Saturday, June 19, 2021

#18 [2021/CBR13] Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Something drew me to Where the Crawdads Sing (2018) by Delia Owens when I first saw it, but it still took me a while to finally get to reading it. Once I began, I was quickly captivated by the story and finished the book in a couple of days. It wasn't until the end when I was reading about the author that I discovered I'd actually read three other books by Delia Owens and greatly admire her. 

I love the outdoors and being in nature, and I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling. So when I found three non-fiction books written by Delia and Mark Owens over a decade ago, it was like I'd found my parallel dream life that might have been possible if I'd only been more daring and adventurous. I read Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savannah, and I loved them. I would have continued reading books about Mark and Delia's adventurous lives indefinitely, and I was disappointed that I never found another book quite like those again.

Where the Crawdads Sing is Delia Owens's first book of fiction. The book begins with six-year-old Kya watching her beloved mother walk down the lane from their shack in the North Carolina swamp. Her mother is fleeing extreme abuse from her alcoholic husband. Without their mother holding the family together, Kya's older siblings also quickly flee their tyrant of a father. When Kya is ten years old her father disappears and she is truly alone. 

The townspeople already look down on the "marsh people" and instead of helping her, Kya is disparaged wherever she goes. Jumpin'--the Black owner of the nearby marina gas shop--and his wife are the only ones that look out for her. Kya is incredibly lonely and wonders why everyone chose to leave her. She can't trust anyone. When she is not exploring the marsh, she spends her time running from truancy officers and fearing social services.

The book jumps back and forth between Kya's childhood in the 1950's and 1969 when the town's Golden Boy is found dead in the swamp. The sheriff's office slowly goes about investigating, and some of the evidence seems to point to Kya. I was immediately and understandably worried that the blame would fall on Kya. As an outsider in a small, southern town that already thought badly of her, I also did not expect a fair trial if it came to that.

One large part of the book is the nature that surrounds Kya, and her connection with it. Because of her complete isolation, the only thing she has is the birds and other creatures around her. I've only recently gotten into learning about birds, so I enjoyed this part of the book immensely. I loved the descriptions of the animals, grasses, shells, and other natural beauty of the area, and I appreciated Kya's growing knowledge of where she lived. 

The New York Times called this "a painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative[,]* and a celebration of nature." I found this novel immediately intriguing. Kya's isolation and loneliness as well as her fear of getting hurt was well done. The careful inclusion of birds and the wonders of nature elevated this book beyond your typical murder mystery.

***SPOILERS*** One day, Kya gets lost in the swamp on her father's motorboat. She runs into Tate, her brother's old friend, who shows her the way back home. Tate is a kind, gentle soul who feels badly for Kya. He teaches her to read, and brings her books from home. As Kya grows up, they become more attached to each other and it becomes more romantic. Tate is Kya's entire world. He is her only real human connection, and he basically taught her everything she knows. But then he leaves for college and doesn't come back as promised.

This one last abandonment was understandable from Tate's point of view but absolutely heartbreaking for Kya. Eventually she continues her life as before, but that little bit of her willing to risk her heart for that connection with Tate was shattered when he left. Eventually she runs into Chase. She knows she doesn't care for him like Tate. However, he is good looking and pays attention to her, something that is irresistible for someone as lonely as she is. Eventually, Kya imagines a life with him, with family, and with acceptance from the town. It is only when she reads about his engagement to another woman that she understands she could never really be with him.

Tate comes back to the marsh after graduate school. He's never stopped loving Kya, and he now sees how they could have a life together. However, Kya can't trust him anymore, and continues living on her own. One day, Chase surprises Kya as she's drawing. He beats her up and attempts to rape her. She manages to fight back, but now Chase is angry and starting to terrorize her. It is not long after this that his body is found.

Although I loved this book, I did have some problems with the ending. Chase's character changed rather drastically in order to justify his murder. He was always self-centered and a bit of an asshole, but he was patient and generally kind to Kya for a long time. Then he suddenly becomes a violent rapist with revenge tendencies. I also always get annoyed when we are reading the story through a character's viewpoint, but we don't get the information of whether she murdered someone or not. It feels like the author is not playing fair. Finally, I was disappointed that Kya did end up murdering Chase. I realize she had limited options because of his violence and popularity, but I wanted the town to be right about finding her not guilty. And after she made that incredibly elaborate plan for killing him, why did she take the shell necklace? ***END SPOILERS***

*I'm sorry. I know what I did here is annoying and distracting, but I just can't help myself.

