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A Reading Vocation

"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.

 

Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love by Father Albert Cutie (3-Jan-2012) Paperback - Albert Cutie
"Many people dismiss the Church's flaws as 'the humanity of the Church.' But the problem isn't the Church's humanity; it is the Church's inhumane practices and those who are more faithful to the institution than they are to the Gospel message of love. It is those practices that are causing the institution, beloved by so many, to become less credible as a spiritual authority in the world.

Most of us can deal with human error and sin. What we can't deal with is an institution that presents itself as holier than thou and ends up having a lot more skeletons in its closet than it is willing to admit. "
"To be persistent is way more important than talent -- we all know talented writers who will never publish because they won't get in the chair and write the book. I am not the most talented person by miles, but I am incredibly determined. "

- Susan Mallery, Writer's Digest Interview, May/June 2015

Book 68/100: Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days by Salman Rushdie

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights - Salman Rushdie

This was not a long book, but it sure felt like it.

The book is supposed to be about this epic battle between dark and light jinn, with the light jinn relying heavily on half-jinn, half-human descendants of a genia princess. But the whole first half of the book is dedicated to the half-jinn characters discovering their weird and random magical powers. I think Rushdie thinks he's doing some awesome character development during this section, but none of the characters really captured me, so mostly it just felt like nothing was happening. And even when the epic battle started, the decisive battles were wrapped up quickly and easily in a few sentences. I tend to get bored during long, drawn-out battle scenes, so I guess that's fine. But it did seem kind of anti-climactic after putting up with all the boredom to get there.

In the beginning I thought this might be a three-star book by virtue of "good writing" because Rushdie is a pretty big deal, but honestly, the writing just felt pretentious. It was obviously trying to be clever and funny, but I don't think I cracked a smile once, much less laughed. The distant and academic tone also made it really hard to get invested. And the heavy-handed moral messaging at the end pretty much clinched it for me -- this book would be lucky to scrape by with a two-star rating, and that pretty much just because I liked Baby Storm, and the fitting legacy of Jimmy Kapoor.

[Also, this book wants to be categorized as magical realism because magical realism is taken more seriously in literary circles, but really, it's fantasy. This is not a mostly real-world story where strange, magical things happen once in a while. This is a book where a sizeable portion of the named characters are genies and part of it takes place in fairyland. Also, if you classify it as magical realism, it's easier to overlook its shoddy worldbuilding. Seriously, it takes more than constant orgies to characterize a whole magical race. So, yeah, it fails as magical realism by having too little reality attached, and it can't hold a candle against any fantasy worth its salt.]

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 67/100: Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn - Octavia E. Butler

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Item: The First Book in a Series by a Person of Color

So, now I know why Octavia Butler is such a big deal.

I first acquired this book used about 10 years ago after a random stranger recommended her in a comment on a Livejournal post. Thank you, stranger, wherever you are. (I've run across her other times since then -- in a science fiction and feminist podcasts, in writing books, from other friends, but that long-ago recommendation is what spurred me to put one of her books on my shelf -- and now I hope to add many more.)

The backstory is not all that important, but it's hard to put my reaction of this book into words. If I were to sum it up in a single word, it would be: haunting.

Well-rendered, alien species can often sell a sci-fi book for me, and in this one I was utterly fascinated by the Oankali and Lilith's relationship to them. While there are some pretty clear colonization parallels in the way the Oankali relate to Lilith and other humans, seeing the story purely through that lens is too simple. The Oankali are a complex people, and Butler never offers easy answers; they have saved the human race from extinction, but in return they expect to take over their very gene pool. They are paternalistic and perceive themselves as benevolent, and the fact that they treat Lilith (and the other humans) so kindly makes the questions of consent even more unsettling. It is not surprising that [ Lilith comes to love them, perhaps even to prefer them over other humans, but the reader can't help but wonder if this is partially Stockholm Syndrome. Yet, when even the reader feels inexplicably drawn to the race, one can hardly blame Lilith for doing the same; but while she retains a certain ambivalence and rebellious nature, it's unclear whether we are meant to admire her alliance with the Oankali or simply accept it as the best option out of bad options.] One thing is certain: Lilith remains sympathetic throughout, and the real mastery of this novel is that the Oankali, despite standing in for the oppressors, do, too.

