booker Prize, but a personal recommendation always moves books up to the top of the list.

I never wrote anything official about Wolf Hall, as I'm fairly certain it predates this blog. However, Wolf Hall was just a thrilling read, partly because of the difficulty. I'm not often challenged by reading, but something about this one---the historical background, the writing style, the complex story---made it just an awesome read. I loved it. A few years later, in the summer of 2012, the sequel came out. I believe I pre-ordered it on Amazon, but I didn't read it. The next March, it was in the Tournament of Books, and I read *every other book that year* except for Bring Up the Bodies. Weird, right? To be honest, I think I just feared disappointment. What if it wasn't as good, and it ruined Wolf Hall, too? (Let's call that the Breaking Dawn effect, mm'kay?)

You'll be pleased to know that Bring Up the Bodies was just as great of a read as Wolf Hall, but in an interesting and different way. BUtB was highly readable, fast-paced even, while Wolf Hall was more measured and slow to unfold. The novels are set during the reign of Henry VIII, but the main character is his right-hand man and advisor, Thomas Cromwell. In the first, Cromwell engineers the dissolution of Henry's marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. This causes the break with the Church, and also paves the way for Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. The novel ends with the execution of Thomas More, but rather than showing him as a heroic protector of religion, Wolf Hall shows him as small-minded and petty.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up a few years later, as Henry's marriage to Anne is failing. I will be honest that the first 50 or 75 pages I probably didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I read it in fits and starts as school was ending. However, it picked up, or at the very least I became more focused, and it was a great read. I'm mad at myself for putting it off for so long!

In this book, the focus is again on Cromwell as he leverages Henry's will to end his marriage to Anne in favor of the more genteel, and less threatening figure, of Jane Seymore. One of the interesting things about this book is that Jane herself is a mere pawn in the machinations of the court, whereas Anne is a complex character with her own desires in Wolf Hall. In BUtB, events start to change direction as Anne is unable to produce a male heir, and Katherine of Aragon dies. Henry starts to wonder if Anne has duped him, and his desire for a new woman, one who is more pliable, leads him to think he can cast off yet another wife. It is Cromwell who makes it happen.

Believe it or not, even though you know full well what's going to happen, Mantel is the master of creating a sense of dread and despair as we watch Cromwell set his traps and snare his prey. It becomes clear that his ruthlessness is bound by nothing---and that he is using the opportunity to not only get rid of Anne, but also to settle some old scores. At one point, he explains his mercilessness by saying, "Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand" (351). In other words, watching him take no mercy as he fulfills the King's wishes is to watch a master at work.

I would say, the other fascinating thing to watch in this book is how she sets up Cromwell's own demise. We know that the King will turn against Cromwell one day, and this book is full of warnings, of his own consideration of how he might act if he were ever facing death, and is all foreshadowing for the last and third installment of the story, scheduled for a 2015 release. This time, I promise to not wait to finish it.

Jenny

As a weird aside, I have only one complaint about this book: I intensely disliked the paper it was printed on. I know this is churlish, but it was made of recycled paper, but the feel of the paper was rough and unpleasant. It felt like rather puply construction paper. I usually don't have a problem with recycled paper, obviously, but for some reason, the entire time I was reading, I was sort of bothered by the tactile feeling of these particular pages. There was a disconnect between the quality of the paper and the hardback book. I guess I expect cheap paper in mysteries and paperbacks? I don't know. It bothered me more than I'd care to admit.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Completed: On Writing

[Edited to add: I actually finished this post yesterday, but I knew you'd be wrapping things up at work today, so I waited to publish because... it is very long (Sorry!) so I hope you will have some time this weekend to sit down, grab a cup of coffee and read the world's longest book review...]

Dear Jenny,

I burned through this book in January, told you all about it on the phone and then promptly failed to write about it here. Whee. In my defense, the ToB took up a lot of book-ish thinking in Feb and Mar. What? We're halfway through April already in JUNE?! Yeah. I got no excuses.

This book is part memoir, part writing instruction, part publishing advice. The memoir and writing instruction were great.

I am normally loathe to recommend a book when I have not finished it because then I feel guilty if it finishes badly, but when I was halfway through this, I was loving it sooo much that I started gushing about it.

King begins the book reminiscing about his childhood, then focusing on his early writing career and there is some absolutely hilarious content in here.

After that, he moves on to some great advice about writing -- easily digestible stuff that almost anyone could apply immediately to their own writing for improvement.

At this point, this is where I was really shooting my mouth off to everyone who would listen how great this book is! And then... it fell apart.

Things suddenly take a very boring turn. From great advice about writing (useful for everyone), King turns to very specific advice for fiction writers trying to get published. This topic might be interesting (an inside look into the world of publishing? Sure!) but not the way King writes it here. Ugh -- totally yawn worthy.

He then returns to his memoir and offers details about his accident, which is interesting, to some extent (I mean, I'd heard the news -- getting his first-hand account was a unique opportunity) and then he explains that the accident happened as he was writing this book... basically at the very point when the interesting dried up. What a huge bummer.

I'm not quite sure how else he could have handled that -- the accident really took its toll on him, which is completely understandable. So what to do? Just have someone else wrap it up while it was still good? Wait until he had recovered more to continue? (I read Doctor Sleep last year -- his writing chops are definitely back!) Again, I don't know.

