"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #26: A Book Everyone is Talking About
I usually don't explicitly review audiobook performances even though I listen to tons of audiobooks -- if something stands out, I'll mention it, but I focus my reviews on the things I would have noticed regardless of the medium.
I'm making an exception this time because this audiobook is *so damn good.* This is one of the rare cases where I'm honestly not sure I would have liked the book as much as I did if I read it the old-fashioned way.
The book is set up as a collection of "files" -- interviews, transcripts, diary entries, etc. -- surrounding research on a giant, ancient robot whose pieces are scattered throughout the world. I usually like this "self-aware" storytelling style, wherein the characters are aware that they are writing, being recorded, etc., as they tell their story. What this means in the audio version, however, is that each character is played by a different reader. And the readers, with their accents, quirks of inflection, rate of speaking, etc., all feel like real people, making this somewhat fantastical book ALSO feel as if maybe it *could* really happen. It's a totally immersive experience -- the kind that leaves you walking around in your normal life with your brain still living somewhere back in "book world." It's been a long time since I read a book that seeped so deeply into my subconscious, and that I wanted to sink into as much as I did this one. Perhaps I would have had the same experience if I had read it -- the book could not have done as well as it did if it were only audiobook listeners who liked it -- but I still think audio is definitely the way to go on this one.
So, why only four stars with all that gushing? One nitpicky thing is that this book does what a lot of "documentary," "epistolary," or "diary" books do -- there are places where it strains credibility that the characters would actually go into such detail when talking/writing about certain things, and you know the only reason the author did it is because he wants to reader to have that information, and his chosen medium has constrained the way that it can be delivered. There was only one place in here that I really noticed this, but it was big enough to jar me out of the story for a little bit.
Also, this isn't the type of sci-fi that I generally go for. I'm not a big fan of "giant robot" stories, and this one has a lot of military overtones, which is something else that is a turn-off for me in science fiction. And I kept feeling like there should be a bigger reveal at some point, like we were perhaps building up to something that never actually happened (although the epilogue was pretty cool.) So, I think it was not the story itself that captivated me, but rather its execution. This isn't the best story out there, but its execution is brilliant. And its audio adaptation is even brilliant-er.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #33: the 16th book on your TBR
I have lots of TBR lists; this one came from my MP3 audiobooks list. I got lucky as this was an audiobook I was really looking forward to listening to!
Unfortunately, I struggled to maintain interest. Gregory Maguire is a good writer and I am often interested in his themes and the subjects he writes about. But I just didn't care for the tone of this book. It is narrated by an elderly monk who plays only a small part in the plot, and the adult narration in a middle-grade book made the whole thing feel distant. The narrator's commentary on the girls' situations was also a little off-putting.
This book really feels like two different books. The first half is a sort of "prince and the pauper" story, as two girls who look alike accidentally end up switching places. The culmination of this plot thread comes slightly after the halfway point, and the book feels like it should be over then. But it is followed by a second set of adventures, this one involving both girls, Baba Yaga, and a hunt for a magical creature. Although objectively I liked the second half of the book better, by that point I was also getting impatient for the finish line and it started to feel long.
I did like the way Maguire envisioned Baba Yaga, who was a surprisingly complex and endearing character, and funny as well. Part of this book's problem is that it takes so long for her to come into the story, and I think less dedicated (read: stubborn) readers may have given up by then. The story seems to be a bit of a commentary on Russian mythology and Russian sensibilities, but I did not know enough about the source material to appreciate that part of the story, and I don't think most young readers would, either. It also seems to be grappling with the issue of global warming, which seems an odd choice for a fantasy/historical fiction set in tsarist Russia.
There was one plot thread that seemed to be totally dropped, which annoyed me. Unfortunately, it's possible that I just missed its resolution when my mind wandered, and I didn't have the patience to go back looking for it.
Not Maguire's best work, IMO, but perhaps fun for Russian folktale enthusiasts or fans of Baba Yaga.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #3: A Winner of the Goodreads Reader's Choice Awards
I probably would have given this book four stars if it hadn't been for all the hype.
