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EllaMc

"So it goes."

Ella Mc's book blog. Brand new 2018

Currently reading

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Progress: 250/736 pages

Not gone - just not here

Hi friends,

 

I have been MIA because I'm having some medical issues that are really bothering two things: my ability to read/see and my ability to sit at a computer and type stuff. 

 

I'm trying to work all of that out, or at least to figure a workaround if a miracle diagnosis and cure don't arrive soon. I do plan on at least getting here for short periods to list books and try to catch up on what you all are doing, but I felt like I should at least give a shout to let you know I've not (nor do I ever plan on) abandoned booklikes. I like it far too much to do so.

 

I miss you all, and I hope for many reasons that I'll see you very soon for more than a shout-out.

 

Hugs - Ella

 

 

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore - average

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: A Novel - Matthew J. Sullivan

An intricate story of many people all connected through a bookstore and/or their pasts. Lydia has changed her last name and moved back to the city of her childhood, deciding to start over and having somewhat unrealistic ideas that nobody will uncover her secret (including the man she lives with.) That all starts to unravel when Joey, a patron of the Bright Ideas Bookstore, kills himself among the books. Lydia finds him and subsequently inherits all of his earthly possessions - most of which are books.

 

Through these books Joey enlists Lydia in unraveling the mysteries of his death and life. Meanwhile news from the suicide in the store pulls Lydia's past into her present. Through flashbacks and a lot of foreshadowing we learn along with Lydia about surprising and extremely coincidental connections among a cast of characters that previously seemed unconnected. Meanwhile there's this suicide and a baroque bunch of messages from beyond  the grave to unravel. While figuring out Joey's actions, Lydia is forced to face her own past whether she wants to or not. (She doesn't.)

 

There are some real coincidences in this book, but they didn't bother me enough to make me put it down. It becomes pretty clear early on who the villain is, even if his motives remain unclear. Lydia, the main character, can be quite frustrating but I accepted everyone on their own terms and read on. It's a quick read and the mystery changes through the book. Some of the characters are lovely, sadly these aren't the main characters. It is a decent read with a great title. However, I don't know who I might recommend this to, and in the final examination, I just didn't care enough about any of the characters or find their story very compelling.

What Happened -- too many facts, not enough Hillary

What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton

I bought this a while ago. I was a Clinton supporter. (I have always loved Bernie Sanders and voted for him in the primary, but by the time it got to my state, it didn't matter, and I happily took time off to campaign for Hillary once that was settled.) I strongly believe she got short shrift in the election coverage, and I was too upset until recently to be able to read this. (I actually think my diving into fiction may be a direct result of the 2016 election. I find I am too angry to be functional if I read too much news or even too much political fiction/nonfiction.)

 

While I agree in large part with most of her points about "what happened," I didn't learn much new from this book. I was very touched by her clear adoration for her daughter and her grandchildren, and it is clear that the loss of her mother is still very painful. Some of those chapters are wonderful. I could have lived without an exact play-by-play explainer on every issue on the election. I lived through it and experienced it once. I wanted to know how she felt about these things. The cover promises she's going to tell us, but I didn't get any real insight to Hillary Clinton. Thought she didn't say it this way, I also enjoyed how clearly pissed off she is at Comey - still. Also that she was confused by his actions like the rest of us were. I would say 70% of the book is defensive crouch. I get it, but it may just have been too soon for me even now. I never will need to read an in depth explainer on the emails though -- I doubt anyone reading this book will. Those who read Hillary's book are likely to have understood the email situation LONG before the election and frankly, long before the NYTimes stopped harping about them. (Guess what - reading the apologies and "we'll do better" from the Times didn't make me feel better either - particularly since they've now done away with the Public Editor who was the one clear-headed person at the paper...)

