Saturday, July 28, 2018

#34 [2018/CBR10] "Making Up" by Lucy Parker

I usually don't buy books. If I can't get it at the library, it's not worth reading. But I make an exception for Lucy Parker. For some reason, my library doesn't carry her, but I really enjoyed her first two books. When I saw that she had another one coming out, Making Up (2018), and I was about to leave on a backpacking trip, I knew it would be perfect reading for the rainy weekend ahead.

I have to be careful about what I read while I'm camping. I have a vivid imagination and I can freak myself out pretty quickly when I'm alone in a tent, in the dark, in the middle of the woods. Romance novels are usually perfect. They can be engrossing without any murder, suspense, or mystery that will scare me. And Making Up worked well. I read it in two days on my phone, mostly sitting in my tent while it was pouring rain outside.

If you've read Parker's other books, you'll recognize Trix as Lily Lamprey's old roommate and best friend. Trix is a petite gymnast with pink hair who plays a major role in a sexy, Cirque du Soleil-type show in London. She has been recovering from a manipulative, controlling, and emotionally abusive boyfriend. She successfully left him a year ago, but she is still struggling with her self esteem after his evil machinations. Her stress compounds when the woman in the lead role is injured and Trix takes her place as the understudy. At the same time, an old friend from high school, Leo, is hired on to the show to do make up.

Leo and Trix were almost a couple in high school. They were so similar and got along so well until something happened. Since then they've run into each other almost everywhere and snipe at each other constantly. When they finally figure things out enough to know that they actually like each other, there are still problems. Trix is terrified of getting into anything too serious after her last boyfriend, and Leo is in the middle of a competition that might bring him a job offer to work in the United States. Either way, their relationship may be doomed. But of course it's not doomed because love always wins out in the end.

I liked Trix and Leo a lot. They were not your typical romantic protagonists: they were both nerdy artists, and they made a really good couple. However, on the whole, I think I enjoyed Parker's first two books a little more. I felt like there was not much development in their relationship. They already knew each other, there was just a misunderstanding that the reader knows nothing about until it is revealed and solved in one scene. I felt like it took forever for them to get together with few small steps along the way. I loved the scene where they finally got together, but I wish there had been more.

I also did not like Leo's sister, Kat. She acted horribly and (to me) unrealistically for vague reasons. Even when I found out what was going on, I wasn't satisfied. I also couldn't believe that she would run to Trix at the end to spill all her secrets because she'd heard that Trix had endured a bad boyfriend, too. I didn't like her and I didn't believe her as a character. I also couldn't understand how Jono, Trix's co-worker and apparently the nicest man in the world could tolerate her. I'm assuming that Parker is setting something up for her next book, but I kind of hope that Kat is not the subject.

Although this didn't draw me in quite as much as Parker's previous novels, I still enjoyed it. I loved Trix and Leo, and I'm looking forward to Parker's next one.

#33 [2018/CBR10] "Love Warrior" by Glennon Doyle

I swear I found Love Warrior (2016) by Glennon Doyle on NPR's List of Best Books, but I just went back to check and couldn't find it on the list. So now I have no idea where I found it. Love Warrior is a memoir of a life and a marriage. Glennon Doyle grew up in a loving family, but she had Bulimia since she was a child. As she grew older, she also became an alcoholic. Getting married to Craig Melton and becoming a mother was a turning point in her life. She sobered up and she focused on building the perfect family.

Doyle's seemingly perfect family was shattered when she discovered her husband's pornography on the family computer as well as his infidelity. She'd focused her life on taking care of her kids. Suddenly she did not have the support of her husband, and she could see the pain she was causing her children. All of her life, Doyle had run from her problems, avoiding and refusing to feel the pain and loneliness that we all go through at some point. But this time, Doyle faced her problems. She went to therapy, allowed herself to feel pain, and worked through a lot of issues with her husband. Doyle also changed her relationship with God and religion, making a more personal relationship with God instead of blindly following the narrow roles prescribed by her church. In some ways, this book turns into a self-help book where Doyle explains what helped her get through her crisis.

