Monday, November 9, 2020

#36 [2020/CBR12] "Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler

My book club picked Vinegar Girl (2016) by Anne Tyler. It had good reviews, and I think everyone was happy that it was a relatively short novel. According to Amazon, Vinegar Girl was a result of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. The goal was to retell works by William Shakespeare for a more modern audience. Vinegar Girl is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew

I obviously know of The Taming of the Shrew, but I've never read it. I've heard it has problems with misogyny. However I have seen, and really enjoyed, 10 Things I Hate About You, and that is the extent of my familiarity with the subject matter.

Kate Battista is 29 years old. She is kind of stuck in a rut, and is not particularly happy. After dropping out of college because of philosophical differences with a professor (she thought he was stupid), she's been helping her father at home and working as a teacher's aide at a pre-school. Kate also helps to watch over her high school-aged sister, Bunny. Her mother died years ago, and they have an odd family life. Dr. Battista is so focused on his research that he doesn't really know how to care for his daughters, and he takes Kate for granted.

Then Dr. Battista's research assistant, Pyotr, has immigration issues that will keep him from staying in the country. Dr. Battista's solution to the problem of losing his very efficient and able assistant is to offer up his daughter for marriage so that Pyotr can get a green card.

At first Kate wants nothing to do with the scheme. She hates the idea, she's hurt that her father even suggested it, and she doesn't like Pyotr. But he slowly grows on her as the two of them are thrust together by her father. They get along pretty well. As things progress Kate's father assumes Pyotr will move into his house with Kate and Bunny. That way, he gets his assistant and doesn't lose his in-home help. However, Pyotr suggests that Kate live with him in his apartment after the marriage. The idea of freedom from her father's home and tasks is so appealing that Kate goes along with it.

This book was a fast read and felt slightly unreal, so I found myself not too attached to the characters. However, I found the novel interesting, and I did want Kate to find herself in a better position. Unfortunately, I am unable to compare and contrast this novel with the play. But the book seems to be more about Kate creating her own life and getting away from her controlling father than a husband "taming" her. I guess the modern version is Pyotr making it possible for his wife to be happier because she's doing the things she loves. After reading the synopsis of the play, it sounds like I would likely have had problems with the content. 

My least favorite part of the book was near the end. Out of the blue, Pyotr acts aggressive and mean. He is stressed, but he is very unlikable in the moment. And then Kate excuses Pyotr's behavior toward her and others because men have such a hard time when they bottle up their feelings and can't express them like women. It is still much more "acceptable" for women to share their feelings than men, which is detrimental to everyone involved, so I don't necessarily disagree. But Pyotr didn't seem like one that bottled up his feelings, and it didn't seem to fit his situation. I didn't understand why that reasoning led Kate to finally "understand" Pyotr.

I now have a slight interest in reading the play, but I'm afraid it's going to annoy my and lessen my view of Shakespeare. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

#35 [2020/CBR12] "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson

I heard of and picked up Steelheart (2013) by Brandon Sanderson because my boyfriend recommended it to me. I felt bad that he was reading all the books I recommended to him, and I wasn't getting around to those he'd recommended to me. 

Anyway, Steelheart is the first book in the Reckoners trilogy. Sanderson imagines a world similar to ours. However, shortly after Calamity (a new star?) appeared in the sky, a number of human beings began to develop superpowers. These people were called Epics. But instead of using their powers for good, like Superman, the Epics use their power to take whatever they want. They fight amongst themselves, and the normal people around them are often collateral damage.

David is eighteen years old and newly emancipated. He lives in Newcago, which is what became of Chicago after Steelheart--a very powerful and heartless Epic--took over the city. Steelheart can fly, bullets don't affect him, he can kill you with energy from his hand, and he can turn things to steel. The book begins with David and his father in a bank ten years earlier. Steelheart makes his first appearance in the city, killing everyone, including David's father. David barely survives with a lot of luck and some opportune running away.

Now that David is an adult and free of the orphanage, his one goal is to avenge his father's death. His wants to hook up with the Reckoners, a group of rebels that fight back against the epics. For a group that is incredibly secretive, David is able to find them pretty quickly. He is helpful enough that they allow him to join their efforts. Together they go after Steelheart, trying to discover his weakness in order to kill him.

