Sunday, January 15, 2017

#3 [2017/CBR9] "Blonde Date" by Sarina Bowen

Blonde Date (2014) is a sweet novella by Sarina Bowen. Bowen uses the Ivy League setting and characters we already met in The Year We Hid Away. The romance is between Katie, one of Scarlet's roommates, and Andy, the guy who lives in the dorm room next door to Bridger. When Katie is looking for a nice guy to bring to a sorority party, Scarlet sets her up with Andy.

The novella is set up in chapters with the alternating perspectives of Katie and Andy. Andy has had a crush on Katie since he first saw her in his Art History class, but it takes a little while for Katie to realize how much she likes him.

I was a little worried at first that I wouldn't like Katie. She seemed overly concerned with appearances and partying, all of which are wholly unrelatable to me. She's focused on dating an upperclassman and an athlete and cannot go dateless to the sorority she's rushing. Fortunately, Bowen almost immediately makes her a more interesting person. She's intelligent, likes to laugh, and is tired of trying to meet everyone else's expectations. She just recently had an incident with an ex of hers where he acted terribly, and she's embarrassed to face him and his friends at the party.

Andy is delightful. He's smart, athletic, funny, compassionate, tall, and he has a great relationship with his sister. There is talk of him being goofy and not confident enough around women, but he seems to have plenty of confidence around Katie. He handles Katie's situation with a nice blend of encouragement and protectiveness without being overbearing.

I don't have much else to say. Blonde Date was short, entertaining, and satisfying. Bowen did a good job of having Katie own her sexuality without shame. Andy and Katie bring out the best in each other. My main wish was that the story could have been longer.

#2 [2017/CBR9] "Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty" by Ramona Ausubel

I've been working my way through another book list I found, this latest one being NPR's Best Books of 2016. With over three hundred books, this list is going to keep me busy for quite a while. There are just too many good books out there for me to keep up with. However, I was initially a little unsure of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (2016) by Ramona Ausubel.

The blurb from amazon states:
Labor Day, 1976, Martha's Vineyard. Summering at the family beach house along this moneyed coast of New England, Fern and Edgar—married with three children—are happily preparing for a family birthday celebration when they learn that the unimaginable has occurred: There is no more money. More specifically, there's no more money in the estate of Fern's recently deceased parents, which, as the sole source of Fern and Edgar's income, had allowed them to live this beautiful, comfortable life despite their professed anti-money ideals. Quickly, the once-charmed family unravels. In distress and confusion, Fern and Edgar are each tempted away on separate adventures: she on a road trip with a stranger, he on an ill-advised sailing voyage with another woman. The three children are left for days with no guardian whatsoever, in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.

Many of the negative reviews of this book complain that the characters are annoying and unlikable, which isn't too surprising given the blurb above. Rich, entitled, and hypocritical people who fall apart at the first whisper of difficulty in their lives are not particularly sympathetic characters. But I downloaded it anyway and began to read. Very early on, I hit a point where I was so impressed by Ausubel's writing that I felt safe. I had no idea where she was going with her story, but I trusted that she could keep it interesting and emotionally engaging. And she did. It's difficult to write characters who make bad, selfish decisions and still make them understandable. I think Ausubel accomplished this.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty jumps around between time periods and perspectives. The story is centered around the relationship of Edgar and Fern and their three children. We learn of Edgar's and Fern's childhoods as well as the, sometimes surprising, history of the other main characters. I would characterize this book as meandering, exploring how family and experiences shape us. Although there is some urgency brought to the plot with the children at home alone, and wondering about how things could possibly work out, it is more about the journey and an investigation of the characters' lives.

Ausubel has a remarkable ability to keep the big picture in mind while giving us minute details of her characters' motivations. Edgar is fascinating and infuriating. Born feeling guilty for his privilege and wealth, he constantly rants about the coal workers dying for his life of ease. Yet he's oblivious of the many other privileges that are afforded to him, including his wife's sacrifice and work to keep their family going.