There were many things that I liked about this book. Doyle is a good writer, and I admired how she honestly discussed her Bulimia, alcoholism, and downward spiral in high school and college. She ended up in a mental hospital as a teenager, and it was one of the few places she felt safe.

However, some aspects of the second half of this book didn't work as well for me for a number of reasons. Perhaps most disconcerting was that I googled Glennon Doyle after I began reading because I was curious what she looked like and what she was doing now. I discovered that she is now married to Abby Wambach, a retired, women's soccer superstar. I thought that was interesting, and I kept expecting her to address it in her book--perhaps even as an explanation as to why her marriage was so difficult. But that never happened--Doyle wrote the book before she met (or at least got serious) with Wambach. The narrative of the book was solely focused on being brave and saving your marriage against all odds. It felt like something was missing. Doyle found a way to forgive and live with her husband again, but even with all the talk of honesty, it seemed that she had not really addressed the problem.

During the breakdown of the marriage, I found myself most often feeling sorry for her husband, Craig. I did not forgive his cheating or lying, but he did not ruin a perfect marriage. Even before they were married, they could not talk to each other and Doyle hated sleeping with him. They'd never really spent time together sober, and the only reason they got married was that Doyle was pregnant again and decided to keep it. It's a horrible recipe for a marriage, and it is no surprise that it didn't work out. But Glennon was attacking Craig like he was the only one at fault, which didn't seem fair--although I do appreciate the honesty in which Doyle described their interactions.

Finally, I am not a religious person, and I can sometimes get frustrated with too much talk of it. I like Doyle's eventual take on religion where it's all about love and a personal relationship with God. However, I could not stop from rolling my eyes when she pretends that her decisions are God's will. Just take credit for your decisions. I don't understand how people can pretend that God is telling them what to do.

After an entire book about her husband's betrayal and how they worked out there problems, Doyle leaves him for another woman. It feels like a large part of the story is missing. Doyle never liked sex, was this because of bad experiences? Was it because she was a lesbian but in denial? Doyle has always been religious. If she was attracted to women when she was younger, did the inevitable guilt and denial going along with that contribute to some of her problems growing up? Was she in denial when she was younger or did she honestly develop an attraction out of the blue to Wambach? Despite reading so many of Doyle's honest confessions, something still felt disingenuous about her memoir. At least right now, Wambach appears to be the happy ending and true partner for Doyle. It would have been a more interesting book to see how she got there.

Friday, July 27, 2018

#32 [2018/CBR10] "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez

Another day and another book from my list of  50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. This one was In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) by Julia Alvarez. I had heard of this novel before and was interested in reading it. It is a fictionalized version of the true story of four sisters in the Dominican Republic, three of whom were killed by the order of the brutal dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo came into power with a military coup, and he managed to stay in power for over thirty years from 1930 to 1961. The three sisters and their driver were murdered on November 25, 1960. They were a symbol of resistance to Trujillo.

This book was interesting and easy to read. It is no mystery that something horrible happens at the end, so there is natural, built-in tension. The reader sees the Mirabal sisters grow in age, maturity, and awareness as the novel progresses. Eventually, they become involved in active resistance to Trujillo. Minerva, the most vocal and dedicated, was the first to join the resistance. She was given the code name Mariposa, or butterfly. When her sisters joined her, they were called Mariposas as well.

We get a good look at the sisters and their family and how they became radicalized. However, I wouldn't have minded a little more general information about the Dominican Republic and its culture. The Mirabal family was just one well-to-do family on the island. I wanted to know how Trijullo's dictatorship affected people in worse economic circumstances, and how the Mirabal family was viewed because of their class. I know a book can't be everything, but I could have used a little more context about the social and economic happenings of the situation.

I found reading about the sisters' lives interesting and instructive, but having just read A Visit from the Goon Squad, I found the characterization a little flat. The sisters were all unique, but they tended to have just the one character trait that defined them. Patria, the eldest, was the religious one. Dede was the responsible one, Minerva was the rebel, and Maria Teresa is the spoiled, materialistic, youngest daughter. There were definitely moments throughout the book where there was real tension and drama, and I wish Alvarez had gone deeper into their characters. I sometimes felt something was missing.

