15 April 2015

When Your Genre Kryptonite Has Its Own Kryptonite

One of my “genre kryptonites” – i.e. the genre of book guaranteed to part me from my money – are books about books, specifically of the memoir variety.

Read a book a day for a year (Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair)? Sure.

Your dad reads to you every night from grade school until college (Alice Ozma’s The Reading Promise)? Yep.

Examine all your childhood heroines and how they are helpful or problematic (Rebecca Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine)? Yes!

Decide to “better” yourself by reading 50 specific books (Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously)? Yes, HarperPerennial, you know me well.

Examine how your relationship to a specific work of literature has changed as you age (Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch)? Yep, yep, yep.

And (my personal, current favorite), read one book from EVERY country in the world in ONE YEAR (Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers (US)/Reading the World (UK))? HELLZ YES.

Gimmie. I will take them all. Hand them over.

Until I can barely force myself to read the blurb of a particular book.

On the first Sunday of December 2011, I was working at the bookstore. It was the holidays, there were more customers than would seem to fit into the aisles, then my brother called. He told me to get off the sales floor and go to the back – he wouldn’t tell me why. When I did, he told me he was at the emergency room, with my parents, and my mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

My manager told me to go to the ER to be with my family. Immediately. Once there, I convinced the doctor to show me the CT scan. The tumor looked like a small golf ball lodged in the back of her right ventricle. Over the next week Mom underwent brain surgery, rehab to make sure she was regaining her balance and strength, and the critical meeting with her oncologist and radiation specialists.

My mother was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, grade IV. A tumor that is perhaps two percent of brain cancers which are only two percent of all cancers diagnosed in one year. Aggressive, very aggressive. Insidious, hard to get “margin” surgically. The best clinical trial evidence said that half of all patients are still alive eighteen months after diagnosis. We were lucky in that my parents live near one of the best teaching hospitals in the country and that my day job is there as well, working in research for the hospital epidemiologist. I knew Mom’s surgeon was the best we could hope for, my boss is neighbors with her oncologist. She was in good hands. We counted off the days of radiation treatments, watched her white cell counts, bought her books (and a Nook – Mom had a noticeable decrease in her field of vision so it was easier for a while to read “one page” at a time with larger print on a tablet than navigate the pages of a paper book), counted out chemotherapy pills, and we waited to see what would happen.

That fall, a book was published that should have been in my wheelhouse, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. When his mother was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, they began to read and discuss the same books. All sorts of books, up until her death two years later.

When I had to stock the store display with shiny new hardcovers of The End of Your Life Book Club I could barely open the packing case. Ordinarily, I’d have been all over a book like this, happily reading a personal account of books read. I would likely cry over what would probably be a beautiful rendering of a mother-son relationship. Instead, reading the first paragraph of the blurb made me feel nauseated. I couldn't read a memoir about a mom-who-liked-to-read dying of cancer. I couldn't – in a rational world, I could, but my irrational mind was worried that it might jinx my own mother’s treatment.

My genre kryptonite had developed its own kryptonite: my mother.

Three years later, Mom is doing better than anyone could have predicted. She wasn't able to go back to work as a parish administrator, but she has started playing the organ for church again (on occasion, it’s still too much to prepare for two services every week). She helps my nieces practice their piano lessons. Her balance isn't, and will never be, back to normal but as long as we make sure the kids don’t leave toys in her path it’s fine. She’s still my mom. All these extra months and years are a gift.

The End of Your Life Book Club is now out in paperback, it’s been included in promotional sales, and a few copies of the hardcover have popped up in the bargain bin. And I still won’t read it. Not even the first paragraph. I wish Schwalbe all the best, but I will probably never read his book.

There will be other books about books to make me weak-at-the-knees. And that is just fine.

04 April 2015

I Am Not a Slut! Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet by Leora Tanenbaum

Summary from Goodreads:

The author of the groundbreaking work Slut! explores the phenomenon of slut-shaming in the age of sexting, tweeting, and “liking.” She shows that the sexual double standard is more dangerous than ever before and offers advice to—and offers wisdom and strategies for alleviating its destructive effects on young women’s lives

Young women are encouraged to express themselves sexually. Yet when they do, they are derided as “sluts.” Caught in a double bind of mixed sexual messages, young women are confused. To fulfill the contradictory roles of being sexy but not slutty, they create an “experienced” identity on social media-even if they are not sexually active—while ironically referring to themselves and their friends as “sluts.”

But this strategy can become a weapon used against young women in the hands of peers who circulate rumors and innuendo—elevating age-old slut-shaming to deadly levels, with suicide among bullied teenage girls becoming increasingly common. Now, Leora Tanenbaum revisits her influential work on sexual stereotyping to offer fresh insight into the digital and face-to-face worlds contemporary young women inhabit. She shares her new research, involving interviews with a wide range of teenage girls and young women from a variety of backgrounds as well as parents, educators, and academics. Tanenbaum analyzes the coping mechanisms young women currently use and points them in a new direction to eradicate slut-shaming for good.

"Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me."

