Saturday, April 23, 2016

#19 [2016/CBR8] "The Curse of the Pharaohs" by Elizabeth Peters

I've been trying to always have an audio book available to listen to when I'm in my car. I enjoyed Elizabeth Peter's first book in her series about Amelia Peabody, so I decided to move on to The Curse of the Pharaohs (1981).

The Curse of the Pharaohs begins about three years (I think?) after the ending of the first book. Amelia has married Radcliffe Emerson--her love interest/soul mate from the first book, she's just recently had a child, and they've settled down to a relatively peaceful life in England. When there is news from Egypt that a cursed tomb is wreaking havoc, killing people left and right, Peabody and Emerson cannot help but take over the dig. Neither one believes for a second that the tomb is actually cursed, and they are prepared to solve the mystery. Leaving their son, Ramses, with Emerson's brother and wife, the two set off on another adventure.

In Egypt, Emerson and Peabody must contend with a mysterious white figure, knives falling out of closets, a nosy reporter, a man in disguise, a Texan, and some crazy women. In addition, the two are trying to find the opening to the tomb before it is robbed, relying on local laborers who are terrified of the supposed curse. In the meantime, the body count rises. Amelia Peabody is her normal self, taking control with aplomb and amusingly exaggerated self-confidence.

I did enjoy this book, but not quite as much as the first. The mystery was both repetitive and more convoluted than the first book. I think part of the problem was that I was listening to this book on CD, but if I stopped paying attention for a second, I would get the characters confused. The first book possibly felt more clear because there were fewer characters to keep straight. Even after the "after the mystery" discussion where all is revealed, I couldn't look back on the narrative with a lot of understanding. So many people were murdered, a normal motive didn't quite fit the story. In the end, I was disappointed.

I was also disturbed by pretty much all discussions of Ramses, Peabody and Emerson's son. The couple have Ramses, and then promptly leave him with family for months when he is newborn. Then they leave him again for months to go to Egypt. I'm all for parents following their dreams and balancing family and their passions, but that long of a separation at that age could be nothing but traumatic for Ramses. And of course, Ramses is a boisterous, precocious child, but he felt more cartoon than flesh and blood. Sure, the other characters are something of exaggerated caricatures, and maybe Ramses was supposed to fit in with them, but for whatever reason, it just creeped me out. So, Ramses is a creepy, neglected child, and I couldn't understand why he was in the book because he was not a part of the main mystery. I'm assuming that Peters was setting him up for use in later stories, but he took me completely out of the story.

I really enjoyed Crocodile on the Sandbank, and I was expecting a lot from this second novel. I definitely enjoyed the first one more, but there were still parts of the second that made me smile. I think I'll at least get to the third, and gauge my reactions from there.

Friday, April 22, 2016

#18 [2016/CBR8] "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin

The Orchardist (2012) by Amanda Coplin is another book on Huffington Post's list of 21 Books From the Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read. I'm slowly making my way through this list, and I'm grateful for the recommendations. I wasn't sure what to expect with The Orchardist, and even now that I've read it, I have some mixed feelings. There is no question that this is an impressively written, very original story, with remarkably drawn characters. The orchard as a place, and the story itself, are all memorable and meaningful.

Talmadge is a solitary man in his fifties, living on an isolated orchard in central Washington at the turn of the 20th Century. His mother died when he was a teenager and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared when she was a young woman, leaving him completely alone. Talmadge keeps himself busy by nurturing his orchard and hauling his crops to town to sell. The only person remotely close to him is the town healer, Caroline Middey. He sometimes eats dinner with her when he comes to town.

Then two young, very pregnant teenagers show up at his orchard. He undoubtedly sees his missing sister in these two lost souls, and he does what he can for them. At this point, I thought I knew what was coming: In the security and safety of the orchard, as well as the quiet care of Talmadge, the girls could recover from their traumatic past and an unconventional, but loving family could be formed.

I was wrong. Coplin takes a much more realistic route. The girls' past comes back to haunt them, and the significant abuse and trauma they suffered affects their ability to form relationships and control their lives. Talmadge has sincere compassion for the girls and does what he can for them, but it's impossible to erase what they'd gone through in their formative years. Della is the young girl that we get to know best and the narrative follows her for years. This was probably one of the most realistic portrayals of the long-term effects of abuse that I've ever read in fiction.

