27 January 2014

The People in the Trees

Summary from Goodreads:
In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

Tournament of Books 2014!

So, I'm a scientist, I know lots of scientists, therefore, I decided to go with Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees as my next pick for the TOB.

And it was good. Yanagihara is a very good writer and I'd like to see more from her but I just didn't care about the protagonist. He's supposed to be unlikeable, which is fine, but Perina is also boring as hell.  By the end of the first section of his "memoir" I was waiting for his personality to change and it doesn't.  He remains the same arrogant, pedantic, closeted, privileged-white-male asshat he was at the beginning.  I've worked with people like that - those brilliant people who could easily slide into sociopathy - so I just kept rolling my eyes because so much of Perina's narrative felt like something I'd heard before.  Perina is also so closely patterned on the real-life person (Carleton Gajdusek), right down to the Nobel win, that it felt a bit re-hashed because I read up on that guy for a discussion of ethics.  Yanagihara did raise some interesting thoughts on Western interference with newly discovered "lost" tribes and moral relativism when looking at a tribe's cultural practices from a Western perspective but I felt they could have been expanded more had we not been stuck in Perina's voice for so much of the book.  It felt very limited given that we only get Perina's viewpoint and occasionally those of his sycophantic "editor".

And then there was an "Epilogue"....and that pretty much ruined the book.  Epilogues are bad news for some novels.

26 January 2014

The Dept of Speculation

Summary from Goodreads:
Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel.

The above blurb is kind of a bust.  I was anticipating an epistolary novel filled with these mysterious letters addressed to "Dept of Speculation."  But, no.  The actual letter-writing isn't referred to until probably halfway through the book so if you really, really want an epistolary novel The Dept of Speculation isn't it.

However....

Jenny Offill has written a tiny, gem-like novel (or novella, wherever your length cut-off for novellas happens to be) about a woman's perspective on her life as she moves from student to girlfriend to wife to mother and how it impacts her intention to make some really great art.  It is some of the best 120 pages of writing I've ever read. I would exactly call it stream-of-consciousness in the way that Mrs. Dalloway is a stream-of-consciousness novel but portion are just like being stuck inside someone's head.

My favorite line:
"I think I was afraid to go all in," she says.  "Because all in is terrifying.  With all in, you lose everything."
Agreed.  Going all in on a relationship is the most terrifying thing on Earth.

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

20 January 2014

Romancing the Duke (Castles Ever After #1) by Tessa Dare

Summary from Goodreads:
In the first in Tessa Dare's captivating Castles Ever After series, a mysterious fortress is the setting for an unlikely love . . .

As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.

Ugly duckling turned swan?
Abducted by handsome highwayman?
Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and… Heh.

Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head. What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?

This one.

The Castles Ever After series is centered around one premise: than an eccentric old man bequeathed to each of four young, women, his goddaughters, an entire castle (castle! real castle!).  In the first novel, Romancing the Duke, impoverished, orphaned Izzy Goodnight, daughter of the celebrated author of The Goodnight Tales, a fairy tale series, arrives (or, more properly, is delivered in less-than-ideal circumstances) at her newly inherited castle, Gostley Castle, in Northumberland.  This is her last, best hope to keep a roof over her head.  The castle, surprisingly, is inhabited.  Not by a prince, but by a rough, growling, reclusive male who claims to be Ransom, the Duke of Rothbury.  Incidentally, he claims to be the owner of Izzy's castle.

"Oh, dear.  She did have such a weakness for a pair of well-traveled boots.  They made her desperate to know everywhere they'd been."

Izzy and Ransom begin a very delicate dance to negotiate who actually owns the castle.  And who lives there.  And who will discover whose secrets first.  Izzy has a fabulous one, Ransom's has more to do with his male ego.  As a stop-gap, Izzy begins working as a secretary of-sorts for Ransom.  Since he was blinded through injury, he has holed up in his castle and ignored the world.  Izzy brings the world to him.  Literally.  Fans of her father's Goodnight Tales follow Izzy to Gostley Castle and nothing is the same again.

