Friday Afternoon Bookish Ramblings

It’s a beautiful sunny but cold day here at a Big Reading Life Manor, and it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I just haven’t had time or energy to write about books or anything else. There is sleep to prioritize (self-care 2020!) and also I’ve been finishing watching The Good Place and Netflix’s Next in Fashion. But today I have a bit of time and wanted to catch up on things. So, hello! I hope your week has been a good one. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much sick of winter. I’m sick of gray and I’m sick of rain. I’m trying to remind myself that everything changes, and so will the seasons, in time.

Anyway, I’ve read some good books lately, for which I am grateful. One five-star read (The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel, which had been on my TBR List since 2015) and three four-star reads: Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. Two of the latter were ones I owned, so whoopee for reading my own books! Lately I’ve been really trying to look at my own shelves and also the beginning of my TBR list and trying to choose reads from those. It’s a constant struggle to balance those considerations with the newest, shiniest books that I have on hold at the library. You can relate, I am sure.

51anPJ5-ihL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What am I currently reading? Lindy West’s new essay collection The Witches Are Coming, which is AWESOME and so smart and funny. I’ve only read the first four essays but so far she’s killing it. I just finished Mavis Gallant’s short story collection In Transit, which I’d been reading since December. It was good – she’s masterful at capturing humans trying and failing to relate to one another. But for me overall it was a bit depressing and I’m relieved to be finished. I am not sure what work of fiction I’ll pick up next. I think I need something light to boost my mood! I may try Helen Hoang’s romance The Kiss Quotient, which I just checked out from my library.

Next month I plan to participate in Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month, so I need to pick at91Vq1lzeOaL least one Irish book – this event always sneaks up one me. I also will be reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety with Smithereens as a buddy read – another selection from my Classics Club list. Please read along with us in March if you’d like!

So that’s it from me for now. I’ll leave you with some body positive affirmations from Megan Jayne Crabbe’s book (if you’re on Instagram, you should consider following her @bodyposipanda. She’s delightful.)

I’m grateful for everything that my body allows me to do in the world, and all the ways it takes care of me.
I am hotter than the inside of a poptart in this outfit!
There’s no such thing as a problem area, my body is not a problem to be fixed!
My softness is beautiful.
My cellulite clusters are constellations mapped across my thighs and I am magical.
I deserve the space I take up in the world.
I am good enough.
My body is not the enemy.

Also – how do we like this new “block editor” thing WordPress has given us? I don’t like it at all and when I tried to switch back to the classic editor it’s made my spacing weird in this post. Hmmmph. Oh well. I hope you have a very good weekend, friends – may you have lots of time for reading!

 

The Finished Stack Mocks Me

When I finish a book that I think I want to write about on my blog, I put it on top of my desktop computer tower (yes, Fogey McOldster has a desktop computer and it works fine, thank you very much!) I don’t write my posts at the computer anymore, I write them on my iPad, but I’ll finish them up on the desktop which is easier than the iPad (putting in the pictures, setting up links, things like that.) Anyway, when the finished stack gets to be four books tall it starts to make me anxious. At that point, I either say, FORGET IT I DON’T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THESE DUMB BOOKS ANYWAY or I say, okay, it’s time for some mini-reviews.

It’s time for some mini-reviews!

img_5291Anti-Diet:Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

I have avoided writing about this book for weeks now because I don’t feel like I’ll do it justice. Christy Harrison is an Anti-Diet registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor with a background in food and nutrition journalism. She knows her stuff, and she has done her research. She shreds Diet Culture here, showing how its roots lie in historical ideas steeped in sexism, racism, and classism. She details how Diet Culture (which she calls The Life Thief) steals our time, money, well-being, and happiness, and ultimately it doesn’t even give us the lasting weight loss we so desperately crave. She then gives us strategies to resist diet culture and deprogram ourselves from years of steeping in its toxic messages. This is an excellent book if you aren’t familiar with the Anti-Diet movement or the concept of Health At Every Size. If you are familiar and just want more information, it’s still an excellent book! It’s well-researched and a fast- paced read. I loved it and highly recommend it if you’re someone who has let the Life Thief steal your joy over the years, or if you’re interested in social justice. Make no mistake, how we treat people in larger bodies IS a social justice issue.            ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Another good book to check out, more of a memoir on the topic, is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy.)