I was teased a lot as a child (by one specific individual mostly) and repeated that phrase to myself for comfort.  But that old saw is wrong - words have the power to cut a life down, particularly the word "slut" and it's linguistic extension "ho" and in the viral culture of the 21st-century's social media those words can easily become lethal rather than a phrase to shrug away.  That is the point of Leora Tanenbaum's new book, I Am Not a Slut! Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.

Through a societal sexual double-standard, young women are expected to cultivate a sexually experienced image but not to actually engage their own wants or desires in demanding agency in their own sexual experience.  How often are there hand-wringing articles about pre-teens "dressing provocatively" or about how "young women place themselves in bad situations" or about the vicious, vicious slut-shaming and victim-blaming that has cropped up online around cases like the Stubenville rape case? How often?  The shaming and blaming doesn't come exclusively from men; some of the worst accusations come from other women.  

What Tanenbaum does is back up and ask us to examine the societal pressure that would cause a girl to send a naked selfie to a boy (who is praised for amassing a collection of naked pictures from multiple girls while the girl is shamed, and possibly prosecuted, if that one photo is circulated).  Ask us to examine why other girls and women are so often the ones to throw the first stone and blame the "slut" for everything that happens to her.  Ask us to examine why young women turn to substance abuse in social situations.  Ask us to examine why "nonconsensual sex" is now a term used instead of "rape" when a woman who cannot actually give her willing consent to sexual intercourse has a forcible sexual encounter.

While I have a few quibbles and bones to pick with a few of Tanenbaum's points (first among them: her prescriptive advice to "not dress in a provocative manner" because the girl can't control the way boys view her as a sexual object), those quibbles I'm sure would touch off a really good discussion.  This whole book is something necessary to open up discussion.  The frank and very open discussion we need to have with teen girls and teen boys about media, social/peer pressure, good sexual relationships, and why it is so important to have agency in expressing sexual desire.

When offered a review copy of I Am Not a Slut! by HarperPerennial, I had to back up and read Tanenbaum's previous book, Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, because it had missed me when it first published.  I was in my junior/senior years of undergrad (in a pre-med track) when it published so if it wasn't a biochemistry textbook or MCAT study guide or a work of escapist fiction completely removed from pre-medicine it just wasn't on my radar.  But in reading Slut! now, I recognized a lot of things that had happened when I was in junior high and high school.  And remembered a few others.  That I had, at the request of a friend, called a girl a "ho-bag slut" because the rumor-mill had it that she had "done" my friend's crush; in retrospect, it's likely that she hadn't done a single thing with said boy and if she had I was clearly out of line.  I remember the peculiar schadenfreude (a term I didn't know then) I felt when reading bathroom graffiti about another girl and was crushed when bathroom graffiti was written about me (over 20 years later, it is laughable that someone thought the need to write that when it was clear I had no time or opportunity to do those things).  I remember being so terrified by the excessive drinking and associated activities at the only "traditional" high school party I attended that I sat outside on the stoop in the middle of February because I hadn't driven there and couldn't even have called my father to come get me since we were out in the country and I had no idea where we were; as it happened, I was the only sober one at the end of the night and had to drive a stick-shift, without a permit/license, at something like 2am to get everyone back to the one girl's house where we were staying the night and the entire way back I worried that something had happened to one of the girls and didn't know how to ask her about it. I stuck to parties with the drama crowd where the craziest thing that ever happened was that we had too many Pez and put Time Warp on repeat.

Both Tanenbaum's books work through a combination of research and interviews with young women (and in the case of Slut! with older women who came of age in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s).  The personal histories, including Tanenbaum's, cut deeply into the ways that being labelled a "slut" or "ho" (or "whore" depending on the age of the woman) has caused serious damage to how these women view themselves as whole people.  The first book lays down the history of slut-shaming or slut-bashing.  The second is one-quarter new edition with updated (horrifying) statistics and three-quarters new information due to the advent of social media and the anonymity conferred by some social media sites.  Both are worth reading.

The situations presented in Tanenbaum's books weigh on my mind because I have nieces who are very rapidly approaching the "tween" stage.  I don't have children, and am unlikely at this point in my life to have any of my own, so my nieces and nephew are getting a third parent.  My older nieces are wonderful, beautiful, creative and fabulously eccentric in the way that only grade school-age girls are, yet....their parents have had to deal with a little boy who repeatedly tried to kiss one of my nieces - and it wasn't just a peck on the cheek.  Only a few days ago the other one asked her mom why all the pretty boys were so rude.  These are children.  What will we have to contend with as everyone starts going through puberty?  My nieces are lucky in that they have a good system of parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents who love them unconditionally and will be in their corner to matter what.  But many children are not so lucky.

Apologies, this review has wandered a bit.  We need books like Tanenbaum's to begin the discussion about sexuality, sexual agency, empathy, and social pressures.  We need to end the sexual double-standard that privileges one gender (male) over the other (female) (and I haven't even touched on the differences in the use of "slut" and like words and how those words are viewed/used differently among racial or non-heteronormative groups).  We need change.  Starting with our words.

Dear FTC: I received an advance copy of I Am Not a Slut! from the publisher; I borrowed Slut! from the library.

28 February 2015

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Summary from Goodreads:
A major debut from an award-winning writer—an epic family saga set against the magic and the rhythms of the Virgin Islands.

