Monday, January 26, 2015

#4 [2015/CBR7] "A Week to be Wicked" by Tessa Dare

All it took was Cannonballer Beth Ellen to say "fun banter" and I was typing in A Week to be Wicked (2012) by Tessa Dare into my library's catalog search. This is my first Tessa Dare novel, and even though it's not quite up there with my favorites, it was fun and enjoyable. I'm planning on reading at least one more book in the series, maybe even more.

A Week to be Wicked is actually the second book of what I think is a four-book series, so I think I may have missed a little set up in the first book between our heroine, Minerva Highwood, and hero, Lord Payne--Colin Sandhurst. The book begins with Minerva knocking on Lord Payne's door in the middle of the night, asking him to run away with her to Edinburgh, faking an engagement, in order to get to the Royal Geological Society meeting and win a prize of 500 guineas. Minerva's primary motivation seems to be to protect her beautiful, older sister from marrying Lord Payne--the well known rake.

Lord Payne refuses, but we must have a story and eventually they set out on their journey and many adventures. There is danger, lies, and sexual awakening on the road and everything ends as expected. At the same time, Dare sets up the romance for her next book.

Minerva is a fun character, smart, brave, and witty, as well as an amateur geologist. I did find her glasses distracting, though. I have horrible eyesight and have glasses when my contacts are out, and they are so not sexy. If you're trying to connect with someone, there are thick panes of glass in the way. When you're making out with someone, they get bumped all over the place, and if you take them off, the entire love making experience is a big blur. I appreciate that they added something to her character, but I don't need the reminder of what a bother they are.

The plot of this book was absolutely ridiculous. I felt like I was reading comical erotica more than anything remotely historical. The plot jumped from highway robbers to an orgy house in the country, but its saving grace was that it didn't take itself seriously and it was fun. I did love the banter between the two main characters. Although I got a little frustrated by Minerva and Colin's constant, "Oh, I'm not good enough for him/her" drama, the characters were likable and their relationship was sweet. I'm glad I read it and I'm looking forward to the next one.

P.S. I am not a fan of the cover. Those models are nothing like I imagined the characters, and are they supposed to be having sex? Also, they they resemble each other a little too closely for comfort.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#3 [2015/CBR7] "The Wild Truth" by Carine McCandless

For whatever reason, I have been incredibly moved and impressed by everything regarding the story of the life of Chris McCandless. It started with Into The Wild (1997) by Jon Krakauer. I am a huge fan of Krakauer and how he digs so far into the details to get a fair and honest picture of his subject without losing the emotional empathy that makes us connect in the first place. I will read anything by him. When I heard they were making a movie, I was afraid they were going to butcher it, but I was surprised. I also fell in love with Eddie Vedder's soundtrack. So, when a friend pasted a link to The Wild Truth (2014) by Carine McCandless on Facebook, I figured I'd have to read it.

Carine McCandless is the younger sister of Chris McCandless, and she has a unique and personal view of the young man who left his family without a word and tragically died in the wilds of Alaska. She spoke with Jon Krakauer about her brother and parents when he wrote Into the Wild (1997), but she asked Krakauer to keep the details of their childhood from the book. Krakauer kept his promise. As far as I can remember (I read Into the Wild a long time ago), the reader understands that Chris is unhappy with his parents, but there's not a lot of detail regarding why. With The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless finally tells the whole story of her and Chris's childhood (as well as her father's other wife and kids). It is a revealing look into an already familiar figure, as well as a disturbing glimpse into a deeply dysfunctional relationship and family.

Chris McCandless is compelling, charismatic and tragic, so it wasn't surprising that I wanted to learn more about him. I was a little surprised, however, by how quickly I found myself relating to Carine McCandless. When I picked up the book, I wasn't expecting too much. It's hard to follow Krakauer, and McCandless is not a professional writer. But her writing was clear, descriptive and emotionally aware. I had a hard time putting the book down. I still sometimes yearned to learn these new details from Krakauer's objective perspective, but overall I was impressed by McCandless.