It wasn't a bad book; it held my interest all the way through, which is something many three-star books do not do. I found Rachel to be sympathetic despite her flaws, and I liked the narrative choice to tell the story from the perspectives of three women whose lives were only tenuously connected to one another. All three women were fairly well developed, although the male characters remained fairly one-dimensional throughout.
Perhaps what really ruined this book for me were the rampant comparisons to Gone Girl. While both books deal with unreliable narrators and troubled marriages, this one does not have near the psychological dexterity or astuteness of "Gone Girl." It resorts far too often to plot devices that seem merely convenient -- such as Rachel's blackouts, or the vagueness of Megan's interactions with [ the men she is having affairs with, so that the reader is misled into believing she only has one extramarital lover, not two.] Whereas in Gone Girl each piece felt meticulously fitted together, in this book I got the feeling that the author was making it up as she went along, so that when the killer was finally revealed, it didn't feel so much like a revelation as like the author looked at what she had written and decided, "Eh, I guess I can make this work."
The book's small cast of characters makes it feel claustrophobic, which is actually a point in its favor as it heightens the sense that danger is near and inescapable. I'm not quite sure what to make about some of its themes, though. While, on the one hand, I really liked [ that in the end Rachel and Anna had to make peace with one another over the secret they shared, choosing solidarity over competition [, I was a little uncomfortable with the way the book seemed almost obsessed with babies and motherhood, from [ Rachel's descent into alcoholism beginning with her infertility, to her hatred of Anna for having her ex-husband's baby, to Megan's problems all stemming from the death of her child, to her own pregnancy at the crux of the violence perpetrated against her.] While I understand that motherhood or the desire for motherhood can be a compelling motivator for women, this book made it feel like motherhood was the defining feature of being a woman.
In the end, this book is interesting because it's a bit of a small-casted soap opera with a murder thrown in, and not because it has something particularly substantial to say or a twist that you never saw coming. And I can't help but think less of the book because it puts on airs of accomplishing both those things.
Around the World Reading Challenge Item #14: A Book with One of the Five Ws or H in the Title
This is one of those books that is hard to review.
It's an "unconventional memoir," a collection of short reflections and memories that are instigated by Williams' mother bequeathing her journals to her before she dies. When Williams opens the journals, she finds nothing but blank pages.
I liked to imagine that Williams filled those journals with the thoughts that became this book, but that is never explicitly stated.
At first, the vignettes seem a little random and unrelated. Then themes begin to emerge tying them together -- the idea of what it means for women to have a voice and to find a voice, stories involving birds, reflections on storytelling. I wanted the book to be more about Williams' mother; although she keeps returning to the empty journals in her attempt to make meaning out of them, the mystery is never quite solved. And that is unsettling -- perhaps as it should be.
The writing is almost uniformly gorgeous. There were passages here and there where I drifted off, but there were more that I wanted to read again and again.
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Item: A non-superhero comic that debuted in the last 3 years
I am not afraid to admit that nostalgia may have inflated my rating.
However, it's not as if I'd fawn over any Jem-related property. My reaction to the movie reboot was far from positive.
This reimagining of the JEM canon works because it strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and modern sensibilities. Although the character designs have been updated, their personalities have remained intact while receiving greater depth; story threads that were only subtexts in the original series are brought out into the open here. Also, I have nothing but good to say about the update to the character designs -- whereas all the female characters in the original essentially shared the exact same fashion-plate body, in this incarnation we see body diversity along with the ethnic diversity that the show always managed to pull off. Jerrica and the gang come off as somewhat "younger" than they do in the original, but I think that is partially because the original was aimed at kids, where an adult is just an adult, whereas this is aimed at older readers who know how rare it is for someone to be CEO of their own record label at age 23.
This does make me wonder how new readers would treat the more fantastical elements of this story, couched as they are in a more realistic setting without a lot of explanation about how they work. But perplexing newcomers is a price I am willing to pay to keep some of the iconic story elements -- ahem, SYNERGY -- from the original intact.
Also, there are some things that make MORE sense in this incarnation. We're never really given an upfront reason for the creation of JEM in the original -- why did Jerrica change her identity while everyone else remained themselves? As the original series goes on the viewer starts to perceive that Jerrica needs her alter-ego to "cut loose," but this is handled in a more upfront manner in the comic: Jerrica, while a talented musician and songwriter, has debilitating stage fright and can only perform when hiding behind the persona of JEM.