On the whole, this was an interesting book. It is based on a true, remarkable story. I'd recommend it to those interested in the history. I also saw there was a movie made based on this book with Salma Hayek, but I haven't seen it yet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

#31 [2018/CBR10] "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

Like many of the books I've been reading these days, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011) by Jennifer Egan is on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I had heard of this one before. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and a coworker recommended it to me back when it was first published. However, I think I was turned off by the title. What is a goon squad? It sounded violent and probably not fun to read.

So when I finally picked it up, I began reading with a little optimism and some trepidation. A Visit From the Goon Squad turned out to be a collection of intertwined short stories that jump from time to time and character to character. Some of the writing is especially original and creative. One chapter is simply a power point presentation (it is much better to go to the website link for this chapter than to try to read it on Kindle). Now, this description, along with the title, would be more than enough to scare me away from reading this book. I generally prefer straight-forward narration with good, interesting characters that draw me in and keep me engaged. I find gimmicks frustrating, distracting, and rarely useful.

The surprising thing, though, was that I loved this book. The characters and the stories immediately drew me in. Instead of readjusting with every new chapter and every new character's viewpoint, I looked forward to who I would be reading about next. The book begins with a young, New Yorker kleptomaniac out on a blind date. She steals a woman's wallet in the bathroom because she can. She also works as an assistant to Bernie, a famous music producer. The next chapter is from the point of view of one of Bernie's high school friends, years ago, when they were in high school in California. Another friend of Bernie's gets involved with a music producer who ends up becoming Bernie's mentor. The next chapter jumps even farther because it is from the point of view of the new girlfriend of Bernie's mentor while the family is on a trip to Africa. The book continues to spread, jumping from character to character, forward and backward in time, with a web of connections linking them together. At one point, the book is in an undisclosed location with a murderous, dictatorial general, and yet it all makes sense.

Each chapter was interesting and well-written all on it's own. But the more you read, the more you learn about each character. Seeing the characters in many different time periods and from so many different perspectives gave them a surprising amount of depth. Egan also showcases how time can change both circumstances and people. Seeing Sasha as we see her in the beginning of the book, and then seeing Sasha through the eyes of her daughter was perhaps the starkest example of this.

I am impressed beyond words at how Egan was able to write such believable, interesting, characters with this format. The intricacies of how everyone is connected, how they see each other, and how they evolve is sometimes hard to keep straight as the reader. I cannot comprehend how Egan managed to create this whole thing. And yes, that power point chapter may have turned me off if it were in another book. However, by the time I got to it, I was so invested in the characters and the story, that Egan could have filled a chapter with bumper sticker slogans, and I wouldn't have minded.

Nothing quite matches the joy of finding a book that speaks to you, especially when you are not expecting it. I am very glad that I finally read this book.

"In this story, I'm the girl no one is waiting for."
"We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying."
"[O]ne of those people who used the unforgivable phrase 'meant to be'--usually when describing her own good fortune or the disasters that had befallen other people."
"The album's called A to B, right?" Bosco said. "And that's the question I want to hit straight on: how did I got from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?"
"Time's a goon right? Isn't that the expression?"

Monday, July 2, 2018

#30 [2018/CBR10] "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert (transl. by Adam Thorpe)

I've discovered another problem with my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. The first problem was including Fifty Shades of Grey--no explanation needed. The second was including Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert, which requires a little more explanation. The introduction states that "this list celebrates female writers who wrote coming-of-age classics as well as modern page-turners." There is no doubt that Madame Bovary is an influential classic that is worth reading, but the problem is that Gustave Flaubert is not a female writer. I am genuinely curious if there was some breakdown of communication between the editor and the people choosing the books for this list. It's hard to imagine that they didn't realize Flaubert was a man. And if they did it on purpose, why did they include Flaubert as the only man on the list? I guess I'll never know.