In the early 1900s, the Virgin Islands are transferred from Danish to American rule, and an important ship sinks into the Caribbean Sea. Orphaned by the shipwreck are two sisters and their half brother, now faced with an uncertain identity and future. Each of them is unusually beautiful, and each is in possession of a particular magic that will either sink or save them.

Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the emergence of Saint Thomas into the modern world. Uniquely imagined, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evoke an entire world and way of life and love. Following the Bradshaw family through sixty years of fathers and daughters, mothers
and sons, love affairs, curses, magical gifts, loyalties, births, deaths, and triumphs, Land of Love and Drowning is a gorgeous, vibrant debut by an exciting, prizewinning young writer.

Sometimes a book comes along at just the right time (even though it takes me a bit to actually get it read, the arrival is still timely).

Amid all the discussion last year of needing diverse books and how we should seek out books by diverse authors and containing diverse characters, there was a fair amount of buzz for Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning, her debut novel set in the early to mid-20th century as the Dutch Virgin Islands were being transferred to United States control.  Rebecca Schinsky at Book Riot talked about it, other bookish friends and Internet places talked about it, and I won an ARC in a Goodreads Giveaway.  Which I fully intended to read until my second Riot Read book arrived in August and that turned out to be a brand-spanking new hardcover edition of Land of Love and Drowning.  So I intended to read that copy but here's the thing about reading diversely: when you decide to try and make reading diversely a thing, your to-read list expands exponentially squared (I have decided this is a thing).  Because not only do you have all the books that you might normally find, but you start getting backlist and frontlist recs for authors of color in the US, outside the US, books in translation, books by authors of Jewish descent, books by LGTBQ authors, and books about all sorts of different, diverse characters.  And that's just the fiction books.  The TBR goes from large to Mt. Everest.  And that's OK.  All those titles will keep, I just have to keep reaching for them even as more are added to the top.

So I finally got far enough into the pile to find Land of Love and Drowning again.  It is a tangled web of family secrets set against the backdrop of the US Virgin Islands.  Fathers and mothers have suspect motives.  Sisters keep harmful secrets.  Myth and fate become reality.

The voices in this novel are absolutely pitch perfect: Eeona, so determined to be a "perfect" upper-class lady; Anette, who embodies the culture of the Virgin Islands; Jacob, whose sense of being caught between worlds is embodied in his language; and the narrator, who looks down on these characters as they play the hands dealt to them by their parents and the politics of the time.  The plot emerges in pieces as the voices in turn impart history and perspective.

What was most interesting to me was the look at the annexation and "Americanization" of the islands from the perspective the islands' inhabitants.  It's a perspective that I, as a white US citizen, have never been encouraged to entertain.  So in the midst of this evocative novel we, as readers, are given information that tells us the US has never made good on the promise that the inhabitants of the US Virgin Islands are actually citizens.  The land has been closed off, the young men drafted in war and subjected to racism, the tourism and entertainment industries have marginalized or stereotyped the island culture.  Land of Love and Drowning pulls the rug out from under the beautiful, care-free paradise we are sold on the travel websites and makes us think about the people who truly live there.  As it should.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway and then I read a copy purchased through the Book Riot Riot Read subscription.

10 February 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Summary from Goodreads:
About 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. Our ancestors shared the planet with at least five other human species, and their role in the ecosystem was no greater than that of gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. Then, about 70,000 years ago, a mysterious change took place in the mind of Homo sapiens, transforming it into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, acquiring divine abilities of creation and destruction. * How did Homo sapiens conquer Earth? * What befell the other human species? * When did money, states and religion appear, and why? * How did science and capitalism become the dominant creeds of the modern era? * Does history have a direction? * Is there justice in history? * Did people become happier as history unfolded? * And what are the chances that Homo sapiens will still be around in a hundred years?

As much as I like medicine and epidemiology, a wee little bit of me is still the little girl who wanted to be a paleontologist when she grew up.  So a book like Sapiens appeared to be a nice sidetrip to explore the part of science that I don't see on a regular basis.

However, as much as we shelve this book in the "Science" section of the store under "Chem/Bio" where the books on evolution are kept, this isn't a science or paleontology book in the way that I would define it.  It definitely falls more into the anthropology category and strikes me as a book about the social history of homo sapiens rather than the actual biology of our species.  There's some biology, but not a great deal.

The beginning of Sapiens is very interesting, particularly the examination of the question did we evolve directly in a line, one human species after another, or did several homo species exist at the same time with homo sapiens eventually out-competing the others for dominance (we are particularly good at out-competing/extincting other species of all varieties). And then the evolution of homo sapiens from hunter-gatherers/nomadic tribes to small farming villages then larger villages to cities.  I quite liked the book up until the turn of modern history.

Then it felt boring.  To me, a great deal of ground in modern history has been covered before by other books I've read.  So a re-hashing followed by predictions of the outcome of homo sapiens didn't end the book in a good way, in my opinion.  I also felt some things were glossed over (the use of slavery or the European/American slave trade was mentioned several times but feudalism or serfdom was not - that I could find - and I found that an odd omission).

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital advance copy from the publisher.