On the one hand, this book was easy to read, there was a lot happening, and the action was written pretty well. On the other hand, I was disappointed in the characters and world building. The characters did not have enough detail to make them interesting. Each character had one trait that was repeated in a semi-annoying, unrealistic way. Jonathan Phaedrus (Prof) is the remote and enigmatic leader. Tia is the cola-drinking researcher. Abraham is a very strong Black, French Canadian, and Cody is a Southerner who talks about Scotland a lot. I could easily tell them apart, but none of them felt like real people. I did not care what happened to them.

Megan's characterization also immediately annoyed me. She is the hot, sexy love interest. Soon after she is introduced, she tears off her super slinky, low-cut dress to reveal a tank top and shorts. Then she breaks the heels off her high heels and runs after the bad guy. So, if the dress was as described, you couldn't wear another set of clothes underneath. It would show. Also, breaking off high heels--even if you can in the moment with your bare hands--doesn't make it easier to run after bad guys. The shoes don't turn into moccasins without heels. They are stiff and shaped oddly. You'd be better off keeping the heels on. The scene reminded me of that Mentos commercial from years ago. I decided the author did not have an understanding of the reality of women's clothing and was more interested in having his sexy love interest strip in front of David instead of acting more realistically. 

Megan was also difficult to understand. She goes back and forth between really liking David and inexplicably being really rude. This is explained somewhat later in the book, but their relationship was deeply unsatisfying. Also, the explanation just brought up a whole new slew of questions and grievances for me.

I found the lack of realism a problem throughout the book. I understand this is a fantasy with tons of beings with magical powers, but they should still act within the rules as set up in the universe. This problem was compounded by the fact that this world was not fleshed out. So, there is an entire city made of steel and it's dark all the time? That could have been fascinating, but there's so little detail that while I was reading I often forgot about the steel and darkness. Also, why does Steelheart keep his secret propaganda team on secret floors of the building that powers the city? Is it because that actually makes sense, or because it was the easiest way for the Reckoners to find out about it?

The first chapter of this book drew me in, but I found it to be a frustrating experience on the whole. I don't feel the need to read the rest of the trilogy.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

#34 [2020/CBR20] "Just Kids" by Patti Smith

CBR Bingo: Music (and my second Bingo!)

Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith is another book I found and decided to read because of Cannonball Bingo. I'm sure I could have found a number of books that worked for the Music square, but I wanted to read something that made it worth it. I saw that Just Kids had won the National Book Award and I was intrigued. I don't think I'm the target reader for this book. My knowledge of musicians and artists is limited at best, but it was an interesting glimpse into a place, time, and people that were very different from what I know.

I'd heard of Patti Smith before reading this, and I knew she was a musician. But I wasn't even sure what songs she's known for. After looking her up, I decided I was most familiar with Because the Night. Smith's book is a memoir of her life as an artist. It doesn't focus on music. It's more about what drove her to artistry and her subsequent experiences. Although Smith does discuss a little of her childhood and what brought her to New York City, the focus is on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I also had to look up Mapplethorpe because I was not familiar with him. He is a famous photographer who often pushed the limits with sex and nudity. He died of AIDS in 1989.

After going to college for a short time, working in a factory, getting pregnant and putting the baby up for adoption, Smith decides she needs more. In an act I find very brave, she spends the last of her money on a ticket to New York City. (It did bother me that Smith took money from a purse she found to help pay for her ticket. She took it as a sign that she should go, but I was worried about that poor woman who'd possibly just lost the last of her money.) She arrives in Manhattan with no money, no job, and no place to stay. After living on the streets for a while, Smith is able to get some work to help her survive.

Smith runs into Robert Mapplethorpe a couple of times before they begin to spend time together. They become roommates, artistic partners, and romantic partners. They work enough to survive and focus on whatever artistic pursuits come to them. These include collages, drawings, clothes, and poetry. Interestingly, neither Smith nor Mapplethorpe began with the pursuits that eventually gained them fame.

Mapplethorpe and Smith eventually move into the Hotel Chelsea (another famous landmark that sounded slightly familiar?). The hotel is full of artists. Smith would hang out in the lobby and see famous people constantly coming and going. In addition, the attached bar would often host Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and many others. Smith names a lot of famous artists throughout this book and especially during this section. Again, it would have been helpful if I were more knowledgeable about this artistic scene. However, I do know enough to recognize Dylan and Joplin--just know that there were many others as well.

Eventually, Mapplethorpe and Smith began to frequent Max's Kansas City, a bar and nightclub that was famous for being a haunt of Andy Warhol and his crew. They quickly went from outsiders to constantly sitting at the central, round table of the more famous artists.