The violence disturbed me but what shocked me the most was the emotional abuse and manipulation by both parents towards each other and towards their children. I cannot imagine how difficult and traumatizing it would be to grow up in that household. The hypocrisy between the face they showed to the world and the life inside the home was striking.

The story seemed to focus on how Carine and her siblings were moving past their childhood, but I wonder if Carine has thought about how her parents still influence her. Carine's first marriage was to an abusive man, one who hid the violence until after the marriage. Yet the story of the abused child marrying an abuser is such a common story it's almost expected. She was young and she got out of it, but growing up in that house had to have affected her adult relationships, which she doesn't really explore.

Reading this story reminded me how much Krakauer made me care about Chris McCandless. It's very easy to imagine that Chris had gone to the woods and figured everything out. But this book reminded me that he was a troubled young kid who was dealing with a lot of heavy stuff. If he had made it out, he still would have been struggling with the baggage of his childhood. This hit me hardest when Carine described going to meet a man Chris had met on his journey and who he greatly admired. This man ended up beating on his wife in front of Carine.

I learned of this book from a friend who grew up in difficult and similar circumstances. At the very least, this book fights against the secrecy and shame that surrounds abusive households. I hope that those people reading this can find some comfort and understanding.

Now I need to go back and read Into the Wild again.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

#2 [2015/CBR7] "Yes Please" by Amy Poehler

"The only way we will survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others. No one can do it alone, no matter how great the machines are." (329)

There was never any doubt that I would read Yes Please (2014) by Amy Poehler; the only question was how long I'd have to wait for it to become available at the library. I've always enjoyed Poehler. I like her jokes, and I like her attitude, and these come across well in her book. I read the real book for this one [because the wait list was shorter] and I'm glad I did. The pages are thick and glossy and there's bright color interspersed throughout, making it both fun and tactile.

Poehler discusses her childhood in the suburbs of Boston, her early career in Chicago, Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live, her friendship with Tina Fey and Seth Meyer, Parks and Recreation, and her kids. These stories are all in the context of advice of how she's learned to live her life and what she feels is important. Although Poehler could probably dish on a number of celebrities, she holds back on personal details, both on others and herself. Sometimes I feel cheated when I feel authors are deliberately holding back, but this fits so clearly with Poehler's beliefs on keeping a part of life private, and she is so honest in discussing the things she's learned, that I didn't mind. Instead I appreciated that she didn't sell out her beliefs in order to sell a book.

Since I am most familiar with Poehler's work on SNL and Parks and Rec, I probably enjoyed these parts of the book the most. I also appreciated Poehler's positive and caring attitude. It is obvious that she treats people well and sincerely feels for them. It is refreshing to be around. It's also refreshing to read about a strong, successful woman in a career dominated by men--especially because Poehler talked about crying and feeling anxious about her life and work. Poehler is human, after all, even as she remains a fantastic role model for pretty much everyone, but especially younger women.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes Amy Poehler, so pretty much everyone I know.

"You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look." (224-225)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

#1 [2015/CBR7] "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

"Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena--organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." (184)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2014) by Anthony Marra follows a number of characters living in a small, mountain village of Chechnya from 1994 through 2004. The story jumps around between characters and time, sometimes even up to the 1940's to show an older character's earlier life. Although it's not difficult to follow, the stories intertwine in unexpected ways, and the true struggle and tragedy of war on innocent bystanders is explored in depth.

This is a powerful, well-written story that is hard to forget, and greatly increased my understanding of some of the history of Chechnya. Sonja is an overworked surgeon and one of three employees left at the mostly abandoned hospital when Havaa is brought to her from a nearby village. Havaa is a young girl whose father has just been dragged off for questioning. They are looking for her, too, a six year-old girl, and Havaa's neighbor hopes she will be safe at the hospital.