Piecing Me Together by a Renée Watson

This contemporary YA novel took me by surprise. It drew me in from the start and kept me engaged with its fully-realized and heartfelt portrayal of an African American high school junior in Portland, Oregon. Jade is a talented artist and uses the medium of collage to express her feelings and process things. She is also looking forward to hopefully getting nominated to go on a spring break service learning trip that deserving juniors get to participate in. Instead, her Principal gives her an “opportunity” for African American students, to participate in a Mentor program for the year. Jade is angry and disappointed because she wants to be the one who gives for a change, instead of being the poor girl at the private school who receives all the time. Plus, her mentor isn’t doing that great a job, flaking out on her from the get-go. I loved how Watson explores class and race but also gives us a set of wonderful characters in Jade, her mother, cousin, and her two best friends. If you’re the kind of reader who has had bad luck with YA novels in the past, I highly recommend this one. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

I loved this novel set in Los Angeles, which references the racial tensions and violence of the Rodney King era but mostly takes place today. Two families, one Korean and one African American, are brought together by an act of violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere but has roots in L.A.’s explosive recent past. I thought the characters grappled with some very complex contradictions and questions, and there were no easy answers anywhere. It’s a fast-paced novel of forgiveness, justice, secrets, and family bonds. The characters felt real to me and I appreciated the care with which they were written. Apparently Cha has written a crime trilogy and I think I’ll have to check it out. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Atmosphere for days! Brooding, gothic, intense, psychological. I love it when a novel feels as immersive as this one did. Frances has recently buried her mother, a rather mean woman whom Frances had to nurse for years. She has gotten a summer position at Lynton’s, an abandoned English estate recently purchased by an American (who hired her to report on the condition of the grounds and gardens.) She is joined by a couple who is also working for the American, cataloguing the rooms of the house, Peter and Cara. Cara is volatile and moody, Peter handsome and flirtatious. Frances is dazzled by the couple, and they draw her into their web with warmth and a freedom that she has never before experienced. She is very socially awkward, and as the book progresses we come to realize that she is not as trustworthy a narrator as we might initially think. There are spooky touches in the abandoned house, strange noises, unexplained faces in windows, wild animals turning up unexpectedly, adding to the tension. This captivated me and I will have to read another book by Fuller – perhaps Swimming Lessons next. Thanks to Anne of I’ve Read This and Rebecca of Bookish Beck for putting this on my radar.    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read any of these? Anything appeal to you?

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.

71x4baXyxvLThe book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.

Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.

But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.

What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.

Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.

And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.

I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!

Mini-Reviews: 24/6 and In the Woods

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain

Are you addicted to your phone? Do you feel like your kids spend too much time on the computer or game console? Has your concentration, creativity, or sleep suffered compared to the days when you didn’t have a little computer in your pocket all the time? Do you stay awake past your bedtime watching endless episodes of your favorite show on Netflix? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book might be for you.

“Internet pioneer” (it says so on the jacket) Tiffany Shlain has made a very persuasive case for turning off screens for 24 hours during the week. Her family (husband and two kids) are Jewish and they practice a weekly “Technology Shabbat,” screen-free from Friday evening to Saturday evening. They begin the evening inviting people over for dinner, playing actual record albums on a record player, lingering over food and conversation to kick off every weekend. It sounds idyllic. Saturday begins with sleeping in, reading, writing in journals, even normal weekend activities like soccer games. She makes a plan beforehand, with phone numbers or directions written down on paper. (She does advocate the use of a landline telephone for emergencies.) After all, before cell phones we just consulted maps and planned meetings or outings beforehand, didn’t we?

In addition to telling her story, why she came to try this tradition, she goes into the science of unplugging from screens – what it does for your brain, sleep, stress levels, etc.

Though researchers don’t always agree on why sleep is so important, everyone concurs that it is. Sleep does so much for our bodies and brains. It’s when the pit crew comes in and gets everything ready for the next day.