And yeah, there are definitely some cheesy moments that in most cases would make me roll my eyes -- but when they appear I ask myself, "Would this sort of thing have happened on the cartoon?" When I realize the answer is yes, I just have to sort of shake my head and smile indulgently. And I love all the little details here, especially when it comes to Pizazz. She comes across as a bit more "mean girl" and a bit less "loose cannon" than in the cartoon, but there are these sweet "softening" touches that just make you want to know more about who she REALLY is -- who are the science fiction action figures next to her bed? She's also been given a Siamese cat which seems a perfect fit (Siamese are known for being one of the most "prickly" and temperamental breeds), and in the final frame, just the hint of a tear in her eye as she rants about Jem and the Holograms stealing the spotlight.
The nascent love stories, both between Kimber and Stormer and Jerrica and Rio are sweet, although I'm worried that Rio might discover the dual identity too early on in the series. I will be disappointed if the comic ends up matching the movie in that regard, both because Jerrica's secret identity provided such an ongoing sense of tension in the original (where Rio never DID find out) AND because dudes with secret identities are allowed to hold onto them (and the power it gives them) for decades against all odds. I hope the new writers will give Jem the same courtesy; in so many other ways they've kept this "true" to the things that made the Jem series so beloved.
I've already ordered the next two volumes. I hardly ever purchase books new, but when it comes to series like this that are so close to my heart, I just want to keep throwing money at them.
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Item: Read a Book About Religion
It's always hard for me to put into words why I give a book five stars. This book was simply very restful and enjoyable to read. It is all about the importance of bringing designated times of "rest" back into our lives, and protecting that time as just as important as time when we are being "productive." It's full of stories about how other people have managed to do this, as well as ideas for how to create time of ritualized rest if you're not sure where to start. It draws from several traditions although the author's background is in Christianity. I loved its emphasis on doing what feels restful to YOU -- so if meditating or church services feel like "work," you need to carve out something else for your designated "sabbath" time.
The importance of rest, rejuvenation, and doing something just for the joy of it were not new concepts to me, and I agree that they are important. To a certain extent, I protect these times in my own life as well. So this book did not jolt me into awareness but rather reaffirmed that there is nothing wrong with "doing nothing." I now take naps with far less guilt.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #13: Reader's Choice
This book held my interest all the way through, but I'm having trouble coming up with something coherent to say about it.
Like the best memoirs, Orenstein is not afraid to sacrifice her pride for the sake of emotional honesty, and she writes candidly about many situations and conversations that do not present her in the best light. Still, the pain, disappointment and powerlessness that accompany infertility are very real, and it is in these deeply painful places that Orenstein sometimes recedes into the shadows. She brushes off her first miscarriage, and subsequent miscarriages are covered in varying levels of detail. She captures the danger of obsession that can emerge when high-achieving women confront infertility, one thing for which they seemingly have little control over -- but that doesn't mean they don't try! Orenstein details her attempts to "control" the uncontrollable by doing everything from acupuncture to building shrines in her bedroom. There's always that tantalizing "one more thing" that just might work.
But this book is strongest in the moments when Orenstein steps away from her infertility-fueled neuroses (no judgment) and reflects on what it means to her identity, particularly as a feminist. She struggles with her dedication to a woman's right to choose when she feels desperate for the pregnancy many women would give up, as well as the way women's sense of "worth" or "femininity" is tied to their ability to be mothers. She depicts how such an ongoing crisis colors the whole world in different ways, from how you interact to your friend who has 15 kids (yes, really), to how you think of sex, to the things you do when you travel (one of the most touching segments is when Orenstein visits a shrine for miscarried or aborted babies in Japan, the mourning of which happens mostly invisibly in the U.S.) Perhaps most impressive is her astuteness in pinpointing how the desire to become a parent can be subverted by the desire to get pregnant -- pregnancy becomes the "achievement" rather than the means to an end, a goal that can be focused on to the extent that it obscures serious consideration of parenthood (this has its parallel in brides who are so obsessed with the wedding that they don't contemplate the idea of marriage, I think).