03 February 2015

The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery by Rob Dunn

Summary from Goodreads:
The secret history of our most vital organ--the human heart
"The Man Who Touched His Own Heart" tells the raucous, gory, mesmerizing story of the heart, from the first "explorers" who dug up cadavers and plumbed their hearts' chambers, through the first heart surgeries-which had to be completed in three minutes before death arrived-to heart transplants and the latest medical efforts to prolong our hearts' lives, almost defying nature in the process.
Thought of as the seat of our soul, then as a mysteriously animated object, the heart is still more a mystery than it is understood. Why do most animals only get one billion beats? (And how did modern humans get to over two billion-effectively letting us live out two lives?) Why are sufferers of gingivitis more likely to have heart attacks? Why do we often undergo expensive procedures when cheaper ones are just as effective? What do Da Vinci, Mary Shelley, and contemporary Egyptian archaeologists have in common? And what does it really feel like to touch your own heart, or to have someone else's beating inside your chest?
Rob Dunn's fascinating history of our hearts brings us deep inside the science, history, and stories of the four chambers we depend on most.

I love the history of medicine.  Get me a copy of Oliver Sacks, or a biography of cancer (The Emperor of All Maladies), or a discussion of medical ethics (When the Wind Catches You and You Fall Down or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and I'm all in.  So I was really intrigued by the title of this book.

Well, it wasn't exactly what I thought.  I was hoping for medical case studies from history - what The Man Who Touched His Own Heart is really about is the history of human concepts of the heart as an organ and the history of cardiac medicine and surgery.  Sooo...OK, I'm still in, at least for most of it.

I like the idea and concept of this book very much.  Dunn, who is a professor of ecology and evolution, starts back at the very beginnings of Western medicine, when practitioners just began to speculate about the function of the heart and what that organ represented in our religions and cultures.  Galen, Avicenna, da Vinci, and Vesalius all appear as humans began to dissect corpses to learn the correct human anatomy of the heart (only mammals and birds have four-chambered hearts, so examining, say, a frog doesn't get you very far).  Once Harvey posited the motion of the blood and the microscope was invented discovery accelerated - the first known open-heart surgery, the first heart-catheterization, the attempts to build heart-lung bypass machines to allow more extensive cardiac surgery, and - in a major part of the book - the attempts to determine the correct origins and treatment for that scourge of the modern age, arteriosclerosis (or so we think).

Now, this book is for a lay audience - which isn't even remotely my bailiwick given the epidemiology degree - and I think it works quite well most of the time.  However, a few of the arguments felt a bit convoluted.  For example, he discussed a 2012 meta-analysis (that link might not get you access to the article if you're not academically affiliated - the citation is Stergiopulous and Brown, Initial Coronary Stent Implantation With Medical Therapy vs Medical Therapy Alone for Stable Coronary Artery Disease: Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(4):312-319 - also, that citation wasn't actually noted in the text; just a note about how randomization works....gonna give a bit of editorial side-eye here) looking at medication+angio/stent for atherosclerosis vs medication alone then jumped back about 30 years by referencing two studies in the 80s/90s that contradicted the meta-analysis's findings because statins weren't available then...huh? I do research and those paragraphs didn't flow well. I also felt like bits were missing from the story of cardiac medicine such as the development of heart valve replacements or repair, the extension of the heart-lung machine to ECMO (extracorporeal membranous oxygenation - it allows the lungs to rest and heal while the heart pumps, which could have been briefly introduced/explained), and the development of extremely complex operations to save children born with severe congenital diseases like hypoplastic left heart syndrome.  The sections near the end of the book on comparative anatomy and evolution are very good, as they should be given Dunn's background

One thing that I think would have been very helpful, considering the intended audience, was an actual anatomical description - with pictures - of the normal working anatomy of the heart at the beginning of the book, then a picture of the condition or injury Dunn is describing in the relevant chapter. In example, there's a point at which Dunn describes, in writing, the congenital malformation Tetralogy of Fallot (a consistent appearance of four cardiac anomalies - stenosis of the pulmonary artery, ventricular septal defect, biventricular connection of the aortic valve, and hypertrophy of the left ventricle), but not completely.  I had to stop and look it up, even though I know what the condition entails.  For a reader not versed in medicine or anatomy, I'm sure a section like that is very confusing.  So perhaps a few more illustrations for the paperback edition? (If they were added after the digital advances were released you can ignore the comment - I haven't had a chance to see a finished copy, yet.)

(Caveat for the entire book: if you are an animal lover, this book may not be for you. The history of medical discovery is paved with the use of laboratory animals for research, often in non-ethical and very lethal ways, none more so than the treatment of cardiac ailments.)

Dear FTC: I was given access to a digital advance copy by the publisher.

25 January 2015

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (The Austen Project)

Summary from Goodreads:
From Joanna Trollope, one of the most insightful chroniclers of family life writing fiction today, comes a contemporary retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s classic novel of love, money, and two very different sisters.

John Dashwood promised his dying father that he would take care of his half sisters. But his wife, Fanny, has no desire to share their newly inherited estate. When she descends upon Norland Park, the three Dashwood girls—Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—are faced with the realities of a cold world and the cruelties of life without their father, their home, or their money.