 

I moved to this book because I found my blood boiling at Susan Bordo's feminist coverage in The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (though I will make myself read that because I really want to) and decided to put that one down in favor of reading the candidate's take. I've liked Clinton's earlier books, and like many women I've admired liked Hillary Clinton for years. I respect her, but this book was uneven. Clearly she was very hurt and angry, like the rest of us. When she's down, Hillary argues her case. It's just that I've heard that case before, and I hoped for a more personal look in this book, like promised. I wonder if anyone could write a clear-eyed book about this election, but Hillary and I can't.

The Best We Could Do - an affecting graphic memoir

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir - Thi Bui

Thanks to some challenges I found in recent years (and directions from the web on how to read them,) I've finally taken graphic novels/comics as something I could understand and perhaps even like. This graphic memoir is a nice example of why it's worthwhile to open my TBR list up to yet another genre. (I can be poorly read in many genres!)

 

Thi Bui is an American kid born in Viet Nam. When the memoir opens, she's having her first child. As many parents will tell you, this is a time that often brings our own childhoods into focus. Her story is different from the stereotypical strict immigration story, and through the memoir we see that the family history is indelibly marked by Viet Nam's history and her parents stories are marked by their parents' stories. It's easy to get tied in a knot when we find fault with our parents. It's clear from her pictures and words that there was some anger and confusion exorcised by writing this memoir. While she may have been able to lay blame at one time, her title states her final view. It's Thi Bui's unique story with lots of room for empathizing readers.

 

Her simple-yet-resonant art conveys the emotional impact of her words. The combination is effective and moving. I lingered over this book for weeks, searching the pictures and immersing myself in her story (until the library demanded I return their copy.) If you, like me, aren't comfortable with comics or graphic novels, this might be a place to start for those who like memoirs or history or both.

Woman in Cabin 10 -- mildly entertaining and not offensively bad

The Woman in Cabin 10 - Helen Ruth Elizabeth Ware

TL/DR: It's Rear Window on a cruise ship with an able-bodied but addlebrained female protagonist.

 

Protip: If you're on a ship where people are getting murdered and the wifi doesn't work, use your mobile data plan!

 

We had a very long drive this weekend. As usual I lost the vote on what we listened to. I didn't mind this one really, silly as it was. I ruined it for everyone by guessing the villains and the red herrings aloud (to be fair, I had it slightly askew - I got the bad guy(s) but the incorrect victim.)

The hero of this (the second of three Ruth Ware novels I was gifted for Christmas...) is another hapless, whiny woman who drinks too much and is bad at her job. Worse - she gets sea sick and has claustrophobia, but takes a working cruise anyway. Is she a moron? Yes! Is she a lucky moron? Absolutely.

 

"Lo" our hero fails at the most basic of tasks but manages to swim through an icy ocean at night fully clothed, run across Norway and ask for help from every person she can find who will do her harm. It was fun watching Ms. Ware throw obstacles into her path like Wile E Coyote does the Road Runner.

 

Ruth Ware is once again preoccupied with hangovers and drinking. This time, thankfully, she did employ a plot, and even better - women were described by more than the glory of their hair. If you are stuck in a car, there are worse books to listen to. It was mildly entertaining and not offensively bad.

Rainbirds - psychological book about grief and family with a haunting atmosphere

Rainbirds - Clarissa Goenawan

A family falling apart at the seams, held together and pushed apart by secrets and a chill between parents who don't speak to each other or their children left Ren Ishido and his sister Keiko raising themselves and each other. Keiko disappeared once when Ren was a child, and now she has disappeared permanently - murdered in the small town of Akakawa where she taught at a local cram school.

 

Ren goes to Akakawa deal with the funeral and closing down his sister's affairs. He would like the local police to solve his sister's murder, but they don't get a lot of practice and he doesn't have much faith in their ability or will to solve it. Right away, Ren learns that his sister may be different than he'd imagined from their weekly phone calls. Before long Ren has put his life and graduate school in Tokyo on hold to take over his sister's job and room and possibly life in Akakawa. Slowly and somewhat haphazardly he unravels Keiko's, his family's and the town's long-held secrets in an effort to find the sister he lost.