Romancing the Duke doesn't sparkle quite like the final novel in the Spindle Cove series (quite literally, since Pauline had a run-in with a sugar bin in Any Duchess Will Do) but that doesn't make it any less witty or swoony. It's a little bit Beauty and the Beast and a little bit King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and quite funny in places.  Romancing the Duke focuses on the power of belief and fairy tales and dreams - there are Regency cosplayers, y'all. I can't wait to see what stories we get for the other three Castles.

If you read the "impossible/ridiculous sex scenes" post from Smart Bitches a few weeks ago, you will almost die laughing about a certain sex position that is awkward. And someone mentions chickens, chickens, chickens, chickens. And there's an ermine (ok, the ermine isn't an euphemism, it's a real ermine).

Loved it.

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

18 January 2014

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England

Summary from Goodreads:
The Regency period was one of the most turbulent ages in British history, one that spanned the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, that witnessed unprecedented industrial progress, artistic accomplishment, and violent social unrest and--paradoxically--the most sparkling social scene English high society has ever enjoyed. Under the influence of the obese, loose-moraled Prince of Wales (to whom Jane Austen dedicated Emma), the Regency was the apex of British decadence, an era of lavish parties and relentless bed-hopping that set a standard for elegance and vulgarity. With wit and lively style, Venetia Murray chronicles the scandals, courtships, and daily life of these aristocrats, and evokes the tempestuous times of the early industrial and French revolutions. Sumptuously illustrated with rare contemporary cartoons, prints, diaries, and caricatures, An Elegant Madness is a book readers of social history and historical romance alike will devour.

Well, since I started writing again, I've had some ongoing story ideas. One of these is set in the Regency and I realized that, since I loathe sloppy historical research, I better do some background reading so I at least start out on the right foot.  You'd think I had already done this given my love of Jane Austen and my concentration in Regency historicals when I read romance novels, but I haven't.  I took a bit of a shotgun approach and rounded up a list of titles, starting with Venetia Murray's An Elegant Madness.

This is a nice book.  It covers major parts of the Regency culture - manners, marriages, views on morality, money, inheritance, food, clothing, etc.  The larger-than-life historical figures of the era - led by the very large Prinny himself - are visited in turn.  The Patronesses of Almack's pop up frequently through their many letters and a number of caricatures and engravings are used to illustrate how the masses viewed High Society.

But the book did feel somewhat jumbled.  Chapters sometimes seemed to veer from the subject - a later chapter about country houses moved from house parties, to how children were raised, to the beginning of the Reform movement which was a bit hard to follow.  The annotation could have been better, in my opinion.  Footnotes and endnotes were used for sources but instances of quotes in French were not translated (Google Translate has trouble with idioms) and an entire menu from one of Prinny's fetes, over 100 dishes, was listed in French.  It was very hard to read, since I don't speak or read French fluently, so the necessity of including the entire menu was lost on me.  I would have appreciated a translation in an appendix.

This is a decent overview for the curious reader, but research-wise I'll need to keep digging.

13 January 2014

A Tale for the Time Being

Summary from Goodreads:
"A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

Since I decided to try to read the Tournament of Books finalists, I knew that the first book I would go for was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.  It came up on my radar with the announcement of the Booker Prize finalists and I loved the "voice" when I heard an excerpt read by Ozeki on a Guardian Books podcast.  I am kicking myself for not reading it earlier.

A teenage girl in Tokyo, Naoko, begins writing in a diary with the intention of chronicling the life of her great-grandmother.  On an island off the coast of British Columbia a novelist and filmmaker, Ruth, finds a freezer bag filled with something washed up on shore.  Her curious husband Oliver opens the bag to find a diary, packet of letters, and man's watch carefully packed into a Hello Kitty lunchbox.  It is possible that these items were washed out to sea during the 2011 tsunami which had happened only a few weeks prior.  Although Ruth tries to avoid it, she becomes drawn into Nao's story - her life in Tokyo now, her life growing up in California, and her family history.  The two storylines alternate, running almost parallel, until they converge in a very unexpected way.