With her sparkling wit, Joanna Trollope casts a clever, satirical eye on the tales of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

Reimagining Sense and Sensibility in a fresh, modern new light, she spins the novel’s romance, bonnets, and betrothals into a wonderfully witty coming-of-age story about the stuff that really makes the world go around. For when it comes to money, some things never change....

Someone somewhere got a wild idea to get best-selling authors to "officially" rewrite Jane Austen's major novels for a twenty-first century audience.

Well, OK...Austen sequels, rewrites, updates, variations, and etc. have been an industry for years.  So sure, a few more won't hurt.  The series started with Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, continued with Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (reviewed briefly on Goodreads), Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, and Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld should be coming out in 2015 (I don't have a US release date for that).  I decided I'd at least give the re-tellings a try.

Sense & Sensibility as told by Joanna Trollope is a perfectly every-day novel.  I've never read any of Joanna Trollope's novels so I can't compare to her usual style but S&S is adequate.  The sentence-level writing reads well and some of the plot updates (Marianne's illness, Brandon's military experience, the Ferrars obsession with money) work very well.

However, however...I was immediately put off by a change in Edward Ferrars's backstory and never got back on an even keel.  He is changed from a diffident, but upstanding young man interested in entering the Church to a vague, unfocused drifter who was sent to school in Plymouth after being expelled from Eton for being the lookout man in a drug ring.

Excuse me?

From there we get extreme examples of bad behavior from Fanny Dashwood, John Dashwood, Marianne, Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood (here named Belle). Belle and Marianne are so incapable of recognizing that bills such as the gas and electricity must be paid it that it becomes irritating. The number of times Eleanor points out she needs a job and every one pooh-poohs the idea....  Margaret is now a caricature of a grouchy modern teenager. (Does anyone know if British teenagers use the "w" sign from the movie Clueless as "whatever? Because I haven't seen an American teenager use that since I was in college and that's about 15 years ago now)

Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte Palmer (among others) no longer just seem self-centered and silly.  Their teasing of Marianne reaches a level of mean-spiritedness that I didn't think possible.  In the scene where Marianne sees Willoughby in London - at a wedding reception that Charlotte has managed to "get them invited to" instead of a ball - the whole thing is recorded and put on YouTube (of course).  Charlotte shows up at her mother's house and insists on playing the video over and over for Eleanor and commenting almost gleefully about what happened.  There is a lack of authorial distance in this book - Austen uses the distance for ironic commentary in the original novel that is lacking in this re-telling and it makes the characters' actions simply nasty.

And then there is the same complaint that I had with Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey - the plot is in lockstep with the original.  There are absolutely no deviations, nothing allowed to develop organically to better fit with the modern time period.  As a result the story begins to feel clunky and boring.  Does Fanny immediately start redecorating Norland? Yes. Does Marianne like music and Eleanor drawing? Yes. Does Brandon immediately fall in love with Marianne? Yes. Does Marianne get caught in the rain, requiring dramatic rescue by Willoughby? Of course.  Does Willoughby give Marianne an expensive gift? This time it's a car. Is Brandon called away right before a picnic allowing Marianne and Willoughby to sneak off to Allenham?  Yep.  Is Lucy Steele out to marry money and almost sunk by the loose lips of her idiot sister? Yep (and the sister is actually one of the most annoying and least believable characters ever written).  Does Mrs. Ferrars bang on about some Morton girl marrying Edward?  Yes.  Does it all work out in the end including forgiveness for everyone?  Yes, yes, yes.

In short, the Austen Project novels, so far, seem to be best suited for those readers who are unfamiliar with Austen's original novels.  Which I find to be galling because there is nothing wrong with the original novels and they can be read by academics and plebeians alike.  Meaning, if you are as familiar with the original novels as I am you are going to be just as bored and underwhelmed.  If one wants to re-tell a familiar story and update it for a contemporary audience there are so many successful adaptations: Clueless, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Each of those took the original story and concept and adapted the concept to fit the time period rather than bend the time period to fit the idiosyncrasies of the plot.  I'll probably give the McCall Smith Emma adaptation a shot but if that's as underwhelming as Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey then I might bail at fifty percent. 

Dear FTC: I received a finished review copy from the publisher.

14 January 2015

Out with 2014, in with 2015! (With Pie Charts!)

2014 is fading into the background so that means its time for little old me to look back at my year of reading.  I had a few reading-related (and other) resolutions for 2014:

1. Be mindful in my reading and bookish purchases - I did really good on this in the second half of the year and really made good use of my library cards (I finally got signed up at ICPL and NL) and my Oyster subscription.
2. Be timely on reviews - I think this was kind of a fail.
3. Drink more water - also kind of a fail.
4. Move more (the Fitbit is helping, but I need to be better at going to the gym) - I was diagnosed with a probable tear in the cartilage in one hip and the gym going was really limited.
5. Cook for myself - I really limited my fast food consumption this year and started remembering to make my own coffee in the morning which helped with the mocha/latte consumption.
6. Be brave - I visited Rebecca of Book Riot when I went to Virginia for the AXS biennial Conclave (and met Amanda, too), I started a YouTube channel, and I also made sure to make use of the new FilmScene art-house movie theatre.
7. Take a vacation - I visited Washington DC with my parents and, of course, stopped by Politics & Prose in Georgetown.
8. Relax - maybe?