 

This is a beautiful psychological book about grief and family with a haunting presence throughout. The atmosphere is positively alive while reading it, making it hard to put down or shake off easily. Ren is haunted by his dreams and I was too! There is suspense, but it's not at all your average whodunnit or even primarily a mystery. If I'd gone in with expectations of a mystery, I would be let down. As it was, I was happy to find a little mystery wrapped in a family story. Who did it is secondary to the portrayal of family and a young man dealing with his isolation, remembering things, misremembering, always reaching out to the sister he wishes he'd known better during her life.

 

A melancholy portrayal of grief that is also funny, even scandalous at times, with a mystery in the midst of it. With all of the emotions that attend sudden/violent death, Ishido possesses a certain charming grace. I could physically feel the rain in this book, the atmosphere was so thick. So be on the lookout for more from Clarissa Goenawan. RAINBIRDS is an affecting debut that should interest both suspense lovers as well as family saga readers.

Red Sparrow - Hopeful beginning to a trilogy

Red Sparrow - Jason  Matthews

I'm not sure if it's because I've read so many bad espionage stories recently, but I am consciously aware that I liked this more than it deserved to be liked. I kept wishing there was a way the story could be written without a huge part of the plot (the ridiculous romance between two spies who really should know better than to fall in love instantly.) I get worried for national security every time I read one of these stories.

 

Beyond that huge plot hole, it is excellently-researched and intricate enough to make me feel more comfortable immersed in it than the paint-by-numbers espionage books I've read recently. Nonetheless, there is a huge tendency in this book to view Americans as overly wonderful and super "nice," while Russians are more complicated and far more evil. The lack of nuance is mitigated by the love affair, but love can't cover everything.

 

I shall be reading the next book, because this one left me with a hook dangling from my mouth, and I need to see how the details are going to work out (it feels pretty clear how it will go in the broad strokes.) I probably could have gotten just as much from the upcoming film(s?) (excepting the recipes, but I don't cook.) My hope is that he "sparrow" will stay well-placed and grow into the strong woman she already is, full of power and a great spy, and that her boy toy, who has the temperament of a small child at times, gets transferred or just grows up and becomes her handler only.

 

A minor quibble. I am a synesthete as well as a neuroscientist. The book didn't do a good job of making clear that the aura-ish things she sees have nothing to do with synesthesia. In fact, they made it seem like her synaesthesia was the reason she could read people this way. Synaesthesia can be a great help in many things, but those things don't include seeing purity bubbles around people's heads. It's a mild quibble. There is mass misunderstanding about synesthetes but not much in terms of persecution, so I can let that go, silly and incorrect as it is. I can let it go because there were more absurd things than thought bubbles around people's heads.

 

All of this leaves me yearning for Len Deighton and other cold war writers' supreme nuance and intricate weaving plots that had people leaving their national comfort zones because people are more complicated than country - and all of that nuance cannot be conveyed with a few sexy scenes and two youngsters in lust. 

Middlesex -- So much better than I had imagined

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Edit: I've been thinking about this since, and I've come to the conclusion this book couldn't be written today (in 2018) while it seemed daring and real just a few years ago. There's more to that conversation, but I'm still judging this based on the time in which it was written. And I'm still very glad it was written and I got to read it.

 

Back to your previously scheduled program:

 

I was rather shocked at how good this is. I couldn't wrap my head about the blurbs. The idea of a book about an intersexual person sounded like it would be a political or medical diatribe, or possibly a whiny "poor me" tale falsely disguised as fiction. I realized Jeffrey Eugenides was not writing his personal story, but I did have the idea that this was still somehow a disguised bit of biography -- perhaps it is. If I was a real book reviewer, I'd have to look that up, but I'm not. No matter its origins, it doesn't read like any of these usually disguised things, and it's really very good.

Funny as could be, almost every line is quotable. This is more of an historical novel than just one person's story. It's a family story that is more vital to the man telling it than most. Cal née Calliope Stephanides is proof of a family secret in his very being. It will take a trip across the ocean at the end of the Greco-Turkish War and the accidents of love in the close-knit Detroit community for the secret to reveal itself through three generations of Stephanides. Even then Calliope is a child and hasn't been educated to the multitudinous ways genetics and gender (nevermind sexuality) can play out. So this is a very original coming-of-age story, a medical history, the story of forbidden love and much more in just over 500 pages of stunning prose.