The only reason I gave this four stars instead of five is that my patience and interest waned somewhat in the middle section focused on Lilith and the other humans aboard the ship. There are a lot of characters, none of whom is developed with much depth, who behave overall in disappointing and frustrating ways that make this portion a bit of a slog to get through. But it's definitely worth holding on to the end -- now I need to get my hands on the rest of the series. [My library doesn't have anything by Butler, which is disgusting. Also disgusting is the white-washed cover on my copy of the book, despite the fact that Lilith is clearly described as black and the story itself can be seen as a metaphor for racial justice, or lack thereof. It's like the publisher didn't even *get* the issues the book was grappling with.]

Book 66/100: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

— feeling nerd
Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

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.

Book 65/100: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library - Chris Grabenstein
I'm not really the ideal audience for this book. Even when I was younger I didn't like these "wish-fulfillment" type stories -- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Candymakers, The Mysterious Benedict Society ... none of them did anything for me.

If you're wondering about the "type" of book I'm referencing, I mean books that are set in a realistic setting that include some element of the plot that fulfills a kid's, "Wouldn't that be cool if ...?" sort of fantasy that would most likely never happen in the real world. The plot also usually involves some sort of puzzle/mystery and the chosen kids are "special" in some way (and also pretty one-dimensional -- you've got the overachieving kid, the rich kid, etc., and usually the "regular kid" who is a stand in for the reader and the main protagonist.)

I like realistic books, and I like fantasy/sci-fi, but I don't like this in-between stuff.

This book falls in line with the genre's typical tropes as listed above. The kids are locked in a library and challenged to find a way out by a famous gamemaker, and the winner will become the spokesperson for his brand. If you're a book nerd who happens to like this kind of book, then you'll have a lot of fun with this one. Even without being keen on the genre, I really enjoyed all the book references thrown in, both explicitly (the kids had to find a certain book) and obliquely (someone would slip a book title into dialogue without mentioning that it was a book, such as, "Due to this series of unfortunate events ...") It's clear that a true lover of children's literature wrote this, and it pays lovely homage to the books like this that have gone before it. If I liked this sort of thing, this book would have been excellent.

As it stands, my enjoyment came purely from references. The rest was sort of boring and a little borderline creepy. (Am I the only one who finds these types of books creepy? The benevolent adult who sets the adventure up always strikes me as a tad bit predator-ish.)
SPOILER ALERT!

Book 64/100: Alpha Goddess by Amalie Howard

Alpha Goddess - Amalie Howard
I tried to read this book last year and couldn't get into it. I knew I would struggle with it this year, too, but it was the only book on my shelf that fit a certain reading challenge item, so I soldiered on.

If I were to sum this book up in one word, it would be "sloppy." The sloppy writing is what was off-putting the first time I tried to read it, and it doesn't get better as the story progresses. Part of it is that the prose is just incredibly overwritten -- I would have taken a red pen to so much of it if I were its editor. It's full of redundancies such as, "Everything will be fine," she said reassuringly. And it was littered with enough typos -- maybe a couple every 50 pages or so -- that it could have easily been mistaken for self-published. Luckily, the author did not commit the amateur mistake of "head-hopping" throughout the dual viewpoint narration; the points of view of the two main characters were neatly divided by chapters.