#17 [2021/CBR13] Blitzed by Alexa Martin

Blitzed (2019) by Alexa Martin is book 3 of 4 in a Denver football romance series that I stumbled upon. I accidentally missed the third book, so Blitzed is the last book of the series that I'm reading. I've enjoyed all four of them. I love that they are set in Denver (my hometown) and written by someone who grew up in Denver. Martin knows the area and the neighborhoods so well, and it's fun to read about them. I also appreciate that Martin bravely broaches some heavier topics than you would expect from your typical romances, including brain damage in football players and racism. Although they were never perfect, the positives outweigh the negatives by far.

Brynn is the owner of a bar that caters to women, a place where women can have good beer, fun cocktails, and friendship while avoiding the meat market. She's become friends with a number of Denver Mustangs' (Broncos) wives and players. She's also had a little bit of a crush on Maxwell, a quiet, formidable defensive player, but he just won't come out of his shell around her. However, she changes her mind about him after he violently explodes at her bar, and she decides that she doesn't want anything to do with him.

That doesn't last long, though, because the Denver Mustangs' wives are a nosy bunch and think Brynn and Maxwell make an adorable couple. Their interference works, and Brynn and Maxwell start spending more time with each other. Things grow from there. But Brynn and the readers still do not understand what made Maxwell so mad that day at her bar. Also, Maxwell's brother suddenly appears, and he's creepy. It's obvious that he's going to become a problem.

The couple are driven apart for a short time. This did feel a little less than believable. I don't think Brynn would be stupid enough to believe Maxwell's brother. But the whole thing was over and done with quickly. 

To be honest, all four of these books are kind of rummaging around in my head, and I'm having a hard time remembering the details of each one. There are always a lot of parties, girl talk, football, and romance. The characters are likable and they grow as they figure out what they want. I think this football series is over now that Martin has written the fourth book--although I honestly wouldn't mind a fifth. I'm curious what she's going to write next.

#16 [2021/CBR13] Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I first saw Undocumented Americans (2020) by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on NPR's Best Books of 2020 List. I found it in one of my favorite subsections of NPR's list: eye-opening reads. I love finding a book that changes my perspective or teaches me something, and that's what I was hoping for with this book. I was also impressed that it was a National Book Award Finalist. I was happy to be able to get it from my library.

Villavicencio came to the United States as a child, became a Dreamer, and graduated from Harvard. Shortly after the 2016 election, she decided to report on immigrants around the United States--apparently using her real name for the first time. Although her focus is on the struggle of others, she sometimes falls into her own experiences, including the constant fear of losing her parents as she grew up and the pressure she feels now to be successful and provide for them.

The book begins on Staten island, the most Republican and anti-immigrant borough in New York City. Villavicencio spends some time with migrant workers and day laborers on the island. Many of the migrant workers are older men who are lonely, alone, and depressed. Others are trying to navigate wages with no English. They are all at the mercy of being mistreated and underpaid. After Hurricane Sandy, migrant workers were one of the first on the scene to help with clean up. Many volunteered their time because it was needed, and many suffered ill effects from dealing with the mold and dirty water. 

Villavicencio moved on to Manhattan and 9/11. She talked about the many people who were not counted among the dead: the undocumented cleaners and food delivery people that were working that morning and never came home. There were also many undocumented workers who helped clean up after 9/11 and are suffering from the same debilitating diseases and cancers that the first responders suffer from.

The next stop was Miami. Villavicencio explored alternatives to traditional healthcare that is sometimes required for undocumented immigrants without the ability to pay. I found this section especially interesting, but I wished for a little more information on the details. One subject was able to get open heart surgery, but was declined for help with his brain cancer. How does this work? I know emergency rooms take anyone, but there is definitely a limit to what they'll do and how helpful they can be. I really would like a better understanding of the healthcare system, those who are left out of it, and how we can do better.

After visiting Flint, and seeing how the burden of the water crisis could fall on the undocumented, Villavicencio told the story of a father being deported, leaving his family back in the United States. It seemed unnecessary and brutal. At the same time in New Haven, another man was taking sanctuary in a church in order to avoid being deported. He'd been living in the church for months, unable to work and only seeing his family when they came to visit as they worked on his case.

This short rendering of the main stops of Villavicencio's book does not do justice to the whole. Although I sometimes wanted more detail, both about her life and the details of her reporting, she brought a proud and angry perspective to the discussion of immigrants. Recommended.