One of the things that happens is a literal brainwash. While we’re asleep, our brains actually shrink in a process called “synaptic homeostasis.” This process makes room for the brain’s level of cerebrospinal fluid to rise dramatically, washing out the damaging proteins that have built up over a day of thinking. It also allows synapses, which grow and widen while the brain is awake and busy but cannot grow indefinitely, to return to their normal size.

At the end of the book she provides a guide to trying your own Tech Shabbat, with suggestions for activities broken down by age group and even a recipe for challah bread that her family often makes during their time. You can do yours any day that works for your family. She also included friends sharing their experiences trying the Tech Shabbat, what surprised them or challenged them. It’s a very practical book, and it’s quite short, so you could read it in an afternoon.

My family hasn’t gone so far as to commit to a full 24 hours of no screens, but for the past two weeks we’ve had “Tech-Free Time” on Sundays. For five hours we don’t use any screens at all. It might not sound like much, but it’s been a game-changer for me. We play outside, play board games or do puzzles, read, work on projects around the house, and just actually talk with one another without distractions. I feel so much more present, and time actually feels like it’s slowing down. I do leave my phone on in case of emergencies, as we don’t have a landline. But I don’t respond to texts and keep it away where I can’t see it. I keep a notepad for writing down things I need to look up or do online later. I am thinking we should try expanding our time. As Shlain writes, “You are the parent. You can make anything happen. ” I highly recommend this book if you feel like you or your family old benefit from screen-free time.                        ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the Woods by Tana French

I’ve been meaning to read Tana French for years. I finally did and I’m so glad! I was worried that the plot of this would be too disturbing, with kids going missing and/or murdered, but I found that I could handle it. (Is the steady diet of mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals finally toughening up my soul?) What I encountered here was lush, thoughtful, atmospheric writing, and a page turning plot as well. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History, that sort of autumnal, almost elegiac feeling. The main character, Dublin Detective Rob Ryan, is the survivor of a horrific childhood incident, most of which he doesn’t remember. When a child turns up dead in the woods where Ryan was found twenty years previously, now the site of an archaeological dig and impending highway, he’s desperate not only to find the killer but to see if there’s a connection to his childhood trauma.

I loved the writing, found the characters credible and occasionally irritating in the way real humans can be, and was fascinated by the dual mysteries at the book’s center. I will definitely read more by Tana French.     ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Quicksand by Nella Larsen (CC Spin #21)

Frankly the question came to this: what was the matter with her? Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her? Absurd. But she began to have a feeling of discouragement and hopelessness? Why couldn’t she be happy, content, somewhere? Other people managed, somehow, to be. To put it plainly, didn’t she know how? Was she incapable of it?

Back in January of 2018 I read and reviewed Nella Larsen’s 1929 classic novel, Passing, and noted that I’d hardly ever come across a novel as slim yet as jam-packed with ideas ripe for discussion. I could definitely say the say thing about Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928.) Both are arresting, probing explorations of race in early twentieth century America, both very readable. And while Passing is perhaps the tighter story, I found Quicksand to be the one that presented me with even bigger ideas to contemplate.

When we meet Helga Crane she is a young biracial woman (her father was black, her mother a white Danish immigrant.) Her mother died when she was very young and she never lived with her father; Helga feels adrift and as if she has no “people.” She is teaching at a Southern school for African Americans and engaged to a male teacher at the school. But she is not happy and doesn’t agree with the school’s educational philosophy. She makes a snap decision to leave the school and go to Chicago, where her mother’s brother lives, to see if he can help her begin anew. So begins her search for belonging and happiness, which takes her from Chicago to Harlem, to Denmark, and back again to the American South.

But just what did she want? Barring a desire for material security, gracious ways of living, a profusion of lovely clothes, and a goodly share of envious admiration, Helga Crane did know, couldn’t tell. But there was, she knew, something else. Happiness, she supposed. Whatever that might be.

Helga never does seem to find a place where she is viewed as a human being, treated superficially as an exotic, sexualized beauty in Denmark and feeling trapped in Harlem by strict rules of social etiquette and her companion’s obsession with ” the race problem.” I felt sympathy for her but also at times felt irritated by how rashly she made major life decisions. She was a compelling character and I eagerly turned the pages to see if Helga would ever find a safe place to land. Her life takes a surprising turn towards the end of the book, but I won’t spoil anything because this short classic is worthy of a place on your TBR.