Marvelously detailed, interesting and well-researched, with decent and realistic portrayals of all genders, from the roaring twenties through the twenty-first century, love and marriage, Detroit, and America/Americans broadly, Eugenides is a smart writer with a warm, welcoming voice. The word most likely to describe it would be "charming." While occasionally I got sniffy about some of the ease with which Cal seemed to make his decisions, it would have turned into a fake memoir if we went through every painstaking detail. He seemed a bit naive at times, then Eugenides would have him say something about his upbringing or family to remind me that he, in fact, was naive. Kids were much more naive in pre-internet days, or if not naive, often just plain confused or wrong. Cal is clearly not the type who would pour out his feelings anyway. When I know a character well enough to know why she does or doesn't do things, it's usually a good sign the writer has gotten his story and his characters under my skin.

I can see why Oprah picked Middlesex for her book club years ago. The voices are all supremely individual and Cal is a charming narrator, but Cal - while being the main character - is almost incidental to the overall story in some ways. I wish I'd read this with a group, because the discussion could go on forever. This is one of those books I knew I "should" read, and I didn't really have much interest. It didn't sound appealing, but I passed it on a shelf at the library last week and obviously picked it up. A different copy will find itself in my home soon, because I will certainly want to read it again and urge others to do the same. So, hey you - if you've not read it, take the leap. It's so much better than it sounds.

Anatomy of A Scandal -- NOT a detection club book

Anatomy of a Scandal: A Novel - Sarah Vaughan

So, I thought I was reading this for the Detection Club, because I'd shelved it that way, but I now have the book, and it's very clearly not included. I dunno why I labeled it that way, but I'm still glad I read it. (I think it could actually fit chapter 11, since the place they all met and most of the crimes take place at Oxford, albeit fake colleges at Oxford.)

 

I've heard only how awesome this book is. While it's not bad at all, perhaps because I've spent a large portion of my life sitting with men and women who are victims of interpersonal violence, I don't see these things as "current" or "of the moment" - I think they've been around since human beings have been around. Nonetheless, it's nice to read a book involving a rape that doesn't fall into the poor me montage or political diatribe schtick.

 

While not the best book I've read this year, it was excellent at keeping me involved because Sarah Vaughan knows how to build suspense. I started it last night before I went to bed, and it took a very firm talking to myself to get me to close it and go to sleep, then I greedily finished it today while ignoring phone calls and even sat it beside the sink while I brushed my teeth after dinner. (Sometimes the beauty of living alone is nobody to be upset when I read at the dinner table.)

 

I was able to divine early who had done what - the author makes it fairly clear, but that didn't stop the suspense, because I cared that the person get punished, and I wasn't sure that would happen. Even after I knew how the court case would turn out, I wanted to know what would happen to all of these (mostly unlikable) people. This is a perfect example of liking a book where the characters are less than sympathetic to me. I didn't like them, but I sure was interested in what happened to them and around them. It really is a book that kept me turning pages like a maniac.

 

It is an excellent example of privileged men. Toxically privileged. Not only are they male. They are upper class in the way that only Brits can be, or would notice. This gives them an air of "I can do whatever I please, so long as nobody sees me." While many might think that way, there is a degree of this that seems to be bred into the Oxbridge/public school tie set. An English friend once asked me why America has such racial divides, and I told him it was because we don't have their kind of class divide. (Then I offered to introduce him to some black Brits, because they think there's a racial divide there, but I'm off topic...)

 

Very sharp courtroom writing. It's amazing how vibrant straight-up court scenes were in this book, and though we got some information on the thoughts or feelings of the characters while in court, much of it was basically a trial transcript. That's compelling dialogue.