Friday, June 18, 2021

#15 [2021/CBR13] I'm Not Dying with You Tonight by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones

I can't remember exactly how I found I'm Not Dying with You Tonight (2019) by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones. It's possible Amazon recommended it to me after I read The Hate U Give because it's another young adult book that deals with race. Anyway, I love a good young adult novel, and it sounded intriguing, so I picked it up. One interesting aspect of this book is that it's written by two women who became friends in a young adult writing community. One of them is black, one of them is white, and together they wrote the novel.

Campbell is white and just recently had to move to live with her father after her mother left the country for a job. Coming from a majority white high school in the Northeast, the urban (I can't remember where this book takes place), majority black high school feels very foreign to her. Feeling abandoned, alone, and out of place, she's very unhappy. Lena is black and is at home in her neighborhood. She's popular and attractive and busy chasing after her boyfriend. 

The entire book takes place over the course of one night. Lena is at the game with her best friend, enjoying some socializing before meeting up with her boyfriend. Campbell has not been socializing at all but was roped into working the concession stand by a teacher. Campbell and Lena's football team is playing a white high school from across town. Near the end of the game, a fight breaks out, which turns into a riot. Lena and Campbell end up taking shelter in the concessions stand. When Lena's phone dies, she becomes reliant on Campbell for communication, so the two stay together in order to fetch Campbell's phone from the nearby classroom.

The riots only get worse, and eventually the police arrive to break it up. Campbell's first instinct is to run towards the cops while Lena is intent on getting away from them. Because Campbell has lost her ride home, Lena and Campbell decide to stay together until she can get to her boyfriend's location. The two begin to really rely on each other as circumstances change and worsen.

I thought this was a good book, especially for teenagers. Both Lena and Campbell make assumptions about the other, but they work well together and grow as the book progresses. The book hits on a lot of racial issues that are very relevant today, including police brutality. This book was also a quick, fast-paced, and satisfying read.

#14 [2021/CBR13] Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

I found Greenlights (2020) by Matthew McConaughey available on audiobook from my library. I had a pretty big crush on McConaughey when I was younger, but I never knew much about his life. I liked that McConaughey was reading the book himself, and I figured it would be interesting; so I gave it a shot.

The best thing about this book is McConaughey's reading. His unmistakable drawl brings his story to life, and he's great with the accents when he's speaking for other people. McConaughey discusses his childhood growing up in a small town in Texas, his breakthrough into films, and his "McConaissance" later in his career. He also talks about fatherhood and how he met his wife. I appreciated that McConaughey didn't seem to chase fame and instead did what he wanted to do at the time, not apologizing for anything. I loved that he spent three years traveling the country in an Airstream trailer--way before it became as trendy as it is today. He also traveled to Mali by himself, not using his money and fame for the sanitary comfort he could have had on that trip. Other interesting stories include how he met his wife and his explanation of the naked bongo drumming incident.

McConaughey was obviously tough and independent, as evidenced from when he survived studying abroad with a crazy family in the boondocks of Australia. At other times, he seemed simply blessed with a magical charisma that got him anything he wanted. He went to Europe with a buddy and very little money. A German motorcycle shop owner agreed to rent them two high-end motorcycles for a fraction of the actual cost. And when his buddy crashed it, the shop owner drove hundreds of miles to meet them with a new motorcycle so they could finish their trip. This also seemed to happen when it came to getting movie parts. Most of them he didn't try out for, they just kind of happened. Although this doesn't mean that McConaughey didn't work hard. It sounded like he took some serious risks when he transitioned from rom-coms to more serious fare.

However, I wasn't so sure about this book when I first started listening. McConaughey begins the book by discussing his family and upbringing. It sounded like an odd, semi-abusive childhood, but McConaughey painted it like it was a good thing. I had a hard time understanding where he was coming from. Was he being disingenuous? Did he not want to badmouth his family publicly? (Understandable) Or has he not really digested how he grew up and how it's affected him? His relationship with his father seems especially complicated. I was curious whether this relationship had anything to do with McConaughey always wanting to be a father. Also, I wondered whether McConaughey wanted to emulate his own father when he became a father himself.

Occasionally McConaughey would go into a word association, free form sort of poetry that didn't really work for me. And every once in awhile, I felt like I was getting unreliable life lessons pushed on me. But in the end, McConaughey's charisma shines through. I enjoyed listening to him talk about his life, and I love his accent.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

#13 [2021/CBR13] The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I've had The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) sitting on my Kindle for years. I found a number of free classics on Amazon ages ago, downloaded them all, and then didn't look at them again. But after finishing my last book, I wanted something different, and The Picture of Dorian Gray called out to me. I've also associated this book with an ex of mine. He was significantly older than me but aging very well, and I remember someone asking him if he had a picture of himself in an attic somewhere. Now that I've read the novel, I've realized Dorian Gray's life is not one to be envied.