To be fair, part of my dislike of this book may not have been totally fair. It's a retelling, which I like, but it also follows the tropes of paranormal romance, which I do not like. It feels more like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" than the Ramayana, and teenage goddesses battling demons has never really been my cup of tea. I felt like I couldn't really judge whether the plot "worked" as a paranormal romance because the genre does so little for me even when it's written better than this was, but I do know that it felt bogged down with two many characters and different types of deities, the plot seemed to slip-slide from one place to another, and the love triangle did absolutely nothing for me (one of the dudes in the triangle was a total bore, the other more interesting but too much of a "bad boy" to really make a good partner unless he spent years in therapy dealing with his issues, such as, you know, the fact that he [helped demons kill gods in gruesome ways.])

It was a little more gory than I expected, which was also off-putting. I can't really comment on how well it works as a retelling because I know so little about the Hindu mythology on which it is based. The author's father is apparently a Brahman, so she should know her stuff, but a lot of the reviews I've read imply differently. While I like the multi-cultural approach to the genre, Sera's family doesn't really feel Indian -- her mother is at one point described as having a "typical" Indian look, and at another point as having blond hair. O-kay .... I was tempted to give this book to a friend whose father is Indian to get her insight on the Indian elements, but I just couldn't in good conscience foist such a bad book on someone I love. (I gave it to a stranger instead through a book-swapping site).
 
 
 

Book 63/100: Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

Egg and Spoon - Gregory Maguire

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.

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 62/100: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

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.

Book 61/100: When Women Were Birds - 54 Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice - Terry Tempest Williams

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.

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 60/100: Jem and the Holograms Volume 1 - Showtime by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell

— feeling big smile
Jem and the Holograms: Showtime - Kelly Thompson

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 59/100: Jepp who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars - Katherine Marsh
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #32: A historical fiction book

By focusing on an obscure historical personage -- a mere footnote to more "important" figures -- this book avoids the sweeping generalizations and summaries that often put me off historical fiction. Instead, we get an intimate look at a young dwarf's journey from the Spanish court to a scholar's palace, all while he wrestles with the questions that define all of us -- where we came from, where we are going, and what gives our life meaning.

Although the description of this book focuses on Jepp's time in the scholarly household of Uraniborg, about half of the book is devoted to his time as a royal court dwarf/jester Belgium. I found this aspect of the story to be just as interesting, and perhaps even moreso, than the later developments. Perhaps this is because my own novella, Rumpled, focuses on a court dwarf, or perhaps it is just because this is a side of history that we rarely see. Although it was common for royal courts to keep dwarfs, very rarely do we hear their stories, even in fictionalized form. This book succeeds not only because Jepp tells his own story, but because he is briefly situated within a community of other court dwarfs, which keeps him from being a symbol of all people like him and outlines the diversity of experience and perspectives even among dwarfs in the same royal household. Namely, it transforms this historical footnote into richly developed characters that are not reduced to the aspect of their characters that is most striking to outsiders -- their size -- but that says the least about who they truly are.

This book had a strong sense of setting and ambiance, and I'm hating myself for not visiting Coudenberg when I was in Brussels nine years ago ... I did not even know it was there! Although it is historical fiction, at times it has the feel of fantasy because Marsh draws her world in such a way that it seems magical, situating it in a time when new scientific discoveries were opening people's minds about what the world was and what it might be.

My main criticism of the book is that the "big reveal" about Jepp's past/parentage did not feel satisfying to me -- I just couldn't bring myself to care about Jepp's past as much as I cared about his present/future. The fact that this aspect was put off so long made me expect it to be more impactful than it was; it felt like an afterthought clumsily dressed as a climax. Still, it was not enough to interfere with my enjoyment of this masterful work of historical fiction.
 
 
 

Book 58/100: Sabbath - Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives - Wayne Muller

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.

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 57: Waiting for Daisy by Peggy Orenstein

Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother - Peggy Orenstein

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.

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 56/100: The Giver by Lois Lowry (re-read)

The Giver - Lois Lowry, Ron Rifkin The Hunger Games - Suzanne  Collins

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.

Book 55/100: 3500 - An Autistic Boy's 10-year Romance with Snow White

3500: An Autistic Boy's Ten-Year Romance with Snow White - Ron Miles

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.