What makes this book so readable are the two voices of Nao and Ruth and the idea that "Ruth" is telling both stories.  She has annotated Nao's diary regarding Japanese words and cultural norms so that we as readers are almost in the place of Oliver, listening to his wife read from Nao's diary or the letters and journal found with the diary.  It feels intensely personal.  I had some righteous anger and concern, the same as Ruth, regarding the horrors of Nao's experience with school bullies.  It was awful and humiliating and Nao had little visible support at home, and none from the school since it was implied that the teacher was tacitly complicit in the abuse if he wanted to keep his job.  I was firmly on Ruth's side when Oliver pointed out that all the events in the diary were in the past, had already happened, and that Ruth's worry and concern for Nao may turn out to be moot in the end.  Nao was crying for help and the space of time doesn't negate our concern.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I realized the "Ruth" in the book was the Ruth who wrote the book - it's her basic biography, her husband, her cat, her island, her parents who appear as characters as well as Ruth herself.  It could have felt forced or twee but it works perfectly, I think simply because the storyline of Nao's diary is allowed to inform the storyline of "Ruth" as she reads the diary.  Obviously, Nao is a fictional construct and the specific events in Ruth's storyline were created for the novel, but I found myself wondering how closely the book characters resembled their real-life originals and what those people felt about being a character in a novel, if they cared at all.

I loved the idea of time as conveyed throughout the book.  It does not stop and we all live in time but if we do not actually live in all the millions of moments in each day we won't appreciate those moments.  Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Bhuddist priest and brings so much of that knowledge to bear on the story, particularly through the character of Jiko, Nao's great-grandmother, and how she tries to give Nao a way to navigate her life.  It starts right with the title of the book - yes, this is a tale for the "time being", as a way to pass the time, but also echoing the words of Dogen Zenji in that we are all "time beings", physical beings present in time.  So mind-expanding, for someone (like me) who really hasn't read or thought about Bhuddist philosophy before.

On top of all this, the actual sentence-level construction of the book is just lovely.  I have a tattered little quote journal and I added several favorite lines while reading A Tale for the Time Being:

When her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water. (p 91)

I was still thinking about what she said about waves; and it made me sad because I knew that her little wave was not going to last and soon she would join the sea again, and even though i know you can't hold onto water, still I gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away. (p 195)

...but memories are time beings, too, like cherry blossoms or ginko leaves; for a while they are beautiful, and then they fade and die. (p 390)

And finally, one from p 42, that I had to photograph since I'm not sure how to get Japanese characters into a post:


Beautiful.

A Tale for the Time Being is a definitely recommend, likely one of my favorite books this year and it's only January.

Dear FTC: I purchased a copy of this book.

08 January 2014

New Challenge: The 2014 Tournament of Books

Or, Rooster X, given the artwork and anniversary.

This year marks the tenth offering of The Tournament of Books by The Morning News.  Some might call this March Madness for bookworms.  I've always kind of followed it but never really made and effort to get all the books read so I could actually participate.



Well, in the spirit of reading widely, I decided to give it a shot this year.  TMN announced the finalists yesterday:
    • At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarc√≥n
    • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
    • The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
    • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
    • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
    • The Dinner by Herman Koch
    • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
    • Long Division by Kiese Laymon
    • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
    • Hill William by Scott McClanahan
    • The Son by Philipp Meyer
    • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki 
    • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell 
    • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    • The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
    • Pre-Tournament Playoff Round
      • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
      • Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
So, 17 books in about three months (going to try for the end of March to get them all read - that's a lot of pages there, especially with The Goldfinch and The Luminaries).

I've already read Eleanor & Park, so that's one down.  My next two up are A Tale for the Time Being and The People in the Trees.  Off I go!

05 January 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

Summary from Goodreads:
A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth--Middlemarch-- and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.