Smith goes a little into how Mapplethorpe began taking pictures and what got her into poetry and singing. Her relationship with Mapplethorpe would always have been difficult to label, but it changed as they grew older as well. They were undeniably connected, and Smith wrote this book for him.

I'm sure there are many kinds of artists, but having thought myself leaning towards the artistic side, I've discovered that I have nowhere near the dedication of Smith. Dealing with the extreme poverty and the constant diligence and zeal of creation is something I just don't have. I like to create things--when I'm comfortable and have the time.

#33 [2020/CBR12] "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis

Cannonball Bingo: Money!

I've had a fun time figuring out what books fit for what squares in Cannonball Bingo, but I didn't know what to read for "Money!" Although I'm a fan of having money, and I'd definitely like enough that I don't have to work and can travel all over the world, the topic doesn't hold my interest. So, I went on a Google search to find a good book on a topic that I often find tedious. And I found The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010) by Michael Lewis.

I listened to the audio book of The Big Short, which I'm sure made the discussions of Wall Street, stocks, bonds, short selling, CDO's, and credit default swaps even more impenetrable. Fortunately, Lewis does a very good job in using the main characters to drive the narrative. He also excels at using metaphors to describe the gist of what's happening in the market without becoming mired in dense detail. I found myself very interested in the characters, invested in their success, and still understanding the basics of the financial markets.

In The Big Short, Lewis explains what caused the financial crisis of 2008 through the people who first saw what was happening. As someone who was a bond trader in the 1980's and 1990's (apparently he wrote about this experience in his first book), he has something of an insider's knowledge. Essentially, banks were giving home loans to people with bad credit or no credit (sub-prime mortgages). So interested in the fees they gained from these transactions, they often did little to no investigation on whether the borrower would be able to pay. These loans were often fraudulently misleading and included variable interest rates or low initial interest rates. The banks would sell these loans to large, Wall Street banks, and the loans would be bundled into bonds. Because of intentional obfuscation (fraud) and lack of oversight, 80% of these subprime loan bundles would be rated AAA--essentially riskless--even though they were full of loans that were pretty much guaranteed to fail. Even the 20% that were initially discarded, could be grouped in with other loans and potentially be rated AAA. On top of that, an entirely new market sprung up, betting whether the new housing loans would default or not. This new market magnified the already disastrous consequences of the sub-prime loans.

It seems that most of the people involved didn't really understand what was happening or the financial risk they were facing. The rating firms did not have the resources or will to delve too deeply into what was happening, and they didn't want to lose business. A lot of others involved were just going with the flow. The housing market had been so stable up to that point that most thought it was a sure thing. However, there were those that saw something was amiss. Dr. Michael Burry was a doctor who discovered an interest in finance. He started his own investment firm, Scion Capital, that was wildly successful financially. He looked deeper into the sub-prime mortgage loan bonds and discovered that they were bound to fail eventually, and he began betting against them. Steve Eisman was a refreshingly honest, but often rude and direct man who also figured out what was happening. Finally, Cornwall Capital was an investment firm started with $110,000 in a garage that bet against the grain.

Eisman, Murry, and the partners of Cornwall Capital drive the story. They are underdogs, vastly outnumbered in their understanding of what is to come. I loved hearing details about their lives and how they were able to come to their conclusions. 

As a newbie to this Wall Street business, I was shocked by how much money was involved, how much money was lost, and how this was allowed to happen. We tout the wonder of the free market, but the market broke down--even as default rates increased, the insurance rates stayed the same. And instead of allowing the banks to fail as deserved, the government stepped in and taxpayers bailed them out. Even more infuriating was that the people responsible for losing billions and billions of dollars walked away with millions of dollars for themselves. Howie Hubler from Morgan Stanley lost $9 billion in a single trade (with Morgan Stanley losing $58 billion in the financial crisis total). Instead of being fired, he was given the option to resign, and he left his job with $10 million in back pay. You f*ck up your job worse than anyone in history, and you earn $10 million? How is this fair? Obviously it's not, but I'd like a little more fairness and justice.

I found this book so surprisingly interesting that I'm contemplating learning a little more about financial markets...someday.

#32 [2020/CBR12] "Violet" by Sophie Lark

CBR Bingo: Violet

I found Violet (2019) by Sophie Lark with a little Google and Amazon searching. I was specifically looking for a book that filled the "Violet" square for Cannonball Bingo, and I figured there had to be a romance novel with 'violet' in the title. When I found Violet and saw that I could get it through Kindle Unlimited, I was sold. Violet is the third book in a series (about different mafia romances?), but the description said it was a stand-alone novel, which was perfect for me. Spoilers.