So, overall, I think I did pretty good with my resolutions this year.  Now, what about those pie charts I promised.... It's taken me a few weeks to wrangle my book database but I did!  And I have stats!

This year I used the .csv file generated from Goodreads to build the backbone of my book database in Access (I have an analytics background and am teaching myself SQL so this was several hours of merrily wallowing in code and Google searches and spreadsheets back in February/March).  I've been tracking genre, format, gender, nationality, and race this year and I have a little historical data, too.

To start, I smashed my Goodreads goal of 130 books by reading 195 books.  BOOM.  (Yes, I counted comic books as "books" - who cares?)  Some of my favorite books this year were Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, Sarah MacLean's Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, G. Willow Wilson's/Adrian Alphona's Ms. Marvel, Brian K. Vaughan's/Fiona Staples's Saga, and Eloisa James's Three Weeks with Lady X.  And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head!

I read a pretty wide range of genres:



And a pretty wide range of formats (I'm about 50/50 or so on paper/digital and that suits me just fine):


My gender breakdown is 60/40 ladies to gents, which makes sense given that a good chunk of my genre reading comes from romance:


The 60/40 split has been pretty steady for a number of years, with the exception of 2012 because romance novels were almost the only thing I could handle reading when my mom was being treated for cancer (a guaranteed happy ending can go a long way...).


Most authors I read come from the US (followed by the UK, Australia, and Canada so it's really Anglophone up in here):


(and I'm super-sorry about spelling Malaysia wrong - it's corrected in the database now so should be correct next time I do this).

And what about race/POC?  The issue of reading diversely was huge this year in the book community, particularly on the bookternet.


Yeah, not so good.  I read more POC authors overall, but since I read more books in general the percentage of POC authors I read didn't go up.


(I deliberately didn't make the denominator discrete "authors" but counted each book individually in these stats - if I read 7 books by the same author, and that author happens to be white, that should be counted the same as if I read 7 books from 7 different white authors).

So the takeaway here is that I get an A+ in reading but a D- in diversity.

Diversity is one of my big, huge goals for 2015.  I am going to be more mindful about reading authors of color (i.e. not-white) and authors in translation which (in theory) might help with reading more POC authors.  I was really struck by Ann Morgan's blog A Year of Reading the World - she spent 2012 reading one book from each country on Earth (about 196 books total) - and now has a book coming out where she expands on themes and issues she encountered while trying to locate and read more books by non-UK/Commonwealth writers.  Reading the World will be published in the UK on February 5 and in the US as The World Between Two Covers in May.  I have a galley and am so excited and honored to have received one.  I'm also participating in the Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge group and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge - a number of these tasks require reading non-white, non-US/Anglophone literature - so that will also help me keep my reading goal.

Other 2015 resolutions, which look suspiciously similar to 2014's resolutions:

1. Be mindful in my reading and bookish purchases - keeping this up will help so much with financial responsibility and the general amount of excess stuff in my house that I will never get around to reading/liking/re-reading.
2. Be timely on reviews - such a big deal, especially for books that I have requested as a reviewer (I know that there has been a lot of discussion in the book blogging community about what is "owed" to a publisher but, in my opinion, if a publicist, etc. has taken the time to send me an ARC or DRC then I should return the gesture by reading and reviewing the book in a timely manner).
3. Drink more water - do I need to drink as much Dt. Pepsi as I do? No.  Although, #deathbeforedecaf is still a mantra (you cannot separate me from my coffee).
4. Move more - the hip (and knees and back) and I have come to an agreement on ways of moving so I should be able to at least get on the elliptical and basic weights at the gym.
5. Cook for myself - I got a Dutch oven and new pots and pans for Christmas so this year the goal is to wean myself off of frozen dinners for 2/3 of my meals (they are handy, but my MSG-sensitivity is much less of an issue if I cook food for myself).
6. Be brave - I still hate having my picture taken or meeting new people but I need to keep putting myself out there.  Nothing gets accomplished by holing up in my house with the cats and books and not interacting with actual people in a social setting.
7. Take a vacation - I hope (HOPE HOPE) to have the finances sorted out enough to visit my friend Kate and see Rhinebeck (aka New York Sheep and Wool) this year.  ALSO, Book Riot announced their first live event in early November in NYC and I really, really, really want to go to that, too. (And see my friend Beth! And maybe Karen!)
8. Relax - cf. resolution #7.

And that's it!  Bring it, 2015!

You can see me holding my iPad up to the camera (and get a serious close-up of my face) in my BookTube video for my 2014 wrap-up - same thing as here, just more visual.


06 January 2015

Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Summary from Goodreads:
From "a top-notch emerging writer with a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor" (The Boston Globe): a collection of stories that explores the lives of talented, gutsy women throughout history.

The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader's imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde's troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

The world hasn't always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman's alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an "accomplished writer of short fiction" (Booklist).