"Maybe the girl would care about something along the way--art or history--but it would be pressed out of her slowly until she was nothing but a woman, nothing but a mother." (31)
"Edgar let it be. He did not want to tell his wife that he thought she could amount to more, though he did, because he loved her and because she was smart and because he was blind to so much of the work she did in their home, the invisible structure she built to support five lives." (222)

Edgar is also oblivious to the fact that his wife's money, that he lives off of, was grown on the back of slaves. In addition, his daughter is learning a caricatured version of Native Americans in school, believing that they are some mythical, western story and oblivious to the fact that she is living right where they used to live. What makes Edgar so frustrating, though, is that he is idealistic, but not strong enough to follow through on his convictions. I imagine many of us are like this to some degree, but Edgar's life puts a spotlight on his hypocrisy. As easy as Edgar is to dislike, he still suffers. His life would be so much easier if he could imagine that he had earned such a life (as many people do) and just enjoy it.

I really liked this book. It is interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking. There is so much more to it than I was able to describe in this review. I was, perhaps, disappointed that the ending came so quickly and cleanly. Ausubel spent the majority of the book unraveling people's thoughts and lives. It all came back together so swiftly in the end that it was almost anticlimactic. However, like the story, this book is more about the journey than the ending, and I'm very glad I read it. NPR's best books of 2016 hasn't let me down yet. If only I had more time.

#1 [2017/CBR9] "F*ck Feelings" by Michael I. Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett

F*ck Feelings (2015) by Michael I. Bennett, MD and his comedy writer daughter Sarah Bennett was probably recommended for me on Amazon at some time. The gist of this book is that many people go to therapy looking for miraculous solutions that simply aren't going to happen. F*ck Feelings argues that  there is a more realistic and practical way of dealing with what life throws at you, from addiction to depression to dealing with asshole co-workers and asshole children.

Michael Bennett is a psychiatrist and seems to have a large amount of experience and knowledge. On the whole, though, this book didn't quite work for me. Although it made some interesting and helpful points, I didn't get as much out of it as I was hoping. The authors hit many different topics with a relatively broad brush. Much of it was repetitive, and I often wished for more details.

The book is separated into chapters, including, fuck: self-improvement, self-esteem, fairness, helpfulness, serenity, love, communication, parenthood, assholes, and treatment. The overriding theme of this book is the both depressing and heartening idea that many of the things we struggle with cannot be changed. Someone battling depression and anxiety will probably never fully rid themselves of it. That person will always have to work harder to have a "normal" life. Instead of feeling like a failure for not curing themselves, they should accept that this is who they are and focus on how to best live with it. Then they can feel pride for effectively dealing with this daily struggle. Sometimes waking up in the morning, getting to work, and not being assholes to your family requires a giant mountain of effort and should be acknowledged.

Each chapter is broken up into a five or six page subject, all in the same format. A short discussion of what people struggle with and what changes they would make in a perfect world. Then the authors make some more realistic prognostications. They use three (always three) hypothetical paragraphs of a personal story illustrating the issue. The chapter always ends with a bulleted list of "what you want to happen" in these situations and "what you can realistically expect" in these situations. After these, there is a "script" of what you can say to yourself/friend/enemy/person it may concern in this situation.

I liked some of the discussion and I liked the hypotheticals, but I got very tired of reading the bulleted lists and even more tired of reading the scripts. The lists were simply a retread of what had already been discussed earlier, but in a choppier way that slowed down the reading. The scripts were ridiculously painful to read, and they were my least favorite part of the book.

I liked the general idea that sometimes you just have to let things go. The world isn't fair or just and some people have to struggle much more than others without seeing anything for their efforts. Focus on what you can change and be proud of what you've done to achieve it. On the other hand, the book is too broad and too general to help people specifically. Perhaps it might be useful to look over a specific chapter or sub-chapter that relates to you. It could give you an idea of how to frame your problem and where to start. I'm not sure how useful reading the entire book is, though.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Year in Review

It's the last day of 2016, so it's time to waste some time looking back and seeing what I've read this year.

Total: 58 books

Fiction: 41
Non-fiction: 16
Poetry: 1

Books written by women: 48
Books written by men: 9
Books co-authored by men & women: 1

Romance novels: 21
Non-romance novels: 37
Non-romance books written by women: 27

Most read authors:
Romance won the day with repeat authors. I read four books each by Sarina Bowen and Lisa Kleypas, and I will probably be reading more. I also read two books by J.K. Rowling (if you count Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as well as Rainbow Rowell and Elizabeth Peters.