The short blurb next to this book says it's about "a woman escaping her dull existence through multiple sexual affairs." However, I would argue that in many ways this book is more about Charles Bovary and how his wife ruins him. In fact, the novel begins and ends with Charles, starting with him in school, and ending with him after his wife dies. It is certainly true that the majority of the book follows Emma Bovary, and is sometimes sympathetic to her thoughts and feelings, but it was not what I expected.

Emma Bovary is a young farmer's daughter when she meets Charles Bovary, the local doctor, who comes to help her father. She is beautiful and yearns for luxury, love, and excitement, inspired by the many popular novels she reads. When she marries Charles, she fancies herself in love with him, but she is almost immediately disappointed. Charles loves Emma as much as he can but he cannot change the fact that he is not the smart, dashing figure of Emma's dreams. His obtuseness continually keeps him in the dark as to Emma's real feelings.

Even with Flaubert's many poetic descriptions filling up the book, a lot happens in this novel. Emma falls in love with a young law student in Yonville, Leon. This first love remains unspoken and innocent. She gives birth to a little girl, whom she mostly ignores. She is encouraged to overspend and buy on credit by a Monsieur Lheureux. Eventually she obtains a Power of Attorney for her husband, so she can control and waste all of his finances as well. This is the primary cause of her ultimate downfall. When Rodolphe Boulanger, a local wealthy man, decides Emma would be easy to seduce, she falls easily into his arms. Later, when she runs into Leon again, she does not hesitate to begin an affair.

I can appreciate that there are many good things about this book. The characters are portrayed in a believable and sympathetic manner. There were also some very memorable scenes. One that really stuck with me was when the town pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, talked Charles Bovary into doing a newfangled procedure to cure his servant's club foot, almost killing him. I also felt bad for Emma Bovary when she went to the priest for help and he was oblivious to her distress. Flaubert is very good at showing the personality of his characters, and it's very hard not to have strong opinions about them.

However, I often had a hard time with Emma Bovary. Even though the description said that Emma Bovary had affairs to escape her dull life, I don't think Emma would have been happy in any situation. No matter how opulent and luxurious her life, or how dashing her husband was, I think she would have tired of both. I wondered if she suffered from depression because reading popular books is not exactly an explanation of her behavior.

In many ways, this book was something of a struggle. I know zero French, so the French names and the dated French words often made it a more challenging read for me. I was using my Kindle dictionary a lot, and more often than not the word wasn't even in my dictionary. In addition, I knew I was reading the slow demise of Emma Bovary. She just kept doing things that made me shake my head until she got herself into such a deep hole, she couldn't face it anymore. She did so much damage to herself and those around her. It wasn't always fun to read about.

"Life is such a hideous business that the only way to tolerate it is to avoid it...by living in Art."

"[A] few details slipped away, but the regret stayed."

"The future was a corridor entirely dark, with a door fast-shut at the end."

"But a woman is continually impeded, inert and pliant at the same time."

"She knew now the pettiness of passions that art exaggerated."

"From where did it come then--this deficiency of life, this instantaneous decay of everything she leaned upon?"

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

#29 [2018/CBR10] "Lord of Scoundrels" by Loretta Chase

I was ready for a good romance novel and discovered Lord of Scoundrels (1995) by Loretta Chase on Cannonball. This was my first Chase novel, and I think I will be reading more in the future. The plot was not something I would regularly enjoy, but Chase's writing is good. She makes her characters sympathetic and understandable, even when they are unlikable.

Jessica is independent, over twenty-five, and unmarried. She's earned herself a good income by buying and selling unique items she comes across. Her goal is to open up her own shop in London. But first she must travel to Paris to save her fool of a brother from ruining himself under the influence of the notorious Lord Dain. Dain is rich and powerful, but he hates himself. His mother abandoned him as a child before dying of a fever. His father detested him and sent him off to boarding school, basically disowning him. Dain spends his time gambling, making more money, and having wild orgies at his home in Paris.

Instead of besting Dain, Jessica is immediately attracted to him--and the attraction is mutual. The two argue and fight, but there is no denying it. The plot gets a little convoluted in the middle (more on that later), but Dain and Jessica wind up getting married. However, Dain is far from healed, and simple attraction is not enough to save them. The rest of the book is Jessica slowly learning and understanding what's going on in Dain's head as she helps him become a better and more whole person.