Beginning this book, I thought it would focus on the growing relationship between Havaa and Sonja as she took over the mothering of the poor child. The focus was actually much larger than that. Sonja and her missing sister, Natasha, have a compelling relationship, and Natasha struggles with her own demons throughout the book. Havaa's father and village friends also play a large role in this book, especially the life of the town informer, Ramzan, and his father.

"In another life Ramzan's weaknesses would have manifested no tragedy greater than a cheated chess victory." (127)
"You are mine. I recognize you. We twist our souls around each other's miseries. It is that which makes us family." (292)

The two things that struck me most about this book was the unending horror of war and what all the citizens had to deal with from both rebel and Russian forces. All they were trying to do was survive, but their lives were unbelievable difficult. And just when they started rebuilding and healing from the first war, it started all over again. And some of the characters couldn't make it through a second time. It was heartbreaking and difficult to read without being melodramatic. The war was a large part of the story, but it was all viewed through the characters' lives, making it more relatable and understandable.

"They put a shame inside you that goes in like a bridge with no end, the humiliation, the fucking humiliation of knowing that you are not a human being but a bundle of screaming nerve endings, that the torture goes on even when the physical hurt quiets." (326)

The second thing that struck me was the realism of the characters. No one was perfect and each had their own motivation and their own struggles. These unique, real, and sometimes funny characters, linked with the wider view of the general, negative effects of war, made for an intriguing and unforgettable book.

If I had any criticism of this book, it would be that it is almost too ambitious and sometimes feels too literary. I especially noticed the plethora of similes and metaphors in the beginning of the book. Some of these were remarkably descriptive and poetic, but others just reminded me that I was reading literature. In addition, Marra tries to expand the reach of the war with an omniscient narrator. In some ways, this works remarkably well: minor characters who would have been easily dismissed as another unknown victim of war are turned into whole people. The reader learns that the anonymous man, one of hundreds who gets his leg amputated at the hospital, survives the war, and goes on to be an architect, rebuilding the ravaged city. On the other hand, again, this trick did separate me from the main characters' struggles. Despite these very small concerns, this was a very impressive book.

"In the world beyond were two thousand and eighteen souls who had slept in that room, and remembered that room, and would harbor it in their thoughts for no fewer than ninety-nine years, when a little girl that Havaa had once watched sleep, the last living of the two thousand, closed her eyes for the last time." (335)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2014 in Review

Just a quick summation of what I read in 2014:

Total: 65 books
Books written by women: 50
Books written by men: 15
Romance novels: 15
Women authors (not including romance novels): 35
Fiction: 53
Non-fiction: 11
Poetry: 1

So, I read five books fewer than last year, but I'm happy as long as I get 52. The books that I read by male authors have been really good, but I'm glad I'm able to read so many books by women. It's something I consciously decided to do when I realized I was unintentionally giving male authors more importance.

Favorite Fiction:
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Longbourn by Jo Baker
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (I have my issues with it, but it's certainly memorable)

Favorite Non-fiction:
Green Illusions by Ozzie Zehner
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

#65 [2014/CBR6] "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie

Here is Amazon's description of Ancillary Justice (2014) by Ann Leckie:

"On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance."

I would never have chosen to read this book. From the genre (I read science-fiction now and again but rarely seek it out), to the description, to the book cover art, none of it piqued my interest. The cover reminded me of that Atari video game from my childhood. And I didn't even know where to start when it came to reading a story about a spaceship who is a person. But Ancillary Justice is the latest book for my local book club, and even though it wasn't my choice, I was looking forward to reading something new and out of my comfort zone. It also didn't hurt that Ancillary Justice was the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, British Science Fiction, Locus, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

I know a lot of people who really enjoyed this book, and the many awards it has won is a testament to the writing as well as the unique and original story. For me, it took me about fifty pages to get into the story, I loved the middle of it, and then I kind of lost interest in the end. I don't want to go into too much detail about the plot, primarily because I'd have to remember all the names of people and places and look up how to spell them. Also, if you're going to read it, it's nice to go into it without many expectations.