I think that we all have that one book that we return to at different times either for comfort or changing insight (I, being a nut, have two: Winnie-the-Pooh and Pride and Prejudice).  For Rebecca Mead, that book is George Eliot's Middlemarch.  Each time she returned to the book her own life experiences illuminated different parts of the novel as Eliot's characters grow and change within the story.

My Life in Middlemarch is a book that is part biography, part memoir, and part criticism.  Following the layout of Middlemarch's eight sections, Mead brings parts of Mary Ann Evan's life into focus as the brilliant, headstrong young woman transforms into George Eliot, a woman who defied all Victorian convention to become one of the most successful English writers and live openly with George Henry Lewes, a married man (I really want to know more about Lewes's wife because apparently they couldn't get divorced, but she had a long-standing affair with a different man and had children by him).  There are comparisons of Mary Ann to her female protagonist Dorothea, to her male protagonist Lygdate, to teenage Rebecca (which, for those of us who were also intelligent teenagers, we will easily identify with embarrassment about arrogant teenage writing re-read by our older selves), to mid-twenties Rebecca working, working, working and worrying about relationships, and to middle-age Rebecca as she finds happiness and family with a man who already has children of his own much as Mary Ann did with Lewes and his three sons.

Along the way Mead brings up little interesting tidbits about Mary Ann Evan's life.  She had an obsessive stalker fan, apparently, although they never met face-to-face.  In a letter, Mary Ann confided to a friend how she came to choose the nom de plume George Eliot (it's a little heart-melty moment).  She went through an insufferable, teenage moralist phase, something I think we can all identify with.  All of these experiences Mead ties in with the characters of Middlemarch.  There is also a subtle dig about literary pilgrimage.  As Mead traveled around to different locations Mary Ann lived or tracked down collections of her manuscripts and letters, the collections are dispersed and the locations almost forgotten, in some instances completely.  There is no Steventon, or Jane Austen Centre in Bath, or Haworth, or Gad's Hill for George Eliot.  She hasn't been preserved or celebrated as Austen or the Brontes or Dickens have been even though she was just as successful in her lifetime.  And that's just a little sad.

Now, I don't think you need to have read Middlemarch to read My Life in Middlemarch.  The reason I hedge just a little bit is because I have read Middlemarch (just once, for my Literature by Women group, but I took very good notes) so I was able to follow Mead's comparisons easily without worrying about having the novel spoiled.  I can't take Middlemarch out of my brain enough to tell whether this would be easy to read for someone who hadn't read the book.  I think you can, since the central premise is about how you can come back to a favorite book over and over, but if you are really that concerned about spoilage or thoroughness, go read Middlemarch (stop freaking out about how long it is, it's a really good book) and then read My Life in Middlemarch.  Totally worth it.

Note: if you are staunchly in the "Death of the Author" and/or books exist separately from authorial experience, etc, etc, etc, camp then My Life in Middlemarch is not for you.

My Life in Middlemarch will be available January 28!

Dear FTC: I picked up an ARC of this book from a publicity mailing sent to my store.

02 January 2014

Songbook

Summary from Goodreads:
McSweeney's is excited to release Songbook \226 a brand-new collection of short, personal essays by Nick Hornby on 31 of his favorite songs and songwriters. This hardcover book has 4-color illustrations by Marcel Dzama throughout and comes complete with a CD featuring 11 songs discussed within.

My dad, who loves just wandering around on eBay, had a really cool idea last year - he took my wishlist and went looking to see if any were available on eBay as signed or special copies.  And he surprised me with several things, including an original edition of Nick Hornby's Songbook complete with the original music CD.  I love Hornby's Stuff I've Been Reading columns from the Believer, and have all his essay collections, and I really wanted to read Songbook to get his perspective on music.  Each chapter is one song (in some editions, the title is actually 31 Songs) and it's interesting to read what music turns him on.  It's completely different than what turns me on, to the point that I was really unfamiliar with a few artists.  The included CD was really helpful.  The structure of the chapters is very much like his Stuff I've Been Reading writing; if you like those columns, and are a music lover as well, then give this a try.