Orenstein's journey is truly harrowing, rife with three miscarriages, two failed in vitro attempts, a handful of failed IUI procedures, a disastrous attempt using an egg donor, medical issues that interfered with Orenstein's ability to get pregnant or made doing so dangerous, and an adoption that fell through, and yet, I couldn't help but notice that this memoir is still coming from a place of incredible privilege. Although Orenstein briefly notes that advanced reproductive technologies are only available to those who can afford them, she spends very little time examining her privilege beyond that point. She even mentions feeling envious of a couple who cannot afford IVF and so can forgo the emotional, financial and physical strain of it -- although I expect that couple would prefer to have Orenstein's "problem."
It's not a perfect book, but as memoir goes it's eminently readable; the pages turn and the suspense of when and how she will finally get her daughter pulls you forward. (This is not a spoiler -- her author bio on the book mentions a daughter.) More importantly, it breaks the silence and offers companionship to the many women and families who are facing down what is still very much a silent struggle.
The first time I read this book, it was newly published -- it hadn't even won the Newbery yet. I was an adolescent. I had never heard the word "dystopia." All I knew was that I had never read anything like it.
The second time I read it, I had just graduated from college and was at a mind-numbing data entry job. We were allowed to listen to audiobooks, so I listened to this one to refresh my memory before I read Gathering Blue.
The third time I read it was this week. I rarely re-read books, and I wasn't going to re-read this one even though my book club was reading it. I had already read it twice. I had seen the movie recently. I was sure I would remember it well enough.
I'm so glad I decided to read it again, because in the midst of the current glut of YA dystopias (I think that trend is finally dialing down), it was reassuring to revisit a truly great dystopia, one that was written to convey a philosophical idea, to make us ask the big questions, that used the dystopia in service of the message and not just as a trendy set piece.
I think The Giver stood alone, despite its success, in the genre of middle-grade/YA dystopias for so many years because this is not a book that is easy to replicate. It's a subtle and quiet book; there are no fancy gadgets, no big explosions, no evil overlord or even visibly repressive government. It concerns itself with the day-to-day lives of the people in Jonas's community, with their orderly routines and facsimile of warmth and connection.
What makes The Giver brilliant as a dystopia is that it actually makes the community Jonas lives in look very appealing. There is no hunger. There is no pain. There is no uncertainty, nor the angst of making the wrong decision. The citizens have ultimate trust in the Elders, who seem to be benign and to truly want what would make the community members happier and healthier. Not only does Jonas totally buy into the system, but in many ways the reader does, too. I remember wanting my own Ceremony of Twelve that would set me on a clear path toward my future, or wanting to be perfectly matched with a spouse and not have to worry about infidelity or wrong choices or even growing apart. Unlike many of the more recent crop of teen dystopias, the world of The Giver DOES feel utopic until you take a closer look, until you contrast it with the exhilaration of a ride down a snowy hill, or the thrill of falling in love, or the swelling up of emotion when you hear beautiful music. [Even after Jonas leaves the community, he longs for its safety and predictability, even knowing everything he knows about what has been lost.]
Because of this general sense of banality, the dark moments are more unsettling when they appear than in similar books that start out feeling dark and oppressive. This book never hits you over the head with how "bad" this society is, but instead makes you increasingly uneasy about it as Jonas grows more and more distant from the life his family and friends take for granted. It asks big questions about what is worth sacrificing to live in a world that is more safe and more predictable, and while Lowry definitely comes down on one side of the issue, there is a sense that perhaps a place like Jonas's community would not be SO bad, with a few tweaks [i.e., nix the infanticide.]
This book was published 16 years before The Hunger Games, but I see them as existing as two separate ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, we have a dystopia that looks so good that it's not hard for the reader to see why Jonas is invested in the system. The Giver is unique in that the reader gets somewhat invested in the system, too. On the other end of the spectrum we have Katniss, a heroine who knows that the society she lives in is f'd up, and the reader instantly identifies with her and agrees. In between are the legions of books in which the main character is initially invested in the system but then has some sort of "awakening" -- but in the vast majority of these books, the reader can see through the dystopia's hazy veneer of benevolence within the first chapter, which only makes the protagonist seem deluded or stupid until she (and these days, it's almost always a she) finally catches up to the reader and gets with the program and realizes, "Whoa, this place is like, really evil."