I guess you could look at this story as the many relationships the Justice of Toren [JoT], or Breq, has with various people in her world. There is Lieutenant Awn, the lower class, but accomplished and beloved officer JoT served in the past. There is the stuck-up, royal officer that Breq saves in a far off icy planet. She dislikes the officer and doesn't trust her, but feels compelled to help her. And then there is the ultimate ruler of the Radch, an incredibly powerful leader who JoT is bound to follow.

Leckie brings up a number of interesting issues through her story. There is class, warfare, love, and justice. The question of when to follow orders and if one small soldier can make a difference, and what would or should they give up to make that difference. I was worried that the whole ship is a person thing would be ridiculous but Leckie pretty much sold it to me. Halfway through the book, I believed and understood so clearly how JoT worked and assimilated information.

In addition, the Radche society does not distinguish gender, either physically or linguistically. In the book, all pronouns are she, whether male or female. This was both fascinating and frustrating to me. It was a sharp reminder how much I assume about characters based only on their gender. On the other hand, without knowing their gender, I had a hard time imagining the characters in my head. They always seemed like a shadowy, mystery figure, and it kept the story from feeling real. Also, I became very distracted by trying to figure out which characters were male and which were female, and trying to figure out how sexual relationships work when gender doesn't matter. I kept waiting for the book to explain itself more, and I was disappointed that it didn't.

And in the end, that was my problem with the book. I didn't understand enough about the ship, genderless people, and a divided leader to really feel invested in them. I was often frustrated because I didn't have the information that I wanted about the world. Although I appreciate that this is a well-written book, I had to push through to the end and it didn't grab me as much as I was hoping.

#64 [2014/CBR6] "Not That Kind of Girl" by Lena Dunham

I realize that Lena Dunham and her HBO show Girls, can be somewhat polarizing, but I've always found her stories brutally honest and entertaining. I looked forward to reading her book, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" (2014) and was happy to finally pick it up from the library. Dunham writes primarily about her life: generally isolated and out-of-sequence stories of growing up, school, college, boyfriends, sex, her mental health issues, and her show.

On the whole, I found this an interesting read. Dunham is a talented writer and her book is peppered with witty phrases, funny stories, and words of wisdom often learned the hard way. She can be incredibly sensitive and insightful.

"There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren't needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up."

"But that isn't how it works. When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself...It's something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. This is so simple. But I tried so hard to make it complicated."

Unfortunately, there were some aspects to Dunham's writing that made it harder for me to connect with her or understand her. Her life is told in snapshots pulled randomly from an unorganized drawer. I had a hard time keeping track of her life, or how one event may have influenced her later in life. I also felt that many of her stories were told in a way to show how unique or crazy her life is. Instead of explaining her actions and making them more universal or understandable, they're like totems representing how different she is.

I saw glimpses of a childhood and life that was very different from mine. She auditioned in front of Peggy Marshall as a child, she grew up with wealthy artist parents in New York City, trying out a number of different therapists along the way. Yet there was very little information about how her childhood affected her. I'm not sure if she even realizes what a different world she lives in. It would have been refreshing to see that she has a greater awareness of the world outside of wealthy NYC artists. I also would have been interested in learning more about  her mental issues: lack of sleeping, OCD, etc. She's not shy about mentioning them, but I think I would have felt I understood her better if she explained more.

Dunham also described the reality of doing sex scenes for Girls. I've heard a number of actors describe the awkwardness and reality of doing sex scenes for movies and television. They have never been as honest, forthright, and detailed as Dunham was while painting a picture of the, let's just say, grossness of the whole thing.

I was impressed with some parts of this book, and I will continue to enjoy Girls when it becomes available on DVD. However, I did not come away from this book feeling I knew or understood Dunham or where she's coming from.