Favorites:
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

#58 [2016/CBR8] "Forbidden" by Beverly Jenkins

I'm a sucker for lists. Give me a list of things to do, and there's nothing I like more than checking items off as I complete them. I've found a number of lists of "books to read," and any list that sounds interesting, or has books that I've already read and enjoyed, I save. This definitely makes my own to-be-read list more unmanageable, but I can't help myself. The latest list I stumbled upon is NPR's Best Books of 2016. It was on this list that I found Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins. A romance novel recommended by NPR? I was definitely going to read it.

Of the many, many romances I've read, I'm pretty sure they've all been written by white women. Minority characters, and black characters specifically, have been friends of the protagonists or absent entirely. Forbidden is a refreshing and surprising change from this rut of my reading.

Eddy was born free to parents who loved her and cared for her deeply. However, they died when Eddy was only twelve, and since then, she's been working her butt off to survive. With a dream of leaving Denver to move to California and starting her own restaurant, Eddy begins making her way West. Out in the desert, Eddy is robbed and left for dead, only to be saved by Rhine Fontaine and his business partner. Rhine brings Eddy to the nearby town of Virginia City, Nevada and saves her life.

Rhine Fontaine was born a slave, on a plantation in Georgia (I'm pretty sure?). His mother was a slave who had been raped by the master of the plantation. Rhine learned early on that he looked white enough to "pass" and enjoy the countless privileges of being white. After the Civil War, Rhine has come West. He's decided to live his life as a white man because of the staggering opportunities it gives him as far as property ownership, potential for making money, and political influence. He reasons that he can help his race much more as a white man than he would be able to as a Black man.

As Eddy settles into life in Virginia City as a cook for a local boarding house, she finds an undeniable attraction building between her and Rhine. However, Rhine is completely off limits. Not only is he engaged, but their relationship would be against the law. The only thing she could ever be to him is a hidden mistress.

In many ways, Forbidden is full of the many tropes of historical romance novels. Eddy finds herself often in perilous, and somewhat unrealistic situations, so she can be rescued by Rhine. But there were also many things I really enjoyed. As I mentioned earlier, this is the first romance novel I've read that's centered around Black characters. I found that Jenkins did a very good job at interweaving a vibrant Black community and the politics of the time into her story. Showing the contrast of how Rhine is treated as a rich white man and a Black man is particularly stark.

I also appreciated that Eddy and Rhine were polite, honest, and straightforward with each other. Eddy didn't waste any time in telling Rhine that she could feel something between them but it wouldn't work because he was engaged and white. It was refreshing, and I genuinely liked both characters. Their perceived difference in races was a true barrier to their relationship. I was a little disappointed in the end. I felt that the climax of the story should have dealt with the racial issues a little more. Instead, Jenkins has a woman act out of insane jealousy in a way that had me shaking my head in disbelief. It took me out of the story. I also felt bad that the poor Chinese driver lost his life with so little interest.

I appreciate how well Jenkins described the Black experience in the American West after the Civil War, and kept a thriving romance between her hero and heroine at the same time. However, some of the tropes Jenkins used felt a little stale and forced. I've read some fantastic romance novels this year, and Forbidden does not quite rise up to my favorites. But I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

#57 [2016/CBR8] "Friendly Fire" by Marliss Melton

I picked up Friendly Fire (2016) by Marliss Melton because I was craving a story, however unrealistic, about a superman-like, gorgeous guy who could make the world safe and good again. I've read a number of Melton's book in the past and usually enjoyed them. I didn't dislike Friendly Fire, but I didn't love it either. It felt like there was very little actual romance in this one, and I didn't connect to it.

Jeremiah "Bullfrog" Winters ends up joining his Seal teammate Tristan on a cruise to Mexico after Tristan's girlfriend/fiance dumps him. On the ship, he runs into Emma Albright, his old literature professor whom he'd fallen in love with in college. There had been something special between the two, and when Emma asked Jeremiah to stay away from her because she was married and had a child and couldn't stand the temptation, Jeremiah dropped out of college and became a Seal. Emma is on the cruise with her sister, Juliet, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Sammy.