 

Sarah Vaughan managed to tell many people's stories through one court case (which is the reality, isn't it -- most court cases will involve or affect many people, though we only see a few of them in court.) All in all a perfectly good book, if not a great one, with excellent timing and also a great promo department (they have films about it and trailers and SO many blurb pictures, I gave up on picking one.) I'll look forward to more suspense from Ms. Vaughan.

 

Asymmetry - this book, the NYTimes & Philip Roth say I'm stupid

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday

I am not clever, and this book is. I am not a writer, and apparently this book is literary criticism. In two main parts with a coda that wraps it all up, it was very clear that I was supposed to be making connections and seeing broad themes while reading Asymmetry (which I did, but I didn't particularly enjoy it, and I’m not sure I saw the “correct” themes.)

It feels like a book that falls over itself to show its importance. If a book can be haughty, this one is. And these big important themes are important, but when I think about them: reality v fiction, autobiography in fiction, power differentials made up by the accident of birth, luck, nationality, location, etc - none are new. They are all things that have been explored for ages. I got concerned that I am not smart enough to figure out books like this, then I got a bit irritated at the book for looking down its nose at me. Or maybe I can figure it out but I'm not smart enough to be bowled over flat. In regard to power, didn’t David Mitchell cover that beautifully in Cloud Atlas? Surely more than one book can and should be written about these themes, but there also needs to be something more, or I may as well read solely nonfiction, or just read the reviews and forget all about the actual book?

 

The format isn't so new or different. I just read another book similarly structured this very week. So I'm not grasping what the awesome is.

 

Asymmetry is divided evenly(!) into two sections with a coda. Part one entitled “Folly,” involves a young woman (who acts like a girl) named Alice (this is the second book I've read this year with a fictional Alice recalling Lewis Carroll's - and I enjoyed SYMPATHY a little more than this one.) Anyway, this Alice works at a literary house, yet somehow doesn't know how to pronounce Camus and hasn't read most of the books one would think might get you a job like that. Never mind, she's got the job and falls in lust with a much older and very famous man called Ezra, who may or may not be Philip Roth (well, he IS Philip Roth, this much is clear, though I sort of imagined him sounding like Alan Alda, apropos of nothing.)

 

Ezra/Roth/Alda plays Pygmalion with Alice, and she plays along enough to get her student loans paid, a good winter coat and various other things along with her newfound knowledge of all things chic and New York, then they sort of fizzle out. Throughout this section they quote loads of passages from other important books by Twain, Joyce, Camus, Henry Miller to musical lyrics and health pamphlets. They quote, read and have sex a lot, until they don't. By now Alice knows how to pronounce some words, has read some books, has gotten critical of Ezra’s writing and mostly she wants to make ART not be stuck with an aging man with health problems.

 

Part two called “Madness” finds us experiencing exactly that at Heathrow Airport's immigration holding pen where a young man is being racially profiled while they “just check some things.” Amar Ala Jaafari has “two passports, two nationalities, no native soil.” He was born in flight over Cape Cod as his family immigrated from Baghdad to New York. He is very American, but his name seems to be a problem, and his honesty about those two passports seems to find him even more. So Amar Jaafari sits in small rooms at Heathrow and thinks. His thoughts are a meditation on a variety of subjects from love to his profession to his family and lurking under it all is the state of Iraq and the war. In this section the writing conveys big thoughts, and there is very little work to be done, since Amar, his friends/acquaintances and family only say meaningful things and quote meaningful quotes. Plus Amar may be the most exacting and insightful person ever to enter an airport. Still, I liked him, and he is the only character about whom I can say that.

 

While Amar sits there, he thinks about things like his old girlfriend and their divergent religious views and says, “But never mind. We all disappear down the rabbit hole now and again. Sometimes it can seem the only way to escape the boredom or exigencies of your prior existence -- the only way to press reset on the mess you’ve made of all that free will. Sometimes you just want someone else to take over for a while, to rein in freedom that has become a little too free. Too lonely, too lacking in structure, too exhaustingly autonomous. Sometimes we jump into the hold, sometimes we allow ourselves to be pulled in, and sometimes, not entirely inadvertently, we trip.” (Get it, Alice?)