I definitely liked this book. The characters and situations were fun to read about, and I liked the depth that Chase gave to Lord Dain. He does some really horrible things, and without that understanding, some of his actions would have been unforgivable. It was because of Chase's writing that I did not give up on him completely.

However, a couple of things rubbed me the wrong way. First, I really did roll my eyes a couple of times at plot points in the middle of the book. Jessica shoots Dain after he almost ruins her, and then she sues him--which eventually leads to their marriage. Shooting someone is serious, crazy business. I know she's supposed to be a remarkable shot and could avoid bone, but what if she'd hit his brachial artery? What about infection? Infection is a problem now, and we have antibiotics now! You can't just shoot someone and not have any consequences. Second, Dain's attitude toward every woman but Jessica was horrible. I understand he has reasons, but even understanding where he was coming from made it almost impossible to like him. Jessica is a supremely understanding saint who manages to not take Dain's actions personally as she changes his entire life. I accepted it all because I enjoyed reading the book, but generally I like nicer heroes.

Friday, June 22, 2018

#28 [2018/CBR10] "The Power" by Naomi Alderman

The Power (2017) by Naomi Alderman is another book recommended by President Obama. Again, I had no idea what it was about going into it, but I'm really glad I read it. Not only does it give me something to talk about with Obama if I ever happen to run into him [very likely], but I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking.

The Power begins five thousand years in the future. Neil Armon just wrote a book and is getting feedback from a fictional Naomi Alderman. They live in a world that is matriarchal and women have the more powerful roles. Neil's draft is an imagining of how women came to be in the superior position. His book begins in our present day, where, around the world, young women are developing a "skein" near their collarbone that allows them the power to electrically shock with their hands. Reactions very drastically between people and countries as men and women confront this new ability. There is fighting between adolescent girls, and there are attacks on men and boys. "Already there are parents telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far." The most violent uprisings occur in Moldova where there is a large amount of sex trafficking of women.

There are five or six characters that tell the story from different perspectives and show what is going on throughout the world. Allie is an American girl who was abused by her foster father. She kills him and goes on to start a new feminist religion based on her powers. Roxy is the daughter of an English mafia head. She is incredibly powerful and eventually travels to the United States and befriends Allie. The two make a very strong partnership.

Margot Cleary is an American politician when the skein is woken in her by her daughter, Jocelyn. "Younger girls awaken it in older women. This is the Devil working in the world, passing from hand to hand as Eve passed the apple to Adam." At first Margot hides her power because it is not acceptable, but as the skein becomes more accepted, Margot becomes Governor and uses her power to help girls control their power as well as make herself more successful.

Tunde is an African journalist who makes his name documenting the emergence of the skein and it's effect on politics and populations throughout the world. He is, probably, the most sympathetic character in the book. He is both hurt and saved by women throughout the book. "At first we did not speak our hurt because it was not manly. Now we do not speak it because we are afraid and ashamed and alone without hope, each of us alone. It is hard to know when the first became the second."

I have a lot of thoughts about this book. First, it was fascinating to explore a world where women had a physical advantage. This is especially true when it came to sex. Women could use their skein to make sex more fun and exciting if used gently, or they could literally torture or kill a man if they chose. Women can also force men to get erections, which can become incredibly painful. The skein suddenly puts men in a position where they have to trust women not to physically hurt them. I imagine this perspective could be eye-opening to many.

Second, this book is not a fairy tale of how great a world we would have if women were in charge. Instead, it says that people will do whatever they can to use their power and to get power. The women in this story are not necessarily evil, but they are shaped by their backgrounds and their needs. When they gain power, they use that power to their own advantage and try to get more. Even if they started out with good intentions, bad results occur. I don't like power and I often did not like these characters. This book quickly became very painful to read.

Finally, Alderman really made me think about nature versus nurture. Would women really turn out to be so power hungry and violent? Personally, I don't think things would turn out just like this, but human nature and power may be more significant than gender differences. I'm glad I read this one and would recommend it.

"You can't be the one that hurts and the one that comforts."