For my first book in 2015, I chose Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the much-lauded (though still lurking in my TBR pile) Birds of a Lesser Paradise (I did, however, read the title story in a Best American Short Stories volume). This short volume contains an amazing collection of short stories about women who were fame-adjacent - Oscar Wilde's niece, Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, James Joyce's daughter, Byron's daughter - or briefly famous - Beryl Markham, the Hilton twins, actress Butterfly McQueen, the women of the International Sweethearts, or the women liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (this story shows off a beautifully realized first-person plural narration). Bergman, with just a few sentences, creates vibrant portraits of the women that fame briefly elevates, chews up, and spits back out.  None of them have easy lives, either in reality or in the inner-life that Bergman imagines for them.  Absolutely stellar writing.

This is very short collection, so I hesitate to suggest that a story be removed, but as good as "The Lottery, Redux" is, it just does not fit with the other stories, in my opinion.  While all the other stories revolve around a real-life historical figure, "The Lottery, Redux" tangentially relates to the collection via the creation of a famous woman; The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. It is a wonderfully crafted story but it doesn't fit together with the other stories as they all relate to one another.  It's the last story in the collection, so it doesn't interrupt the flow of the stories.  But still such a great story.

I'd definitely recommend this for those looking for good short story collections.

Almost Famous Women is out today, January 6, from Scribner!

31 December 2014

The Duke of Dark Desires (The Wild Quartet #4) by Miranda Neville

Summary from Goodreads:
Wanted: Governess able to keep all hours . . .
Rebellious Julian Fortescue never expected to inherit a dukedom, nor to find himself guardian to three young half-sisters. Now in the market for a governess, he lays eyes on Jane Grey and knows immediately she is qualified—to become his mistress. Yet the alluring woman appears impervious to him. Somehow Julian must find a way to make her succumb to temptation . . . without losing his heart and revealing the haunting mistakes of his past.

Desired: Duke skilled in the seductive art of conversation . . .
Lady Jeanne de Falleron didn't seek a position as a governess simply to fall into bed with the Duke of Denford. Under the alias of Jane Grey, she must learn which of the duke's relatives is responsible for the death of her family—and take her revenge. She certainly can't afford the distraction of her darkly irresistible employer, or the smoldering desire he ignites within her.

But as Jane discovers more clues about the villain she seeks, she's faced with a possibility more disturbing than her growing feelings for Julian: What will she do if the man she loves is also the man she's sworn to kill?

(I've tried four times to summarize this novel without spoiling details, but I can't do any better than the summary from the Goodreads page.)

I haven't read the previous Wild Quartet books (I have at least one kicking around somewhere) but since I previously read one Miranda Neville series backward (the Burgundy Club) I figured it wouldn't hurt to start with the fourth book in this series, either.  And it went very well - there were a few times where Julian would go to one of the previous books' heroes or heroines (in this series, the tie is a group of art collectors rather than antiquarian book collectors) but just enough information was dropped in conversation to clue the reader as to backstory without an info-dump.

That was a good decision on Neville's part because The Duke of Dark Desires is heavy on exposition for both hero and heroine.  These are not happy character histories - they never are when French aristocrats and the French Revolution are in play.  Jane is such a strong character and her story is both a very old one and a very modern one.  The stigma Jane fears is one that many women face when forced to make choices to simply survive.  Julian, too, has demons but they are less physically menacing - he's haunted by guilt and inadequacy, made larger by the fact that his mother dumps her three unwanted-though-that-is-never-made-explicit daughters in Julian's lap so that she might go gallivanting off with her new husband.  Together, though, Julian and Jane can burn up the page - both in sexual chemistry and in character.  Incidentally, Julian's middle half-sister, Fenella, is a delight.

I am definitely going to check out the earlier three books in the series, they seem like good romances (I am miffed, though only by a very tiny bit, that my suggestion for the title - "The Duke of Denford's Crime," to match her Oscar Wilde theme in the series - wasn't used. Oh well).

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

30 December 2014

Say Yes to the Marquess (Castles Ever After #2) by Tessa Dare

Summary from Goodreads:
Your presence is requested at romantic Twill Castle for the wedding of Miss Clio Whitmore and . . . and . . . ?

After eight years of waiting for Piers Brandon, the wandering Marquess of Granville, to set a wedding date, Clio Whitmore has had enough. She's inherited a castle, scraped together some pride, and made plans to break her engagement.

Not if Rafe Brandon can help it. A ruthless prizefighter and notorious rake, Rafe is determined that Clio will marry his brother—even if he has to plan the dratted wedding himself.

So how does a hardened fighter cure a reluctant bride's cold feet?

● He starts with flowers. A wedding can't have too many flowers. Or harps. Or cakes.

● He lets her know she'll make a beautiful, desirable bride—and tries not to picture her as his.

● He doesn't kiss her.

● If he kisses her, he definitely doesn't kiss her again.

● When all else fails, he puts her in a stunning gown. And vows not to be nearby when the gown comes off.

● And no matter what—he doesn't fall in disastrous, hopeless love with the one woman he can never call his own.