 

There are a lot of these big thought meditations, at a time when most people’s thoughts would include at least a few mildly pissed off diatribes, especially given the circumstance we eventually find out he’s dealing with. But instead he thinks about the self, the way we look at the world, never being able to subtract ourselves from it, “the incessant kaleidoscope within.” Mostly he thinks about the mess that is Iraq as he waits. But large and small keys to the earlier story are dropped throughout. Finally there’s another girlfriend memory: he wanted to call her because Sue Lawley’s Desert Island Discs reminded him of her.

 

So it’s not entirely shocking when the little coda comes and it’s in the format of a Desert Island Discs. The person they’re interviewing this time is Ezra Blaze himself. He’s just won the Nobel Prize - unlike Philip Roth -- after being snubbed by them for decades, just like Philip Roth. He shows himself to be the lecherous jerk I already realized he was, and he pulls the bits together a little more.

 

Again, maybe I’m really stupid. I am not a writer and I am certainly no literary critic. I am a voracious reader and a passionate advocate for good books and reading in general. So as a person who purchased a copy of this on the constant high praise and buzz, I’m just not impressed. But I’m sure everyone at the Times and Philip Roth’s circle would just say I’m pretty lowbrow.

 

 

The Alice Network -- a great spy story and an a poor romance book

The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

There are two books here really. While the author pulls them together, it didn't work for me. Charlie, a young pregnant American, spurs Eve - a former spy from the real life Alice Network - to go ahunting for someone she knew during WWI when she worked as a spy. Surely there was another way to get to the story of the fascinating women who made up The Alice Network in WWI.

 

Theirs is a fascinating story pulled from history, and I am going to try to find an actual historical nonfiction book about the Alice Network, because it's a worthy story about some very courageous and strong women. I have read so many books about the male spies of both World Wars, but never have I read much about female spies - unless they were peripheral to the male main character. This is different.

 

I only wish Kate Quinn had left Charlie out completely. She is half the book, and she took away rather than added to the story. Perhaps it was the strong contrast with Eve, but if the book had been her story alone, I would probably not have picked it up, and I certainly wouldn't have finished it. I found myself dreading her chapters. I also did not need a love story in the middle of a wonderful read about strong women who didn't need men to get through their daily life. Without Charlie, this book would have passed the Bechdel test and all the other feminist tests with flying colors. Because of Charlie, it doesn't pass any.

 

If the book had been purely about Eve and the Alice Network women, it would have rated much higher for me. Charlie's story and her character brought the entire thing down, with yet another woman who only finds herself in the eyes of some man. Love is wonderful, but it took up space and time in this book that would have been better devoted to the story that mattered.

 

Lily and the Octopus -- a love story

Lily and the Octopus - Steven Rowley I can't even... This is a love story. About a man and his dog. And it's not a completely sad story, but it's emotional and made me cry. It's the story of a man and his best friend and an octopus and falling out of love and in love and finding each other and losing each other. It's the story of grief and of life and most of all of love. I can't tell you more, or I'd give away the beauty. It is a worthwhile read.

First Quarter Stats (the ones that I kept)

I can't believe we're a quarter of the way through 2018. It sure feels like it's flying by, so I decided to round up the stats I have kept. I've already noticed the things I wish I'd kept, but I will just plan to do better next year.

 

According to my spreadsheet, I've read the following between January 1 and 31st March of 2018:

 

Total Read: 111 (not counting 2 reference-ish books that it's hard to actually "read.") 

 

Those 111 break down as follows:

 

2 were DNF'd at over 50%. I didn't count any DNF'd at less than 50%.

 

2018 releases: 23 total

88 were pre-2018.

 

(A few were rereads of classics I read when I was far too young, but most were books new to me.)