Violet is a young musician living in London. She barely makes ends meet by playing various gigs around the city. One of those is playing three times a week at a club owned and patronized by the Russian mafia. When a visiting mafia boss from Paris is in London for business, he takes a special interest in Violet when he sees her on stage. Violet does not know the man's intentions, but she finds herself intensely attracted to the man's bodyguard/right-hand man, Anton. (I've been watching a lot of Hamilton).

One night a couple weeks later, Violet is sleeping in her apartment when she is kidnapped by Anton and brought to Paris. He takes her to his boss's beautiful, gigantic mansion, and the boss explains that she is his daughter. He recognized her onstage and did some sneaky DNA testing. He wants her to become part of the family. Violet meets her Uncle Kostya, her half-brother Roman, and her cousin Nadia. Uncle Kostya is sneaky and Roman is bitter and angry at her intrusion. Nadia quickly becomes a great friend. Although there is undeniable chemistry between Anton and Violet, she is told that they could never be a couple because Anton is not officially part of the family and Violet's marriage must be political.

Violet feels some indecision over whether she wants to be a part of a mafia family, although she seems pretty comfortable, pretty quickly with violence. Violet's father shows her around their businesses in the city, but he quickly begins to look more frail. It turns out that he's dying of liver cancer. He wants Violet and Roman to take his place. But when he announces this at the council meeting involving all the mafia families in the area, some of them (including Uncle Kostya) revolt, killing each other with steak knives (because no guns/weapons were allowed into the meeting). Anton jumps through the locked door to save the day, and Violet, Anton, and Roman take over leadership of the Paris mafia.

I was pleasantly surprised when I began reading this book. Having never heard of the book or author and being a little skeptical of how a "mafia romance" would work, I didn't have high expectations. However, the writing was good. I immediately liked the main character, and when she lost her beloved guitar, I really felt for her. Unfortunately, this feeling did not last.

My first problem came when I noticed the many typos in the Kindle edition--each one just slightly irritating. However, my biggest problem with this book is that I discovered that mafia romances are not for me. I'm not a huge fan of violence and breaking the law. The book skimmed over the very ugliest side of the mafia, saying that they had transitioned to primarily legal enterprises. But Violet was drugged and dragged from her bed by Anton, and they first spent time together when he was showing her how to shoot a gun. The times they had sex were wholly consensual, but rough and not romantic from my point of view. They were attracted to each other but never really talked to each other. I did not feel much for their relationship. In fact, it felt like the book was not given enough time to flesh out the characters or their relationships at all. It seemed that the author spent more time building character in that first chapter than in the rest of the book.

So, I'm done with mafia romances for the time being, but I don't regret getting my "Violet" Cannonball Bingo square.

#31 [2020/CBR12] "The Water Dancer" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I first found Ta-Nehisi Coates when my friend recommended The Beautiful Struggle to me. I found it very moving and have since read every book Coates has written. I'm also using The Water Dancer for Cannonball Bingo. It is filling the "Repeat" square. I am repeating "Uncannon" since Ta-Nehisi Coates is not an old, white man.

In a story about slavery, Coates uses the words "Tasked" and "Quality" instead of slave and master. Hiram Walker is one of the Tasked. His life is relatively comfortable compared to some of the Tasked because his father is the master of Lockless--the Virginia tobacco plantation where he lives. He is put in charge of taking care of his half-brother, Maynard--a spoiled, stupid man and heir to the plantation. But there are bigger problems. The ground in that entire area has been over-farmed and productivity has decreased significantly. Tasked are being sold West to Natchez, Mississippi, tearing apart families for money as the plantations fall apart.

Hiram's mother was sold when he was a child, and he can't remember anything about her. But he's experienced a couple of strange happenings with a blue light where he ends up in a different place. We see Hiram grow up on the plantation, yearn for escape and experience capture. Hiram eventually manages a kind of freedom but devotes himself to the work of freeing others.

I wasn't sure what to expect with The Water Dancer (2019) since it was Coates's first published book of fiction. I finished it with some mixed feelings. There was some beautiful writing and some really great characters. Coates did an amazing job with the psychological toll of slavery, and it's interesting to see Hiram's changing perspective as he grows older. When he's young, Hiram wants his father's love and attention, but when he grows older he realizes that there really aren't any options for him. Hiram has shut down his feelings so much to survive that he finds it difficult to open up when he finds freedom and true friends. In addition, the dynamics between Hiram, his father, and his half-brother, Maynard were complex, hypocritical, and infuriating.