In many ways, Coplin's writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. Her story is very tied to the land; the characters are quiet and stoic; and you can never guess what is coming. Once I realized this novel wasn't necessarily going to have the happy ending I was expecting, I read the rest of the book with a sense of dread. I was afraid of what would happen next and anticipating the worst. That's probably where my mixed feelings come in. The second half of the book felt like the slow destruction of people's lives. There wasn't much to keep me reading. Sure, I was curious what would happen to the characters, but I couldn't see a way out for them and hopelessness is no fun. So, although I appreciated the writing and I was drawn in at the beginning, it was harder to read through until the end. If the ending could have sustained the tension that I felt in the beginning, I would probably give it five stars. As it is, I'd still recommend The Orchardist, but maybe it's not for everyone.

"And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death." (124)

"It was only too bad that to gossip and support mean ideas was easier and more enjoyable, really, than to keep quiet and know in silence that the true story can never be told, articulated in a way that will tell the whole truth." (378)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

#17 [2016/CBR8] "Kindred Spirits" by Rainbow Rowell

Kindred Spirits (2016) by Rainbow Rowell is more of a short story than a novel. Clocking in at just over sixty pages, it's a fun, quick, tale. I was wondering whether I even wanted to bother writing a review for something I could read so quickly. In the end I decided it was worth it because I wanted to thank Faintingviolet for sending me this book! There is nothing like opening your mailbox to an unexpected, (because I forgot it was coming) brand-new book from one of my favorite authors!

From what I understand, Kindred Sprits is part of "World Book Day" that occurred on March 3 in the United Kingdom. It sounds like a great idea, involving giving schoolchildren tokens that they can turn in at participating bookstores for these books--written specifically for World Book Day.

Elena is your normal teenage girl, except that she's a huge Star Wars fan, inculcated by her father since birth. She is intent on camping out for opening night tickets for The Force Awakens--no matter how much her mother worries about her. She's seen pictures of the fair-like atmosphere of costumed and enthusiastic fans waiting in line and bonding over their shared love. She's looking forward to the experience.

When her mother reluctantly drops her off on Monday morning, they are both dismayed to see that the line consists only of two guys. Troy is the talkative leader and Gabe is the quiet, sullen teenage boy. Instead of the party atmosphere Elena was expecting, she feels like she is stuck in an elevator with two random strangers. As the days crawl closer to the first screening on Friday, Elena gets to know Troy, and especially Gabe, much better. Through cold, discomfort, embarrassment, and challenges involving lack of bathrooms, Elena stays strong.

In the end, we learn through Elena that it's more about the process than the goal, and it's worth it to keep an open mind--about both people and experiences. As someone who has not yet seen The Force Awakens [I'm waiting for the DVD], and someone who does not take Instagram selfies [one of Elena's favorite pastimes], I didn't wholly relate to the protagonist. With the brevity of the book, Rowell did not have much space to explore her main characters. However, the focus of the book is still on relationships and experiences and Rowell made a nice, memorable story.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

#16 [2016/CBR8] "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo

I vacillate between a compunction to organize and an amazing ability to be a procrastinating slob. At the moment, I'm leaning more towards the compunction to organize: my condo, my life, my finances, and I thought Marie Kondo's book might give me some tips. And so I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014).

Organizing seems pretty straight forward to me, and began reading wondering how Kondo would have enough to fill a book. How many different ways can you tell people to get rid of what you don't need and straighten up what's left? At first, this book felt like a repetitive sales pitch. You can change your life! Your skin will become shiny and bright! Your life will all come together and you will discover wonder and happiness! All you have to do is ask yourself, one at a time, whether your things bring you joy. It was a little much, and I didn't feel like I was learning much.

However, as the book continued, Kondo dove a little more deeply into specific techniques. Although I had a viscerally negative reaction to some of her suggestions, I really liked her end goal. Kondo's basic premise is that you should get rid of everything that doesn't bring you joy. When everything is pared down, you just organize by storing like with like. The end goal is to be surrounded by only things that you love. I think we all have that special piece of clothing or dish that makes us happy every time we see it. We love what it looks like, how it fits, or the memories they bring. Imagine how much you'd love your home, if the only things you had were things that made you feel this way, and you didn't have the clutter of the unnecessary and unwanted weighing you down.

I am enamored with this idea, but it's bound to be pretty expensive if you take it to the extreme. I own some crappy sweatpants that I wear in my house. They fit and they're comfortable, but I don't love them. Do I want to spend the time and money to find the perfect, fuzzy pair of lounge pants? And when I get tired of them, do I need to throw them out and immediately run out and find new ones? What about cleaning supplies? How much joy do cleaning supplies bring? Sure, the idea of only having things you love is great, but it's not realistic. However, I have tried to change my mindset and focus on surrounding myself with things that bring me joy. Maybe I can slowly make my way toward this ultimate goal.