Dorian Gray was a beautiful youth. The gifted painter, Basil Hallward took a liking to him and used him as his muse. Dorian featured in many of his paintings until Basil decided to paint Dorian as himself. It was Basil's masterpiece. Basil put all of his adoration of Dorian into the painting and worried that it revealed more of himself than Dorian. While sitting for this painting, Dorian meets one of Basil's friends, Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry is something of a cynical asshole and he takes no time at all before be begins to corrupt his friend's muse. Lord Henry makes Dorian realize that he will lose his beauty and wishes that the painting will show his age instead of him. Basil gifts Dorian his portrait, and it is delivered to his home.

Dorian wastes no time in falling in love with a young actress, Sibyl Vane. She is the bright spot of a small run-down theater, and she can't help but love the beautiful Dorian. But once she's in love, she loses her interest in faking love on stage. Dorian is embarrassed by her bad acting and says he never wants to see her again. Arriving home after heartlessly abandoning the woman he had professed to love, Dorian first notices a change in the portrait of himself. What I didn't know before reading this book, is that the portrait doesn't just protect Dorian from aging, but it also reflects the ugliness in his soul.

The book goes on in this vein. Although Dorian never explicitly makes a deal with the devil, he did give up his soul for his good looks. Lord Henry is the man that leads him down the path of evil while Basil tries to save him. It did bring up some interesting questions for me, though. Dorian blames the painting for what his life had become, but did the painting make him evil by allowing him to avoid some of the consequences of his actions? Did the painting also take away his conscience? Dorian did seem to care very little for anyone but himself. Or did Lord Henry make him evil with all of his talk? Or was Dorian just a bad, selfish person even before the painting?

On the whole, I found this novel interesting and well written. I thought Wilde did a very good job with his descriptions. I enjoyed the action of the story much more than the philosophical, rambling talks with Lord Henry and others. I sometimes had to struggle through those parts. Reading this book also made me wonder about Oscar Wilde. On the one hand, what would Oscar Wilde have been like if he'd been born in a different era that accepted homosexuality? Wilde was jailed and kept from his partner. That is tragic. At the same time, the book had a fair bit of misogyny and antisemitism. I also didn't like pretty much any of the characters. It's hard to guess the author's attitude from a story, but my gut was saying I wouldn't have liked Wilde in real life. I am intrigued, though, and might read a biography of him.

#12 [2021/CBR13] An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Turston

I'm not sure who picked An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (2018) by Helene Turston for book club, but I do remember that we were all interested in something short. This book includes four short stories originally written in Swedish. They are all about one elderly Swedish woman and the people she kills. I came into this expecting something a little different than what I got, and this is mainly to do with the blurb on Amazon.

Maud is an irascible 88-year-old Swedish woman with no family, no friends, and... no qualms about a little murder. This funny, irreverent story collection by Helene Tursten, author of the Irene Huss investigations, features two-never-before translated stories that will keep you laughing all the way to the retirement home.

I wasn't exactly sure how a little old lady murdering people was going to be funny, but that is what I was expecting. I figured the victims would deserve it, or Maud would act in self defense, or the stories would be so comical that you couldn't take them seriously. But it wasn't like that, and as I read, I tried to figure out the tone. Sure, a couple of her victims were not great people, but it was disturbing that the readers were expected to root for her.

***SPOILERS*** Maud was not a helpless, little old lady. She thought the worst of people and preemptively acted to stop them from doing anything she did not approve. She was also judgmental and a heartless killer. The first person Maud killed was an entitled artist who wanted Maud's apartment. But instead of saying, "No, thank you. I'll stay in my own apartment." Maud smashed a giant penis sculpture on the woman, killing her.

The next one was a man who beat his wife. Maud killed him because their loud arguments were disturbing to her. She pushed him down the stairs. Then she killed the woman who was going to be marrying an ex of Maud's. And then she killed an antique dealer because she was convinced that he wanted to steal from her. The more I read, the more I felt there was something deeply wrong with this woman--especially when we find out everything she did to get away with the last murder. Also, people died pretty easily in this book. One old lady pushing you down the stairs doesn't usually mean immediate death.

My friend liked this book because she said it showed how we underestimate old people and that it's all about expectations. She said that Maud was able to get away with murder over and over again because she was consistently underestimated. It's true that no one judged her as a danger because of her age. Then again, old women are not in the highest demographic of murderers. ***END SPOILERS***

Although this book was memorable, entertaining in parts, and not difficult to read, I'm not sure I would recommend it unless the storyline grabs you.