Having said all of that, I think the book is totally worth reading, but I also think having this caveat is useful. Be prepared for it to not be so engaging/amusing/charming about 2/3 of the way in. Going in prepared always helps, right?

Ok! The reason it has taken me so long to write this is that I wanted to include a crapload of quotes that either cracked me up or just spoke to me and I've been lazy about getting them down. Ideally, they'd be artfully woven into the review above, but sometime perfectionism is the enemy of done, so I'm just jamming them in down here so I can hit Publish on this sucker.

Generally Hilarious Lines

Here are a collection of lines that just made me laugh out loud...

From the First Foreword, questioning whether or not anyone would want to read a book that he would write on writing:
Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I'm not sure anyone wants to know how he made it. [8]
From the Second Foreword:
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. [...] I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit. [12]
Reminiscing about a babysitter he had as a kid and how she prepared him for life... in a rather... er... unconventional fashion:
Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors. [20]
Love this observation:
I don't want to speak too disparagingly about my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world and opted for the Home Shopping Network instead)... [62]
Recalling the first time he was drunk (on $1.95 whiskey -- blech):
The room is a turntable, I am the spindle, and pretty soon the spindle is going to start tossing its platters. [89]
(Seriously... I spent a lot of time laughing *out loud* while reading this book!)

On Writing

Since the book is called "On Writing," it should be no surprise that he has some great observations on that very topic. This first one is pretty funny:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. [117]
One to embrace and remember:
Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word -- of course you will, there's always another word -- but it probably won't be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean. [118]
And this just made me laugh:
Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it's the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn't they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius. [121]
Regarding the Evils of Passive Voice:
It's weak, it's circuitous, and it's frequently torturous, as well. How about this: "My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun." Oh, man -- who farted, right? [123]
He hates adverbs and goes a long way towards backing that opinion. But here's a great soundbite:
Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops. [125]
(That quote and the surrounding text have made me very sensitive about adverb usage since reading this book, I gotta tell you!)

On Editing

He also has a lot to say about editing -- both self-editing (which is my biggest writing downfall -- look at this epic damned post!) and being edited.

He included a reproduction of the first editorial review he had at his first writing job (he laments that he does not have the original, but says it looked something like this):

He goes on to say he learned more in 10 minutes from that editor's markup than in his two years of English Lit in college:
When he finished marking my copy in the manner indicated above, he looked up and saw something on my face. I think he must have mistaken it for horror. It wasn't; it was pure revelation. Why, I wondered, didn't English teachers ever do this? [57]
The editor then says he "only took out the bad parts [...] most of it is pretty good" and goes on to say:
When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story [...] When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. [57] 
Such a great piece of editing advice! And I need to write this next one on a Post-it note:
Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10% [222]
(Believe it or not, I have actually removed 10% of this very post in the past 24 hours!)

On Reading 

He talks a lot about how writers must also be readers. The following quotes made me think, "Stephen King and I are twins!" (Well, except that he's a phenomenally successful bestselling writer and I'm... struggling to get posts up on this reading blog I keep with my best friend... but whatevs.)
I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. [145]
Me, too! High five, Stephen King! He also talks about finding time to read...
There's always the treadmill, or whatever you use down at the local health club to get aerobic. I try to spend an hour doing that every day, and I think I'd go mad without a good novel to keep me company. [148]
Me, too! Gosh, Jenny, if you and I weren't already besties, I might have to go over to Stephen's house. HA.

Comedic Observations on Alcoholism

Never thought I'd type that sentence in my life, but there it was. A lot of the book deals with his battle with alcoholism and substance abuse (in fact, he claims that he doesn't remember writing Cujo at all, because he was so wasted). Here's a truth, told in a funny way:
Telling an alcoholic to control his drinking is like telling a guy suffering the world's most cataclysmic case of diarrhea to control his shitting [95]
This one also made me laugh (and cringe):
A year or so before, observing the rapidity with which huge bottles of Listerine were disappearing from the bathroom, Tabby asked me if I drank the stuff. I responded with self-righteous hauteur that I most certainly did not. Nor did I. I drank the Scope instead. It was tastier, had that hint of mint. [97]

In Conclusion...

This isn't really a conclusion, but I'm concluding this post with this final quote, so I'm calling in the Conclusion!

It's bagging on writers' workshops (not all of them, but certain ones...) Forgive me -- this is a long passage. But take a moment and read through it, because 1. As both a teacher and a student, I think you'll be able to appreciate some of this and 2. Reading it all makes his final angry line all the more epic (I laughed right out loud. On a plane.)
And what about these critiques, by the way? How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter's story,  someone may say.  It had something... a sense of I don't know.... there's a loving kind of you know... I can't exactly describe it...
Other writing-seminar gemmies include I felt like the tone thing was kind of you know; The character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly.
And instead of pelting these babbling idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful.  In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughtful right along with them.
It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class. [233]

Whew! Believe it or not, I deleted 10 other quotes from this post that I had also bookmarked! So even with my whole, "Only 2/3 of this book was good" disclaimer at the top... that 2/3 was really damned good.

And I am... DONE.

love,
kelly