Kondo consistently anthropomorphizes our things. She says, "Think about how your clothes feel, stuffed in the back of the closet and out of sight. They want to be used. Books want to be read. They are happier to be of use, so you should give them away to someone who will read them. I guess this is a memorable way to keep your things in good repair and in sight, but it also felt a little weird.

The paragraphs that had me gasping in indignation, however, had to do with books and directly contradicted all of Kondo's happy talk about the feelings of our things. Kondo is a fan of getting rid of most of our books. As someone who loves to read but almost never reads a book twice, I agree that hanging onto books isn't worth the hassle. However, Kondo said that when she was reluctant to let go of books that she had really enjoyed she would rip her favorite pages out before getting rid of the book. Seriously?!? What happened to all those feelings she was just talking about? How can she ruin perfectly good books just because she liked them? She eventually decided that she never went back to look at the ripped-out pages anyway, and it wasn't worth it, but it was too late: I was shocked and offended by the very idea.

I feel I may be coming across a little more negative than I actually felt about this book. Sure, I had some problems with it, but Kondo had some interesting ideas I want to try, and I appreciate her overall vision. If I can stay focused, I can turn my condo into a place that I can enjoy and appreciate much more than I do now. Finally, I am unsure about Kondo's ideas about folding, but I'm willing to give them a try.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

#15 [2016/CBR8] "Brave Enough" by Cheryl Strayed

"We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backward sometimes, Every day we must make the decision to move in the direction of our intentions. Forward is the direction of real life."

I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed back in 2012 and it remains an incredibly memorable and moving experience. I love Strayed's writing. She is thoughtful, empathetic and adept at using poetic language to clearly describe her and other's experiences. So when I heard that she had a new book of quotations coming out, I was very interested. Before picking up Brave Enough (2015) , I didn't even know whether the quotes were hers or ones she had chosen, but it didn't make much difference to me. If you look at my review of Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, you'll see that more than half of it is quotes I loved from the book.

It turns out that Brave Enough is a collection of quotes from Strayed's varied writing. She makes a point in the beginning to say that she is not in the know-it-all business of telling others how to live their lives. Instead, these quotes came as she struggled to figure out how to live her own life. The quotes are not particularly grouped together or labeled by source, but I recognized many from previous Strayed books. In fact, many of the ones I highlighted were ones I'd already highlighted from previous books, including some of my favorites:

"Forgiveness doesn't just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill."

"Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children."

I read some new, inspiring quotes in Brave Enough but on the whole, I prefer more context. Strayed's comments felt more meaningful in Tiny Beautiful Things when she was responding to someone with a real struggle. Flipping quickly through so many quotes left me feeling less connected to her writing than I usually am. Although I continue to be impressed by Strayed's writing, and I enjoyed many of her quotes, I'd recommend reading Strayed's other books before delving into these.

"Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naive pomposity."

"God is not a granter of wishes. God is a ruthless bitch."

"Hello, fear. Thank you for being here. You're my indication that I'm doing what I need to do."

"Trust your gut. Forgive yourself. Be grateful."

"You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve. You have to take off all of your clothes and say, I'm right here. This is not the moment to wilt into the underbrush of your insecurities."

#14 [2016/CBR8] "Learning to Climb Indoors" by Eric J. Hoerst

It was almost exactly one year ago that I decided to join my local rock climbing gym. I had the vague notion that climbing was fun, and the price was worth it since yoga was included. It turned out to be a great decision and has become something of a new obsession. I was told in my Introduction to Climbing class that for the first year, you should do nothing but climb. Sport specific strength training should wait until your tendons (especially in your fingers) have gained some natural strength from climbing. Because I have a history of jumping obsessively into new sports and promptly injuring myself, I took this advice seriously.

I've improved a ton after a year of climbing at the gym, and the better I get, the more interesting it gets, as the more difficult climbs open up to me. I also have a long way to go. I'm not looking to become an expert, but it is incredibly motivating to climb to the top of the wall on a climb rated harder than any you've done before. With my year anniversary has come the yearning to learn more about what I can do to improve. I already know that finger strength and the fear of falling on hard bouldering problems or lead climbing probably hinder my progress more than anything. I decided to turn to my favorite source [books] for information in my quest for improvement.