Jeremiah and Emma still have that spark and Emma's lack of husband makes the possibility of romance suddenly much more realistic. The main problem now is that Emma is a little gun shy and wary of love after being dumped by her husband. To complicate matters, Jeremiah has some sort of ESP, and he's been having visions of death and destruction. He thinks there's a plot for violence on the ship, and he does what he can to prepare and protect Emma and her family. At the same time, Juliet and Tristan hit it off and begin to spend a lot of time together.

On a shore excursion to some ancient ruins in Mexico, Emma, Sammy and Jeremiah, along with other cruise ship tourists, are kidnapped and held for ransom. Jeremiah does what he can with his limited power to keep everyone as safe as possible.

There was nothing that I hated in this book, but there was a lot that kept me from getting too into this story. First, I wasn't a huge fan of the ESP story line. I realize that we needed the knowledge that something bad was going to happen or the first half of the book would be really boring, but it just seemed weird. Second, there wasn't a lot of relationship building. Emma and Jeremiah had already met and fallen in love before the book started. For the most part, I just had to accept that they loved each other without much evidence. They spent very little time alone, and their first (only?) sex scene felt ridiculous to me. I was thinking, "Now's not a good time. Please don't--ugh, that's not a good idea. Aren't they both really dirty? Isn't her daughter hearing them?" Finally, most of the drama of Emma and Jeremiah's relationship stemmed from Emma waffling between loving Jeremiah and being terrified of commitment. It was unconvincing and tiresome.

I did like that Jeremiah was not your typical alpha male. He was thoughtful, intellectual, and spiritual. He also treated Emma well, as far as I can remember. I'm not sorry I read Friendly Fire, but I remember enjoying Melton's other books much more. (Also, I looked for another version of the book cover, any other version, and couldn't find anything.)

#56 [2016/CBR8] "Alone on the Wall" by Alex Honnold with David Roberts

It's been less than two years since I decided on something of a whim to try climbing and ended up joining a climbing gym. It looked like fun, the gym also offered yoga, and I thought it would improve my grip strength. I still rarely venture outside (so far), but rock climbing has become one of my favorite things. So, as I often do with new obsessions or hobbies, I've picked up a few books on the subject.

Alex Honnold is a world famous climber, and I find him fascinating. If you didn't know better, you'd think he's just a skinny, dirty guy who lives in a van. His most recognized exploits are his free-solo climbs. He pulls himself up granite walls thousands of feet high with no partner and no rope. If a handhold breaks off or his foot slips, he could die. The simple drama of it has captured the attention of the public and made Alex Honnold a pretty famous professional climber.

I have zero interest in free solo climbing myself. Just looking at the picture below makes my stomach hurt, but I also can't help but be impressed. I picked up Alone on the Wall (2016) by Alex Honnold with David Roberts because I was interested in learning more about both Honnold's accomplishments and what drives him to keep pushing himself in this intense way.


Alone on the Wall alternates between Alex Honnold writing about his life and momentous climbs and David Roberts, an Outside writer and climber, rounding out some of the details from a more objective viewpoint. Both are clear and interesting writers. The book goes over Honnold's childhood, how he got into climbing, his girlfriends, his biggest climbing accomplishments, and the establishment of his sustainable energy non-profit.

Honnold seems like a very thoughtful and honest person, and that is reflected in his writing. I could not help but try to psychoanalyze him as I read the book, though. He seems to have an incredibly strong drive to achieve but not be overly interested in outside praise. Although his feats are often called death-defying and crazy, he seems to be pretty calculated when it comes to taking risks. He certainly doesn't embrace every adrenaline-rush he can get. Finally, his actions are sometimes incredibly thoughtful and sympathetic, such as the reasons for starting his non-profit. On the other hand, he can sometimes come across as arrogant and uncompromising. 

Even though this book gave me a glimpse into parts of Honnold's life, I can not begin to understand him. I enjoyed reading about his major accomplishments, from his more famous free solo climbs, to his speed climbs, to his multi-day alpine treks. He is a remarkable person, and I hope that he is able to climb to a ripe, old age. You may need to be a climber or have an interest in it to get the most out of this book, but I certainly enjoyed it.