01 January 2014

Out with the old, in with the new: Hello, 2014!

The thing about New Year's Day is that it always comes sniffing around when I'm not ready for it.  But, so long, 2013 - it was nice knowing you.


My goal was to read 120 books - so I read 167 books last year, of course, since I'm that sort of over-achiever.  That made 49,369 pages read (or so, I think a few things didn't have a page count in GR).




I read books of all kinds, so definitely a different genre spread than last year, and so many great books came out this year that I couldn't choose just one favorite book this year: When Women Were BirdsCloud Atlas, Eleanor and Park, Fangirl, A Sport and a Pastime, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, The Secret History, Night Film, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Once Upon a Tower, and Sex Criminals (easily the best comic I read this year).  As to least favorite book, that one goes to Joshilyn Jackson's Someone Else's Love Story which I loathed with the fire of a thousand suns and wonder why I didn't give it one star (if you want to know why I finished it, I had to review it for Brazen Reads).  I had one official DNF, Big Girl Panties, because I really couldn't get past the "hero's" i-can't-be-seen-with-an-unattractive/overweight-person-because-it-will-make-me-look-bad attitude (sad, because I got it for review from Avon, but I really didn't want to waste my reading time).

Speaking of Avon, I had some bookish adventures this year.  I lived up to my resolutions of "Be brave" and "Take a vacation" by taking an overnight trip to see Eloisa James and Tessa Dare at Anderson's Bookshop (PS: we did not coordinate our clothes, haha).


I went all by my little lonesome and had a wonderful time at a pre-event meet-and-greet at a chocolate cafe nearby and met some of the lovely ladies from the Eloisa's Ambassadors Facebook group.  That same day I found out that I had been accepted into the Avon Addicts program, which I had applied to on some wild-haired whim, thinking I'd never get accepted in a bazillion years.  Such a great group of ladies, editors, and authors!  It threw my romance reading-and-reviewing schedule into a tizzy, from which it still hasn't recovered but I'll catch up.  My third bookish adventure involves book subscriptions.  I decided to try on the new streaming/lending ebook service, Oyster, once it came available for iPad - it has a gorgeous interface and a ton of books to borrow for only $10/mo.  This has the backlist that my local public library can't afford so it's so worth the price.  I also subscribed to Melville House's Art of the Novella series and it's been fabulous so far.

The one project I didn't do so well with was my Overdue Reads project and other ongoing projects I have (see the tabs up there? Those).  Although I tried to be more focused with my reading it was still all over the map, very mercurial, and my reviewing is shamefully behind.  To that end, here are my new resolutions:

1.  Be mindful in my reading and bookish purchases - I do not need to purchase every, single book I come across, which is a serious vice of mine.  I cannot single-handedly keep the book industry floating (that has to be the subconscious urge, I'm sure of it).  I already own a ton (literally, I'm surprised the house joists are holding firm) of books and therefore need to read or start/dnf what I already have rather than purchase more books to join them on the unread shelves.  I also need to stay more current with my reading projects so those actually move forward and be smarter at managing my "start-itis" with books (and knitting).  I have challenged myself to read 130 books this year.


2.  Be timely on reviews - reading a book will always be more enticing than writing a review, but I have so many unwritten/half-written/not-even-started reviews that I have some major catching up to do.
3.  Drink more water.
4.  Move more (the Fitbit is helping, but I need to be better at going to the gym).
5.  Cook for myself - ongoing, but I did much better in 2013.  I didn't eat nearly as much fast food.  Coffeehouse lattes/mochas are still a weakness, though.
6.  Be brave.
7.  Take a vacation (I have plans....).
8.  Relax.

Happy New Year, everyone!!

ETA: It was actually 168 books in 2013 (with 49,401 pages read) - I had missed getting the date on the third issue of Sex Criminals. Oops.