This knowledge, this certainty of the division of her life into two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America, was unfortunate, inconvenient, expensive.

Larsen is a thoughtful writer and her biography is ripe for a good biopic. Quicksand seems heavily autobiographical and I wondered how much more she could have written if she grew up in a later time, a time where biracial people’s lives weren’t so restricted by laws and societal conventions. She spent most of her life as a nurse, a career at which she, by all accounts, excelled and enjoyed. There are three short stories I haven’t yet read but that is all that’s left of her work for me to read. It’s a shame there isn’t more to explore, but I’m grateful to have found the novels she left behind.

This is the 16th book out of 51 on my Classics Club list, which you can see in this post.

Five Sentence Reviews : Two Classics and a New Best Seller

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G.Wells

This is short – my edition was 131 pages including an Introduction and a Forward by Margaret Atwood. It was descriptive, atmospheric, and unsettling, and the beginning is mysterious enough to hook the reader. I can see it’s rightful place as a science fiction classic and also how it’s exploration of science and ethics would make for great classroom discussion. But I can’t summon much enthusiasm for it. It’s pretty bleak and parts of it are very disturbing. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple #3)

Another short book- my paperback was 207 pages- but this one felt MUCH longer. Intriguing premise: a young attractive blond woman is found strangled in a country estate library and of course there are many suspects. Miss Marple didn’t make much of an impression on me here and she disappears for much of the book. The end provides a great twist but it took forever to get there. I love Christie’s other great detective, Hercule Poirot – am I just being too hard on Miss Marple? ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

This was delightful; it reminded me of Elinor Lipman. A baseball player struggling with the “yips” and a youngish widow who isn’t exactly grieving meet when one rents an apartment in the other’s overly big house. Sparks smolder slowly and eventually burst into flames. I appreciated the modesty with which the romantic scenes were written ( I don’t really want a play by play.) This was a cute, smartly written novel about the value of good therapy, true friendship, and two people on the journey to wholeness ( but not co-dependent!) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A request for you Christie fans out there: What is your favorite Miss Marple book?

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

img_4355This book is not for everyone.  There’s lots of “language” and casual (kind of icky) sex, plus domestic abuse references and mental health issues – but I really enjoyed it and read it quickly – in two days! The main character, Queenie Jenkins, is compelling and interesting, complex and flawed. She nearly drove me crazy making some very poor choices but I was always invested in her story. Queenie is a 25-year-old black British woman of Jamaican heritage and has just “taken a break” with her long-time (white) boyfriend. While her personal life is falling apart, her physical health and professional life are also suffering. She has some good friends and a sweet extended family but is very reluctant to get therapy to address long-standing issues from her past that are sabotaging her present. I found her struggle with anxiety and depression very convincing and I empathized with her. Carty-Williams does a great job of portraying a family and a culture where mental health issues aren’t talked about or dealt with other than just basically saying, “Yes, life’s hard, now soldier on.”

However, there are moments of humor which go a long way towards breaking up the heavy issues. The jacket says it’s “darkly comic” and I’d agree with that. Really good stuff, if you want some contemporary fiction and are okay with your characters making questionable choices!  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Favorite passage:

“…well, he asked to buy me a drink, but I very firmly said no.”

“Oh, well done.”

“Thanks. He was one of those mainstream millenials, which wasn’t so appealing, but I wouldn’t have let him buy me a drink even if he wasn’t. He didn’t try to bang me on sight, though, so that’s something, I guess.”

“What’s a mainstream millenial?” Darcy asked.

“Have I made this term up?” I questioned myself. “I’m sure I’ve seen it on the Internet. You know, those men: bike riding, knitted sweater? Pretends Facebook isn’t important to him, but it really is?” I was met with a blank stare, so carried on. “Craft beer, start-ups, sense of entitlement? Reads books by Alain de Botton, needs a girlfriend who doesn’t threaten his mediocrity?”

“Oh, right,” Darcy said, not as mediocre-man-hating as me. “Anyway, well done, you! One of these days we’ll have a whole week of conversation where we can pass the Bechdel test!”