 

31 nonfiction

79 fiction

1 anthology that had both fiction and nonfiction

 

 

54 Borrowed

57 Mine 

 

This needs to change. After noting this, I stopped some holds in their tracks and decided I need to read my books for real, not just think about it. This means not reading all the new books right now. This usually happens in January when all the new book lists come out combined with resolutions to not spend so much money on books... I'm going to work on a box of books at a time from the ones I own. The bad ones hopefully, that I can give away after I read them ;-)

 

I read them in the following formats:

 

  • hard cover: 42  (too many orders at the library is what this tells me)
  • paperback: 29
  • ebook: 25
  • audiobook only: 15 -- some I read two ways, so I can't be sure about that stat.

 

Of those only 8 were in translation -- and I need to keep track of this stat next year, since I've been horrible about shelving my books here or anywhere. There's also an interesting translation issue I've sort of looked at below.

 

9 books were YA, 1 was middle-grade, I didn't count children's books read.

 

I've read 104 stand-alone books. (93.7%)

Of the ones in series, I've read 5 first books, 2 second books from 5 different series. (I should finish a series, maybe?)

 

Male/Female & People of color:

 

-- 65 books written by women

-- 45 by men

-- 1 book by a non-binary author

(One counted twice since it was a male/female writing team)

 

Those break down as follows: 

 

-- 35 books by white men

-- 9 books by men of color

-- 28 books by women of color

-- 36 books by white women

-- 1 book by a white man and a white woman

-- 1 book by a white person who doesn't identify as male or female

 

Counting "authors of color" is a tricky business, since not everyone identifies their race, and race is a very realistic construct that is impossible to divine by looking at a picture. I've basically counted those who identify as a person of color. I haven't counted books who feature a person of color - and I think I shall do so next year. So for this year, it means that I count Danzy Senna and Omar El Akkad but not Parnaz Foroutan, as she doesn't identify as a person of color. I am especially annoyed by this, as I myself am a woman of color, but I'm pretty sure most people who just looked at a picture of me would count me as "white." 

 

I haven't kept track of sexual identity, though I'm really not sure how I'd do that - not every author plasters "I am gay" on their profiles.

 

I also have not kept track of authors' nationality. A quick look-see tells me after American & British authors, the next highest number are Nigerian. Africa overall seems to be the continent covered 2nd only to North America, mostly because African authors tend to write in English. It's sad that people who live much closer but write in Spanish don't get translated or even marketed here. I look at the Spanish language books every time I go to the library, and most are the same books found in the English section, translated to Spanish, rather than being the other way round. I do read Spanish, but I only find a few books every year written in Spanish, and it involves me doing some searching and finding, rather than anything being marketed to me. Yet another reason Amazon & its many companies are not a good way to find my next read.

 

Here's hoping the next quarter looks a bit better than this one for authors of color and books in translation.

SING, UNBURIED, SING -- a graceful trip through harrowing territory

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel - Jesmyn Ward

A realistic book where ride-hopping ghosts feel as natural as a toddler vomiting on a long trip is a feat of nature. It simply should not be possible, but Jesmyn Ward achieves it with ease in SING, UNBURIED, SING.

 

And can we just talk about that title? Everything about this book is pitch perfect. I rarely read anything that doesn't stop me at some point to notice that I'm reading. It's one of the horrors of growing up. I used to read everything by just diving in and living in that world for the length of the book. Nowadays, I notice far too often that this is a book. It's either overly clever or overly wordy or overly cute or overly bad or something along the way. That didn't happen here. I didn't notice anything but a story I got sucked into and read voraciously from the first page to the end.

 

There are plenty of great reviews by people who know better than me why this is a good book. I am not going to pretend to know. I just know this is a book I felt intensely and lived inside while I read it.

 

Every scene is impeccable like a well-preserved antique: not in a bright shiny way - just in a refined way, sort of soft and easy, no matter the subject matter. (Maybe this is what "lyrical" means.) Given the subject matter of parental drug use, a son who has taken the world on his shoulders, race relations, the worst prison in the country, family dynamics, poverty, cancer... Those things are not usually written with agility. They are often "important," but not usually graceful. SING, UNBURIED, SING is. There's a light but purposeful touch.

 

This is a book -- and they seem to come along only rarely -- that reminds me exactly why it is so vital, life-affirming and essential to read.