Clio Whitmore, fully in possession of Twill Castle (none of the that sketchy lawyer-selling-Ransom's-castle-from-under-him nonsense in this book), intends to escape from her very, very long engagement and set up her own household.  To do that, she needs control over her dowry and to do that, she needs her intended to sign the papers releasing her from obligation to their engagement without financial penalty.  Since her intended is not even in England (and hasn't been for years) she needs his younger brother - scandalous, sensual Rafe Brandon - to sign them as proxy.

Rafe, for his part, is intent on preserving Granville's respectability - the marquess is, after all, a respected diplomat.  Rafe is haunted by his father's disappointment in him, in that he wasn't his older brother and that he rejected his haute ton roots to support himself in the bare-knuckle boxing ring (polite gentlemen box at Gentleman Jackson's saloon).  He will not allow scandal through a broken engagement fall on his family again, not on his watch.  But Clio is undeterred.  She will not marry Granville so Rafe sets out to prove just how nice it would be to have a lovely wedding - by showing Clio how he thinks Granville would treat her if her were Granville which, let's just come out and say it, is exactly how Rafe would treasure Clio every day of her life.  And that is a very big problem for Rafe.

Say Yes to the Marquess is a lovely novel. The opening is a bit rocky.  I couldn't quite see where Dare was going with her hero and heroine - there was a lot of impasse having to do with the papers Clio wants Rafe to sign so she can break her engagement and Clio's mostly-horrible sister and brother-in-law getting in the way - until one very pivotal scene.  Now, I have a historical-accuracy quibble with this scene (the wedding preparations are on a modern preparation scale with food, and flowers, and cake, and dresses, and so on that just weren't a thing in the Regency period) but it is such a good scene.  I don't want to spoil it but we are given such a beautiful, heart-breaking backstory for Clio.  It had me in tears (in a good way!) and then I got all teary again at the end (of course) so a lovely romance to ring in the new year.  And Rafe is simply yummy - any time you give a hero the surname Brandon, he has some big shoes to fill (Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility looms large in my mind).

Now I wonder who our other two heroines-who-inherit-castles-from-Uncle-Humphrey are and whether all four couples will meet up.  That was one thing I missed greatly in comparison to the previous Spindle Cove series - I didn't see any connection beyond the castle set-up to connect Rafe and Clio to Ransom and Izzy from Romancing the Duke (review).  I hope everyone will come together later - When A Scot Ties the Knot is due out August 2015.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

17 December 2014

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Summary from Goodreads:

A working father whose life no longer feels like his own discovers the transforming powers of great (and downright terrible) literature in this laugh-out-loud memoir.

Andy Miller had a job he quite liked, a family he loved, and no time at all for reading. Or so he kept telling himself. But, no matter how busy or tired he was, something kept niggling at him. Books. Books he'd always wanted to read. Books he'd said he'd read that he actually hadn't. Books that whispered the promise of escape from the daily grind. And so, with the turn of a page, Andy began a year of reading that was to transform his life completely.

This book is Andy's inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: classic, cult, and everything in between. Beginning with a copy of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita that he happens to find one day in a bookstore, he embarks on a literary odyssey. From Middlemarch to Anna Karenina to A Confederacy of Dunces, this is a heartfelt, humorous, and honest examination of what it means to be a reader, and a witty and insightful journey of discovery and soul-searching that celebrates the abiding miracle of the book and the power of reading.

If you want to know one of my "reading kryptonites", it's books about someone's reading life.  Was it a project? So many books in one year? A particular genre? Books they read as a child?  Sold.  So I jumped all over an email from HarperPerennial offering an advance copy of Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously.

Miller, at the time in his life depicted in The Year of Reading Dangerously, was in his mid-to-late thirties, a father, husband, editor, and writer.  He was busy, but he wished he could read books.  To clarify, read books for pleasure, since he read plenty for work.  He even had a work commute by train that would be long enough to allow him to read but he didn't take advantage of the opportunity.  So Miller decided that he would create a "List of Betterment" - 50 "great books" (and possibly not great) books that he ought to read or re-read.  He blogged under the pseudonym Leonard Bast, which was kind of hilarious, and even though he didn't turn into a prolific blogger he did keep reading book from his List, starting with Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I've read (in fact, I've read most of the books Miller put on his list).

This was a very fun book to read.  We all read - or don't read - for very different reasons.  What Miller did was take that perennial complaint of "I wish I read more books" and do something about it.  He read on his commute instead of dinking around or doing a crossword or working.  He read with his wife.  He even read a few things I would not have put on anyone's "reading betterment" list.  Like A Confederacy of Dunces, which I read cover to cover and honestly cannot determine why people love it (Ignacious T. Reilly is gross and when he takes his girlfriend's braid in his "paw" and smells it....ugggggghhhhhhhhh). 



Although The Year of Reading Dangerously is not a prescriptive for the reader's reading life (even though my store inexplicably chooses to shelve this in "Self Improvement" - I'm giving the buyer a side-eye on that one), Miller makes some changes based on what he realized about himself over the course of his reading project. There's some light-hearted fun and excellent footnotes.

Dear FTC: I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher.

13 December 2014

Episode 15 - #Unboxing Riot Read #6!

Riot Read #6 came while I was running around the store in full bookstore-retail-at-Christmas mode! Surprise packages are so fun to come home to after a long day.