I think so many years passed between The Giver and The Hunger Games for a reason. The Giver, while successful, is too subtle in its delivery to be easily replicated. The Hunger Games, while raising equally compelling questions, is full of violence and elaborate costumes and slogans, all trappings that are easy to graft on to other, less worthy stories. And now we're drowning in a sea of sub par teen dystopias that dilute the power and controversy of the messaging that should remain critical to the genre.
I hope the recent boom of action-packed dystopias has not dulled readers' tastes for quieter, more thoughtful dystopias like this one -- little books that ask big questions. There are very few that have been published since that would hold up so well to three readings over nearly 25 years.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #45: A Book Related to a Hobby or Passion You Have
If you are looking for beautiful writing, then you'll want to pass on this book. It's not badly written, especially as far as self-published works go. The writing is merely functional, and a little perfunctory -- it feels a little as if the author is writing an email or a blog post detailing his and his son's latest antics, with a reporting style that kind of assumes the reader already knows these people. Out of the whole "cast," Ben comes across the most clearly, which makes sense since the whole book revolves around him. I had less of a sense of his mother's or stepmother's personality (his stepmother seemed like just an occasional footnote), and his father, as the storyteller, makes himself fairly vulnerable but also tells "his side of the story" and says the sorts of things you'd expect a caring father to say.
Still, if writing style isn't a huge deal and what you want is to learn more about a unique family's experiences with autism and the lengths they went to to bring their mostly non-verbal son out of his shell, this book will fit the bill. It moves along at a decent pace, and I had to admire the fact that Ben's parents were willing to uproot their lives to move closer to Disney World, a place where their son seemed to make enough progress on their first visit that they believed it would be a further catalyst for his socialization -- and in many ways, it was, although there's really no way to know how his development would have proceeded had his parents not made this momentous decision. To that end, perhaps what comes across most strongly in this book is the love and devotion these parents feel toward their autistic son -- I like Disney World, but visiting multiple times a week, only to ride the same ride dozens of times ... it must have been mind-numbingly boring. But these parents soldiered on without much complaining.
If you are not a Disney fan, this book may be a little nauseating to you. The author is a total Disney World fanboy and the book reads so much like an open love letter to Disney that I wouldn't be surprised if they sell it in their gift shops. I'm totally on board with the magic of Disney, but the total lack of any critique at all, especially considering the fact that his impressionable autistic son was marinating in Disney ideology 24/7, was a little off-putting to me; it felt like a bit of a "sell" at times even though I know it wasn't.
Still, I mentioned earlier that this is self-published, and in that market, you could do a lot worse. This is cleanly written and formatted and not a slog to get through. And the photos of Ben sprinkled throughout were a very nice touch.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #11: A Book from the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge
Gosh, I wish I hadn't waited so long to write this review.
This book was different than I expected it to be. Based on its descriptions, I thought it would be focused on the lives of the girls in the authors book group, and how their dreams and their realities intersected via the focal point of the book club. Although the book begins and ends with these girls, the long middle section details the slow creep of the Islamic Revolution into ordinary citizens' lives, until it had all but blotted out individuality.
Even though I've read a handful of books on Iran's Islamic Revolution, I still had to work hard to stay focused and keep the various factions and political figures straight. When the author detailed the way people she knew would show up dead with little provocation, I read with the sort of engrossed horror of someone who has just discovered the genre of the dystopia. I wanted to thrust this book (or others that went into similar detail about the day-to-day horrors of a dictatorial regime) into the hands of all teens obsessed with the genre and say, "LOOK, we don't NEED to make these terrifying societies up; they actually exist, and the more we learn about them, hopefully the better prepared we will be to fight them."
This memoir is organized by books, with the author using each book to encompass a different era of her life and the politics surrounding it. I was glad that I had read most of the books referenced, since the author's academic writing background spills into this memoir in the form of long digressions analyzing the texts she and her students studied and how they related to the current political climate. Between the book analyses and the political details, the book did come to feel a little dense in the middle; still, a subject as complex and nuanced as the Islamic Revolution cannot be quickly explained or summarized, nor does it lend itself to a "breezy" read. Considering the subject matter, this is a fairly accessible book, especially to those familiar with Western literature.