Small Great Things -- My Unpopular Opinion & Female Mansplaining

Small Great Things - Jodi Picoult

Though this has the qualities I associate with fiction, it felt a lot like being forced to listen to a room full of college kids who just read Nietzsche for the first time and come home to perform that knowledge for hours *at* me - without asking 1) if I already know this, 2) if I care to listen to all of their newfound knowledge, and 3) if I agree with their strong opinions.

 

That's how I felt for much of the second two sections of this book (and I won't even go near the author's note that follows -- beyond saying that it's the best example of mansplaining a woman could hope to portray.) I have no problem with a white writer writing a person of color. I do have a problem with a fiction that is only thinly disguised "racial sensitivity 101" built on a cadre of stereotypical "types." I felt like Jodi Picoult took a class (and I was right - she did!), saw the light, feels woke, got serious, and set out to explain it all to all of us, without asking us to join in the conversation - or what we could hope to bring to it - much like an author who assumes you don't know any of the big words she uses. It was the long passages of internal dialogue that killed this book dead for me. The "aha" moments that took up pages and pages and then more pages repeatedly were so awfully serious and so awfully lecture-like, they could have been lifted from racial sensitivity 101 -- which made them completely unbelievable because as we teach in those classes, changing one's racial mindset takes a long time and is an internal process that cannot be done through thoughts alone. Practice will help, awareness is key, but no change like this happens overnight. I've taught those classes, and they sound just like this book, with the caveat I just made about changing (even when you start out as a stereotype, like every single character in this book.) Nonfiction exists for a reason. I thought this was a story - not a lecture, but I was wrong. Jodi Picoult doesn't realize that she's become the white savior that Kennedy is supposed to portray.

 

The book felt extremely condescending to the reader. Picoult should now wait while I go take a class on writing, interview a few writers, then I will type my long, heartfelt, dissertation length "aha" moments in a story and she should be FORCED to read my new feelings about writing. Because that's just about how ridiculous the inner dialogue of her characters sounded to me.

Two books I can recommend to Picoult or anyone else who actually cares about race and all the feelings white people are now having that I've read this year that cover similar topics: So You Want to Talk about Race  and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. If you want to go deeper, there are so many better books, both fiction and nonfiction.

 

The story's basic foundation could have held up a lovely tale. Picoult got indulgent with her newfound awareness and had her characters thinking and behaving in unrealistic ways to cram more of that knowledge into their heads, then she polished it off with an ending torn from a Disney Princess's wishbook. It all became very trite and downright silly by the end.

F Scott Fitzgerald's letters - a side not seen in his fiction.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters: A New Collection Edited and Annotated by Matthew J. Bruccoli - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matthew J. Bruccoli

I have a whole new appreciation for F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing now, having read his doubts, worries, exacting notes to his publisher, concerns that nobody would "get" it. This man who seems so sure of himself in all of his novels is a worrier, scared, desperate to be a good writer (even after his early success.) In short, he's very human.

 

I reread Gatsby while reading this correspondence, and given his personal financial worries, apologies to those he owed money to, etc, I have a different take on it now than I did before - partly influenced also by my advancing age and events of the last decade or so. I wonder if Fitzgerald - great American novelist - didn't wonder, from time to time, if the American Dream was a crock? Dunno - just a thought.

 

It was exciting to hear him introducing other great writers (Hemingway, for instance) to literary agents and critics. He was genuinely in awe of other writers. His letter to Willa Cather and his words about her in letters to others show he was truly a fan - you can tell from the deferential tone. And while he may have been less than level-headed from moment to moment, or way too far in his cups, he was funny, personable and interesting always.

 

Sadly we're limited to the letters saved. This means that a bunch written to Zelda aren't included, since she didn't save her letters from him. (No remarks on that, Ella!) I've always sort of loved Zelda, but it's clear from these letters that so did F. Scott Fitzgerald, or at least he repeated it to everyone he wrote.

 

These are worth reading if you're nosy like me.