I decided to start at the beginning with Learning to Climb Indoors (2006) by Eric J. Hoerst. This is a book for beginners that starts with descriptions of routes and gear you will need to join a gym. Having climbed for a year, I already knew a lot of this, but I always like starting from the beginning to make sure I don't miss anything.

Learning to Climb Indoors is a good, basic book for those just starting out with climbing. It quickly describes what gear you need, the difference between top rope, bouldering, and lead climbing, and how to get the most out of climbing. There is a chapter on the mental aspect of climbing, which is way more important than you might assume. In addition, a helpful glossary with climbing lingo is in the back. The book corroborates what my first instructor said, advising to wait on any sport specific strength training until you've been climbing for a while. That being said, Hoerst includes a chapter on some basic exercises and stretches that will keep you healthy and improve your climbing.

I thought Learning to Climb Indoors was well-written with a lot of helpful information and pictures. However, it was probably a little basic for me to be reading after climbing for a year. In addition, much of the advice on climbing technique is much better learned through hands on practice (and Hoerst recommends getting a coach for this purpose). It is much easier to pick up technique by watching and doing. Although some of the exercises and advice were helpful, I probably could have jumped right to Training for Climbing by Hoerst, which supposedly has much more detail for those looking to improve. Fortunately, I bought Training for Climbing and plan on using it as a manual as I continue to climb.

#13 [2016/CBR8] "Crocodile on the Sandbank" by Elizabeth Peters

As I was looking for more books on CD to listen to in the car, I remembered The Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975) from an earlier Cannonball review. Fortunately there was no wait, and I was soon listening to the adventures of the intrepid Amelia Peabody and her friends in Egypt. Amelia Peabody is a fascinating character, a feisty feminist stifled by the Victorian times of 1884. Fortunately, she is primarily immune from society's constraints through her independence of mind and means. When her father died, he left her enough money that she could live comfortably. At thirty-two years old, Amelia considers herself a happy spinster--lucky to not lose her property and independence through marriage.

And with this new independence, Amelia decides to travel to Egypt. Stopping in Rome on the way, Amelia's companion falls ill, conveniently making room for a new companion whom Amelia presently meets: Evelyn Forbes is alone and friendless, cast out with nothing. Amelia finds her in a faint in the street, surrounded by tourists, and she kindly takes her home and gives her some food. Evelyn is beautiful, refined, and demure, but faces ruin because she ran away from her rich grandfather in England to elope with a skeevy Italian. The Italian had since taken everything of value and disappeared. A "fallen" woman in 1884 is not the best thing to be, and Evelyn gratefully accepts Amelia's offer to accompany her to Egypt.

Evelyn and Amelia arrive in Egypt where Amelia discovers her love of pyramids and Evelyn unwillingly meets her skeevy Italian ex-lover. In addition, Evelyn's cousin Lucas chases her down in Egypt, eager to tell her news of home and propose. But perhaps most importantly, the two women meet the Emerson brothers, Radcliffe and Walter. The Emerson brothers are in Egypt for a dig at an archaeological site, and the four meet up again away from Cairo. The majority of the action occurs at the Emerson brothers' dig south of Cairo where there is a fearsome and dangerous mummy stalking the dig. Evelyn is busy falling in love with Walter, and Amelia is busy denying her attraction to Radcliffe.

This was a fun book primarily because of the unique heroine. Amelia is strong-willed and smart, and her unshakable confidence defies logic. Although her interactions with Radcliffe were sometimes a little too "war of the sexes" bickering, their attraction felt real and very sweet in the moment. The mystery was kind of easy to figure out, but part of me appreciated that Peters gave the reader enough information to figure things out on their own. Anyway, it was the interactions between the characters that made this book what it was. I knew I was going to enjoy this book when I heard Amelia's reaction to Evelyn's tragic story of her Italian lover. Instead of being horrified and throwing the fallen Evelyn out of her hotel, Amelia basically asks Evelyn, "So, how was it?"

This book was written in 1975 and still seems to be very well-liked, although I found a couple parts potentially dated. First, I couldn't quite figure out whether it was purposeful to make Evelyn into the caricature of the perfect 19th Century woman. Evelyn is beautiful, ethereal, and fragile. She is loving, sweet, and noble and she spends most of the book fainting and being protected by those around her. I couldn't help but like her, but her helplessness was extreme. Secondly, although this book mentions some of the negative effects of Colonialism on Egypt, it is first and foremost a story of the colonizers. Egyptians are secondary characters only. Although Amelia is very progressive for her time, she has no problem using the Egyptians to appropriate the art and artifacts for Britain.