I couldn't help but contemplate the fact that nearly all the voices we get out of Iran come from writers who have either spent significant amounts of time outside the country or who left the country eventually. This makes me wonder if Westerners can ever truly understand Iran's history or its bearing on Iranians' contemporary realities, when our instructors have a decidedly Westernized mentality even from within their Middle Eastern culture. This is one of the many costs of censorship, I guess, that the only voices that will ever reach us are those that have, in one way or another, already made it to the outside.
(I got this one from NPR's 100 Best Beach Books Ever).
Although I knew that this book was beloved by many queer women, I always thought it was because a same-sex love story could be "read into" Idgie's and Ruth's friendship. I saw the movie as a kid and at the time accepted "friendship" as a believable explanation for the women's bond, and I expected the book to be similar. So I was surprised, pleasantly so, by how overtly queer the book is. There is no hedging around the issue that Ruth and Idgie are in love and are forging a romantic partnership that is much like the relationships of the opposite-sex, traditional couples around them. It is heartening to know that, even with this relationship at the heart of it, the book still managed to cruise the mainstream back in the mid-eighties.
The town of Whistlestop, Alabama, is a strange, surreal kind of place. On the one hand, it's refreshing that no one really seems to give a damn about whether Idgie and Ruth are lesbians and that they are universally accepted for who they are, just as the community accepts the eccentricities of the town's other residents. I would say that this book romanticizes small-town life -- there seems to be fairly minimal gossip; what gossip there is is not mean-spirited, good-natured hijinks and pranks abound, and ultimately the town's sense of allegiance to the community trumps all other concerns. But the book is not without its darkness -- the Ku Klux Klan is a real threat; black men are jailed for crimes they did not commit; one character is an especially egregious rapist and wife beater; and then, of course, there is [the murder and cannibalism], which gives the whole sweet veneer of the book a deliciously dark underbelly.
Still, I found myself ambivalent about the portrayal of Whistlestop. It almost seems to be something of a utopia: a place where blacks and whites are friends in the segregated south; a place where professionals don't charge for goods or services even in the grip of the depression; a place where spouses rib at each other but are generally happy with their lit; a place where a lesbian couple lives openly without any fear of harassment or worse. It's all a little hard to swallow for the realist in me, and it has me wondering about its overall purpose. Is this meant to be a sort of escapist reality, a glimpse into how the author (and others) wish the world could be? Is it only because it is seen primarily through the rose-colored glasses of 86-year-old Ginny, whose disposition seems to make her incapable of saying an unkind word about anyone? It makes me wonder whether Whistlestop was really what we are led to believe it is, or whether its portrayal in the book is the result of an old woman's loneliness, delusion, and revisionist history. Are we supposed to accept this idyllic place at face value, or are we meant to question the veracity of the perspective from which it comes to us?
The fact that the Whistlestop story is intertwined with middle-aged Evelyn's journey toward a feminist awakening and then self-acceptance also makes me wonder about whether we are being fed truth, or an inspirational fiction. It is this place that seems too good to be true, after all, that gives Evelyn a vision of the way her own life might change. Ginny sees something good, strong, and beautiful in Evelyn that she does not see in herself; might she similarly have seen more good in Whistlestop than what was actually there?
Because of this dichotomy, I actually felt more invested in the Evelyn storyline because her untapped anger, her dissatisfaction with her marriage and her life choices, her exploration of what she really believed all felt more real and credible to me. There were times when her story was a bit over the top, when things I knew I was supposed to find funny just struck me as annoying. In general, I didn't really buy into the "humor" in this book -- it was a little too quirky and quaint for my tastes and felt as though it were just trying too hard. But then, it's very seldom that humor in books really hits the right note with me.
Still, I can see why this book resonates with so many people. It offers a glimpse of community and solidarity that many of us long to believe is possible, but it also does not shy away from examining issues of racism and feminism -- topics that remain ever-relevant even if the presentation of them in Fried Green Tomatoes feels just a little bit dated.