I also really liked the portrayal of the characters of Thena and Sophia. Their relationships with Hiram felt intense and real, but they also had their own struggles and needs. Finally, there were moments when Coates' quiet depictions showed the inhumanity of slavery in powerful ways that felt original.

On the other hand, I did not enjoy the magical realism elements of this novel. It was hard to get through the first chapter because I could not understand what was happening and it did not feel grounded in reality. For me, the light and conduction did not add anything to the novel. My favorite parts of the novel were the people and their relationships. It also felt random and unnecessary to put Harriet Tubman in the middle of the magical element of this narrative.

In addition, I had a hard time understanding Corrine and her role in this book. The entire section after Hiram is jailed after his escape attempt was confusing. I thought Corrine needed more backstory to be believable as a militant abolitionist. I also had a hard time believing that she could turn her entire plantation into a hidden military post without the slightest rumor. No one in society had happened upon strange happenings at her place? There was no one who let the secret slip? Did she really need to put Hiram through the nightly hunting? She felt like an ominous, shadowy character that doesn't really make sense. I also wondered why Hiram was never blamed for driving the horse and carriage into the river in the first place.

I really tried to wrap my head around how the magic of conduction in the narrative could make this book more emotional and powerful. The ability to use conduction is somehow tied to water, family connection, and the stories of ancestors. A recurrent theme throughout the book is the constant breakup of families by the Quality--thus taking away the only connection the Tasked has left. So only a couple of people were able to retain the conduction and bring more people to freedom. I'm not sure if this was Coates's intention, but it is a powerful idea. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work for me. Although I was very impressed by many parts of this book, I would have preferred it without the magical realism.

#30 [2020/CBR12] "Bringing Down the Duke" by Evie Dunmore

Bringing Down the Duke
 by Evie Dunmore was a historical romance novel that I first saw on NPR's Best Books of 2019. I've found some fun and different romance novels on this list, and I was happy to try another. And I liked this book. This was one of my favorite romance novels in awhile. It definitely fulfilled all historical romance expectations, but the female characters felt a little more realistic for their time. They weren't simply women transplanted from the 21st century back in time. It also hit a lot of strong, feminist points without being too obvious or lecturing. "What a gift this was, a room of her own." (33)

Annabelle Archer is a poor daughter of a country vicar. After her father's death, she was put under the thumb of her cousin Gilbert where she helped to care for and educate his children. With some hard work and quick thinking Annabelle procured herself a place in the first women's class at Oxford. Gilbert begrudgingly gives his permission because he believes her education might help his kids in the long run.

Annabelle has earned a scholarship to help fund her education, but in return for the money, she must support the suffragist movement and help to get the 1879 Married Women's Property Act passed. Although Annabelle knows and feels the disadvantages of her sex clearly, she is not particularly excited about going out in public and proclaiming more equal rights for women. With it comes the immediate disapproval of many around her, the possibility of scandal, the risk of getting kicked out of Oxford, or her cousin Gilbert finding out and rescinding his permission. However, after a run-in with Duke Sebastian Montgomery, she is assigned as the most likely suffragist to change his opinion.

Sebastian is a very powerful man in England and one of the queen's closest advisors. After his alcoholic father lost many of their estates and assets, he is on a driven mission to get them back and bring them back to prosperity. He has no patience for his younger brother who seems to be following in their father's footsteps. But Annabelle immediately grabs his attention. And when Annabelle finagles an invitation for her and her friends to one of his house parties, they are able to get to know each other.

Annabelle struggles with her studies, her work with the suffragists, and earning enough money to survive. Sebastian has to decide if he wants to get past his single-minded goals and have real relationships with Annabelle and his brother. I generally liked the relationship between the two leads. The Duke manages to balance the line between his autocratic character and not being too domineering. The two have a good relationship, and the book had me feeling real emotions.

I almost thought this book went on too long, but then I got into it all over again. I have Dunmore's second book, A Rogue of One's Own (2020) on hold at the library.

"She would have to cause a scene. She would have to dig in her heels and it would cause a scene, but she couldn't end up alone with this randy giant." (147)

"It felt too good to be seen. His kisses had lifted a loneliness off her she hadn't even known she carried." (178)

"Of course, facts hardly convinced people whose emotions wanted it to be otherwise." (188)